An outback road trip is liking diving into a melting pot of the wacky, the ancient, and the downright stunning. But driving in the outback isn’t like popping down to the shops – you’ll find that you need to prepare like you’re heading off on a particularly gnarly hike, despite sitting behind the wheel.
Preparation Is Key
Driving 2700km across Australia’s Red Centre on the Outback Way is actually remarkably safe if you’re properly prepared for the journey and plan ahead.
The longest distance between spots where you can refuel, have a feed and sleep is 300km, but it’s usually much less. It’s not completely barren out there, but there’s still joy in the freedom of a self-sufficient journey.
Get Permission: Some roads require permits, read more about which areas require permits.
What Type Of Car Do I Need?
The Outback Way is a graded gravel road but dry weather or heavy rain can make this pretty tough going. You should have a four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive car with a bit of clearance.
This is where escaping all of that dastardly reception complicates things. There are a few bits of equipment worth carrying and habits worth forming when hitting the Outback Way:
Talk To People
Ask about the road conditions ahead and the weather forecast before you leave town. Talk to rangers, shopkeepers and that scary looking bearded bloke at the pub. Tell people where you are, where you’re heading and when you expect to arrive.
While a working car radio is good for checking the weather (and kooky local frequencies), it could be worth getting an in-car or hand-held UHF radio to catch other signals, communicate between cars in a convoy or even radio other drivers.
Often you can obtain lists of local frequencies at information centres in town.
Take a Buddy! It’s safer and more fun to drive the outback in groups, if you don’t have a mate in mind you can tag along on another trip.
It’s best to rent a satellite phone for outback journeys so you can talk to the person on the other end. While PLBs can be great for emergencies, they only communicate an SOS signal one-way. You can’t send off a distress signal if you’ve just run out of fuel so taking a 2-way device is a way better option.
In the outback, you might experience torrential rain and dust-storms, as well as the odd bit of intense heat.
Your car’s the safest place to be in any of these so stick with it and stop driving if the conditions get dicey. A bit of shade cloth or an awning can be great for protecting you from the elements on pit stops.
Remember when we didn’t have Google Maps? It actually wasn’t that long ago but it’s quickly transformed our lives. Without reception, you’ll need pre-loaded maps downloaded or an in-car GPS (remember them?).
It’s also worth bringing along physical maps and a compass, check out the HEMA Guide Book and Atlas, it’ll be your Bible (scroll down to see it).
Tech can always stop working and it’s always good to check the GPS isn’t sending you into the Never Never with a limited supply of fuel.
Download the Outback Way Brochure. Head to the Outback Way’s website and sign up down the bottom to get your hands on a copy!
Get ready to become addicted to the motion lotion. You’ll want to plan out your journey in advance and fill up whenever you can. Even if you’d probably make it to the next one, service stations can have malfunctions or be out of fuel. Expect high prices too, someone had to truck it out there!
You might encounter Opal fuel in the Western Desert. While Opal fuel is perfectly fine for your car, it helps reduce the negative impacts caused by petrol sniffing.
It’s worth taking jerry cans and a funnel to give yourself some bonus fuel. These should be metal and stored on the outside of the car. It’s also important to make sure your jerry cans have padlocks as this is the regulation in some communities. Don’t forget to take side-trips (there are loads) and low speeds into account when you’re calculating fuel use.
Food & Water
It’s important to be prepared with human fuel as well. You’ll want at least 2 days worth of food per person and a minimum of 10 litres of water per-person, per-day. Make sure you have multiple containers for your water in case one breaks.
The region to the west of Uluru and Yulara until Laverton is dotted with dry communities. You won’t be able to buy alcohol in these regions and you shouldn’t bring any in either.
Get It Serviced
Take your car in for a service at least a month before you plan to go so that you can get any parts in and issues fixed without a mad rush. Make sure you let the mechanic know your plans so they can give special attention to shock absorbers, exhaust (it hangs under the car), and filters.
There are a bunch of DIY checks that you should do before any road trip. Follow these up by tightening anything that can be tightened on your rig–if not, those bumpy roads might shake things loose.
Take Spare Parts
Spare parts can be a lifesaver for a whole range of issues. If you’re mechanically savvy they could allow you to fix your car yourself, or they could make repairs quicker and easier as you’ll skip the wait for parts.
Consider these for your spare parts kit:
- Oil – Engine oil, backup brake, and transmission fluid (if you have space).
