Desert Touring: The Right Gear

David Cook — 25 September 2017

Touring through the outback is one of the more pleasurable aspects of life with a camper trailer, a view underlined by the immense number of people who crowd popular destinations during high season each year. And while our modern vehicles and ever more competent campers give us the wherewithal to undertake such journeys to localities that, for our parents, were just simply out of reach, it doesn’t mean that we should be unprepared.

The Australian outback can be a daunting prospect and, despite the reliability and comforts of modern vehicles and the strength of our campers, should never be taken for granted. 

Head down the wrong track and get yourself bogged or trapped for a few days after a heavy fall of rain, or suffer a mechanical failure, and you might be waiting a while before assistance arrives—if you have communications, or, hopefully, you're found by fellow travellers.

You need to be aware of driving techniques to get you out of trouble, have a modicum of recovery gear, the right clothing —especially for the cold nights you’ll encounter in the middle of winter—a well-equipped first-aid kit, tools and spares to repair any mechanical trouble and simple aids, such as sunscreen and insect repellent. But, as always, there are priorities.

Let’s see what’s on the must-take list.


Getting tyre pressure right is one of the vital arts of outback travel, and it can go a long way to ensuring you minimise the chances of flat tyres and getting bogged, especially in soft sand or mud. However, even the best prepared traveller will occasionally stumble into a difficult section, or be caught by overnight rain. Getting out of trouble then becomes a matter of adjusting tyre pressures down, digging out the sand or mud in front of your tyres—from under the vehicle if you’re seriously down deep—and using aids to drive out of trouble. 

If you're concerned, buy some recovery tracks—there are a large number of brands on the market. One pair is good, two pairs is better; providing assistance for all four wheels of your vehicle. Try to avoid the cheaper units as they're often made from poorer quality plastic that will fail you when you need them most. At worst, some leafy branches can help, and there are some flexible roll-up versions that are very good, or even just a roll of old rubber flooring. If you’re thinking you might be involved in sand or mud, take something.


It doesn’t matter too much what sort of hat you take, but you must take one, at least. A hat you can screw up and poke into a pocket or back pack is best. Forget the fancy Akubra with the crocodile skin band and wide brim. A hat with a fly net can be very handy; almost indispensable on some days. Baseball caps aren’t much use in full sun, especially if worn backwards. Don’t even think of walking into an outback pub if the latter is your preferred headgear.


A long-handled shovel is important, and not just for dropping coals from the fire onto a camp oven. Cute little fold-up units are better than nothing, but not much chop when you’re down to the sump or gearbox cross-member in soft powder. You’ll be spending most of your time on your stomach—or knees, at best—scraping away instead of having the reach to get that steel scoop right in there, under the tyres and under the vehicle. They’re also handy for: digging a toilet hole, a fire pit, a hole for a wheel to lower one side of your camper, or the stabilisers on one side on an even site, or any number of other tasks. Yes, they are awkward to transport about, but you can carry one in a pair of clamps on the roof rack or in some other set-up under or on top of your camper. If space is a problem there at are least three screw-together long-handled shovels (Mean Mother, 4X4 Equip and Ironman) on the market which break down into much shorter packages. Just don’t leave home without one.


It’s vital to leave good, detailed instructions of where you are going and when you expect to be there, but all plans for travelling the outback should have a level of flexibility so you'll need to be notifying those at home about changes of plan. As well, you’ll want to be able to transmit any problems— such as breakdowns, accidents or medical emergencies, quite aside from using your communications to search out the cheapest fuel, best bakery, mechanic or other resource in that little town you’ve just come into. Don’t depend on mobile phones, especially if you have a service plan with anyone other than Telstra (it doesn’t matter what you think of it, Telstra’s coverage of Australia far exceeds any of its rivals). At the least you will want a UHF radio, and that doesn’t mean hand-held radios. Most of these are one watt in output, but even at five watts they are very much line-of-sight, which means their performance will be diminished by heavy trees, hills and other intrusions. Get a properly installed car unit with an effective aerial. UHF radios can be excellent, and by using repeater towers you can spread a message for assistance over a truly huge area. Learn how to use them and where they are; it might save a life one day. But the best assistance comes from a satellite phone. Costs are much lower than they once were, and as long as you can see a clear expanse of the sky they can put you in touch with just about anywhere in the world. You can now even buy a cradle sat phone —the Optus Thuraya SatSleeve — which will take your smart phone, with all its contacts and other features and data, so you can be in touch with your home or emergency services on a phone with which you are familiar. If you are wary of the expense you can rent satellite phones.


