Preparing for Outback Travel

Adequate preparation before undertaking a journey or accepting employment in the outback will lessen the chance of jeopardising human life. There have been many cases where loss of life has resulted from a lack of foresight into the problems involved.

If you are considering heading away for a bit of travel on the roads and tracks of outback Oz, then we hope you have researched your trip well and considered all the important stuff. Firstly, for your comfort but more importantly for you and your family’s safety. Planning for outback travel!!



There are a number of things to be considered before starting to pack for your trip, these are known colloquially as the ‘Rule of P’ and are linked to the premise that –

 “Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Poor Performance”

Equipment Required

The equipment you are taking must be serviceable and sufficient for the trip. Allow additional equipment if in doubt. Maps should cover the entire area of the trip.

Radio Communications

For close range communication between vehicles a citizen band UHF or VHF radio may be used, however for long-range radio communication a HF radio is essential, these can be hired from communications suppliers at reasonable rates. Whilst travelling in the outback it is good practice to set up a communication schedule with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and contact them daily advising them who you are and where you are.

We rely exclusively on Uniden products in our travels. We feel that safety is not worth compromising and we feel confident that the Uniden products we use give us the best reliability when it comes to communication.

Satellite/Digital Telephone Communications

It is now possible to ensure telephone communications in the outback with satellite /digital telephones that allow the user to call on his/her satellite /digital phone and be connected automatically to a satellite system with no time delay if in an area not covered by a digital network. This system has a saturation system of satellites that download to ground stations and ensure instantaneous voice communication with no time delay between sending and receiving.

Terrain to be covered

A map study should be done to ascertain –

  • • Whether it is accessible by vehicle
  • • Where the fuel and water sources are located
  • • What is the best route?
  • • What alternate route could you use if necessary?
  • • What aids to navigation will you have?
  • • What positions of evacuation are available?
  • • Where are the local inhabitants?

Use of Maps

The Australian bush is very monotonous with very few landmarks and a lack of signposts on outback roads. Be wary of spoken directions as they can be misinterpreted and the wrong track easily taken. In the absence of an official map, try to obtain a rough map drawn on paper with as many landmarks as possible indicated showing the necessary distances. Mark your position on the map as you proceed so you can pinpoint your location at any given time. Do confirm your position at every opportunity.

Hema Maps is our preferred supplier of outback navigation aids, GPS and 4wd atlas resources.

Weather Conditions

The weather must be considered as many road conditions vary according to the local rainfall. You should be aware of the changes of season in the area of your trip; this will ensure that you are going at the best time of year. Check with police or local authorities after rain as many outback roads can be closed.

Time allowance

You should consider carefully the time and space you are allowing for your trip.

Considerations should include –

  • • When are you leaving?
  • • How long will it take?
  • • Where do you propose stopping to camp?
  • • When will you arrive?
  • • Have you allowed a safety margin in case of minor mishaps?

Learn about the country

You should learn as much about the country you are to travel, as possible. This will assist you if you have to survive in it.

Things to study would be –

  • • Dangerous animals and reptiles
  • • Insects, flies and mosquitoes
  • • Prickle bushes and any poisonous or discomfiting plants
  • • Any edible wild foods and bush tucker
  • • Available water sources
  • • Caves, mine-workings, holes and local problems
  • • Diseases to guard against


Before leaving on a journey through remote areas always notify a responsible adult in the form of friends, relatives, station owners or police of the following information –

1. Estimated time of departure [ETD]

2. Proposed and alternate routes

3. Estimated time of arrival [ETA]


Don’t forget to notify those concerned once you have safely completed the journey.


Selection of a suitable vehicle for safe outback travel will rely on the load that you are going to carry.

As well as major items of fuel, food and water you may also be carrying camping equipment, cooking gear, vehicle spares, tools, recovery equipment, an extra spare tyre and passengers.

If you choose to travel ‘off road’ you will need to be sure your vehicle can withstand the harsh and rugged conditions you will encounter.


Your vehicle will not only be your means of transport but if you are travelling ‘off road’ it will be your home and of course your biggest aid to survival should something unforeseen happen to you. As such it must be in first class mechanical condition. If you are not a mechanic it is best to take the vehicle to one who specialises in this type of vehicle. Explain the nature of your trip and have them go over the vehicle from top to bottom.

