Australia is a big country: the world’s sixth largest country. It stretches 4100km from east to west and 3180km from north to south, and that’s not even including Tasmania, the largest island to the south. The only way to truly see Australia is by driving, and by allowing a lot of time. To travel around Australia takes a minimum of 3 months, or preferably 6 months if you want to take a more leisurely pace. Back in 2009, I travelled around Australia for over 5 months, including 1 month we stopped in one place, and we didn’t make it to Queensland or Tasmania.
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It’s almost possible to do such a trip solely staying in hotels along the way. And there are plenty of excellent but expensive hotels and other options (such as luxury campsites) in many places around Australia. But that would exclude staying in many of Australia’s beautiful national parks, and to be honest some of the hotels in more remote or rural places aren’t that great. Not to mention that with Australian hotel prices that option would be quite expensive, especially for 3 to 6 months on end.
A more do-able option is to either drive a caravan, campervan or camp. Out of those three options, the cheapest is camping, as you can drive a smaller, more economical car, and skip on the larger cost to refuel a campervan or a car towing a caravan. (Petrol and diesel prices in regional areas of Australia are higher than in capital cities, and in remote areas they’re more expensive again.)
So, if you’re wanting to camp your way around Australia, how to do it? (Also, even if you’re taking a shorter camping trip in Australia, I’ve included lots of tips on camping in Australia.)
Camping Around Australia Guide: Time of Year
As Australia is such a big country, the climate differs greatly behind different parts of the country. Your trip will benefit from carefully considering what time of the year to undertake your trip, or the order in which you will visit different parts of the country.
When to Visit Northern Australia
When visiting the northern half of Australia and wanting to camp, you should avoid the wet season. The wet season lasts roughly from October to April. During this half to the year, rain is frequent, with flooding a real possibility, and many roads impassable for months on end. Plus its tropical cyclone season (otherwise known as hurricanes or typhoons in other parts of the world). Even if it’s not raining, it’s also the hottest time of the year, with many locations reaching 40C+ temperatures every day.
The dry season is the best time to visit northern Australia, particularly if you’re camping, during the months May to September. Temperatures are mild, with top temperatures more likely to be around 30C, possibly in the high 30Cs in some places, and you can go for months without rain. The one down side is that during the latter months of the dry season, the ground in camping sites in national parks can get very hard, with it difficult at times to hammer in pegs.
When To Visit Southern Australia
In the southern half of Australia, from June to August is the winter season, and it can be rather chilly to camp outside. Even if the temperatures aren’t too cold, in southern Western Australia its the rainiest time of year.
If you’re wanting warm beach weather, the summer months from December to February are excellent, although late December and January are also peak holiday season (particularly at camp grounds) due to school holidays. Autumn and Spring are also great times to visit, with Autumn in particular often being quite mild, with temperatures in the mid 20s common through to the end of April. Just keep in mind the Easter long weekend is also a peak holiday season.
If you’re wanting to travel for six months, one option would be to travel through southern Australia from February to April, then head north from May to July. Just keep an eye on the weather further north in case the wet lasts later than usual.
Camping Around Australia Guide: Camping Sites
There are three main categories of places to camp in Australia: caravan parks, national parks and free sites. There are different benefits to each type of camp ground, and you’ll probably end up staying in a combination of all three.
Camping at Caravan Parks
Most decent sized towns and holiday destinations (in particular on the coastline) will have at least one caravan park. An unpowered tent site typically costs around $25 for 2 adults at regular caravan parks, but can be $35+ at fancier parks. Even higher peak season rates usually apply between Christmas and New Year and over the Easter long weekend.
Caravan parks increasingly have a camp kitchen area, with stoves, fridges and sinks for the use of campers, although some places just have BBQ facilities. Many have a kiosk with basic groceries, whilst I have found many parks in the Northern Territory have a cafe or casual restaurant.
In case the weather turns bad and camping is just too much, caravan parks may have cheap caravans available to stay in from $50 per night, but often caravans or cabins are closer to $100 per night.
Camping at National Park Camp Sites
Camping sites in national parks are of variable quality. At the top end, some may be similar in style to regular caravan parks, with a similar level of facilities, and charge $10 or more per adult per night for an unpowered site.
