Free Shipping on orders over $20


Hema’s guide to outback travel and survival


Words Scott Heiman Pics Scott Heiman and Supplied

While travelling in the Australian outback can be dangerous, there are ways you can reduce the risks to safely travel through areas that many people will only ever dream of.


There’s actually a lot more to outback travel than carrying adequate fuel, water, food and survival equipment. Most trips will go according to plan, but every now and then, something goes wrong — Murphy’s Law, right? The problem is, if things go wrong in remote areas such as the outback, you could quickly find yourself in a life-or-death situation. The difference between a bad day on the road and kicking up daisies for eternity can boil down to whether you’ve conducted proper trip planning and have enough knowledge to apply basic principles of survival. Let’s have a closer look at what it takes to stay safe.




Prior preparation prevents poor performance

Here at Hema Maps, being prepared is our mantra. However, with an unreliable water supply and extremes of weather, the outback can catch even the most well-prepared traveller off guard. 

Recognising that among the statistics of those who have become lost, broken down or died in the outback — truckers, locals, jackaroos and overlanders were included — travellers often need to adopt a ‘What if?’ attitude to planning and preparing an outback adventure. This starts while you’re still setting up your 4WD in the driveway, well before you hit the tracks. Ask yourself all kinds of left-field questions to help you prepare for adversity. ‘What if I blow a tyre?’ Or worse, three? Don’t laugh. We know a bloke who sustained four non-repairable tyres in one three-week trip. 

Your outback Australia trip planning should start with map route reconnaissance. Here you’ll develop an appreciation for how far apart towns are and more importantly, how far it is between fuel stations. If you’re towing, your fuel economy will suffer. You’ll engage 4WDrive, so your fuel economy will get worse again. Your tyre pressures will be lowered because you’re driving through sand. Yet again, you’ll burn more fuel. You’ll probably be carrying a substantial load, so your fuel usage will just keep going up.

The amount of fuel you will need will depend on where you’re going. Regardless, develop the habit of topping up when you can and having, at minimum, enough fuel to get to your destination and back. This is because you may be forced to do a U-turn and return to your point of origin. Alternatively, you might wish to take an impromptu diversion to a property or a side route to an unexpected natural attraction. 


Getting fuel in the outback


Knowing this, you'll understand why a long-range fuel tank is a good idea. It gives you options, as does a couple of extra jerry cans. Have you got space for them? Do you need to make space for them? Work these things out before you leave home. Don’t make them up as you go as you’re likely to make mistakes. 



Talking of storing jerries, when you are packing for an outback trip, you’ll probably need to be a ‘Master of Tetris’ to fit in the gear you and your family want on an extended trip. But don’t overpack. Sure, it’s a holiday so you want to be comfortable … but remember that everything you take out bush should have two or more uses. If it doesn’t, you’re taking the wrong bits of kit and will use fuel unnecessarily, clutter your vehicle and give yourself a backache every time you pack up and move camp. 


Plan what you need to bring on your trip


Where and how you store your kit is also important. Put too much gear on the roof racks and you could adversely affect your vehicle’s centre of gravity — increasing the height and weight of your vehicle by placing too much on the roof can cause it to topple over when turning or in cases of extreme body lean.

You also need to consider what are the first things you’ll need to access in an emergency situation. Fire extinguishers, fire blankets and first aid kits — where are they? They need to be easily accessible and everybody on board needs to know where they are. After all, you may be the one who is unconscious and in need of assistance. The same thing goes for your Personal Locating Beacon (PLB). First, you need to ensure you pack one, and then you need to ensure it’s at arm’s length of the driver or front-seat passenger. That way, if there’s an accident involving a rollover, you can activate the PLB even if you’re trapped inside the cabin of the vehicle.

You should also have a ‘grab bag’ for worst-case scenarios. They need to hold 72 hours’ worth of emergency food and water, as well as the basics for survival. This is also where you should keep your satellite communicator. Store it within easy reach in case there’s an engine fire or other situation where you need to get away from your vehicle fast.


