Top End survival guide

By: Scott Heiman, Photography by: Ellen Dewar

Touring the North can be hugely rewarding, but make sure you go prepared.

Top End survival guide
The first step in any journey is to go prepared

The Top End has plenty going for it in its geology, ecology and bountiful fishing opportunities. But if you head up there with your 4WD, camper trailer and a tinny or fishing kayak without knowing what you’re doing, it can be easy to find yourself in trouble.

So if you’re heading up north, here are some things to keep in mind that we hope will help you to get the most out of your travels and minimise unnecessary risks to you and your family.


The Top End experiences vast seasonal variations and the best time to visit is between April and October, which is commonly called the dry season.

Some roads are accessible by 4WD only, and can be closed at different times of year, so regardless of the season, you should check the road conditions in advance.

Roads into some Indigenous communities are poorly maintained and regular use, combined with heavy rainfall, often results in the type of driving conditions that require a decent level of 4WDing experience. This is where proper preparation can prevent poor performance, as they say, so upskill before you leave at an accredited 4WD training facility.

Disregard these factors and you could find yourself marooned in no time, your trusty vehicle bogged up to its axles.


The first step in any journey is to go prepared. Purchasing a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) and registering it with the Australian 406 Beacon Register by email or phone is wise when travelling to isolated regions up north. Advising rescue services of your movements by registering your trip itinerary will speed up response times if you do need to activate your beacon. After all, the next satellite pass may be 30 minutes away.

It is also important to tell a friend or family member where you’re going and your expected travel timeline before you leave.


Across all parts of the coastline, including the estuaries, there’s the ongoing presence of crocodiles year-round. We recommend you avoid entering the water and stay inside the vehicle at all times while undertaking water crossings. Take extreme care if you become bogged, as thoughts of reptilian "snap-snaps" often fall by the wayside once you have a snatch strap in your hand.

Pick a campsite clear of croc habitats and at least 50 metres from any body of water. Avoid standing at river banks for prolonged periods and never return to the same spot to collect water. Crocs are an "ambush" predator and will wait for you.

While the tropical ocean may look extremely inviting for a quick dip, don’t do it. Not only do you risk coming face-to-face with a croc, the box jelly fish population has very potent venom and is particularly active during the wet season (October – April).


In the Top End, if you’re not drinking at least six to eight litres of water a day, you’re doing yourself a disservice. After all, a large proportion of your body weight comes from water and you can’t last long without it.

The best place to store water is in your stomach: too many people have died of dehydration in Australia with water still in their water bottle. If your urine is pale to clear, you’re probably getting enough water, whereas dark urine is more concentrated and means you’re already dehydrated.

If you find yourself running short of water, transpiration bags, solar stills and dew traps work fine up here.


When you’re hot and sticky, the temptation is to throw your clothes off and get down to bare basics. But this could prove to be a really bad idea. Staying covered helps you retain moisture, preventing loss of fluids. Sure, you might get a bit sweaty, but the circulating air will act like an old meat sack and keep you cool. It will also protect you from sunburn.

Keep your sunnies on and always wear shoes when wading through water to prevent injury to your feet.


If you find yourself in trouble, first take stock of things and try to remain calm. Memorise this important phrase before you go: "Please Remember What’s First". This phrase stands for Protection, Rescue, Water, Food — in that priority order. It’s a great little memory jogger and helps you prioritise in an emergency.

So focus first on what you can do to stay protected from infection, injury, the elements and attack, then position yourself for rescue.

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Check out the full feature in issue #84 January 2015 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.