However, the vast majority are more basic, and usually offer only toilets and perhaps hot showers, along with BBQ and picnic facilities. They usually charge around $5 per adult per night (with only unpowered sites on offer). Payment may be either at an office, into a collection box, or a ranger may come around once per day. Finally, some camp sites in national parks are free, usually with no facilities or only toilets (whether flushable or pit).
In addition to camping fees, it is worth remembering that national parks may charge entry fees, often $7 or $11 per day, per vehicle, although Uluru and Kakadu National Parks are more expensive. But usually you’d be paying those fees anyway, even if staying elsewhere, in order to sight see in the national parks.
Camping at Free Camp Sites
Finally, there are free camping sites outside of national parks, that again usually have no facilities or just toilets. In Western Australia, it is permissible to camp in many roadside rest areas, particularly in remote areas, for a maximum number of hours (sometimes 24 hours, sometimes 72 hours). Some road houses in remote areas may offer free camping, next to the road house, although the conditions may be rather bleak. Other free camping locations are in state forests and other types of reserves.
Finding out about Camp Sites
For any type of camping, particularly if you’re wanting to camp for free, it is a good idea to purchase one or two guide books. Then you will know what options are coming up, ideally along with prices. Often it is impossible to find free camping locations without directions.
These are available at most book shops and camping gear stores. Alternatively, check out the Kindle versions of the Explore Australia camping guides, that focus on free and low-cost camping:
Another option is to use free websites such as ExploreOz. Just keep in mind some remote locations will not have phone or internet access.
Also remember, you don’t need to commit to camping every night, if you have the budget. It’s nice to break it up occasionally with a night in a hotel or hostel, or by staying in some unique accommodation, such as an underground hotel in Cooper Pedy.
Camping Around Australia Guide: Choice of Vehicle
You’re going to spending a lot of time in your vehicle travelling around Australia, not to mention it needs to store all your luggage and handle the roads you’re driving on, so vehicle choice is important.
Do You Need a 4WD?
Most roads in Australia don’t require a special vehicle to travel on, with the amount of sealed roads increasing year by year, even in remote locations. It’s possible to travel all the way around Australia just on sealed roads, but it’s good to have something that you can take on unsealed roads leading to some national parks and scenic spots.
Mind you, I’ve previously met someone driving along the Oodnadatta Track in a Mini. Sport cars are definitely ruled out, but most small cars are fine on unsealed roads, as long as it’s not a hire care and your contract rules out that option.
There are some 4WD only roads that are great to tour along, such as the Gibb River Road through the Kimberley region and the road through the Dampier Peninsula north of Broome. You will require either a larger 4×4 SUV, or at least a decent medium-size SUV, if the road condition is not too bad (which can vary).
Check out more tips on travelling in Australia by car, from choosing a car to packing.
Maximising Luggage Space
The other main consideration with a vehicle is how much luggage space it has. Ideally there is a large boot, where you can stack boxes with other gear on top. This is where a good sized SUV comes in handy. However, if only two people are travelling, there is also the option to use the back seats for stacking gear, in particular clothes and other softer items.
One other option is to buy a roof top box, attached to roof racks. This is particular good for less frequently used items, although if you’re happy to open it each day, it’s also a handy size for tents and camping gear.
Don’t Forget Mileage
One other thing to keep in mind is the milage of the vehicle. This is one key reason why camping with a regular car is cheaper than with a camper van, particularly a larger sized camper van. Vehicles are increasingly being manufactured with higher mileages, with smaller petrol cars such as Golfs typically having an open road mileage of 800km from a regular size tank. This can make a difference, in particular reducing the need to fill up in more remote spots with higher fuel prices.
Camping Around Australia Guide: Camping Gear
The other place where you’ll be spending most of your time is inside your tent. When you’re just away for the weekend, you can get away with skimping on camping gear as you can catch up on sleep at the end of it. But when you’re sleeping in a tent for months on end, carefully choose your camping gear and upgrade if it’s unsatisfactory along the way.