Roof Racks

To carry the intended load you will probably need to install a roof rack. Buy only from a reputable manufacturer who specialises in your type of vehicle. Have it installed by someone who knows what they are doing. The last thing you want is to have your load fly off because the roof racks weren’t attached properly.

Under Body Protection Plates

These are considered necessary by some people for rocky creek crossings, etc. They can be a problem in Spinifex country as after only a few kilometres’ Spinifex packs tightly under the plate and creates a definite fire hazard due to the heat under the cars chassis, engine, exhaust etc. Check periodically for any build up.

Roo and Scrub Bars

These are not essential items for off-road travel but they can be good value should you be unlucky enough to hit a kangaroo or other large animal.

Spinifex Protection

Some Spinifex grows to a height of nearly 2m and the seeds can be drawn into the radiator. At least 3 layers of fibreglass wire netting should be placed over the front of the vehicle.

Fire Extinguishers

It is good planning to carry at least 5 litres of water in a plastic garden spray bottle for Spinifex and grass fires as well as an extinguisher suitable for electrical or fuel fires.


It is important to discuss your tyres with your local tyre dealer before your trip.

Ensure you have the right tyres for the task. Eight ply radials are recommended as a minimum for off-road use. Two spares plus an additional 2 tubes should be carried.

Wheel Rims

It is easier to change a tyre on a split rim than on a pressed safety rim or alloy rim so stick with the standard steel split rim if possible otherwise a specially designed bead breaker should be carried for removing tyres from rims and replacing them.

Recovery Equipment

A valuable accessory for getting out of bogs is the exhaust jack. This is a blow-up heavy duty rubber/canvas bag, which is placed under the vehicle and inflated by connecting it to the exhaust pipe with the engine running. Its purpose is to jack up the vehicle on any surface.


Types of winches range from hand, electric or power take off. If you have a winch fitted to your vehicle make sure you know how to use it. Some simple safety rules

include –

  • Always use a sling around an anchor point rather than forming a loop.
  • Never place your hands within 1m of the drum if the winch is operating.
  • Always leave six turns of cable on the drum.
  • Run the engine when using an electric winch.
  • Do not pull if the cable is more than 15º to either side
  • Use only designated anchor and recovery points
  • NEVER use your towball for any type of vehicle recovery

Dual Battery Systems

When operating in the outback each battery should be used individually on a daily basis. When making camp for the night the appropriate drill should be used to ensure that the alternate battery is fully charged and will start the vehicle in the morning. The battery used for overnight use [refrigerator, etc.] may go flat. Have your dual battery system checked regularly.


Long-range fuel tanks are an excellent idea but make sure yours is fitted in the approximate centre of the vehicle between the chassis rails. Use the rear tank first to equalise load. If you do not have a long-range tank then 20 litre jerry cans are an excellent method of carrying fuel. If you carry jerry cans make sure they are metal or designed to carry fuel and use tie wire on all caps to prevent spillage.


Allow 4 to 5 litres of drinking water for each person per day while travelling. If you have built in water tank fitted with an external tap it should be fitted with a tap guard and the tap itself lock-wired when moving. Use more than one container for water incase it breaks/cracks- you don’t want to lose your ONLY water!

Emergency Pack

Enough spare food, water and blankets should be included to allow for any unforeseen delays. Emergency rations should last at least three days on top of your planned trip.

A three-day emergency pack for each person should consist of –

  • 6 ready-to-eat meals in cans [or other]
  • 4 litres of water
  • Foil emergency blanket [also used as a signalling device]

Vehicle Loading

  • The loading of the vehicle is critical and the vehicle’s centre of gravity kept as low as possible. Always get in the habit of checking whenever you stop.


The development of electronic [computer] engine management systems for modern diesel engines has forced a change in the way diesel 4WD owners operate their vehicles. The reservations a lot of people had with the development of computer engine management systems in petrol-powered 4WD vehicles in the early 90’s were in most cases largely unfounded. What was required then and now with the modern diesel is driver education.

Gone are the days when all a diesel 4WD owner had to worry about with a water crossing was keeping the air intake out of the water. In effect these new generation 4WD diesels, because of the electronics, have to be treated like petrol-powered vehicles. Contact your local dealer or 4WD service centre and have them point out the location of the vulnerable points [electronic] under the bonnet of the vehicle.

