No great backpacking adventure would be complete without a good road trip. And when you’re travelling Australia, it’s practically a rite of passage.
It can seem daunting to the inexperienced. Australia is a big place (huge, actually); there’s a lot of distance to cover. Depending on what route you plan on taking, you might go hours without seeing any signs of civilisation. Your main companions on the road will probably be kangaroos. And you will be doing a lot of driving.
Before I embarked on my road trip of epic proportions, all the way from Melbourne to Perth, I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. Luckily my road trip pal had done it all before, but without her I would have been pretty stuck. And now, roughly 5, 193 kilometres later, I consider myself something of an expert in the field. So I thought I’d put together a handy guide, full of advice on everything from the mundane (how to check your oil) to the exciting (how to find the most awesome free campsites).
Once you’ve read this post, you’ll be fully equipped to hit the road. Let’s do this!
Back to Basics
OK, so I’m going to assume that you are a total road trip newbie. If you aren’t, feel free to skip this section. But for now, I want even the most clueless roadie (i.e. my past self) to be able to set off with confidence, so I’ll start from scratch.
Finding the Right Vehicle
Buying the vehicle itself is obviously the first step in the journey. I won’t go into huge amounts of detail on this process here – I’ll cover that in a separate post – but I will give a few pointers.
Because of the working holiday culture of Australia, it is incredibly easy for people to buy and sell cars here. This is a great thing, so take advantage of it! Make sure you check out all possible avenues for adverts of vehicles for sale. Just for a few ideas, try the following:
- Facebook groups. Just type your nearest big city + backpacker into the Facebook search bar, and something will come up. Sydney backpackers, Melbourne backpackers, and Perth backpackers are good ones to start with. Sometimes there will also be groups specifically for buying and selling cars, like this one for Sydney. You can then use the search bar to search within the group for relevant adverts (e.g. try searching ‘car’ or ‘van’).
- Gumtree. A great resource for Australia-wide adverts, and you might be able to find something a bit more local if you are staying somewhere off the beaten track.
- Hostel noticeboards. I guarantee that if your hostel has a noticeboard, it will also have at least one vehicle advert on it. Just make sure to check the date it was put up – don’t set yourself up for disappointment!
- Local classifieds. This can be a good option, as not everyone will think to look here. Check out community centre notice boards, local shops, and local newsletters (which you can usually find in the Tourist Information Centre)
You can find more tips on cheap ways to buy and sell in 50+ Budget Tips for Backpacking Australia
You also need to think about what it is that you want from your vehicle. Ask yourself some questions:
- Do you just want a way of getting from A to B?
- Are you going to be staying in hostels along the way, or would you prefer to camp?
- Where are you going to be travelling? Will the roads be sealed? Do you want to go off-road?
- Is cost the main factor? Is comfort and style important to you?
Your answers to these questions will help narrow your search. If you’re not bothered about the cool factor, then a small, efficient hatchback will probably suit you best. This will also be cheap to run, and perhaps less likely to run into problems. However, if it’s the iconic Aussie experience you want, then you’ll go for some kind of camper van, which might have additional costs to think about (fuel being the main one). If you’re camping, you might want to look for a package deal: a vehicle with camping equipment included, so you don’t have to buy it yourself. If you’re venturing into the outback, or going somewhere a bit off the beaten track, you might think about getting a 4×4.
It’s good to have these factors mapped out before you buy, so you don’t rush into a purchase without thinking it through.
And be realistic. It’s not much good buying a car with a tent if you actually hate camping.
Now, while it may be easy enough to find vehicles for sale that fit your criteria, this isn’t to say that they will all be particularly roadworthy. Most people have good intentions, but you will always get a few exceptions to this rule. With that in mind, there are a few things you can do to be sure that the vehicle you are thinking of purchasing is legit:
- Check whether the vehicle has a history. It could have been written off, stolen, or might have debt (e.g. parking fines) attached to it. This is very easy and cheap to do, by searching the online Personal Properties Security Register (PPSR). Simply do the following:
- Look for the Vehicle Identification Number. This can most easily be found by looking at the driver’s side dashboard. Look from the outside of the car, where the dashboard meets the windshield, and you should spot it. If not, open the driver’s side door and look at the frame of the car, on the right hand side, where the door closes. The VIN uniquely identifies each car.
