Travel: Essential survival tools

Allan Whiting — 13 June 2011

GIVEN THE OFFROAD towing abilities of modern 4WDs, plus the rough-road capabilities of many vans and campers, it’s not surprising to find a van set-up in a remote location with the owners enjoying the world outside the crowded campgrounds.

As wonderful as this far-flung touring can be, remote-area travel brings with it a heightened risk of being stranded by mechanical or natural barriers.

This means your equipment list needs to be broadened in order to cope with the potential challenges. We’ve suggested some items that can provide peace of mind when you’re enjoying life a long way from civilisation.


You don’t have to be far from major towns to find your mobile phone coverage is zero, so a satphone is a godsend for long distance travellers. It’s a reliable (if not cheap) way of staying in touch and of calling for help should the need arise.

By far the best bush coverage is Telstra’s Iridium satellite network but there’s some competition from Globalstar and Thuraya. Europe’s Galileo GPS system is also due for commissioning this year.

Satphones aren’t cheap to buy outright but it’s possible to hire one from companies such as Landwide for a period of remote-area travel.

A charger is also essential because it’s all well and good to have the phone in an emergency but it’s not much use if the battery is dead.

If you have an HF radio and licence you can rely on that instead of a satphone for remote-area communication.


How many times have we heard reports of bushwalkers getting lost only to find that they weren’t all that far from safety? Knowing where you’ve been, where you are and where you intend to go are essential factors for safe remote travel.

A GPS with remote-area mapping is an excellent tool for navigating regions where there are no road signs and few landmarks. Quality units – mostly around the $800-$1000 mark – have detailed bush mapping that shows all kinds of tracks, and even property roads.

Cheaper units may not have this mapping detail, and there’s not much use in having a cursor indicate your position on an otherwise blank screen.


This simple instrument has been the navigator’s friend for centuries and the arrival of GPS doesn’t mean it’s no longer necessary to carry a compass or two. Unlike its digital cousins, a compass needs no power source (nor can it be switched off or degraded in accuracy for strategic purposes by the US government).

If your GPS packs it in, a compass will at least show your direction of travel, and if you’ve logged your positions regularly on a paper map you should be able to plan a future course, or retrace your tracks.

It’s always handy to put a small compass in your pocket when you go bushwalking from your camp: note your direction of travel (bearing) and the return direction is 180° opposite.


A GPS screen is far too small for trip planning and appreciating the big picture. For that you’ll need paper maps.

Most Australian road atlases have good mapping and some have additional detail on popular remote destinations. However, you may need to supplement that mapping with even more detailed information. In remote areas it may be necessary to carry topographic maps with large scale mapping down to 1:25,000 (see page 139). In a ‘stranding’ it may be important to have mapping that shows where help is coming from, so that you can advise rescuers of the best route to your position.


If you’re stuck for some time you may need to supplement your water supply from creeks, dams or even floodwaters. Contaminated water can make you very sick, very quickly, and that’s the last thing you need when you’re stranded.

We have a Katadyn Combi water filter that packs into a 30cm bag. It’s a pump-action unit that comes with a suction hose. The hose is fitted with a screen and a float so it can be set to skim the surface water out of a pond, rather than the gunky stuff from the bottom.

The primary filter is a silver-impregnated ceramic element with an effective 0.2-micron rating, meaning it won’t let through any particles one five-millionth of a metre in size. The ceramic cylinder is complemented by a granular carbon filter. The ceramic element is designed to take out miniscule objects and the carbon granules reduce or eliminate tastes.


This stuff used to be horrible until a few years ago. I remember having a competition with some fellow 4WD adventurers to see who could tell what we were eating. Almost nobody could tell, at least without reading the label. Today, things have improved and freeze-dried packet food is actually quite good.

Our ration box menu includes roast chicken with stuffing, roast lamb and vegetables, lamb fettucine, apple crumble and Babotjie (an African dish consisting of beef mince, fruit chutney, raisins and egg, served with rice). Packed, pre-cooked rice is also available and only needs heating up, without water.

For a total weight of only 1kg you can have meals for up to several days. It’s easy to stow these packets in a cubbyhole in case of an emergency.


We always carry a V-sheet – available from marine suppliers for around $10 – that can be spread in full view of passing aircraft. It’s an orange plastic sheet with a large black “V” on it that signifies distress. Sure, it’s a marine safety requirement but it works just as well in the bush. We once had the occasion to use ours to aid a Flying Doctor helicopter landing in the northern Simpson Desert.

Our freeze-dried food emergency ration pack is wrapped in the V-sheet, because we had to wrap it in something and what better than this safety aid?


Having an emergency location beacon ensures that rescue services can be made aware of your position. Australian Standard PLBs operate for 24 hours and are manually activated. PLBs are much smaller than marine-use EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons), and many are even pocket-sized.

A 406MHz PLB with in-built GPS capability costs around $600. When you buy one you will be required to register it so rescue authorities have some of your details and can check with friends or relatives in case of accidental activation.

There are many PLBs available on the internet, but they often don’t meet the Australian Standard and will not be registered here.


Our first aid kit is a St John’s canvas pack with a loop at the top, so we hang it off a door handle where it’s easy to see and grab in a hurry.

It’s designed so that when opened on the ground (like a tool roll) there’s easy access to everything.

We’ve augmented our first aid kit with several moist burn pads and 3M Nexcare strips, which are the best stick-on wound dressings we’ve come across.

It’s also important to have back-ups of your prescription medication in case you’re marooned for some time.


If you’re relying on a GPS and satellite phone for positioning and emergency communications you’ll need to be sure you can keep the batteries in these devices charged if your vehicle’s alternator can’t operate.

A small 40W solar panel can do the job, provided there’s ample sunlight, but bigger is better. An advantage of a greater solar cell area – 80-120W – is the ability to keep your fridge running as well.

In areas where solar power is unreliable – thickly wooded areas of the Vic High Country, for example – your battery charging may have to come from a small petrol-powered generator.


You will more than likely have car and caravan sound systems, but the radios in these multi-function devices often don’t have the ability to receive short-wave radio broadcasts.

Once you get out in the scrub you’ll probably lose radio station contact and that can be potentially dangerous if you need to be monitoring rising flood waters or bushfire fronts.

A battery-powered shortwave radio receiver, with spare AA batteries, is worth having in order to monitor broadcasts that your vehicle radios may not be able to receive. Handy for sports results, too!

We carry all of these items on every bush trip and we’ve had occasion to use all of them, except the PLB. The maps, GPS, short-wave radio and solar panel are in regular use, while the other items are always in reserve, giving us great peace of mind.

They’ll work for you, too.

WORDS AND PICS Allan Whiting
Source: Caravan World Mar 2011


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Allan Whiting