Must Know Tips for Outback Travel and Desert Driving

John Hughes — 8 August 2022
Combining romantic outback musings with practical planning to safely enjoy one of the greatest experiences – life in outback Australia.

By far the greatest RV experiences of my life have been in the outback. Travelling into our centre has so much to offer. Locals and travellers have a slower paced and more relaxed view of the world. The vast expanses of the Australian deserts do something to you that I can’t explain – they just make you feel more alive. I have seen night skies that look nothing like what you see in the city. It’s as if you have been transported to another planet and seeing the night sky for the first time. When the conditions are right the sky is so much blacker and it feels like there are a million more, far brighter stars to gaze upon. 

I love the remoteness which heightens the sense of adventure but also makes you aware that you need to be more prepared to deal with whatever may come your way. So enough of my romantic musings and onto the practical parts of outback travel. I have been in the very fortunate position of participating in research and development trips, field testing prototype caravans in remote locations such as the Strzelecki Desert and personal trips to share the experience with my family. The teams I have been on have had a meticulous approach to planning, a cautious attitude to managing risk and a sense of respect for remote properties and the environment. Here is an introduction to what others have taught me.

Driving Habits

The way you drive can go a long way to keeping you out of trouble. A good place to start is to avoid driving at night including at dusk and dawn. This is when animals such as roos are most active and our vehicle lights are most likely to disorient them, inducing behaviour such as hopping directly into the path of an oncoming car.



Part of enjoying the outback is driving long distances which creates a challenge to remain alert. The obvious solution is to take regular breaks. A great way to do this is to make a point of stopping at the various roadside monuments etc rather than just sailing past. Staying alert is more important in the outback than in the city because the road conditions vary so much. Corrugations, big dips and rises in the road, cattle grids, potholes and bull dust can all make driving more challenging. The best general guide is to slow down and drive to the conditions.

Route Planning and Navigation

Route planning is an art of accumulating all the information available to you and making a judgement call. Nothing beats traditional paper maps to give you a broad visualisation of where you want to head and alternate routes to get there. Maps and GPS navigation systems can be relied upon to provide you with base information wherever you are as they do not rely on mobile phone reception. 

While you are in regional centres with access to the internet you should look up additional information that could help you decide to press on, wait a while or change to a more conservative route. The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) weather forecast is a great place to start. Hot, windy conditions could indicate bushfire risk. Heavy rain could indicate potential road flooding. It’s worth noting that outback flooding is sometimes caused by rain that fell days ago, thousands of kilometres away. Fortunately, the BOM and state government departments have information online regarding road and park closures. Talking to locals and other travellers is a great way to get firsthand information on the ground. You will have to make your own judgement call regarding the suitability of the advice you receive as different people have different appetites for risk and skills and resources to deal with adversity. I can vouch though that taking advice from people ‘coming from the other way’ has been very useful for me over the years.

Once you have chosen a route and plugged in a destination into your GPS you need to do a reality check before you head off blindly following the directions. Check the travel time and distance feel about right compared to what you can see on a traditional map. Zoom the GPS map out and or look at the turn by turn directions to see that they marry up with the route you have selected.

GPS navigation systems are generally super reliable at showing you precisely where you are located on a digital map. In remote locations, a GPS with limited mapping may just show your location as an arrow on an otherwise blank screen. Devices with good maps loaded will enable you to locate yourself relative to other features such as obscure tracks, small creeks and memorials. The latest navigator from Hema Maps (sister company to Caravan World) for example, has the most comprehensive collection of Australian maps of any GPS currently on the market, making it great to know where you are. Be aware of curve balls. I have been driving on roads where the GPS says there is no road. Apparently, outback resource companies and alike relocate roads from time to time to assist their operations. This is where you need to use some common sense and check to see if your location arrow is travelling in roughly the direction you want to travel and keep an eye out for when you pick up the road again as per the paper map.

Safety Devices / Communication

Contemporary technology provides a multitude of options for seeking assistance if things go wrong. The ubiquitous mobile phone is the most basic communication tool these days. When you have coverage, a mobile phone is fantastic as you have immediate two way communication. Telstra state they cover 99 per cent of the population and 2.6 million square kilometres. However, Australia has an area of 7.7 million square kilometres so there are a lot of places where a mobile phone is no help. UHF radios are another option to call out in the event that there is someone close by who can help.

Satellite phones are a very strong option as they have complete coverage meaning you can call for help from practically anywhere. The technical limitations are you need a direct line of sight to the sky so they won’t work inside, or you may have problems where there are tall chasms or trees, and bad weather may affect them. The financial limitation is the devices and service plans are quite expensive. 

The most basic satellite based safety device is a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). These simple units have one function only and that is to signal the location of the device and trigger emergency services to attend. PLBs should only be activated in a significant emergency. PLBs do not have any capacity to convey extra information such as messaging or voice communication. They are the most cost effective as the devices are relatively inexpensive and there are no service charges.