- To check the history of the car, do a quick motor vehicle search using the PPSR website. This is an Australian government service which you can use for a fee of just $3.40. It is SO worth it, especially if you are in any way suspicious about the condition of the car. And $3.40 is not a bad price to pay to avoid possible fines, or the potential danger involved in unknowingly buying a stolen or previously written off vehicle.
- If the history seems to be OK, then you will want to check over a few things in the car itself. The most obvious and basic of these are:
- Check the oil. Remove the oil dipstick and check that the oil level is between the lines, and that the fluid is clear, not congealed or too dark. Remove the oil filler cap and check for foaminess underneath – this could be a sign of a head gasket leak (not good).
- Check under the bonnet for rust and signs of leaks. If you spot anything, be it oil, brake fluid, whatever – no leak is a good leak. Also look out for any dents or other damage – this could be a sign that the car has been in a collision. Hopefully the owner will have already told you about this!
- Look over the tyres. The tread should be worn evenly and the tyres should match. If this isn’t the case then this could be a sign of a steering or suspension issue.
- Take the vehicle for a test drive before you buy it. I cannot stress enough how important this is. Of course a seller is going to say that there are no problems with the vehicle, but the only way you can verify that claim is by seeing for yourself. If you don’t really know what you are looking for here, some key things to check for are:
- Braking. Watch out for vibrations, or any strange noises.
- Gears. Change up and down through all the gears to test for any abnormalities. Test out the car on a main road if possible: you want to know what it’s like at speed.
- Exhaust noise. If the car sounds overly loud, there might be a hole in the exhaust. This might not be a catastrophic issue, but it just depends whether you can live with the racket over hundreds of kilometres…
While I was researching for this blog, I found this great series on YouTube by a guy called Chris Fix about how to check a used car before you buy it. I’d recommend you check it out if you want a more detailed guide! I’m no mechanic, but he certainly is…
Ultimately, even if you do find some damage or mechanical issues with the vehicle you’re inspecting, you can still buy it. You are unlikely to find a totally perfect car, especially in the backpacker circle. It’s a question of weighing up the potential costs with the benefits.
If the car is cheap and your road trip is short, it can still be worth buying it even if it has a couple of issues. Dodgy heating, broken air conditioning, electric windows jamming a bit – all of these things might not be too big a deal. A lot of backpacker cars are a little bit battered-looking, and the vast majority of them will still be fine (mine is!). Just don’t buy something if your gut is telling you not to. It’s your call!
Before You Set Off
Once you’ve got your dream car (or at least, an acceptably roadworthy vehicle of some sort), you should make sure to check it over before setting off. If you’ve had the vehicle a while, you should do the same thing – perhaps even more importantly, given that you probably haven’t given it much thought recently.
This will be a similar process to the point above on how to check over a car before you buy it. Check the oil, transmission fluid, tyre tread (see above for details). If you want peace of mind, take it to a mechanic and get it serviced before you head off on your trip.
It is essential that you do these checks prior to hitting the road. Nobody wants to run out of oil miles from the nearest garage, nor do you want to blow out a tyre, nor do you want to have a radiator malfunction or a million other problems. Get it done. A small investment of time (and possibly money) before you get going can save you a whole bunch of time (and definitely money) in the long run.
Get the Gear
All the best road trips involve some sort of camping, so this section will assume that you will be at least dabbling. If you’re staying in hostels the whole time (boring), then you won’t need most of this info. BUT, it’s still best to be prepared for every eventuality, so read on just in case.
Hopefully you have bought a vehicle with all the gear included. If so, congrats, you are ahead of the game, but you still might be missing a few essentials. If not, take a deep breath and prepare to invest a fair amount in KMart, Big W, and all the Op Shops (charity shops) you can ferret out in your local area.
Below is the full kit list for what I took with me on my (long-ass) road trip. Bear in mind that this was pretty much mid-winter, in the cold half of Australia (the south). You probably aren’t going to need seventy four fleeces and eight blankets if you’re travelling in the tropical north in the height of summer.
