When it comes to the classic Australian road trip, I’ve done a fair few.
What started as a family obsession with long meandering drives across the country has evolved into wildly adventurous jaunts down once-familiar roads. Alone, with family, and together with Dean, I’d say my kilometre count is up towards 100,000km and climbing.
Over the years I have gradually refined and evolved my road trip style, and now I’d say I’m more prepared than I ever have been before. So, I’d say it’s time to share that knowledge, and pass on the Australian road trip bug to a few extras.
First Things First
There’s no getting around it, Australia is a big country. Most people don’t really understand that until they get there, but I’m honestly surprised at how little research people do. I once had a conversation with a traveller who was so sure he could do a full Australian road trip (a.k.a The Big Lap), alone, in a matter of days. When I told him he probably wouldn’t be able to manage it, his response was “Maybe just the East Coast?”
The fact is that Australia is a big place. It’s the 6th largest country in the world and in fact it’s about the same size as the continental USA (i.e. without Alaska). However, with just a tiny population (comparative to those other large countries) you need to do a bit more research before you head out into the unknown.
Keeping that in mind, let’s dive in!
Start + End
In order to properly plan the route of your Australian road trip, you’ll need to have a basic idea of where you’re starting, and where you plan to finish. If you’re doing The Big Lap, this is pretty straight forward, as you’re going to end around the same place you started. But if you’re just conquering a section of Australia, you’ll need to know for sure exactly where you’re starting, and where you hope to end up, which leads into the next part of your planning.
There are two things that dictate your timeframe: your availability and your budget. If you have lots of time and lots of money, you can probably go at whatever pace you want and see it all. However, if you’re short on either time or money you’ll want to set out a clear timeline taking into account potential delays from seasonal road closures, mechanical issues or just loving somewhere so much. If you have an important appointment to keep, don’t schedule your Australian road trip to finish on that day. Give yourself a buffer just in case of anything unexpected.
Once you have the timeline, it’s time to figure out the route. I find that the best way to sort out your Australian road trip route is to set aside some places that you’ve researched that you definitely want to go to, and then leave some flexibility to do other things in between. When you’re on the road you’ll likely hear about fantastic places that you haven’t researched, but if the word-of-mouth says it’s good, you’ll want to check it out.
Renting v. Buying
While you can certainly attempt an Australian road trip using coach services like Greyhound, I’ve never done one. So, I’m really only able to offer advice on renting a car or buying one. The choice for me really comes down to your timeframe. Renting makes sense in the short term because it’s much cheaper and much of the actual ‘looking after’ of the car isn’t your problem. You can sign up for additional insurance and roadside assist, and while it is more expensive to do that it really takes the stress out. Buying is the smarter option in the long term, but you’re responsible for registering the car, repairing it, and potentially insuring it (if you want to be covered).
If you are rending, it is so important to read the fine print. In Australian, many rental companies have limits about the areas, and even the roads, that you can drive on. You need to read the fine print to ensure that you can travel on unsealed roads (you usually can’t) and that you aren’t going into an area that’s off limits. If you’re concerned about being caught out, run through your route with your rental company.
Cars, Vans, Caravans and Tents
There are a few different ways to do your Australian road trip. You can have the van with the bed in the back, the car with the tent, or you can haul a caravan. Each has it’s benefits and annoyances, so you need to think about your style of travelling, who you’re going with, and what you’re willing to put up with. When I was younger my family had a pop-top Jayco camper van, which was a necessity as there were six of us. Then, when Dean and I did our Australian odyssey we just had our car and a tent, but we did get pretty sick of being cramped and sleeping on the ground!
Australia can have some pretty crazy weather conditions, so no matter what time of the year you’re travelling it’s always a good idea to check the road conditions in advance. Obviously these change week-to-week and even day-to-day, so you’ll need to keep an eye on it. Each state publishes their own online road report, but you can find links to all of them here.
You’d be surprised just how much stuff you need to survive, and enjoy, your Australian road trip. Here’s a short list you might want to consider, and there will probably be a lot more.
- Mattress/Sleeping Roll
- Sleeping Bag/Sheet
- Plates + Pans
- Cutlery (at least one sharp knife)
- Food storage box
- Esky (for cold foods)
- Chair (plus hammock if you want!)
