Tips to Drive Safely in Australia's Remote Outback

Driving around Australia should not be underestimated. There's nothing simple about taking a road trip through the remote, dry, Outback. Here are our top tips to prepare you for Australia's roads.

Australia's Size Will Surprise You

Many visitors are unprepared for the size of the place! Maps are deceiving and what looks like a reasonably short drive, like London to Manchester, is actually the same as driving from London to Moscow!

Road conditions are equally deceiving. Where you might expect a European-style motorway between major cities, you encounter single-lane dual carriageway (sadly true of large parts of Highway 1).

You might be tempted to pick up a second hand Kombi and go free-wheeling, which is ok if you're sticking to the more-populated regions. But there's a reason 4WD's are everywhere in the outback (ie remote regions): few sedans can survive the conditions.

As the Boy Scouts say, "Be Prepared" and by this we don't mean carry a condom! Before you even contemplate jumping into your shiny new 4WD and setting off for the Outback there are quite a few other things you should do first.

Rules for Driving in Remote Australia

Without a doubt there are two rules which will save your life in remote regions: always let someone know what you are up to (where you are going to and when you expect to arrive) and; always stay with your vehicle. This will save your life.

Also, if you have no experience with a 4x4 and are renting one, make sure you know how to engage the four wheel drive – failure to do so has led to some pretty embarrassing "rescue" stories.

Here's the list of basics to take with you:

  • Maps of the area - as detailed and as current as possible
  • A compass, matches and fire-lighter blocks
  • Water: lots of it, if you are unsure - take more
  • Food: Enough for each person for two days
  • Clothes: Two changes of clothes, one for the heat, one for the cold
  • Medicine: put together a kit with bandages, band-aids, antiseptic cream, sunblock, a broad-spectrum antibiotic, insect repellent, paracetamols, and anything else you feel you may need - which hopefully you won't need
  • Tools: A complete set, especially a jack that works (and know how to work it); if going to the remote Outback, take two jacks and preferably two spare tyres (before you set out, make sure your spare tyres are correctly inflated); spare globes, spare fan belt, spare fuses, and at least one big torch and a long handled shovel.
  • Radio: One that can pick up at least one station, to keep across changes in the weather
  • For the remote outback, a 2-way HF radio with Flying Doctor and Telstra frequencies is essential. Mobile phone signal coverage is limited at best and generally non-existent, so you may want to think about renting a satellite phone
  • A loud whistle.
Outback 4WD

Aussie Outback Driving Tips

Tyres

Check your tyre pressure each morning before you set off with your own pressure gauge, don't let air out of tyres as heat and pressure increase it. Also, you need to deflate tyres when crossing sand hills or tackling sandy tracks.

Fuel

Because you can have fuel pipe problems on rough terrain, take an extra 20 litre metal jerry can or two with you, plus a funnel for filling the tank, especially if you're visiting a remote area. Never carry spare fuel in plastic containers because they can crack, use metal jerry cans and mount the cans on the back of your vehicle or carry them on a trailer. Never carry fuel on roof racks or inside the vehicle.

Road Conditions

Try to maintain a straight course rather than dodge every pothole and if the road is corrugated, try to 'ride' the ridges. Driving in sandy areas is hazardous at the best of times, so you should learn how to negotiate sand. Reduce your tyre pressure to 15psi to cope with the soft surface and remember to inflate them immediately once you hit harder ground. Carrying a 12v compressor for this job is a must.

Overtaking is a major hazard in the outback, visibility is often poor and the chances of a stone hitting and smashing your windscreen are very high. On gravel or earth roads, the dust thrown up from vehicles in front makes it almost impossible to see. Wait until the dust has settled and if you are in a dust storm pull over and wait until the storm is over. Road Trains are another major hazard, some are up to 50m long, 2.5m wide and travel around 90km/h, take this into consideration when you attempt to overtake them.