(Also, you probably shouldn’t do that anyway you lunatic.)
Here’s the kit list:
|Kitchen||Bedroom||Living Room||Practical extras|
|Chopping board||Thick socks, extra layers||Lamp or torch||Toilet roll (!!!)||Rope or bungee cord (to be used as washing line, or to tie things to the car)|
|Tea towel||Tent (if applicable)||Speaker||Firelighters or matches or lighter|
|Utensils (wooden or plastic spoon, spatula)||Pillow(s)||iPod or phone loaded up with music and podcasts||Sun cream||Bin bags (carrier bags)|
|Cutlery (knives, forks, spoons)||Duvet, sleeping bags, blankets (delete as appropriate)||iPad or laptop loaded up with films and telly||Mosquito repellent||Umbrella(s) or tarpaulin for shelter!|
|Crockery (plates, bowls, mugs)||Air mat or roll mat(s)||Book(s)||Flip flops||Baby wipes - for the in-between-shower days|
|Washing up bowl + washing up liquid||Ear plugs + eye mask, if you're a light sleeper||Camp chairs||First aid kit (bandages, plasters, pain killers, bite cream etc)||Tissues|
|Sponges or cloths||Camp table (if space and budget for it!)||Jerry can with extra fuel|
|Gas stove + spare gas bottles||Car charger (multi-USB if possible)|
|Esky/coolbox||AUX cable (if car has AUX port - if not, that's what the speaker is for!|
- I hope this goes without saying, but scale up the amount and size of equipment depending on the size of your group. Four people won’t get much out of only having two plates, for example.
- You don’t need to buy an expensive esky. We used a big polystyrene box, and that worked just fine. You just need anything that is waterproof and can be filled with ice if need be. Emptying out the ice after its melted might be a pain, but it’s a very cheap painto have.
- Camp fires are a wicked source of entertainment, but for God’s sake be sensible. Pay attention to fire bans.
- Clearly your kit list will be season-dependent. If you’re travelling in winter, take more layers than you think you need (trust me). If it’s summer, well, you’re just going to be hot and sweaty constantly if you’re camping.
A Road Trip is Like a Box of Chocolates
You never know what you’re gonna get.
(If you did not get that reference then what have you been doing with your life, please go and watch Forrest Gump).
The main point is that you need to prepare for the possibility that on any given night you may have no facilities whatsoever. There might be no tap, no toilets, no nothing. While some of the items listed above may seem a bit erroneous, there will be times when you’ll be happy you brought them. And every time you don’t need them, you’ll just be happy that the campsite is so well equipped. It’s a win-win.
Some Useful Apps
I’m all for doing things old-school, but then again… sometimes you just need to use the power of modern technology, for the greater good. The greater good in this case is usually your bank balance.
Some of the best tools we used on our road trip were the following:
You will hardly meet a person on the road who hasn’t used WikiCamps. It is by far the best way to find campsites along the way. Not only this, but it’s also got points of interest and public toilets plotted into it, so you’ve got everything in one place. A lot of campsites we stayed at also mentioned that they get most of their visitors from WikiCamps.
The app may seem a bit pricey, but the information it offers is honestly invaluable. You get your money back within one night of staying at a free campsite – think of it that way.
I’d recommend using it a day or so in advance to plot out your next stop. Do a bit of research (when you have internet) and read the reviews of each spot. Don’t take every review as gospel (some people just like whinging), but take an average of say the first five and have that as your guide. You can also filter by facilities: for us we usually bypassed any that didn’t have toilets, for example.
This app was developed by the same people as WikiCamps, and again it is suuuuper useful. Fuel Map saves those all-important dollars by letting you know where the nearest fuel station is, and which are the cheapest. This can be particularly important if you’re about to cross the Nullarbor, for example (no fuel for about 300km).
Google Maps is the obvious go-to for most people, but it can be good to have a back up in case of bad signal (i.e. no internet). Bad signal is unfortunately a problem in, like, 75% of Australia (*just a guesstimation, not a scientific fact). With Here maps, you can load up a map before you set off, and navigate your way through offline. It uses GPS, so you don’t have to eat into your data.
