Our best tips for road trips in Australia for travellers planning on driving Australia’s outback tracks, include everything from buying or hiring a 4WD — an AWD won’t do the job if you want to do some serious off-roading — to ensuring you have adequate tools and emergency gear in case you break down in the middle of nowhere.
We’ve spent a lot of time recently on dusty red dirt roads here in Cambodia that have been reminding us of the many road trips in Australia we’ve done over the years researching travel guidebooks — the main difference being that in Australia those stretches of red dirt are back-roads, tracks or off-road trails. In Cambodia they’re national highways, pot-holed and damaged by monsoonal flooding.
The drives have had us recalling the countless road trips in Australia we’ve done in our lifetimes, and how easily they can go awry if you’re not well prepared. So we thought it time to share our best tips for road trips in Australia and how to explore those outback tracks safely.
Tips for Road Trips in Australia for Travellers Driving Australia’s Outback Tracks
One of our top tips for road trips in Australia is to do plenty of your research on the places you want to go and the things you want to do and see, and the routes that will get you there, and carefully consider what kind of vehicle you are going to hire or buy.
In Australia, a four-wheel drive (4WD) is essential to get you to many of Australia’s outback wonders. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve come across backpackers with their heads under the bonnet of broken down cars, because they’d tried to drive the second-hand sedan they’d bought in Kings Cross around the country — or attempted to take the thing off road.
Making a bad decision when you buy or hire a vehicle can mean missing out on stunning scenery or a wildlife tour you want to do or, even worse, getting stranded in the middle of nowhere. The likelihood of someone not finding you is high in Australia, where you can drive some outback tracks for a day without seeing another soul.
A few years ago, while photographing and researching a couple of Australian travel guidebooks, we tested out several different rental vehicles over a few months, doing everything from the long haul across the Nullarbor Plains and covering the length and breadth of Western Australia to off-roading in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory’s Top End, and in the Red Centre, from Alice Springs to Uluru.
As a result of that trip, one of our top tips for road trips in Australia is to hire our vehicle of choice, the hardy go-anywhere Toyota Landcruiser, which has a big diesel V8 turbo engine. We became very fond of that vehicle. For me, the affection was partly rooted in nostalgia, as I spent five years of my late childhood and early teens travelling around Australia in a 4WD and caravan with my family.
Terence and I have also done a number of outback road trips in rented 4WD vehicles over the years and we love the rituals of road trips: from buying music for the journey to the regular stops at scenic roadside spots for sandwiches and hot tea from our thermos, listening to the sounds of the bush: birdsong and cicadas mostly.
Our affection for that vehicle developed for another reason too. If we got into trouble, we knew that if we made the right decisions, we would be safe. For instance, we were on our way from Alice Springs to Uluru via Kings Canyon one day. The weather had closed in really fast, the sky suddenly turning steely-grey.
The dirt track that the tourist office staff in Alice Springs had told us would be drivable in the wet all of a sudden wasn’t, rapidly becoming a mud bath as the rain fell in sheets. As creek crossings turned into raging rivers, ‘floodways’ lived up to their name, and our dirt track turned into a stream, and, not long after, a lake.
We knew that — despite having driven halfway along the 180-km Mereenie Loop that would take us to Kings Canyon — we had to turn around and drive all the way back to Alice Springs, on the flooded road, in the dark, and in the torrential rain. And we did it just in the nick of time as the water quickly rose around us. And there’s one of our top tips for road trips in Australia — monitor the weather closely.
Thankfully, our Landcruiser or ‘Troopie’ (troop carrier) had a snorkel to prevent water being sucked into the engine which can lead to catastrophic engine failure, and low-range four-wheel-drive, essential for driving through dangerous creek crossings.
We had the right vehicle to handle the harsh conditions that the Australian outback can throw at travellers, so slowly but surely we were able to make it out safely. Others who’d taken the same route and were a short distance ahead of us became trapped and weren’t rescued by helicopter until a few days later.