Basics

  • Check the conditions of Outback roads before leaving the nearest major town.
  • Take care when driving 4WD vehicles, eg drive at reduced speeds on unsealed roads.
  • Note where petrol stations are en route.
  • Take frequent rest breaks and change drivers regularly.
  • Obey road closure signs and stick to the main roads.
  • Make sure you take a break every 2 hours, don't drive more than 8-10 hours a day and never drive after dark

Weather

Outback weather conditions are harsh at the best of times. Dust storms, rain storms and intense heat are fairly standard. Road conditions can change on an almost daily basis. Before you set out for your next destination check the conditions with the locals, the tourist information centre, the police, rangers or even at the petrol station.

Other Survival Tips

If you are stranded for any reason the following may help:

  • Rig a lean-to shelter and stay in it during the heat of the day
  • Dig a hole under the car and place your water & food in to keep it cool, it will be cooler under there than in your car
  • Build a small fire and have some green growth on hand to place on top to create thick smoke, keep it going day and night. This could attract the attention of planes, other vehicles or stockmen in the area
  • Ration your food & water - you do not know how long it will have to last
  • Use your rear vision mirror to signal passing planes by flashing it into the sun
  • Keep your clothes on as they will protect you against exposure - cold and hot

Finally, don't panic. A ground signal for motorists needing help is simple and the following two codes should be used:

  • SOS - means that a motorist has a survival problem.
  • X - means that the motorist is unable to proceed.

Both signals should be large enough to be identified from a reasonable height and should be formed preferably in white material.

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6 Comments

  • Jo said

    Good article!

    May I add:

    + take 2 big torches, 2 smaller handhelds.& a headlamp,

    + if you are going seriously offroad, take a personal locator that can be activated if you get in trouble,

    + Babywipes for outback emergency ablutions,

    + roos, cattle, camels, emus, wild dogs, eagles will wander on to the road - slow down and try not to crash into them - you will come off 2nd best,

    + if a dead animal is on the road, drag it off so others don't drive over it,

    + roos are EVERYWHERE at night which is why you don't drive when the sun is down. Chances of hitting one magnify 10 fold.

    + drive with your HEADLIGHTS ON during the day on the highways so other drivers can see you,

    + give oncoming roadtrains enough room to pass you by pulling to the left a little of the road as they approach. If you're on a skinny, outback, dirt track, pull off the road altogether & stop to let them go by,

    + if you're behind a roadtrain & wanting to pass, leave A LOT of room. If you're on windy roads, you could also call him/her on your 2way & ask them to tell you when it's safe to overtake. Make sure you thank them :) Roadtrains rule the roost.


  • Tom said

    I am planing to fly Sydney and driving cross country to Darwin. Any feedback for roads rental and safe path.

    Thanks
    Tom

  • Srikant Sharma said

    Definitely in my top 10 of my bucket list ...

  • Chris Bridges said

    I’m looking for authorization to import and drive 2 Left Hand Drive Jeeps (North American) into Perth for a cross continent journey in Australia. I’ve been having difficulty contacting the specific office that would issue permits for these vehicles.

    A 1994 Jeep Wrangler S YJ and a 2000 Jeep Cherokee XJ. Both will be 20 year + old vehicles at the time of the scheduled trip (Year 2020-22). Both vehicles will pass general use road inspections, with exception of the Left Hand Drive in question that poses a potential issue. Both vehicles are currently being outfitted in Kalamazoo, Michigan USA.

    If changes are required on the vehicles or, if waivers can be issued for them as is, such information is a very important matter regarding the journey and much depends on it.

    If anyone has reference information or point of contact information for the correct office, I would very much appreciate it if you could pass it along: [email protected]

    Chris Bridges
    Kalamazoo Factory Enduro
    Kalamazoo, MI

  • Sophia Rivera said

    Hey there, I'm from Florida and looking forward to visiting Australia in this year while ASHES. Thank you very much for sharing such useful information!

  • Michael said

    Hi I am planing to travel across AUSTRALIA for a year or more in a Toyota Coaster camper van any advice will be much appreciated. after reading about the dangers that one can encounter I am concerned if the toyota coaster could would be the correct van to use.

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