The outback regions of Australia have drawn on travellers and explorers’ curiosity for decades. These days outback travel is more accessible than ever. If you’re planning to go somewhere more remote, you need to take some time and ensure you’re prepared.
Use this checklist to help you cover the equipment and preparation necessary for outback travel. If you think we’ve missed something, please leave us a comment below, we’re all about learning together as a community.
- GPS/digital mapping – these days GPS and digital mapping is becoming readily available and quite affordable. It has a few advantages over paper maps. They’re compact, easy to use, show you where you are and can log or track your journey. Make sure you choose digital mapping that can be used without phone service or a data connection. Some apps allow you to download offline maps so check that out before you leave.
- Paper Maps and Atlas’ – while GPS and digital maps have a number of advantages over paper maps, they do have some drawbacks which is why we like to carry paper maps as well. Paper maps don’t have technical problems and they don’t need to be charged. We also find paper maps better for route and trip planning as they’re easier to get an overall view of the area without losing too much detail. There’s also nothing better than spreading your paper map across the bonnet and having a good yarn with fellow travellers about points of interest or the best campsites. The biggest downside to paper maps is they don’t show you where you are!
- Compass – while not necessarily essential, a compass can be a good accompaniment to your paper maps and GPS. But like everything you take, there’s no point if you don’t know how to use it! Take some time to learn how to use a compass as it can be a real life-saver if your GPS or digital mapping fails.
- Fuel – consider whether you need to extend your range beyond what is provided by your vehicle’s standard tank. Fuel stations can be few and far between in the outback. Having a longer range also allows you to be pickier about where you fill up and can help avoid expensive or potentially poor quality re-fuelling locations. Jerry cans are the most economical way to extend your range, but you need to consider where/how you will carry them. There are also laws about where you can carry fuel (especially petrol) so make sure you check you’re within the regulations. If you are considering frequent or extended outback travel, it may be worthwhile to install an additional or increased capacity long-range fuel tank in your vehicle. While this is a more expensive option, it is a much simpler, cleaner and arguably safer way to carry additional fuel. The downside is that all our fuel can be lost if the tank has a failure.
- Water – Carefully consider how much water you need. The amount will vary depending on when and where you’re travelling, how many people are in your vehicle, etc. As we mentioned above, you also need to ensure you have enough in reserve in case of an emergency or a change of plans. There are a number of options when it comes to carrying your water. You can use anything from supermarket containers, water bladders, jerry cans or even a permanently mounted tank under or inside your vehicle. Spend some time researching and considering the best option for your needs and circumstances. Something we always advocate when it comes to storage is: don’t have all of your water in one container. In the event that one of your containers leaks (which has happened to us more than once), you won’t lose all of your water, something that can become life-threatening in the outback. We also keep a reserve of emergency water which is permanently in our vehicle.
- Food – while not as critical as water for survival, it is still worth spending some time considering how and where you will carry your food supplies. One of the first considerations is refrigeration. 12v fridges are a popular option and offer a lot of advantages over an esky or icebox but they come at a higher cost and require an adequate 12v set up. Consider how much food you will need for the number of people in your travelling party and make sure you have some emergency supplies in reserve.
- Communication – if things go pear-shaped, being able to contact someone who can provide assistance (either in the immediate area or further afield) can be critical. These days there are a number of options and often the best choice is a combination of devices. We’d seriously consider a UHF radio when travelling in remote and regional outback areas. A UHF radio allows you to communicate with other travellers, trucks, pastoral stations and sometimes roadhouses. Their range can be limited but improves greatly if you’re in range of a repeater station. If having a UHF installed in your vehicle is too expensive or intrusive, there are some good hand-held portable options available. The number one thing to look out for is that it is a 5-watt radio. Anything less than 5W will have a limited range and may not do the job when you need it most. Other popular options for emergency communication are satellite phones and personal locator beacons (PLBs). Either or both of these options are worth considering if you’re travelling in the outback. Both come with their pros and cons so spend some time researching each and decide on what’s better for your situation.
- First aid kit – Again, we consider a comprehensive first-aid kit to be essential equipment, particularly when travelling in remote and outback areas. Make sure the kit you choose is designed for your intended use. Not all kits are created equal so make sure yours is up to the task. Your first-aid kit isn’t just for car accidents, think snake bite, sprains, strains, fire accidents, heat exposure, etc.
- Recovery gear – if you’re travelling on unsealed roads in a 4×4 vehicle consider carrying recovery equipment. Even a major unsealed highway can become treacherous after rain and you could find yourself or fellow travellers needing assistance. It goes without saying that if you intend to travel more challenging 4wd tracks including the desert regions then having your own recovery gear is a must. At a minimum, you should have rated recovery points front and rear on your vehicle, a recovery rope or strap including suitable shackles and a shovel, preferable with a long handle. We would also recommend carrying recovery boards such as Maxtrax and depending on the nature of your adventure you might consider getting a winch installed on your vehicle, although we don’t consider this necessary in most circumstances.
- Rest – when it comes to safety, managing your speed and driver fatigue is vital. Although many areas in the outback are big, wide-open spaces with mostly straight roads, they can be surprisingly tiring to drive on, especially if they’re unsealed. Avoid setting unrealistic time schedules and remain flexible to allow for plenty of breaks and consider rotating drivers if possible. Taking plenty of breaks from driving is also kinder on your vehicle and you might be surprised at the details in the landscape you don’t notice when you’re in the car.
- Notify others of your travel plans – Letting someone who isn’t travelling with you know where you’re planning to be and when you plan to be there (with some contingency for deviations) is one of the simplest and most effective precautions you can take when travelling in remote outback areas.
Preparing Your Vehicle…
Good vehicle preparation is essential when preparing for an outback adventure. While some of what we’ve listed below might seem like common sense, it’s easy to miss even the seemingly obvious items when you’re planning a trip.
- Mechanically sound – The first thing you need to ensure is that your vehicle is maintained and mechanically sound. Find a mechanic that understands what your intended trip involves and what your vehicle needs to maximise its reliability. If you’re unsure about who to take it to, ask around in your local area, in Facebook groups or your local 4wd club for recommendations. If your vehicle is getting close to a scheduled service, consider getting it done before the trip and get any items replaced that are suspect. In the case of hoses, belts, etc, keep the old ones as spares and take them with you on your trip.
- Spares – while you’re speaking with your mechanic, ask them for recommendations of any spare parts you should carry. While fuel filters, air filters, etc are a good idea for any vehicle, find out if there’s anything specific for your vehicle that might be prone to failure and consider carrying a spare if practical.
- Tyres – something as simple as a tyre puncture can leave you stranded if you aren’t prepared and a tyre failure can cause you to lose control of your vehicle. Ensure that the tyres fitted to your vehicle are in good condition and are suitable for the terrain you intend to travel on. In general, we’d consider a good quality all-terrain (AT) tyre to be suitable for most trips. In some circumstances, you might consider a mud-terrain (MT) tyre for its additional strength. When it comes to upgrades from the factory, tyres should be your number one consideration. While many vehicles choose to carry two spare tyres, you need to consider weight and your ability to safely carry a second spare. Tyres these days are much better quality and construction techniques have improved dramatically than 10 or so years ago. For most circumstances and trips we don’t consider two spares necessary but it comes down to personal preference. We always recommend carrying a tyre puncture repair kit, and learning how to use it. Tyre repair kits are lightweight, compact, inexpensive and quite effective. While they only provide a temporary repair, that could be the difference between being stranded in the outback and making it back to a town or roadhouse for a more permanent tyre repair.
- Basic tool kit – tools tend to be heavy so you need to balance what you might need with what is practical to carry. Make sure you consider any vehicle-specific tools you might need (ask your mechanic if you’re not sure). For example, our Ford Ranger is metric so there’s no point carrying imperial sockets or spanners. It also uses Torx bolts and screws so we carry a set of spanners for those. It’s worthwhile taking tools with you even if you don’t know how to use them. In the event of a breakdown, a good samaritan might be able to help you out, but you shouldn’t expect them to use their own tools, especially if there’s something required that’s specific to your vehicle. On that note, buy yourself a workshop guide for your specific vehicle, they’re great for troubleshooting and have helped us to fix problems on the fly without needing assistance. A jump-pack or quality jumper leads are also great additions to your kit.
