Australian bush basic survival guide

Michael Borg — 6 October 2015

The Australian bush is an awesome place for camper and 4WDers, but anybody who thinks it doesn’t come with risks is dead-set kidding themselves. Yep, as beautiful as this country is, it certainly has a reputation for being brutally unforgiving. For us campers, believe it or not, there’s always the chance of something going wrong, and sometimes things just can’t be avoided. I know what you’re thinking, yeah, but that’s why I’ve got a camper trailer, right?

Let’s have a think about the different scenarios that could arise. Imagine your 4WD broke down, or you had a car accident in the middle of nowhere. What would you do? Or maybe you went for a hike and got lost with no supplies whatsoever – then you’re really up the creek without a paddle. Who knows what will happen? That’s where it’s important to have a bit of extra knowledge to help keep you alive if the worst should happen. So let’s take a look at the basics.


So, you’ve landed yourself in a sticky situation – what’s the next step? Well, it’s important to remain calm in any scenario so you can assess the situation for what it is. Your location and the challenges you’re faced with will vary from one instance to the next, so it’s important to prioritise your needs right from the get-go. For example, if you’re in the searing heat of the desert, finding water is a much bigger problem than if you’re in the snow. One simple way to help guide you in the right direction is the rule of three.

In a nutshell, it implies that you can stay alive for three minutes without oxygen, three hours without shelter in extreme conditions (heat or cold), three days without water and three weeks without food. So, if you’re stuck in the extreme heat of the desert during the day and battling freezing cold temperatures at night, there’s a good chance shelter (or protection from the elements and warmth) for the night would be your first priority, then you would concentrate on finding water, and then food (providing you’ve got plenty of oxygen, of course).


Working out exactly what you have access to can really help you out early on in the piece. If you’re lucky enough to still have access to your vehicle, there’s plenty of gear that can come in handy. For example, your car can provide shelter and protection. You could use the battery and a set of jumper leads to get a fire going, there’s even fuel there to help you out. Your lights are perfect for attracting help, there’s a million different materials available to makeshift anything, and let’s not forget the big one – rescue teams will spot a vehicle a heck of a lot faster than a person on their own, so make sure you stick with your vehicle at all times.

If you’ve got nothing but the shirt on your back, believe it or not it can come in handy in more ways than one. For example, it can be used as a strainer to filter water, used to tie or secure things, or turned into a sack to carry food and gear.


Things look different from the air, and smoke is one of those things that’s easily spotted from up above. This makes a signal fire an effective way to broadcast your location. The traditional signal fire is simple – start by forming three large main branches into a tripod in a clearing. Build a platform to sit the fire on roughly a quarter of the way up, filling it with things like dried leaves to help light it up quickly. Also, add a few dry branches on top to keep it going.

When rescue services are hovering around the area, place plenty of green branches over the top of the tripod so it produces plenty of smoke and light it up! It’s best to have it next to your campfire ready to go in an instant. Building three fires positioned in a triangle will form the international distress signal.


The idea of this method is pretty simple – make the tree leaves sweat out any moisture and catch it. You can do this by selecting a good sized tree branch with nice thick leaves and placing it in full sun. Slide a plastic bag over the branch and angle the branch down to create a low point for the water to pool. If you don’t have a plastic transpiration bag, a garbage bag or tarp will get the job done, just not as well.

It generally takes a few hours for the branch to generate enough heat before the water starts sweating from the leaves. This method has been known to produce anywhere from one to five litres of water per day, depending on the conditions.


All you need for this little trick is a cup of water (even a still puddle will do), an intact leaf, and a small strip of steel like a piece of wire or a needle. You’ll also need a magnet to magnetise the steel, so if you’ve still got access to a vehicle you’re in luck as an audio speaker has a magnet at the back.

The idea is to magnetise the steel by gliding it backwards and forwards over the magnet several times. Place the leaf in the water and the steel on top so it still floats, and watch as the needle pulls the leaf around to find north. The next step is to determine which side of the needle is pointing north. Australia is in the southern hemisphere, so the shadows cast by the sun will be pointing towards the south.


The best survival skill you can have is the ability to improvise, however, packing a few survival items in your camping kit will go a long way in an inexplicable bind.


  • A candle and cotton balls are two fuel sources that are easy to light.
  • A flint, lighter and waterproof matches provide three ways to start a fire if one fails.


  • An aluminium bottle can not only be used to store water but boil it as well.
  • Water purification tablets for sterilising water for drinking.
  • Plastic bags and sheets can help to extract and store water.


  • Emergency blanket or poncho and rope serve double duty.


  • Emergency whistle, torch and mirror.


  • Food ration pack, fishing line and hooks.


  • Bright marking tape can be used to retrace your steps and provide rescuers a path to follow.
  • A compass to help find your bearings.

Check out the full feature in issue #93 October 2015 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. 


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