- Table + food prep area
- Water storage (more on this later)
- First starter (matches/lighter + kindling/paper)
- Emergency fuel jerrycan (optional)
- Mosquito spray (not optional)
- Variety of clothes (more on this later)
- Little shovel + toilet paper
The amount of food you carry with you, and the types of food you take on your Australian road trip, will depend on your own travel style and preference. It’s expensive to buy ready-made food on the road, and often you’ll be in places where cafes and restaurants will be closed, impossibly priced, or simply don’t exist. That’s why it makes more sense to bring your own food with you in the form of easily stored ‘pantry’ food, and then buy perishables as you go along. With a good range of different foods, you can cook simple meals and enjoy a healthy diet that isn’t servo hamburgers and chips for every meal. Dean and I found we used tinned tomatoes, pasta, canned beans, rolled oats, peanut butter and root vegetables very regularly. If you’re looking for inspiration, I find that Fresh Off The Grid, and American camping blog about healthy on-the-road recipes, has lots to keep me interested.
There’s a few things I would considered necessarily emergency gear for a road trip in Australia. The first is definitely water storage of some kind. This is particularly true if you’re travelling outside of metropolitan areas, or anywhere sparsely populated. Some rural roads don’t get much traffic, so if you break down or have an accident you could be waiting for some time. That’s why it’s so important to have a good storage of water, I would say 30L+ for two people if not more. If you’re really heading out into the outback of Australia, a satellite phone wouldn’t be a bad idea either. The safest thing to do is always to register your travel plans with a friend or family member, so if you don’t arrive at your destination on time people will actually know that something is wrong.
What kind of clothes do you take on an Australian road trip? Well I guess it does depend on your style. I would certainly recommend having a mix of summer and winter clothes, with at least one warm jumper and two long-sleeved shirts and long pants (the latter are mostly for mosquitos). Travelling through the centre of Australia at certain times of the year you’ll find it can get quite cold at night, so don’t just assume it will be hot all the time. Winter comes even to Australia! Also avoid clothes that are hard to wash and dry. Lightweight is best!
There are absolutely free campsites in Australia. When Dean and I did our first big Australia road trip we started hearing about free campsites at pretty much all the places we visited. For us in a tent, many weren’t available (they were drive in and sleep in your campervan/caravan situation), but many of our favourite campsites on the trip were the free ones. I would recommend having a look at the WikiCamps app, which is contributed to by travellers and not always perfect, or the Camps Australia Wide book (they have an app too), which is more legitimised. Both list free and low cost camping options, and the WikiCamps app also has other more expensive sites with reviews.
Fuel is going to be the biggest expense of your Australian road trip by a long shot. In many areas you’ll be able to fill up for an average of AUD$1.30/L. However, in places like Darwin that price can be more like AUD$1.45/L and when you get really out of town to the little truck stops, where you’ll often have no choice but to fill up unless you’re carrying a jerrycan, you can pay as much as AUD$2.00/L or more. Your best bet is to try and pick a car that has a reasonable level of fuel economy, and be smart about where you choose to fill up!
If you’re planning a long-term road trip, the cost of camping is going to be your second biggest expense. Some of the campsites that we were forced to stay in during our Australian road trip were so expensive, we were honestly shocked. Having to pay AUD$50+ per night for an unpowered slab of grass (or sometimes just dirt) is ridiculous! Luckily we hooked into free campsites pretty early, and were able to pay for camping around 25% of the time or less. When we did pay, we tried to give business to small, family-owned businesses averaging about AUD$20-30/night, or stay in National Parks to support them. Cheaper places are definitely available around Australia, but you’ll want to do your research, call ahead to make sure prices haven’t changed during peak seasons, and have a backup so you don’t end up really out of pocket.
You can guarantee that cooking for yourself on your Australian road trip will be so much cheaper than relying on takeaway food. Your upfront costs of getting a decent camp stove (not expensive) and outfitting your camping pantry (just staples, cheap stuff) will save you big time in the long run. A camping meal can be thrown together in 15-30 minutes in most cases on a camp stove, and Australia also offers many free public BBQs in parks and reserves. Eating out in Australia is super expensive, and while it might be fun sometimes it’s a quick way to an empty bank account!
I have never enjoyed being an Australian more than when I was driving around this incredible country. There is so much to see and so much do experience here, it really does boggle the mind. My parting piece of advice to anyone thinking about undertaking an Australian road trip is this: take it slow. This is a big country, and it’s a big job to see it all. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stop thinking about Australia as something that needs to be seen in its entirety, because you’re just never going to achieve that in one trip. Instead, focus on enjoying the here and now, taking things slow, and really enjoying every minute!