4WD Experts Guide to Essential Desert Trip Preparation
Deserts are places of raw, simple beauty, soulful serenity, and dramatic contrast. To some, it all looks the same but to true desert lovers, it’s a landscape of endless change in light, texture and colour – a place that despite its vast emptiness always leaves you with more.
But deserts are NOT a place for the unprepared, overloaded and overconfident. They will sort the wheat from the chaff in a matter of hours, and at times with deadly consequences.
Here’s how to best prepare for your next desert adventure.
Buy a good map!
Deserts are unchartered places, lacking in landmarks and distinctive features. One dune or saltbush looks the same as the next so it’s critical to always know where you are, how far you have come and how far is left to go. You’ll need a good map, both in paper and in digital form, either on a GPS (Hema or Garmin) or offline on your mobile device. Forget about Google Maps, it’s useless without a phone signal and lacks the detail you need. Plus, assume at some point your mobile device may become unusable (flat battery, overheated, broken or even lost).
Hema and Westprint are the best print maps and should be ordered well ahead of time as they’re just as useful in planning as they are in the field. Use the map to plan your route including campsites, and distance and time between fuel and resupply points. Plot your location on a printed map as you go and have your emergency contact back home do the same.
Water and fuel are critical resources, and you should never run out of either. But both are heavy (1 litre = 1 kg) and require careful storage and rationing so look at investing in a long-range tank and work out how many jerry cans of fuel and water you’ll need and how they’ll be securely stored outside your vehicle. Get dedicated tailgate or roof mounts for jerry cans as straps can easily break or work loose. Always take at least one jerry can of fuel in case you develop fuel system issues, or the last roadhouse or community is closed.
Fuel rations (diesel or unleaded): 20-30L per 100km (3-5km/L) – it’s not just the soft sand that kills your economy but also the driving time at only 15-20km per hour.
A desert, by definition, is an area that receives less than 25mm of annual precipitation so it’s essential to stay hydrated. Unlike camels and saltbush, most humans can’t survive for more than three days without water – even less in a hot desert environment. Dehydration is a constant hazard so drink plenty of water including at the start and end of each day and keep a fresh supply in the fridge.
Water rations: 3-5L per person per day (for drinking, cooking, and washing)
Suspension and tyres
Quality suspension is critical in desert terrain as despite slower average speeds your suspension is constantly working. Shocks will get and stay hot for extended periods and springs, mounts and bushes must be engineered and fitted to endure constant strain.
Desert terrain is best suited to all-terrain tyres with larger tread blocks and limited tread gaps. All-terrain tyres will also steer better on dirt, float better on the sand and are more puncture resistant in rocky and scrubby terrain. Mud tyres dig in too quickly and leave large areas of tread unprotected from sticks and rocks.
Put your newest tyres on the rear as they will better handle the heavy load and help push you up and over soft steep dunes.
Should I take a trailer?
It’s best to leave your trailer at home (less cost, weight, hassle, recoveries, breakages etc) but if you really must then at least:
1. Don’t take a trailer on your first desert adventure.
2. Don’t take a trailer on the French Line, QAA Line, Madigan Line or Canning Stock Route, and take an easier route like the Rig Road.
3. Make sure your tow vehicle can handle it – eg is a proven model and has a six-or-eight-cylinder engine.
4. Consider your exit plan if you break your vehicle chassis or trailer suspension.
If you need to call for help you‘ll need to know who to call, how to call, and where that help will come from. Buy or rent a satellite phone for your trip and practise using it (text and voice calls) before you go and always keep it charged. Print your emergency numbers and keep a copy with your phone. GPS tracking devices (eg SPOT & Garmin InReach) are an easy way to keep friends and family informed of your location and can send and receive simple text messages for a low subscription fee.
PLBs will work but are best kept as a last resort as most issues are best resolved with two-way communications and are also far less costly than an all-out search party. Be mindful of your nearest bush airstrip or emergency meeting point which could be a homestead, remote community or mining camp. Pre-agree on an emergency action plan with your crew and safety contact and talk about scenarios ahead of time.
Install a quality UHF radio and fibreglass high-gain antenna. Carry a hand-held UHF radio as a backup for recovery situations or aerial breakages and even for any short walks away from your vehicle or campsite.
Permits, access and weather
National Park and Aboriginal Land permits must be sorted well ahead of time. Along with building knowledge about the area, the process also helps with knowing where you can and cannot go, where to camp and where help might come from. Popular deserts like the Simpson are closed during summer.
Check weather conditions before you leave including recent rainfall maps and road closures and have an alternate route planned just in case.
The bigger picture
Australia has the world’s clearest and darkest skies, and our winter touring season is perfect for majestic views of the Milky Way and our solar system. So, download a quality star map app before you leave and get familiar with it.
The same goes for offline playlists, audiobooks and podcasts on everything from desert exploration, outback history, social issues, natural history, science and personal development. The desert is a perfect place to ponder, think, and reflect on what’s important in life; to take home new treasures, discoveries of self and your place in the world around you.
The most important considerations are vibration stress from extreme corrugations and chassis stress from weight, suspension impacts, and constant flexing so pre-check every mount, fixing, latch and tie-down point on both your vehicle and your trailer. This includes batteries, fuel filters, electrical cables, aerials, bull bars, roof racks, driving lights, fridges, drawer systems etc.
Have a mechanic check all suspension and body mounts and replace all filters (oil, fuel and water) and keep the used ones as your spares (to dispose of after your trip). Also, clean and moisturise all rubber seals to help reduce inevitable dust ingress.
Less is more
Check your vehicle tare (starting) weight at a public weighbridge then weigh everything you plan to take and lay it out on the floor of your carport. Minimal gear and weight reduce stress on the vehicle, improve fuel range and increase dune crossing success. Make sure you have a backup for everything mission-critical such as coms, water, fuel and emergency food. Consider if the potential issue will be life-threatening or could immobilise your vehicle rather than just be an inconvenience.
Keep recovery gear, quick-fix tools, gaff tape, cable ties, fuel tank putty and tyre changing/repair equipment all easily accessible and keep less urgent and more bulky spares in a storage box on the roof.
The best all-round guide on Australia’s deserts is Hema’s award-winning Great Desert Tracks Atlas and Guide.
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.
Let's work together to make the most of every adventure.