How to plan an Outback road trip

Head into Australia’s arid centre with confidence using this simple guide to planning an outback road trip.

1. Plan backwards from your destination

Outback trips are often initiated with a specific location or region in mind, and that’s the best place to start. Once you’ve got your dream destination(s) or journey in mind, work backwards to find out if you have the time, gear and vehicular capabilities to complete it.

Many outback areas are accessible by both sealed roads and four-wheel drive tracks, meaning a trip to the outback is possible for travellers with all kinds of vehicles and all levels of experience – you simply need to plan appropriately for your means. A two-wheel drive vehicle can certainly make it to the Red Centre or to the famous Birdsville Races, it’s just that it is limited in its options, whereas a 4WD can head from Brisbane to Birdsville and then across the dunes of the Simpson Desert without impediment.

2. Get your timing right

The time from April to October is generally considered to be the outback travel season, as the summer and spring temperatures in arid areas make travel prohibitive.

In tropical regions across the Top End in Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia, these months coincide with the dry season, which has drier conditions and a much more amiable climate than during the wet season. In fact, many regions throughout the Top End are totally inaccessible during the wet season, as rain swells waterways and puts other areas underwater (Kakadu National Park is a perfect example of this yearly cycle).

To avoid the relative ‘traffic’ of school holiday family travellers, you may want to consider organising your road trip outside these peak times – a week either side of these holiday periods can make a world of difference if you’re looking for solitude on the road and in camp.

3. Plan your daily stops effectively

When travelling in remote areas, being properly supplied becomes supremely important. In populated and built-up areas, supply points and facilities are all around you, but in the outback they can be few and far between. Knowing where you can fuel up, buy fresh groceries and stop for a toilet break is never as important as when there’s nowhere else to do so for 200km.

4. Keep plenty of water with you

In the event of a breakdown or another unanticipated situation, having ample water in your vehicle is essential. Countless news stories of broken down vehicles with travellers stranded in the middle of nowhere highlight the importance of self-sufficiency in the outback, and at the top of any survival list should be water. Keeping a jerry can or equivalent container of water in the back of your car may be extra weight to drive with, but it has the potential to save your life in truly extenuating circumstances.

5. Keep an informed point of contact

Whether you’re going on your own or with friends and family, it’s imperative to have someone at home who knows your movements during your trip. Harsh outback conditions, poor phone service and distance from emergency services make this an essential safety measure. So, once you’ve planned a general itinerary for your own purposes, it’s highly recommended that you give this information to a designated contact.

Organise with this person a protocol for tracking your progress and ensuring your safety, which can be as simple as a text message check-in at the end of the day (or another time if phone coverage is patchy) to let them know your location and confirm your status. If you fail to meet these agreed times of contact, or are uncontactable for an extended period of time, you should also have an emergency plan so your contact knows how to escalate the situation if they can’t confirm your safety. Localised police contacts and planned accommodation stops are ideal points of contact to investigate any worrying lack of communication.

6. Be prepared for what’s out there

Outback travel is different from a conventional road trip or touring holiday, and your choice of how different must be reflected in the gear you take and your overall level of preparedness.

If you’re planning on driving unsealed roads or 4WD tracks, be confident that your vehicle is up to the task, and that you have necessities like spare tyres and recovery gear (depending on how far off-road you go) on hand. If you’re driving a well-maintained dirt road, many 2WD and AWD vehicles will actually be adequate, while a 4WD is necessary for more difficult terrain and challenging tracks. Keep in mind that major outback roads are generally in good condition, while less travelled side routes are likely to be 4WD-only.

Additionally, remote areas are not replete with proper accommodation, so knowing if, when and where you will be camping is essential too. Ensure you have a sleeping bag that’s rated for the temperatures you can expect, and that you have a tent or swag to keep you out of the elements. Campsite bookings, area or track permits should be paid for before you head off where possible, though some places require travellers to pay upon entry.

7. Have offline navigation too

Dedicated GPS navigation systems and apps for tablets and smartphones are excellent tools for planning, guiding and recording your trip, however as with any digital technology, if they break or have no charge while you’re travelling, then you’re without any means of orienting yourself.

This situation, which is rare and easily negotiable in a metropolitan area close to home, can be catastrophic in a remote area that’s poorly signposted. For this reason, it’s always recommended that you have a paper map of the areas you’re travelling through, whether it’s a folded regional map or an atlas. Additionally, devices and apps made for street navigation lack accurate or complete information in many outback regions, which means it’s important to have mapping that specifically covers the places you’re traversing.

8. Plan to be adventurous

Prepare properly and be bold, as the idea of an outback road trip or off-road adventure is to see new places, challenge yourself and make memories – push yourself accordingly. Some of the best attractions, campsites, lookouts and drives are away from the main thoroughfare, and it’s often those hidden gems and side trips which are the most memorable. Instead of planning a straight shoot through to a destination or along a tourist route, allocate some time and kilometres to exploring further afield, digging deeper into the Outback and making the most of your own journey.

Content courtesy of Hema Maps. Hema Maps has been crafting folded maps, guides and digital navigation products for exploring Australia off the beaten track for over 30 years. Visit the Hema Maps website to find out where your next adventure could take you.