RED DESERT DREAMING
How to set yourself up for outback free camping
WORDS BY STEVE COLLINS, PHOTOGRAPHY BY CARAVAN & MOTORHOME ON TOUR
When we ask fellow vanners if they’ve seen much of the outback there’s a surprising number that confess that they haven’t. “Oh, but we will one day”, they say.
We find that many are unsure about what gear they’ll need, how they’ll cope in the elements, how to tackle corrugations or they might be a bit dubious about security. And we say the same thing every time: it’s easier than you think…
“How easy?” you say? Well, here in this one article we’re going to cover everything you need to know to set yourself up for free camping in the outback. In fact, we’ll show you that free camping in the outback is not only easy, but it’s one of the most rewarding experiences an RVer could ever have.
10 ESSENTIALS FOR OUTBACK FREE CAMPING
1 QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
The first ‘essential’ is adopting a new way of thinking—‘quality over quantity’. When you’re in the outback you’re a long way from civilisation and you can’t afford for things to fail. So when you’re setting yourself up, avoid the ‘we need one of everything’ mentality. Instead, save your pennies and spend them on quality items that are essential for your health, safety and security, rather than luxuries.
2 POWER REQUIREMENTS
A 300 amp-hour deep-cycle battery bank is a good basis for outback travel. To keep it charged up, aim for around 360W of roofmounted solar panels, a 120W portable solar panel and a 60A MPPT solar regulator. It’s also worth wiring in a power feed from your tow vehicle so you can charge your house batteries while you drive. Having a small 2kVA generator as backup in case of unforseen cloudy weather is also a good idea, too.
3 DIRTY GEAR BAG
One of the best investments you’ll make as a free camper is buying a dirty gear bag to sling over your spare wheel. These bags make useful rubbish bins for extended trips, they’re cheap as chips and because they’re outside you don’t have to deal with any smells.
4 WATER & FUEL STORAGE
Because there’s an increased risk of stone damage/punctures on rough roads, always store your water in a number of different containers in case one springs a leak. Having two independent tanks under your van—one running off your 12V pump and another through a hand/foot pump—will ensure you’ve got water while you’re on the go, even if you run out of power.
Carrying an additional water jerry in your 4WD means you won’t get caught out if you decide to unhitch for a bit of sightseeing. Using the same logic, it’s a good idea to carry a spare fuel jerry in case you face unforseen detours, spring a leak or cop a dodgy batch of fuel.
5 GROUND SHEET & TARP
Dust gets into everything in the outback, so whatever you can do to minimise it will make life a lot easier. Laying a ground sheet (a piece of shade cloth works great) down under your awning will give you a cleaner outdoor living space and means you won’t traipse sand inside. Also, rigging a tarp up over the top of your van to shade it from direct sunlight will ensure it doesn’t get too warm inside. If you string it up on a 45° angle, your tarp can also double as a windbreak, sheltering your van from clouds of dust.
6 OFF-ROAD HITCH & STONE GUARDS
It’s well worth upgrading to an offroad hitch if you plan on clocking up a few kilometres on the red dirt. While a simple 50mm ball hitch will cope for incidental trips, it’s going to rattle around a lot more than a dedicated off-road coupling and that gets quite annoying after a while.
Also consider fitting stone guards if you don’t already have them. If you’ve got a water tap on your drawbar, it should be shielded from stray rocks or positioned on the inside of the chassis. Water tanks should have solid stone guards and you may need to shield any vulnerable wires, pipes or fittings underneath.
7 SATELLITE PHONE
It’s crucial you have the means to call for help, should the need arise. A UHF is good for communicating with your convoy or passing vehicles, but a satellite phone should be considered mandatory. Buying a used one online can reduce the costs, and hiring one for shorter trips is cheaper than you might think.
8 TOOL KIT & SPARES
Ensure your tool kit has the right-sized spanners and sockets for your make and model. You’ll need to carry imperial tools if you own a European or American tow vehicle, and metric for most things Japanese. At a minimum, carry general spares like hoses, belts, wheel bearings, super glue, duct tape, fencing wire and cable ties.
9 NAVIGATION, MAPS & CAMPSITE INFO
While there’s no substitute for paper maps, a GPS will make navigation so much easier. Look for one that’s already loaded with campsites and POIs, and carry paper maps as backup.
10 FIRE EXTINGUISHERS
Pack at least two 2kg (minimum) fire extinguishers—one in the car and one in the van—in easily accessible positions. When you’re in the outback, you are your own fire warden!
TIPS FOR OUTBACK TRAVEL
DEALING WITH THE ELEMENTS
Two things will save your life in the outback: water and shade. Budget 5L of water per person per day at a minimum, maybe more if you plan on showering every day. Be diligent with how much water you take, though. Remember that 1L of water weighs 1kg; and carrying too much will soon see you up over your weight limits. Plan where you’ll refill well ahead of time. Wear long, light clothing that covers your skin and prevents dehydration. If you haven’t got one, get an annexe made up for your awning – it’ll provide much needed shade while still allowing the flow of a nice cool breeze. Also consider purchasing a 12V fan. They’re ideal for circulating air, use next to no power and can be charged via a conventional 12V cigarette port.
DISPOSING OF RUBBISH
For extended stays in the outback where there are no bins, the best idea is to burn non-toxic rubbish in a hot campfire. When the ashes cool down, remove any remaining matter that has not burned and carry it all out with you. Burning cans will take the smell away from them so flies and animals are not attracted to them.
DEALING WITH CORRUGATIONS
Two things make driving over corrugations easier: lowering your tyre pressure and keeping your speed in check. Aim to set your tyre pressure around the low 30s or high 20s (don’t forget the van tyres), and remember that when you reduce tyre pressures, you’ve always got to reduce speed.
When driving over corrugations, sometimes you can skim across the top of the bumps at around 70km/h and at other times you’ll be limited to walking pace. Experiment a bit and remember that if it’s not comfortable inside the cab, your van is sure to be copping a beating.
3 WATER SAVING TIPS
Try using a paper plate with the general plastic plate underneath to cut down on washing up. Only the paper plate gets dirty and you’re able to burn it when you’re finished. Use good quality non-stick pots and pans. Clean them with paper towels while they’re still hot, including the knives and forks.Use a spray bottle with soapy water for washing up, too—no need for a bucket full of water.
Engage 4-High on hard-packed, smooth gravel tracks for added grip and to prevent damage and chipping to your tyres.
10 BEST OUTBACK FREE CAMP REGIONS
CAMERON CORNER, QLD
<<<toilets, water, showers, campfires>>>
INNAMINCKA REGIONAL RESERVE, SA
TILPA WEIR, DARLING RIVER NSW
<<<pets, picnic tables, free>>>
WILPENA POUND, FLINDERS RANGES SA
<<<toilets, showers, campfires>>>
BURKE AND WILLS CAMPGROUND, NSW
<<<toilets, campfires, pets, picnic tables, free>>>
EDITH FALLS, NT
<<<toilets, water, showers, campfires, swimming>>>
STONEHENGE, LONGREACH QLD
<<<toilets, water, showers, campfires, pets>>>
CAPE RANGE NATIONAL PARK, WA
BUNGLE BUNGLES, WA
DALHOUSIE SPRINGS, SA
<<<toilets, swimming, showers>>>