That particular road trip took us from Darwin to Alice Springs and onto Uluru (we did make it to ‘the rock’ the next day via the main highway), and then onto Adelaide, and across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth via southern Western Australia, including the lovely Margaret River region — a nice little drive of around 10,000 km, not counting side-trips on outback tracks.
We tried a mix of accommodation, from motels to caravan parks, with the occasional pub and self-catering apartment thrown in, and we ate everything from meat pies from roadhouse fuel stops to pub counter meals and seafood feasts in coastal towns. We did bush walking and bird watching, boat cruises, and snorkelling. It was one of the most memorable experiences of our lives.
An epic journey of that kind, involving months of long days on the road, taking in Australia’s most jaw-dropping scenery, has always been something of a rite of passage for Australians, and it’s great to see that it’s becoming increasingly popular with foreign travellers too. But in a challenging country like Australia it’s essential for road-trippers to be prepared and take plenty of precautions, so here are our top tips for road trips in Australia based on our long experience.
Our Top Tips for Road Trips in Australia
Plan Well Ahead and Plan Well
One of our best tips for road trips in Australia and we can’t emphasise this enough: plan your trip very carefully and think long and hard about how you want to travel and what you want to drive. Save the spontaneity for when you’re on the road. Due to the distances between places in Australia, every road trip will inevitably be a long road trip. Make sure you have enough funds to do it properly, which means safely.
Think Hard About Hiring or Buying a 4WD
Whether you’re buying or renting a vehicle or hiring a campervan or motorhome for your road trip, don’t just get any old cheap beaten-up thing as backpackers used to do — and forget about sedans. Another of our top tips for road trips in Australia is to buy or hire a 4WD (four-wheel-drive) vehicle. If you plan on getting off the highways and even going off the main roads (and you should), make it a sturdy 4WD. Our preference will always be a heavy-duty Toyota Landcruiser. Do your math: 4WDs are expensive to hire, so depending on how long you’re travelling for, it might be cheaper to buy a vehicle and sell it at the end of the trip. Many travellers do that.
Carefully Decide Between a 4WD and an AWD
An AWD (all-wheel-drive) vehicle is a popular alternative to a 4WD. They are cheaper, and can go just about anywhere a 4WD can. We could have used one for around 90% of that trip we did, but for the other 10% we would have run the risk of getting into strife. If you get bogged in mud, a 4WD with high ground clearance will probably only need low-range engaged to get out of trouble, whereas an AWD will probably need a tow truck. If you’re in a remote area, you’ll have a long wait for help — possibly a day or two.
Consider Hiring a Campervan or Motorhome
If you want to save money on accommodation, you’ll want to consider hiring a campervan or motorhome, but keep in mind that many are 2WD (two-wheel-drive), rendering most unsealed tracks you’ll probably want to tackle off limits. You’ll quickly regret any envy you had for #vanlife or a home-on-wheels when you see your first ‘high clearance 4WD only’ sign. If you do want to go off-road, make sure you hire a campervan with 4WD. Popular rental companies like Britz and Maui use our beloved Toyota Landcruiser ‘Troopie’.
If you hire a 4WD campervan then you’ll have to decide between different types of sleeping and cooking arrangements. Also consider things like whether there’s enough storage space for your luggage (check if there’s space under the beds), the voltage and number of power outlets, whether you want a kitchen inside or out, how high the roof is if it’s a high-top or pop-up, whether bedding and kitchenware are included, and if there is a spare fuel tank.
Pack a Tent and Bedding
If you opt to buy or hire a 4WD that hasn’t been converted into a campervan, then you’re going to have to take a tent and some bedding to pitch at caravan parks and camping areas or check into caravan park units or cabins, motels and pubs when you want a break from sleeping on the ground.
Get 4WD Driving Lessons
If you don’t have much 4WD experience, getting some 4WD driving lessons before you head off is a great idea. Many of the 4WD and campervan rental companies offer short driving courses. Trust us: they can save your life — or at least save you an extraordinary rescue fee if you get stuck in the outback.
Pack Tools, Camping Essentials and Emergency Gear
One of our best tips for road trips in Australia is to ensure you pack the tools, camping essentials and emergency gear that you might need. Make sure you have a basic toolbox, an off road jack, a spare tyre or two, and that you know how to change them.
If you’re renting a vehicle, hire a full recovery kit, including a shovel, tow rope, emergency beacon, and a satellite phone if you’re considering remote road trips (and you will once you hit the road). We always bought extra jerry cans and kept them full of fuel, along with oil and coolant.
We also made sure we always carried batteries and torches, and plenty of water, as well as a good quality portable water filters, such as Big Berkey Water Filters. Their straw filters, water bottle filters, pump filters, and UV filters are all fantastic for camping and road-tripping if you don’t have a lot of space. When it came to food, we always packed a good supply of tinned food, dry food, and sealed snacks.
Take Good Maps, Road Atlases and Travel Guidebooks
You won’t be able to access mobile phone and internet services outside cities, towns and settlements in Australia, so invest in the best and most detailed maps, road atlases and travel guidebooks for the areas you’re planning to explore.
Monitor the Weather Closely
One of our top tips for road trips in Australia should actually be at the top of this list and that’s to watch the weather and monitor it very closely. Check the Australia Bureau of Meteorology site for weather and road conditions daily (things can change rapidly and situations quickly become dangerous), and check in with the local tourist office and/or police station to let them know where you’ll be going before heading off-road. Australian roads departments and national parks also have spaces on their sites with up to date road conditions reports.
Drive Between Dawn and Dusk Only
Another of our best tips for road trips in Australia and this is another we can’t emphasise enough: start out at dawn and finish your day’s driving before dusk to reduce the chances of hitting the wildlife that hits the road after dark. If you get tired don’t hesitate to pull up by the side of the road for a nap. Australian roads and highways have dedicated parking bays or roadside rest areas for that purpose, sometimes with water and toilets, so by no means just stop anywhere. Also look out for the Driver Reviver sites, staffed by community volunteers supported by each state, where if you’re feeling tired you can stop to get a complimentary cup of tea and biscuits, along with some local advice.
More Tips for Road Trips in Australia
Shop, Cook and Eat local
If you’ve got a campervan with a kitchen or you’re camping and cooking, head to the tourist office as soon as you arrive in a place to find out when and where the local farmers market is held and, if there isn’t one, what produce the area grows and where you can get it. The tourist office will have maps detailing foodie trails and be able to point you to farm stalls, tasting rooms, local seafood shops if you’re on the ocean, as well as provide you with restaurant lists. Tourist office info will always be better than guidebooks and online resources as they’re updated as changes occur. For lunch, you can’t beat pulling up at a scenic spot and tucking into an Aussie meat pie or sausage roll from a local bakery and hot tea from your thermos as you listen to nature’s soundtrack.
Drop into local pubs, especially in the outback, where there will always be some local characters propping up at the bar who are keen for a chat. Buy your beer and wine from local wineries and craft breweries en route whenever you can to support local businesses. Look out for farmers markets and stalls at farm gates which sell fresh bottled juices, home brews, ciders, and local specialties, such as ginger beer.
Listen to Local Sounds
Our final tips for road trips in Australia is to buy some good music for the road and make it Australian music and the more local the better. If we’re doing a road trip in Western Australia, for instance, we’ll head to a music shop in Perth and ask for recommendations for local bands. Outback service stations often have an interesting selection of country and western or indigenous CDs and the occasional local oddity, like a poetry reciting cowboy for instance. ABC Radio National’s programmes are riveting, especially their radio documentaries, available as podcasts, and the ABC regional channels are fantastic for local news as much as music.
We’d love to hear your tips for road trips in Australia. Feel free to leave comments below.