Remember a clean engine is less likely to short out. To prevent condensation [a problem for any electrics] clean the engine bay when the engine is cold with low pressure cold water.

Once these vulnerable or sensitive components are located suitable precautions can be taken. The location of the main computer is usually under the seats or behind the front left or right inside kick panels, near your feet.

A word of caution with these computer managed 4WD’s for those who traditionally fit their own radios and other electrical accessories. Finding the nearest live wire or earth and connecting to it is fraught with danger. If the pick-up wire is part of the computer management hardware that carries signals and mixed voltages you could unknowingly cause expensive irreparable damage.


  • To prevent damage have any electrical accessories fitted by a professional.
  • Jump-starting is no longer a matter of connecting any set of jumper leads between vehicles. Your leads should have a surge protector fitted to prevent a possible voltage spike, which will damage most computers.
  • Most 4WD vehicles with computer management systems will have an emergency limp home mode that comes into play when the engine management system has been adversely affected. Although the extent of operation will vary from vehicle to vehicle road speed will be limited and cruise control, traction control and other non-vital functions will be disabled. Visually, a dashboard-warning icon will be displayed telling you which system has been disabled.
  • The benefits gained from computer engine management systems for diesels such as more power, better fuel economy and lower fuel emissions should not be jeopardised by a driver’s level of ability or lack of knowledge and understanding of the vehicles systems and components.


The following items should be checked at the end of each day. This procedure should be conducted as part of your everyday routine and should never be neglected.

  • 1. Check engine drive belts
  • 2. Check engine oil levels
  • 3. Check coolant levels
  • 4. Check fuel filter [if possible]
  • 5. Clean air cleaner
  • 6. Clean radiator fins
  • 7. Check brake fluid levels
  • 8. Check clutch fluid levels
  • 9. Check power steering fluid level
  • 10. Check engine for oil leaks
  • 11. Check engine for coolant leaks
  • 12. Check transmission for oil leaks
  • 13. Check differential for oil leaks
  • 14. Check all steering rods for wear and cracking
  • 15. Check all joints for wear and cracking
  • 16. Check all tyre pressures
  • 17. Check all tyres for damage
  • 18. Check battery levels
  • 19. Check chassis rails for cracks
  • 20. Tighten all mounting bolts, etc.


A comprehensive tool kit should be carried and should be suited specifically to your vehicle. Suggested items include –

Vehicle Tool Kit

  • Screwdriver, flat 200mm
  • Oil Filter
  • Screwdriver, Phillips
  • Insulating tape, roll
  • Pliers, general purpose Alligator clips
  • Electrical Pliers, long nose
  • Electrical wire, roll 3mm
  • Spanner, adjustable 200mm
  • Tyre levers and wheel brace
  • Tyre pressure gauge Wheel brace
  • Set metric spanners and sockets
  • Feeler gauges, set ?
  • Small hammer, hacksaw and blades
  • Fan belt and Power steering belt
  • Spark plug socket * Contact points* and Spark plugs*
  • Set of radiator and heater hoses
  • Jumper leads
  • Tyre pump, hand or foot operated
  • Grease, 500gms and Epoxy resin
  • Condenser and Coil * Fuel filter
  • Funnel
  • Masking tape
  • Can of aerosol de-wetting agent Rubber vulcanising tape
  • Brake fluid, 500ml
  • Plastic tubing, 8mm
  • Engine oil, 5L and Gear oil, 500ml
  • Paint brush
  • Araldite fixative Electrical fuses, set
  • Bead-breaker & tyre re-fitting tool.


If you travel in the outback “off road” at some stage you are going to encounter sand dunes, claypans, salt lakes and rocky creek beds. You are eventually going to become stuck and a complete vehicle recovery kit should be carried.

Vehicle Recovery Kit

Recovery equipment carry bag. Ground sheet. Leather gloves. Long handled and short handled shovels. Axe . Winch [hand or fully fitted electric]. Snatch strap 9m based on 4WD size 8,000kg – 11,000kg – 15,000kg. Tree trunk protector 3m [12,000kg]. Recovery bridle. Drag chain 8mm diameter, 5m long [8,500kg]. Bow shackle 2.35T. Bow shackle 4.75T. Snatch block. Centre pull recovery adaptor for fitting to tow bar (never use the towball). Vehicle jack with base plate [300×300 recessed marine ply]. Hi-lift jack [remember to fit jack lift points]. Air jack [Bull bag]. Air compressor.