Choice of Tent
The main consideration for when choosing a tent is how long it will take to put up and take down each time, in particularly if you’re moving location every day or two. Generally smaller doom tents are quicker, plus there is the option these days for more expensive, semi-automated tents that virtually put themselves up or down. A lightweight backpacking tent is a great option if you want to do some overnight hikes along the way.
Make sure the tent is of decent quality, as it will need to be durable to last three to six months in the elements. However, particularly in northern Australia during the dry season its waterproofing doesn’t actually matter, if it never rains.
To reduce the number of pegs that need to be hammered into the ground (when the ground is hard), I’ve sometimes skipped using the outer fly completely, and just used the inner doom, with its poles and four pegs. It’s also essential not to forget to buy a mallet to use to hammer pegs!
To sleep inside the tent, the main options are self-inflating mats, inflatable air beds and stretchers. I find that for many nights on end, an inflatable air bed is generally the most comfortable, but your choice may differ. If you do choose an inflatable air bed, get an electric pump to go with it that can be plugged into the cigarette lighter in your car, that will pump up the bed in minutes without any effort on your behalf.
The quality of sleeping bag that you need will depend on the outside temperatures. If the weather is generally warm, any sleeping bag will do. Otherwise aim for a sleeping bag that is rated down to somewhere between 0C and 5C. As you will be sleeping in it every night, a separate sleeping bag liner or sleep sheet that can be washed each week is a must.
Finally, pillows plus two sets of pillow cases will add to your comfort levels, plus a one or more torches are essential for lighting (both inside, and for late night trips to the toilet block).
Camping Around Australia Guide: What Else to Pack
As well as camping gear, you will probably need to take most of the following.
Esky or Fridge
It’s possible to buy a compact camping fridge and leave if running in your car off a combination of your car battery and gas bottles. If you’re not wanting to splurge on the cost of a fridge, or don’t have much room, a tropical esky is a good alternative. More heavy duty than a regular esky, fill it with multiple juice or soft drink bottles filled with frozen water (keep an eye for freezers in camp kitchens along the way) or buy solid ice. It will then stay cold for at least 5 days in cooler temperatures, 3 days in warm temperatures.
A 2 burner camp stove with a small gas bottle should be enough for the cooking needs for two people, for a family a larger stove or second cooking surface will probably be required. (Also keep in mind that if a camp kitchen or BBQ facilities are provided, this may not be needed every night.) Add a couple of billies, at least one frying pan and a gas lighter for cooking. Buy a plastic box (ideally with a lid for stacking) to keep all cooking equipment except for the stove and eating utensils in. Also buy a second box to keep non-fridgerated food in.
Mobile Phone and Charger
Ensure at least one of the mobile phones you take is with Telstra, as the coverage of other carriers is not as extensive. (There’s a joke that in remote areas Telstra has a monopoly: either use a Telstra mobile phone or a Telstra pay phone.) Get a car charger for the phone, plus for any other electrical equipment you have (such as tablets). (Devices can be bought to charge laptops off car batteries, but it may be easy to conserve battery power except for where you have access to power points in camp kitchens.) Just remember there isn’t mobile phone coverage everywhere in Australia.
Go light on packing clothes, as outside of capital cities in Australia it’s very casual. For footwear, it’s best to pack at least one pair of hiking boots (or something else that is comfortable for walking and doesn’t show the dust) and a pair of thongs, perhaps something else to wear out, though don’t feel you need to. Jeans also make a great choice, unless it’s too hot, as they don’t show the dirt as much. Most caravan parks offer washing machines, dryers and clothes lines, for about $4 a load.
Make sure you have plenty of water, particularly if you’re going to remote places. If you’re about to head somewhere remote, it’s a good idea to buy a one or two large containers of water that can be stowed away as emergency supplies.
Ensure you have a proper spare tyre, not just a space saver, plus a jack, wheel brace and that you know how to change a tyre. An old or cheap picnic blanket is also handy for unloading everything from the boot to reach the spare. If you’re heading to the Pilbara region of Western Australia, inland from Karratha, it might even be better to have two spares, as the sharp rocks are terrible to puncturing tyres. Before you go, also have your vehicle serviced and ask your mechanic if they recommend any spare parts.
Have you camped your way around Australia? Leave a comment about your trip below!