Outback Travel and Survival

Scott Heiman — 17 September 2020
Staying safe on an outback adventure isn't just about carrying enough food and water. The trick is all in the preparation.

Travelling in the outback can be dangerous. However, there are ways you can mitigate the risks to safely travel through areas that many people will only ever dream of. While it sounds like common sense to carry adequate fuel, water, food and survival equipment, what does all this mean in reality? And is there more to it than that?

There’s actually a lot more involved. Most trips will go according to plan, but every now and then something goes wrong — Murphy’s Law, right? The problem is, if things go wrong in the outback, you could quickly find yourself in a life or death situation. 

The difference between a bad day on the road and kicking up daisies for eternity can boil down to whether you’ve conducted proper trip planning and have enough knowledge to apply basic principles of survival. Let’s have a closer look at what it takes to stay safe.


Prior-Preparation-Prevents-Piss-Poor-Performance! It’s that simple. With an unreliable water supply and extremes of weather, the outback can catch even the most well-prepared traveller off guard.

We joke that tourists from abroad simply don’t ‘get’ how big Australia is. But some Australians are complacent, too. Among the statistics of those who’ve gotten lost, broken down or died in the outback you’ll find truckers, locals, jackaroos and overlanders. And it’s no wonder. When you consider that Western Australia is the second largest state in the world after Russia's Sakha (and have you seen how big Russia is lately?), that’s a lot of room for something to go wrong. 

Recognising this, you need to adopt a ‘what if?’ attitude to planning and preparation for an outback adventure. This starts while you’re still setting up your rig in the driveway, well before you hit the tracks. Ask yourself all kinds of left field questions to help you prepare for adversity. ‘What if’ I blow a tyre? Or worse, three? Don’t laugh. We know a bloke who sustained four non-repairable tyres in one three-week trip. Ask yourself whether you’re carrying adequate spares? Do you have a tyre repair kit? ‘What if’ you’re wrong about how many spares you’ll need? ‘What if’ you get stuck somewhere needing a vehicle recovery?

This is where it makes sense to have your camper’s tyres and rims match those of your tow-tug. A lot of manufacturers will do this for you at point of purchase. By having the same tyre and same PCD and stud pattern on the rims of both your car and camper, you give yourself added flexibility when you hit that ‘What if?’ scenario. 

For example, if things turn bad, you can always jack-up the camper and take a couple of wheels off it. Leave it where it is while you drive your vehicle to a repair shop, then retrieve the camper later. After all, while it may hurt to leave your camper behind, the wellbeing of your travel party is your number one priority. The camper is a luxury that you can live without if you need to.

Your outback trip planning should start with map route reconnaissance so you can develop an appreciation for how far apart towns are, and more importantly how far it is between fuel stations. You’ll be towing, so your fuel economy will suffer. You’ll engage 4WDrive, so your fuel economy will get worse again. Your tyre pressures will be lowered because you’re driving through sand. Yet again, you’ll burn more fuel. You’ll probably be carrying a substantial load, so your fuel usage will just keep going up.

The amount of fuel you’ll need will depend on where you’re going. Regardless, develop the habit of topping-up when you can and having, at minimum, enough fuel to get to your destination and back. This is because you may be forced to do a U-turn and return to your point of origin. Alternatively, you might wish to take an impromptu diversion to a property or a side-route to an unexpected natural attraction. 

Knowing this, you’ll understand why a long-range fuel tank is a good idea. It gives you options, as does a couple of extra jerry cans. Have you got space for them? Do you need to make space for them? Work these things out before your leave home. Don’t make them up as you go as you’re likely to make mistakes. 


Talking of storing jerries, when you’re packing for an outback trip, you’ll probably need to be a ‘Master of Tetris’ to fit in the gear you and your family want on an extended trip. But don’t over-pack. Sure, it’s a holiday so you want to be comfortable, but remember that everything you take out bush should have two or more uses. If it doesn’t, we’d suggest you’re taking the wrong bits of kit, and will use fuel unnecessarily, clutter your rig, and give yourself a back-ache every time you pack up and move camp. 

Where and how you store your kit is also important. Put too much gear on the roof racks, and you could adversely affect your vehicle’s centre of gravity — increasing the height and weight of your vehicle by placing too much on the roof can cause it to topple-over when turning or in cases of extreme body lean.

You also need to consider what are the first things you’ll need to access in an emergency. Fire extinguishers, fire blankets and first aid kits — where are they? They need to be easily accessible and everybody on board needs to know where they are. After all, you may be the one who’s unconscious and in need of assistance. The same thing goes for your Personal Locating Beacon (PLB). First you need to ensure you pack one, and then you need to ensure it’s at arm’s length of the driver or front-seat passenger. That way, if there’s an accident involving a rollover, you can activate the PLB even if you’re trapped inside the cabin of the vehicle.

You should also have a ‘grab bag’. Some people call these ‘Get-out-of-Dodge Bags’ or ‘Bug-Out Bags’. Call them what you will, you should have one for worst-case scenarios. They need to hold 72 hours’ worth of emergency food and water, as well as the basics for survival. This is also where you should keep your sat phone. Store it within easy reach in case there’s an engine fire or other situation that means you need to get away from your vehicle fast.


