Location: Sydney, New South Wales

Siu On and I have seen some questionable vanlife ethics on our trip across Australia, and we’re not just talking about travellers hanging their smalls out for everyone to see. The ability to live out of your vehicle to save money is something that was fundamental to our travels across Australia, and we recognised very early on in our journey how fortunate we were to be self sufficient, live with little and in a confined space for a long period of time, and have access to free camping. For us free camping was choice that we were grateful to have, however, more and more it’s becoming harder to do because not everyone is as considerate as we were free camping.

Bidding adieu to free camping

As we drove east from Western Australia, the number of free camping sites gradually diminished, to the point where it was nearly impossible to find a place that was open to free camping on the east coast; unless you did it illegally. This happens partly due to the popularity of some locations for holiday makers and residents, and the other part is due to how poorly these sites are used and left behind once campers and traveller move on.

From the point of view of local residents, where free camping occurs in neighbourhoods near homes or children’s playgrounds and schools, it’s not only an eyesore to see beat up old vans and rubbish lining your front yard, but also a hazard with broken glass and safety concerns due to having strangers living out the front of their homes for weeks on end. Free campers forget that it’s these residents who are the ones that pay council rates for the upkeep of the areas and facilities that they are using. How would you feel if you had to walk your children to school past rows and rows of vans filled with drunken travellers, dodging used condoms and broken beer bottles strewn across the sidewalk? I bet you wouldn’t be too impressed, but this actually does happen here in Sydney

No Camping sign

The biggest problems occur in the large cities, especially here in Sydney, where vanlifers and backpackers try to save on costs by setting up for the night(s) in residential areas. Siu On and I never slept in the car in a city or residential area unless we were in a friend’s driveway with their permission, and we preferred to stay far away from cities in places where the threat of damage to the car or being fined by rangers or police wasn’t an issue (such as designated free camping sites in National Parks of in State Forestry area). Some shires along the New South Wales coast have completely banned free camping all together as a result of the local backlash, including the backpacker favourite destination of Byron Bay.

Western Australia still has a lot of free camping but these are usually in remote and far away places, however even this is diminishing in popular places like Albany and Margaret River. South Australia was a little hit and miss, and Victoria was difficult to find even far out in the country.

Don’t be an inconsiderate slob

There is a fine line that free campers face when they engage in this activity. For the most part, and from what Siu On and I had encountered, newbie vanlifers and backpackers tended to be the worst offenders and were prone to literally airing their dirty laundry out in public and leaving rubbish everywhere; and those who had been doing this for a while or were in motor homes and caravans were more respectful in keeping their areas clean.

By drawing attention to yourself, you’re opening yourself up to potential action from law enforcement and also ruining the experience for those who would like to come after you. Free campers and vanlifers do not have a say in allowing free camping sites within council areas because you’re not a resident of that council’s Local Government Area, nor do you pay the rates that go towards the upkeep and maintenance of the services that are used when free camping. What services I hear you say?

  • The parks and car parks that you’re setting up in for the night;
  • The public bathrooms and toilets you’re using to freshen up in;
  • The local library you go to use the internet at, and
  • That rubbish bin you’ve put your trash in is collected by a waste service that is paid for by, yep, you guessed it, rate payers – the same rate payers that are pissing off with messy and disrespectful free campers.

In addition to the local rate payers that you’re up against, it’s also the arm of commerce that wants to stamp it out. Free camping by virtue of it’s name implies that people don’t want to spend money, and many businesses and townsfolk dislike freeloaders who don’t contribute to the town’s economy. It’s popular belief that free camping doesn’t bring in enough economic benefits to justify the eye sore that vans and mobile homes can be, which isn’t always the case as Siu On and I were always looking to buy or eat locally where we would stay. In most cases local businesses, especially those who provide accommodation services such as camping and caravan parks, are very vocal in removing free camping areas solely because it hurts their business.

It is unfortunate that it’s a small minority who are ruining a good thing for those well behaved free campers. And sure I get it, you’re only here for a short period of time before you leave the country, so what do you care? However it’s a result of this careless attitude amongst many that free camping is prohibited in most cities and urban centres, and those caught doing so can face fines. It really is a matter of paying it forward and behaving in a manner that is respectful to others.

Vans at Bells Beach

Our vanlife ethics

Just because you live out of your car doesn’t mean you are not expected to behave and conduct yourself in a way that is respectful and civilised. For Siu On and I, when we were living out of Bea we abided by our own set of simple Vanlife Ethics which were:

  1. Leave no trace. Pick up all your rubbish and put it in the bin, or if there are no bins, bag it until you get to one. I can’t even begin to tell you how many cigarette butts, food wrappers and even condoms we would find at some free campsites. DISGUSTING!
  2. Be respectful of the place you are at, and the facilities you are using. It’s a luxury to have a flushing toilet and camp kitchen that doesn’t cost you a cent, so don’t ruin it by leaving it a mess, otherwise Councils will begin charging to cover the costs associated with fixing broken things or cleaning it up.
  3. Be quiet, especially at night time. Don’t be a beacon for hooligans or police by blaring your music until the early hours of the morning.
  4. Don’t overstay your welcome. A few days in a residential area is more than enough time to bring attention to the fact that the ‘creepy car over there hasn’t moved an inch in three days’. If you’re in a national park or bush area, always check how long you can stay to avoid having the cops tapping on your window late at night.
  5. Say hello. It was amazing how many other van dwellers avoided us like we had some sort of infectious flesh eating disease. It can be super lonely out on the road, even with a friend or partner, and just meeting someone new can really improve the experience. So say a friendly hello to that other van parked across the way and just be kind – they may have some great tips for free camping that you’d want to know about!

Siu On and I with Bea out camping

It’s an absolute shame that in the eastern states of Australia such as New South Wales and Victoria, that there is so little free camping available, and the areas that are left are under threat. Let’s preserve the freedoms that we have by behaving in a manner that will allow travellers to keep their costs down, whilst still experiencing the best of Australia. Not everyone can afford the high prices associated with travelling in Australia, nor should  travel only be for those who can afford it.

What are your thoughts on free camping? Do you think that there should be more places for it, or less? If you’d like to read more about our free camping experience check out this article; or more about our time vanlifing across Australia here. Let us know on our Facebook page what you think!

Until next week,
Jelena & Siu On

All photography by Jelena Stipanicev.