Large-scale map books and most navigators can get you to the jumping-off point to remoteness, but from there you will need specialist mapping. Paper maps can be of great assistance, especially in getting a grasp on rough directions to where you are and where you want to be, but if you have access to a tablet or laptop, good navigation software is ideal, as it can bring you great detail and assist you in finding your way pretty much anywhere. VMS is a maker of premium in-car navigation systems, and does an excellent 3D topographical system for just $99.99 except for WA maps (the WA government charges a premium price for all maps of its state so these cannot be included in the initial purchase price). It can be viewed as a plain map, or in 3D, with topographical map accuracy and detail, showing all buildings, tracks, points of interest and other features. 


Insects can be annoying, which is bad enough at times, but they can also be dangerous. Mosquitoes are vectors for some seriously debilitating diseases — Barmah Forest and Ross River viruses, Dengue fever and Murray Valley encephalitis, to name a few—so do what you can to keep them away. Flies are carriers of disease but avoiding their presence is essentially an impossibility in most areas. In the tropics, especially, authorities recommend applying some repellent before venturing out in the morning, at midday, and at dinner time to ensure coverage all day, and to wear clothes with long sleeves and leggings at all times—as the alternative can be serious illness or, at worst, death. If you take exception to chemically-based commercial brand name repellents there are a number of products on the market based on all-natural ingredients, though these usually require more frequent application. And let’s not forget some of the defences around the camper and campfire at night: mosquito coils, citronella candles, various patent devices to repel mosquito and other insects, and antihistamine sprays and creams to take care of bites by those that do get through.


No traveller in the outback is going to avoid the need for a tyre repair kit at some time. The most commonly used item is a puncture repair kit, which should include a rasp and plug tool (do not use plastic handled tools as considerable force is required at times and these can break and cause serious hand injuries), puncture plugs, lubricant/cement, sharp blade for trimming plug ends and a tyre pressure gauge. A compressor is also an outback must, especially where raising and lowering tyre pressures is necessary. An extended kit for more serious problems should include two strong tyre levers, spare valves and a valve removal tool, suitable inner tube in the event of tyre case damage, tyre patches, hand rasp, bead breaker, rubber mallet and a ground sheet. It’s a lot, we know, but tyres are one of the weakest links in the chain of things that can go wrong and you’re going to need most, if not all, of these at some stage.


Regardless of the time of year you are going to find out that the outback air is very dry, so for the sake of your lips, even at night, you are advised to take along some lip balm. Paw paw ointment is excellent, or something with a good SPF rating. And for you ladies, or indeed men who appreciate moistened skin, some moisturiser is advised to keep those hands and face feeling a little softer than the canvas on the awning. This applies as much in winter as it does in summer.


The prospect of something going wrong, medically, on a journey is distant but still very real, so invest in a good first-aid kit. Have it clearly marked and make sure it’s easily grabbed in the back of the car (not the camper, so it’ll always be with you if you drive off to see some local sites); not buried at the bottom of a pile of other stuff that will have to be moved first. You're unlikely to find a retail kit that is fully adequate, so start with a good off-road kit and extend it with more compression bandages, gauze patches and rolls, treated gauze, bite relief product, sterilised water, and other items. Snake bite, for example, may require up to eight bandages for a leg bite and most kits don't have that many as standard. You can never carry everything, but if you understand what you are dealing with, you can often improvise and set priorities which will allow you to deal with whatever it is that's happening. And keep it updated. A kit that’s been bouncing around in a vehicle for ten years is likely to fail you when needed most. Make it a New Year’s resolution to check it each year. And put yourself through a first-aid course. In addition, get yourself a good basic reference work which you can pack in with your first-aid kit, such as St John Ambulance’s Australian First Aid.


Attempting to tackle the outback without spares for your vehicle is a bit of a gamble. The potential need for spares will depend on when and where you travel, how you drive, the type and age of your vehicle and good old-fashioned luck. Start on the right foot by having your vehicle fully serviced before you set out, and make sure your tyres are in good condition. Regardless of your mechanical aptitude, there are certain vehicle spares which you should be carrying: radiator hoses, fan belts, filters (fuel, oil and air) and spark plugs, if your car requires them. All of these can be fitted with a very minimal tool kit. If you’re uncertain—and many modern vehicles are so complex as to make them seem like you’re being asked to tinker with a mainframe computer—then you can, and should, purchase a vehicle owner’s manual for your make and model of vehicle. Even if it’s beyond you, someone is likely to come along who is better equipped to do the job if they have access to information about your vehicle in a manual. Such manuals cost around $50 at most auto parts stores. Also carry oil (diff, engine, transmission), brake fluid and radiator coolant and do a daily check of these fluids and top-up as necessary.

At the end of the day, the best insurance for travelling the outback is to do it with another vehicle, so you have assistance if needed. And if things do go wrong, take an old bushy’s hint given to me many years ago: don’t worry about what’s gone wrong, unless it’s immediate, like a snake-bite or other medical emergency. Instead, make a cup of tea, sit down, drink and think. By then, you will have sorted out the best route to get out of trouble and calmed down enough to put your plan into action.


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