- Belts – Fan, alternator, and air conditioner belts to suit your engine.
- Electrical – Fuses, wiring, and electrical tape.
- Hoses – Hoses and rings to clamp them on.
- Tools – You can customise this to items that fit your car.
Don’t Forget The Life Savers!
WD-40, Gaffer Tape and Cable Ties. These are the cornerstone of bush-mechanics and can solve an astonishing range of problems.
Need To Get Kitted? Graham recommends AVR Automotive and their “Going Out West” service.
Punctures are the most common thing to hold travellers back in the Outback, but with some spares it shouldn’t be too stressful.
Take 2 spare tyres and wheels if you can. Puncture kits can help but they’re useless on gnarlier punctures when the tyre gets sliced open, so at least 1 spare is a minimum. Luckily most roadhouses are able to repair punctures to get you back on the road.
Practice Changing Your Tyre Before You Go
Not only will this confirm that you know what you’re doing and have all the tools you need, but it’ll also make it less stressful if the time comes to do it for real. It also gives you a chance to check that your spare is correctly inflated.
You should have a jack, base plate (in case the ground is soft), and tools to remove the wheel.
If you’re looking at any side trips that involve soft terrains like sand or mud, you’ll need to be able to lower your tyre pressure. This great article explains why being able to modify your tyre pressure is so important for off-road driving.
You’ll need an air-pressure gauge and an air compressor (they usually run off your car battery) to re-inflate them.
If you’re driving in soft areas it’s a good idea to be carrying recovery gear including a shovel, recovery straps, and recovery tracks to get you out of a squeeze.
While roadside assistance might save your bacon, it’s also unlikely to be able to help you on any gravel areas or even on remote sealed roads.
Check what their policies are around breakdowns in the outback so you know what to expect and keep your satellite phone and phone numbers from above handy in case you need help. You can also use your UHF radio to talk to trucks and arrange assistance.
Driving in the outback is different. You probably won’t have to deal with people cutting you off but the road surface, wildlife and road trains will keep you on your toes. Follow these tips when outback driving:
- Headlights On – This can help increase visibility, even when it’s sunny.
- Don’t Go Too Fast On Gravel Roads
- “Ride” The Corrugations – When driving on bumpy corrugations you can often glide over them at certain speeds. Find that sweet spot (often around 80km/h) but be careful of going too fast when you have such little contact with the road.
- Don’t Try To Overtake With Low Visibility – Wait until the dust or rain has cleared (and consider stopping until it does.
- Give Way To Road Trains – Pull to the left and slow down when road trains are approaching to give them the centre of the road.
- Know How To Engage 4WD – If you’ve got a rental, make sure you know how to engage 4WD, many cars don’t have it on constantly and have different methods of engaging.
- Stop Often – And change drivers. Try to not drive the entire day (it’s super boring and increases the chance of fatigue).
- Don’t Drive At Night, Dawn Or Dusk – This is when wild animals are most active and hardest to see.
- Don’t Swerve – If you can’t smoothly avoid an animal don’t swerve aggressively. It’s tough but you’ll be risking your own life if you lose control of your car.
- If A Road Is Closed, It’s Closed – You’ll be risking heavy fines and dangerous conditions if you continue down a closed road.
If you do break down, can’t fix your car, can’t find other motorists to help out, and are going to have to settle in for a rescue, it’s important to treat it like a survival situation, just in case you’re in for the long haul.
It’s good to have a decent First-Aid Kit packed in case of a medical emergency.
Rule number 1 of the outback is to stay with your car. Cars provide shelter from the elements and are much easier to spot than a person. On top of the food and water you have with you, you should have some warm clothes for cold nights and the shade cloth from above for extra shelter during the day.
Start rationing your food and water straight away (boredom makes you hungry) and move perishables under the car where they won’t get as hot.
If all of your communications aren’t working you’re going to have to kick it old school. You can start a small fire and add greens (or rubber and plastic if you have to) to create a dark and unnatural plume of smoke. You can also signal to planes with a mirror or writing on the ground (hint: SOS or X are easier than “HELP”).
Ready To Go?
It might seem intimidating, but thousands of people make journeys across the outback every year without issues. The ones who do have issues don’t make the news because they’re prepared for absolutely bloody anything. Follow the tips above and you’ll be ready to make the life-changing journey yourself.