Place your PLB in an easy to reach location

Place your PLB in an easy to reach location


How to survive

Ultimately, survival is about having the right knowledge, equipment, state of mind and discipline to get home safely. And it starts by following the principles of survival known as Protection, Rescue, Water and Food. You need to follow these principles in sequence, without deviation. If fulfilling one step aids in completing another, that’s fine, but focus on one at a time. They can be summarised as follows:

Protection — this refers to protection from infection, accident and the environment. For example, remove yourself from a burning vehicle and tend to the wounds of others. Erect a shelter and get out of the sun, wind and rain. If your 4WD is safe to be near, a good way to protect yourself from the elements in the outback is to dig a shallow pit underneath as it will be cooler during the day than sitting under the awning. Remember too that shade created by natural materials is cooler than that made by synthetic materials. 

Rescue — this starts before you leave home. Tell people where you’re going and when you expect to be there. On the road, call your designated contacts and let them know what you’re doing as well as when you arrive at each location. If you do break down along the way, stay with the car. Aerial searchers will be able to find your vehicle much easier than if you’re walking around. Activate your PLB sooner rather than later and set up passive signalling devices, like a giant SOS in the sand. When writing in the sand, try to make the letters at least 6 metres long and 1 metre wide, or utilise logs and dark vegetation to create contrast. Snap off the mirrors and light fittings from your car and string them up on a tree, or from a pole, so that they swing in the breeze and reflect sunlight. Emergency services and rescue teams will see reflected light from up to 100 kilometres away. This would also be a good time to make a signal fire — consider using one of your spares (or busted) tyres to generate lots of smoke.

Water — stay hydrated by always carrying enough water. This is why the Western Australian police recommend travelling with 4–5 litres of water (drinking) per person per day. It’s best to carry water in various containers and have a spare jerry containing just emergency water. Have drink bottles handy in the car for every occupant so that your travel party remains hydrated while you’re on the road. If you find yourself stuck, you’ll need to start collecting water from other sources too. You can use your survival blanket as both a passive rescue aid and also as a way of capturing dew in the morning. If you don’t know how, ensure you obtain a copy of a reputable Australian survival handbook and travel with it always. Stow it in the car and read it to the family as you go on the trips so you can all learn. 

Food — you should always have plenty of food on board. While it’s important to carry non-perishable canned food, you can save weight by supplementing these supplies with a few dehydrated packages like peas, textured soy, powdered milk, dried fruit, instant potato and more. You should also have at least 72 hours of emergency rations tucked away in your ‘grab bag.’ Think of dehydrated or freeze-dried instant meals, cups of soup, a bag of rice and another of flour. Bags of seeds and nuts and some tinned fish can go a long way too. Another handy item is a small food box in the vehicle’s cabin. In an emergency, it would operate as a supplementary grab bag. It’s full of muesli bars, protein bars, lollies and the like which would come in very handy if the chips were down. Failing this, you’ll be on the lookout for bushtucker. So, you’re going to need that survival book again.


Don’t forget to service your vehicle!


Simpson Desert tour with Ben Carceller

On a Simpson Desert tour


Having your vehicle serviced a fortnight before any big trip is a no-brainer. However, when you’re planning to travel to the outback, there are a few additional things you should get your mechanic to do. Remember, you’ll often be a long way away from mechanical assistance and if your preparations are deficient, you may find yourself in the midst of an expensive breakdown recovery and a long wait as parts may need to be flown in from a distant location. The best way to avoid this is by doing a few pre-trip checks. These include:

  • Get a wheel alignment and complete check of tyre condition and tread.
  • Check the cooling system. Pressure test, flush and check the radiator and fill with anti-freeze/anti-boil coolant.
  • Check and tighten all hoses and clamps and replace worn parts where necessary.
  • Conduct an engine oil and filter change, in fact, change your air filter, cabin filter and fuel filter at the same time.
  • Check the air-conditioner and re-gas if necessary. Inspect for leaks.
  • Check and test the electrical system (rats love gnawing on wires).
  • Adjust and replace brakes, pedals and handbrake if necessary.
  • Buy additional spares.


Related articles:

New Simpson Desert Recovery Service

Australia’s 5 most iconic outback pubs

Outdoor Adventure must-have: First Aid Kit


Next steps

At Hema Maps, we strive to provide the most comprehensive and accurate maps and guides for outdoor enthusiasts looking to explore Australia's natural wonders.

Did you find this information useful? If so, please share it with your fellow explorers. Whether it's by sms, social media, or email, your friends and fellow adventurers will appreciate the valuable tips and insights we've shared.


Leave a comment

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing