Tips for Road Trips in Australia for Travellers Driving the Outback Tracks. Outback Road, Northern Territory, Australia. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Tips for Road Trips in Australia for Travellers Driving Australia’s Outback Tracks

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Our best tips for road trips in Australia for travellers planning on driving Australia’s outback roads, 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 been spending a lot of time on dusty red dirt roads here in Cambodia that have reminded us of the many road trips in Australia that we’ve done over the years researching travel guidebooks, the main difference being that in Australia those stretches of red dirt are back-roads and off-road tracks. 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, 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 vehicle (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.

Some 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 and Litchfield 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, 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 Terence did it, turning around 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 would be rescued by helicopter a few days later.

That particular road trip took us from Darwin to Kakadu then down 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 for your road trip, don’t just get any old cheap beaten-up thing as backpackers used to do, and forget about sedans. One 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 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, hire a campervan or motorhome, but keep in mind many are 2WDc(two-wheel-drive), rendering most unsealed tracks you’ll probably want to tackle off limits. You’ll regret any envy you had for #vanlife or a home-on-wheels when you see your first ‘High Clearance 4WD Only’ sign.

If you want to go off-road, hire a campervan with 4WD. Popular rental companies like Britz and Maui use our beloved Toyota Landcruiser ‘Troopie’. If you hire a 4WD campervan, you’ll have to decide between different types of sleeping and cooking arrangements.

Also consider 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 sleeping bags and a small tent 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, an Australian road atlas, and good travel guidebooks for the areas you’re planning to explore.

We wrote for Lonely Planet and co-authored and updated the Lonely Planet Australia guidebook and Western Australia guidebook many years ago and highly recommend them over other guidebooks, as we visited every single place.

Monitor the Weather Closely

One of our top tips for road trips in Australia is to watch the weather and monitor it very closely. Check the Australia Bureau of Meteorology site for weather and road conditions daily as things can change rapidly and situations quickly become dangerous.

If you’re heading off-road or planning to drive little-used roads, check in with the local tourist office and police station to let them know where you’ll be going. Australian roads departments and national parks also have up to date road conditions reports on their sites.

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 it is 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 sipping hot tea from your thermos as you listen to nature’s soundtrack.

Drink Local

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.  

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A travel and food writer who has experienced over 70 countries and written for The Guardian, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, DestinAsian, TIME, CNN, The Independent, The Telegraph, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, AFAR, Wanderlust, International Traveller, Get Lost, Four Seasons Magazine, Fah Thai, Sawasdee, and more, as well as authored more than 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Fodors, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides.

7 thoughts on “Tips for Road Trips in Australia for Travellers Driving Australia’s Outback Tracks”

  1. We’re considering driving around Australia in 2015. Even though it’s our home country, these tips have been useful! Especially the part about the AWD!
    Thanks for sharing

  2. Hi Carmen – fantastic! As I often mention on this blog, my parents took my little sister and I around Australia for what was meant to be a year, but it turned into 5 years, and it was the most incredible experience. Terence and I have done a few long road trips in Australia too – just magic. I think it makes people appreciate their country more, and its people and diversity – and those dramatic landscapes. Enjoy! And thanks for dropping by.

  3. An AWD is exactly the same as 4WD… there are just FWD (front wheel) RWD (rear wheel) and AWD (all wheel = 4 wheel 4WD) unless u got a big truck which has 3 axles then its not AWD but 6×6.

  4. ‘Banana’, here’s the quote:
    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.
    In Australia, the distinction is made by the AWD being a generally smaller vehicle that has drive to all four wheels all the time (such as most Subaru’s) and a 4WD, a much larger vehicle that sees the driver mechanically engage the drive to all four wheels when required.
    Here’s a link which explains it quite well.
    Thanks for your comment!

  5. Some great tips there, but I must say something about the AWD comments. An AWD vehicle will have substantially less clearance, and while they are OK for some gravel roads, you’d be mad taking them on many of the remote gravel roads in Australia.

    The built quality between an AWD and 4WD vary considerably, with 4WD’s being designed to take a beating on rough tracks. Corrugations in Australia are terrible, and even damage plenty of quality 4WD’s.

    Also, an AWD vehicle is very different in the way they are driven; the front and rear differentials are not locked together, whereas a 4WD is. Many AWD vehicles split the drive 80/20% to the rear/front as well, whereas a 4WD is 50/50%.

    In terms of where you can take them, an AWD vehicle with adequate clearance will be fine for decent condition gravel tracks, relatively easy 4WD tracks and hard packed beaches. Anything beyond that though, and you are pushing the vehicle beyond what it was intended to do, and if you are in a remote location things can get serious very quickly.

    If you intend on doing any of the potentially bad gravel roads (which include many in Australia), along with anything beyond the above, a 4WD is a much safer option.

  6. Thanks for your comment Aaron. Totally agree and as we wrote, “…our preference will always be a heavy-duty Toyota Landcruiser.”

  7. No worries; I did see that, just didn’t want people picking up a run of the mill AWD vehicle and getting stranded on a shocking gravel or 4WD track miles from anywhere because they think its up to the job. Have a great day!

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