Whether you intend travelling to the Pilbara, the Kimberly or out to the Bight the locations may be vastly different but the off road driving principles remain the same.

Your trip can be safer and free from costly damage to your vehicle by following these driving tips –

First of all find out the overhang distance of your vehicle. This is the distance from the front of your vehicle to the first point you see on the road in front of the vehicle. The point in front of the vehicle is calculated with you seated normally in the driver’s seat. You will be surprised at how far this overhang distance extends to the front.

As the road is constantly changing you must learn to search ground quickly and make decisions on wheel placement early. Search the ground in a rectangular pattern looking from the front as far out as possible on the drivers side wheel track and then back in towards the vehicle along the passenger-side wheel track.

Lower your radio aerial to prevent damage or fit one with a spring base.

Identify and avoid any object that can damage the tyres or under-body components of the vehicle such as stumps, sharp rocks, or deep potholes. At times it may be better to drive a wheel over a large rock rather than have the vehicle straddle it. By doing this you raise the vehicle’s differential ground clearance and you prevent possible under body damage by hitting rocks. Assist with this by learning the location of the front and rear differentials in relation to where you as the driver sit.

Remember where applicable to lock your free wheeling hubs or central differential.

It is a good idea to lower your tyre pressure to around 80% of your highway running pressure. This will give the tyres a little more flex and grip to mould over rocks and loose gravel rather than causing the wheels to spin and lose traction, which would occur if the tyres were left at the hard highway running pressure.

When driving in soft or sandy conditions the lowering of tyre pressures can prevent bogging. Tyres can be lowered to a minimum pressure of 16psi in both split and safety rims. Tyres must be re-inflated immediately after traversing the obstacle, failure to do so will lead to tyre damage.

Where you are going up or down a steep hill always engage low range on the transfer case. For those vehicles that don’t have a low range capability be very careful to assess the terrain so that you may safely negotiate it.

For those auto transmission 4WD vehicles select low range and lock the gear lever in low gear whenever descending a steep off-road track.

Drivers of manual 4WD vehicles should remember that depressing or riding the clutch off-road is fraught with danger. If you stall or stop the vehicle on a descent you can restart in low range with the vehicle in gear. Simply turn the key on and do not depress the clutch. Cover the brake pedal and be ready to apply brake pressure if the vehicle surges forward [common with fuel-injected vehicles]. This ensures you are under control at all times with the engine running and gears engaged. Don’t ride the brakes but feather them as required to slow the rate of descent.



Outback travellers should consider themselves as caretakers of the land and ensure that their actions do not add to the degradation of the landscape.

  • Do make sure your vehicle is in sound mechanical condition and equipped with all necessary fuel, food, water and spares needed to complete the journey.
  • Do have the ability to communicate with the outside world either by radio, satellite phone or global positioning system e-mail.
  • Do tell someone of your intentions. Notification of your time of departure, intended route, campsites and estimated time of arrival at your destination may be posted at local police stations.
  • Do camp in designated campsites or in natural clearings if none are available.
  • Do observe fire restrictions, clear around fire areas and extinguish all fires.
  • Don’t break or cut live branches from trees and shrubs for fires or campsites.
  • Don’t leave garbage in the bush. Carry garbage bags with you and remove your waste.
  • Do stay on existing tracks and endeavour not to create new tracks or shortcuts.
  • Do clear fallen trees or logs if possible rather than driving around them.
  • Don’t camp near stock troughs or in water catchments.
  • Do carry maps, information on terrain, track and weather conditions, navigation equipment and set escape routes.
  • Don’t travel off-road at night. If you must travel at night use only 50% of the speed you would use during the day and do not attempt rocky ground, mud patches or deep water crossings.
  • Do know your vehicle controls so you know where they are in an emergency.
  • Do know the length and width of your vehicle for negotiating difficult terrain.
  • Don’t infringe on the privacy of aboriginal people or any settlement and be aware that permission must be obtained to cross aboriginal reserves and communities.
  • Don’t carry firearms on pastoral leases without permission from the lessees.

Most importantly, commonsense is paramount. If you are not confident that you are adequately prepared and feel that you are too inexperienced to venture outback, than consider going with a second vehicle. Dont jeopardise your own and your familys safety by being a hero!

Enjoy the outback………………………………………….