- Bullbar – although they can be expensive and heavy, we’d seriously consider fitting a bullbar to your vehicle, particularly if you’re considering frequent or extended remote and outback travel. A bullbar’s main job is to protect your vehicle and occupants in the event of an animal strike. The risk of colliding with wildlife or livestock is higher in the outback due to the prevalence of unfenced roads where stock and wildlife are free to wander. While your chances of having a collision are much higher during dusk, dawn and when dark, they can surprise you during daylight hours as well. Additionally, a bullbar provides a convenient location for the installation of other accessories such as driving lights, antennas and winches.
- UHF – as we mentioned when discussing communication, a UHF radio is a seriously handy piece of equipment when travelling in remote outback areas. Being able to communicate with other road users not only increases safety but can make your trip more enjoyable as well. If you’re travelling with more than one vehicle, having a UHF in each vehicle in your convoy is even more useful. Pretty much all trucks in Australia have and use UHF radios to communicate and being able to talk to a truck when over-taking or being overtaken can turn a nerve-racking experience into a calm and safe manoeuvre. Once you’re on the dirt you can pretty much forget overtaking safely without one. Having a second UHF can also be handy if you need a spotter outside the vehicle during a tricky off-road situation or when manoeuvring into a campsite, especially if you’re towing.
Nice to have:
- Long-range fuel tank – as we mentioned above, a long-range fuel tank (or an additional tank depending on your vehicle) is worth considering if you’re planning on frequent or extended trips into the outback. We’ve had a long-range tank on our previous three 4wds and have enjoyed the simplicity and freedom they provide when needing to extend the range of your vehicle. Even in more built-up areas, they allow for selective re-fuelling, whether based on price, quality or a particular brand of fuel you prefer.
- Snorkel – often only considered when planning to take on deep water crossings, a snorkel is a useful bit of gear to have for outback travel as well. A quality snorkel allows your engine to ‘breathe’ cleaner fresh air, especially when travelling on dusty roads. This will increase the lifespan of your air filter and minimise the chance of dust-ingress into your engine. Some people claim improved performance or fuel economy with a snorkel installed, but we’ve never experienced a noticeable improvement (if any).
- Driving Lights – although we avoid driving at night, occasionally we get caught out and end up driving in the dark. Driving lights (or light bars) provide a significant improvement in the performance of the lighting of your vehicle and can make driving at night safer and more comfortable. You might also find them handy when returning from that secret fishing spot after dark. There is a range of options available for all vehicles, budgets and requirements so do your research before leaping in and handing over our hard-earned. In our experience, the cheaper end of the market doesn’t last on the rough roads in the outback so be prepared to at least buy a mid-range product if you want them to last.
Preparing your trailer or caravan
These days many of us tow a trailer, camper or caravan when heading away. It’s important not to neglect your trailer when planning, especially if it hasn’t been used regularly as the components can deteriorate.
- Mechanically sound – similarly to your vehicle, make sure your trailer has been recently serviced and is in good working order. This includes, but isn’t limited to, wheel bearings, suspension, tow hitch and brakes.
- Tyres – the tyres on your trailer should be treated the same as your vehicle. Ensure they are in good condition and are a quality brand and AT construction at a minimum. If possible it’s also worth matching them to your tow vehicle so they can be interchanged if needed.
- Loading – like your tow vehicle, avoid overloading your trailer, camper or caravan. Check your trailer’s maximum weight limits and make sure you’re within those limits. Wherever possible keep heavy items low and over the axles and be aware of your tow ball load. A poorly distributed load can have a huge impact on handling and safety.
Insurance and roadside assistance
It’s not a sexy topic, but don’t neglect your insurance and roadside assistance policies. Before you set off, ask your insurance company if there are any limitations on your insurance when travelling in remote areas, especially if you’re considering 4wding and off-road tracks.
Likewise, check that your current roadside assistance package is adequate for your intended trip. In our experience, roadside assistance is worth every cent and is of great value when you consider what it provides. Don’t assume you’re covered for your intended trip, check and get the answer in writing.
While the outback regions of Australia can be inhospitable and sparse, they don’t need to be dangerous or feared. With some sensible and simple preparation, some essential equipment and the right mindset a journey into the outback can be the experience of a lifetime. While Australia has some of the best beaches and coastlines in the world, the outback regions are some of our favourite destinations.
Take your time, prepare well and you’ll make lifetime memories.