Okay so this one is a little dorky. But you’ve got to get yourself some solid entertainment for your down time (for more on this, see below). Heads Up is a bloody great game (created by Ellen DeGeneres, I’ll have you know). You hold the phone to your forehead and the other players have to describe or act out whatever they see on the screen. You then have to guess what they are trying to describe or act out, to highly comedic effect.
Trust me, it sounds crappy but it’s actually really fun. And inevitably it becomes even more hilarious when there is drinking involved.
On-(and off)-board Entertainment
All right, so you’ve got the car sorted, you’ve got all your equipment ready, WikiCamps is loaded up. But wait! There’s more!
The thing about road trips is that you are going to find yourself with a lot of spare time. Long afternoons and evenings on campsites, potentially in the middle of nowhere, possibly with nothing more than your road trip pals and maybe a few kangaroos for company.
With this in mind, I would strongly recommend you think about how you are going to keep yourselves entertained for the imminent future.
Honestly, no road trip will work without a good playlist. I always use Spotify for music (because I can still sneakily get student discount), but any similar app will do. Just make sure your playlists are long and varied. You will soon get sick of the same tracks on repeat, even if you know you love them really. There’s only so many times you can listen to that Rusted Root song out of Matilda/Ice Age.
Podcasts and/or audiobooks
You will probably even get bored of listening to music after a while, so have a couple of options available to change it up. Podcasts are a good alternative to begin with. This is a fast-growing medium, and there are loads to choose from – whether you like comedy, documentary, education, and more. In case you need inspiration, a few of my faves include:
- No Such Thing As A Fish – comedy fun facts from the QI elves
- Desert Island Discs (guilty British pleasure) – yes I am a middle aged woman
- The Tim Ferriss Show – interviews with high-class performers of every sort (listen to the one with Jamie Foxx)
- Serial and S-Town – everyone’s go-to for drama and excellent production. Deconstructing murder cases. Really well produced.
- My Dad Wrote a Porno – the clue is in the title. Hilarious.
- The Infinite Monkey Cage – dorky science chat and comedy from Brian Cox and a panel of guests.
In the event that even the podcasts get a bit repetitive, you can also try out audio books. The main app to use for this is Audible, from Amazon, and you can actually get a 30-day free trial by going here.
Pro tip: get the 30-day free trial, and then cancel it before you have to start paying. If you pick a really long book as your free one, that’s a good number of hours’ entertainment at no extra cost.
Out of the car
While cooking, setting up camp, and all the other mundane nightly tasks will fill up a fair bit of your evening, you don’t want to be sat around twiddling your thumbs for the remaining hours. To that end, make sure you’ve got plenty of provision for entertainment along with you. This can be anything from a pack of cards (a backpacker’s best friend anyway), to a daft (excellent) guessing-game app like Heads Up. A few more suggestions:
- Travel versions of board games – scrabble, chess, draughts/checkers. You should be able to pick some good stuff up in charity shops along the way, if not before you set off.
- Uno or other alternative card games (Cards Against Humanity…?)
- Books (!) – especially good if you have a Kindle so you can read when it gets dark. I’ve got a Kindle Paperwhite and it is awesome.
- Snacks. That counts as entertainment, right…?
- If you’ve got an iPad or laptop, try to download some films and TV shows (bonus if someone has Netflix).
This is also why having a decent torch (or even better, a lamp) can be priceless. It’s pretty hard to play snap (or actually, do anything) in the pitch black. And phone torches drain your battery hella quickly.
Hit the Road, Jack
When the car is stocked and the entertainment sorted, you’ve got to think about the rest of the practical stuff. Namely, planning the route.
Most road trips in Australia will cover one of a few options:
- East coast (Cairns-Sydney or vice-versa)
- West coast (Perth-Broome or vice-versa
- Red centre (Adelaide-Uluru-Darwin, vice versa, or some part thereof)
- Along the south (Melbourne/Adelaide-Perth, or vice versa).
Obviously there are a lot more variations, and shorter routes, but these are the most common ones.