Ultimately, survival is about having the right knowledge, equipment, state of mind and discipline to get home safely. And it starts by following the principles of survival known as Protection, Rescue, Water and Food. You need to follow these principles in sequence, without deviation. If fulfilling one step aids in completing another, that’s fine, but focus on one at a time. These steps can be summarised as follows:

Protection — This refers to protection from infection, accident and the environment. For example, remove yourself from a burning vehicle and tend to the wounds of others. Erect a shelter and get out of the sun, wind and rain. If your rig is safe to be near, a good way to protect yourself from the elements in the outback is to dig a shallow ‘grave’ (for want of a better word) under your camper or tow-tug. This pit will be cooler during the day than sitting under the awning. Remember that shade created by natural materials is cooler than that made by synthetics. 

Make a fire to keep warm, regardless of the season. In winter, daytime temperatures drop to averages of below 15C in the south and 25–27C at the arid zone’s northern boundaries. In July, average night-time temperatures sit between 3–6C. Higher elevated outback areas, such as Alice Springs, have seen night temperatures drop to as low as -7.5C (in 1976).

Rescue — This starts before you leave home. Tell people where you’re going and when you expect to be there. On the road, call your designated contacts and let them know what you’re doing. When you’re due to arrive in a location, call ahead to the next stop and let someone know when you expect to be there.

If you do break down along the way, stay with the car. Aerial searchers will be able to find your tow-tug much easier than if your travel party becomes a couple of people wandering the desert. Do this and you may find yourself sharing the fate of many others who have perished in the outback.

Activate your PLB sooner rather than later. Set up passive signalling devices, like a giant SOS in the sand. When writing in the sand, try to make the letters at least 6m long and 1m wide. You can enhance them by digging down to create shadow along the letters’ edges. Maximise this shadowing effect by orientating the letters east–west or north–south. You can also utilise logs and dark vegetation to create some contrast.

Snap-off the mirrors and light fittings from your car and string them up on a tree, or from a pole, so that they swing in the breeze and reflect sunlight. Aerial search and rescue teams will see reflected light from up to 50–100km away. 

This would also be a good time to make a signal fire to attract attention — consider using one of your spares (or busted) tyres to generate lots of smoke.

Water — Stay hydrated by rationing your sweat, not your water. The best place to store water is in your gut not in a water bottle. This is why the Western Australian police recommend travelling with 4–5L of drinking water per person per day. Or if you’re at Cameron’s Corner, you’ll find signs from the South Australian Government warning travellers to carry 6L of drinking water each, plus extra for washing.

It’s best to carry water in various containers, not just the water tank in your camper. Have a spare jerry containing just emergency water. Or install a bladder into your tow-tug. It's ideal to have drink bottles handy in the car for every occupant so that your travel party remains hydrated while you’re on the road.

If you find yourself stuck, you’ll need to start collecting water from other sources too. You can utilise your survival blanket as both a passive rescue aid and also as a way of capturing dew in the morning. 

If you don’t know how, ensure you obtain a copy of a reputable Australian survival handbook and travel with it always. Stow it in the car and read it to the family as you go on the trips so you can all learn. 

Food — You should have plenty of food on board because you’re road trippin’. While it’s important to carry non-perishable canned food, you can save weight by supplementing these supplies with a few dehydrated packages like peas, textured soy, powdered milk, dried fruit, instant potato and more.

You should also have at least 72 hours of emergency rations tucked away in your Bug-Out-Bag. Think dehydrated or freeze-dried instant meals, cups of soup, a bag or rice and another of flour. Bags of seeds and nuts and some tinned fish can go a long way too. 

You just have to remember that you’re not competing in MasterChef. This is SURVIVAL. 

Another handy item is a small food box in the vehicle’s cabin. We keep a six-pack esky in the middle of the back seat of the ‘Lux and stock it with on-the-road munchies. In an emergency, it would operate as a supplementary grab-bag. It’s full of muesli bars, protein bars, lollies and the like which would definitely come in very handy if the chips were down.

Failing this, you’ll be on the look-out for bush-tucker. So you’re going to need that survival book again.


As they say, good preparation is no accident. So don’t let yourself become a statistic. 

When the ‘fit hits the shan’, the individuals who prevail are generally those who plan ahead. You need the right gear and enough knowledge to back it up. 

As Luis Pasteur famously said: “Chance favours the prepared mind.” And that saying remains as true today as it was during his lifetime. 


Having your vehicle serviced a fortnight before any big trip is a no brainer. However, when you’re planning to travel to the outback, there are a few additional things you should get your mechanic to do. Remember, you’ll often be a long way away from mechanical assistance and, if your preparations are deficient, you may find yourself in the midst of an expensive breakdown recovery and possibly a long wait as parts may need to be flown in from a distant location.

And don’t forget your rig may need attention even after you’ve hit the road. If, for example, you’re on the Big Lap or some similar adventure, you may need additional servicing before you go remote. 

  • Here’s a list of checks that should help keep your rig in tip-top shape: 
  • Get a wheel alignment and complete check of tyre condition and tread.
  • Check the cooling system. Pressure test, flush and check the radiator and fill with anti-freeze/anti-boil coolant.
  • Check and tighten all hoses and clamps and replace worn parts where necessary.
  • Conduct an engine oil and filter change, in fact change your air filter, cabin filter, and fuel filter at the same time.
  • Conduct a battery condition inspection on all of your tow-tug's and campers’ batteries and, if necessary, replace them.
  • Check the air-conditioner and re-gas if necessary. Inspect for leaks.
  • Check and test the electrical system (rats love to gnaw on wires).
  • Adjust and replace brakes, pedals and handbrake if necessary.
  • Buy additional spares.


Feature Outback Travel Survival Preparation Staying Safe