A step up from a PLB is a satellite messaging device. The big advantage is you can send text based messages meaning you have the capacity to communicate the nature of your emergency. More sophisticated models allow two way communication so you can interact with emergency services. Some models allow you to send programmed messages to your selected contacts advising you are okay or receive weather forecasts. Other features include settings to convey your location at set time intervals or when the device detects you have gone from stationary to moving. Messaging devices are more expensive than PLBs but cheaper than sat phones. They do require a service plan.

Survival

When entering remote areas always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to arrive. Of course, you also need to let them know that you have arrived! If you don’t report in on schedule, then your contact can raise the alarm that you may need help. This is a good backup plan if your emergency communications fail, or you are incapacitated.

When you are travelling with a caravan you have plenty of capacity to carry reserve supplies. It is good practice to carry back-up drinking water in separate containers such as jerry cans. (Twice I have lost water from the caravan tanks caused by rocks breaking fittings.) It’s also a good idea to carry some non-perishable supplies such as canned food. Similarly, bring reserves of any medications you may require. In the event of a vehicle breakdown, having supplies, combined with the fact that your caravan provides shelter from the elements means you should always stay with your vehicle until you can get help.

Carry a first aid kit and become familiar with the contents so if the time comes, you are ready to use it. And of course, training is required to know what to do.

Respect

Many national parks and land reserves require you to purchase a pass to enter and or camp. The system helps control the number of people using the park and the subsequent environmental impact. Fees contribute to the upkeep of the parks for the ongoing enjoyment of users. Permits are also required to enter Aboriginal lands as they are private.  Often there is no charge for regular visitors to transit through. Whether it be national parks or Aboriginal lands, you need to plan ahead as the facility may be booked out or closed. You may also be caught out in an area where there is no mobile reception making an online booking not possible.

You can also encounter huge stock stations in the outback where you drive through hundreds of kilometres of roads with unfenced private property. Stock roam freely which means it is critical that when you encounter a gate you leave it the way you found it.

Tow Vehicle 

A well prepared tow vehicle can make all the difference in your travels. A bull bar (roo bar) can prevent your car from becoming undriveable by protecting the front of it from being caved in by an animal. Although we try to avoid driving at night, sooner or later you will get caught out. Driving lights significantly improve night vision giving you a much better chance of spotting potential dangers and taking evasive action. 

Check your engine oil and coolant daily. The middle of the outback is not the place to discover you have a problem the hard way. Carry basic spares such as hoses and belts. Even if you don’t have the know-how to do it yourself, having the parts available will enable repairs to be carried out without having to wait for spares to be transported in. Always carry extra fuel. Navigation errors, road closures and higher than expected fuel consumption are reasons that can find you caught short.

Caravan

Stones and dust will bombard your van in outback conditions. There are a variety of measures to protect against stone damage. The first line of defence is netting connected between the rear of your car and the front of the van preventing stones from flicking up and hitting the van. The second line of defence is covering electrical and plumbing lines on the underside of your van with foam lagging or flexible conduit. A simple approach to keeping dust out of your van is covering up possible ingression points with tape. A more advanced approach is fitting a unit that creates positive pressure inside the van preventing dusty air from being sucked in.

Tools And Processes For Both Vehicles

Being able to decrease and increase tyre pressures is one of the most important tools you have to adapt to different driving conditions. Higher pressures are used for normal bitumen road travel. Lower tyre pressures are suited to rough and low traction conditions. There are a variety of tyre deflators available to make removing air easier. A compressor is imperative for putting air in. Tyre plugs are a great way to make an emergency repair with a simple repair kit provided you have a compressor.

Recovery gear such as straps can help you or others be pulled out of trouble. Just remember they are not much use if your tow vehicle or van does not have rated recovery points to attach it to. A general tool kit is a must for conducting minor roadside repairs. A general check over your vehicles can help identify problems before they become an issue. A good example is checking wheel nuts regularly.

Embrace The Adventure

This article draws attention to the extra effort required for outback travel but please don’t be put off. The rewards far outweigh the effort. Apart from the preparation, you need to bring an adaptable attitude because no matter how prepared you are, things don’t always go according to plan. Part of the experience is if things go wrong, how you deal with it. Learn to embrace the adventure.

Know Your Limits

Remote travel is inherently more dangerous than regular travel. This article provides an introduction to remote travel concepts. Information provided is general in nature, not comprehensive and can only be taken as a guide. Individual discretion must be exercised. Know your limits and seek further education and assistance as required. Publishers and creators of this content accept no responsibility for loss or damage.

Related Articles:

CALCULATING BATTERY AND SOLAR CAPACITY FOR YOUR RV PART 2

MAINTENANCE MATTERS

Tags

Outback Travel Desert Driving Travel Tips Caravanning Off-road Explore Australia

Photographer

John Hughes