Now, some people might want to plan out the route exactly, but I would actually advise against this. It’s definitely good to have a start and end point, and maybe a rough time frame. But, over-planning kills the magic. The best thing about driving in Australia is that you can stumble across places and campsites that you had never heard of before.
One of my favourite spots along the south coast was a campsite near Esperance, in Cape le Grand national park. The beach was just metres from the tent, the sand was pearly white, and we had the whole place to ourselves.
We found out about it the day before, while browsing WikiCamps for places to stay. Not bad, right?
This is the best thing about road tripping. Rocking up to a place and finding a little slice of pure, unadulterated joy.
Here are some recommendations for how to plan minimally, and maintain the magic:
- Have a rough idea of where you’re aiming for each day. Four to six hours driving time is ideal (350–500km as a guideline, depending on the roads).
- Work out your fuel consumption early on, so you can vaguely plan out your fuel stops. Use Fuel Map to find the cheapest petrol station within a given radius.
- Look up campsites an hour or two before you are due to arrive. Pick the best of the bunch. The reviews can be a bit hit and miss, so just try to take an average. Recent reviews are usually more accurate (obviously). Try to mix it up between free and paid sites – you will want a proper shower and some WiFi now and then.
- Make sure you arrive to your campsite before dark, if not before dusk. Not only does this guarantee that the place will be open, it’s also a lot easier pitching a tent and cooking food when it’s still light. Of course, this is a lot easier to do in the summertime.
- Pick a few key sites that you want to visit along your route, and make sure you allow time to see them properly! Arrive early in the day, spend the day there, and then spend the night somewhere nearby. National parks take up a fair bit of time to properly cover, so allow yourself a couple of nights to hit all the main spots. Don’t forget to allow for driving time from place to place.
- If you have no particular plans for any given stop, go ask at the Tourist Information! The people who work at these centres are consistently some of the most helpful and lovely people you will meet. And sometimes, the office will have showers that you can use for free… just sayin’.
- Every week or so, I’d recommend staying in one place for more than one night, just to recharge yourself. Sure, excitement comes from new places and new experiences, but after a while packing up and moving on day after day becomes exhausting.
Like a place? Stay an extra night, why not? Hate it? Hunker down in your tent with a movie, and move on early the next day. Simple.
In summary, my key piece of advice is to take the trip one day at a time. Two days at a time, at most. Set off each day with a campsite in mind, (or find one en route) but don’t think much beyond that. It’s good to have a general idea of how far you’re going in a day, and how long it’s going to take, but basically – don’t worry too much.
A Few Words of Caution
Now, it would be very remiss of me to talk about all the fun stuff without giving a few key words of advice.
Here’s a summary:
- Give someone close to you a rough idea of where you are going, and a general time frame. That way, someone will know where to look if you get into trouble.
- Take necessary precautions. Even take unnecessary precautions. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Carry plenty of water with you (more than you think you need). Take an extra jerry can of fuel in case you’ve underestimated distances, or fuel efficiency. Make sure you’ve got emergency food.
- Pay attention to weather forecasts. Everything in Australia is like Europe on steroids: a ‘bit of rain’ isn’t much of a concern but a cyclone sure will be.
- Be careful when overtaking trucks on the road. There are normal lorries, and then there are Australian road trains, which are like eight times bigger (and that’s only a slight exaggeration). Make sure you have plenty of space and a fully clear road before you attempt it.
- Use your headlights often, even when you don’t think you need to. A lot of Australia’s road are built on dusty ground, and visibility is important.
- If you’re driving across the outback, or similarly difficult territory, think about renting some kind of satellite phone, or a two way radio. This might sound overly cautious, but getting stranded in the outback is no joke.
- For God’s sake, don’t drive at dawn or dusk if you can help it. This is when the kangaroos get frisky, and cars do not enjoy getting up close and personal with kangaroos. Nor do drivers, for that matter.
Once you break it down into steps, it doesn’t seem so daunting, does it? If a total buffoon like me can do it, then so can you.
Just please, please make sure that you’re prepared in advance. Take things a mile (or kilometre) at a time, day by day, and for God’s sake don’t crash into any kangaroos.
Happy road tripping!
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