Safe Outback Driving Travel Tips
After spending almost 12 of our 17 months on the road travelling to remote and outback destinations we have really started to pick up a lot of tips to make driving the outback dirt roads much safer and some hints on how to reduce the risk of potentially avoidable car and van mishaps as learnt by us.
Our one golden rule for any outback, overland or remote travel is you must must must travel with a fully functional satellite phone and epirb! We cannot stress enough the importance of having this (these) emergency device on hand especially when in areas of no reception and little security of frequent fellow travellers. In the event of an accident or serious injury/ illness this will be the most important (if not the only) thing that saves a life.
We use a Garmen Inreach Explorer which is a multifunctional device that sends and receives text and email as well as has an unbuild GPS tracker and epirb. For more details on this kind of device click here.
Having covered emergency communication as our key point of safe outback/ overland and remote travel, let’s move onto what you can do to prepare for travel on the outback roads.
Starting of with running the most appropriate tyre pressures. Now this is a real big safety topic that many inexperienced outback travellers may never have considered before. Everyone has different opinions on what to drive on when leaving the black top- what we will do is share our pressures and why we choose them and you can use them as a guide if you wish. We personally run off road tyre pressures at an average of 25psi on both car and our van for majority of the road conditions; ie sand and dunes, bull dust, corrugations, rocks, even various types of water crossings. Pressures will be slightly higher or lower depending on the severity of the conditions.
Why do we drop the van pressures so low? The van cops just as much of a beating as the car will, but some people don’t realise it is as they are feeling the vibrations or roughness personally in the car, but if you imagine if you were seated in the van- its going through the same conditions and with it more often than not weighting more than the tow car it’s coming up and down off the bumps harder.... This is where you take into consideration your vans suspension too! If you have a semi off road van it will come down off the bumps even harder again.
We choose to run an in-car tyre monitor system, which in a number of situations has proven to be invaluable. This device from ‘Safety Dave’ comes with a central monitoring unit and (for us) 6 tyre pressure readers. It measures both tyre pressure and temperature and alarms when either reads at the preset limit to alert you of a potential issue.
Why we feel this is extremely useful is that you can always have eyes on all 6 tyres from the glance of the dash screen, it gives you a good understanding and how your tyre pressures change quite a bit throughout your drive. Quite often your Tyres start cold (unless in high temperature environments), and within a few kms your tyres have started heating up- this will cause your tyre pressures to rise.... Keep this in mind if you drop your pressures with cold tyres, it’s often much easier to gauge the tyre pressures if you’ve dropped them or aired up once the car has done a few kms to heat up.
Stone and rock protection
Rocks and stones are an inevitable part of off road travel. You will come across some roads where there are few and other roads that are completely covered in them. They serve as a real danger to not only your van, but your car and that of oncoming cars too (not to mention damage to your car and van undercarriages also). Why? Despite your mud guards, your tyres are going to pick up stones and larger rocks and flick them backwards, especially the faster you are travelling.
Without extra protection, these little missiles are usually aimed straight at the front of your van and do some pretty nasty damage. From here they can also rickoshay into your back windscreen, often causing cracks or worse a smashed rear window. The final assault of these little torpedos is that without a barrier to stop them they can also rickoshay off your van/ trailer and actually hit oncoming cars and particularly their windscreens, which is an all too common experience on outback roads.
What can you do to minimise the occurrence of damage to you van or car, and that of other travellers? There are various products on the market can be fitted to the rear of your car that connect to the front of you van/ trailer and serve as a stone/ rock barrier to provide as much protection as possible but in saying this they will then pass under your van instead so be sure to have your vital van parts protected by bash plates too, this should come standard on many off road vans.
Our car and van is fitted with a ‘Stone Stomper’ which consists of a dense netting permanently secured underneath and to the end of our van draw bar and is then attached via clips and bungee cord to a special hitch attachment. Although the van and car are protected from any throw ups from our tyres, we have been victim of another’s rogue missile into our windscreen.
What to carry
So I suppose firstly after talking about the potential of windscreens chips as a very unfortunate side effect of outback travel, we strongly recommend travelling with a windscreen repair kit in the car. It truly is a very minimal price to pay, when it could significantly reduce the risk a tiny crack or stone chip from becoming a major inconvenience specially if you needing to continued travel on a heavily outback corrugated road. We always have one in the glove box and (unfortunately but thankfully) it has been used on numerous occasions to prevent further damage of small chips and cracks turning into complete edge to edge nightmares.
A massive do not enter remote areas without we’d say would definitely be adequate water and fuel. The amount of water and fuel required will vary greatly from traveller to traveller. It will be dependent on things like; how many people are you travelling with, where are you headed to/ what is your itinerary, where is the nearest town (with fuel and water), what season are you travelling in, in an emergency how remote are you etc. Best practice is to know your distances, for fuel- look up the intended kms and then add some extra and for water the recommended quantity is between 5-10L per person per day
Some of our most recommended spares would definitely be Anderson plugs and trailer plugs. These often rattle loose or can be dislodged by rocks and once they hit the ground they can drag and be easily destroyed. Having a good condition spare tyre or two is also a must have for outback travel. Recently we thought we had a slow leak in our tyre but as it turned out our 6month old alloy rim had cracked. It’s not always the tyre that could be the failure it can also be the rim.
Planning on doing some Sand Dune driving? If your bound for locations like the Simpson Desert, you are going to need to ensure to have a sand flag in the car. Sand flags are mandatory on many beaches and desert parks. A sand flag needs to be 3.5m from the ground and have a high visibility flag on top; fluorescent orange, yellow, or green are the most common.
Can I make my own? Yes but be sure to use a strong item as a flag pole, attach it very securely to your vehicle, ensure it meets the standard regulations and be sure your flag is secured correctly so it doesn’t come off or tangle and become non-visible.... best option is to purchase a regulation flag from a reputable reseller. We use a ‘Bushranger 4x4 Gear' sand flag with supplied bull bar mount, its flex, height and durability was extremely impressive on the dunes of the Simpson.... we found it to be the tallest of all the flags on the track and this made us feel very visible at the crest of each dune.
Lastly for those few final key items to be sure to take into consideration, we direct you to our Outback Overland Travel Essentials Top 10 List. Each outback overland adventure will defer, so be sure cater your essentials and needs accordingly.
Before hitting the road
Once you are sitting in the car and bumping along the corrugations, you will often only notice what’s happening inside the car and to the things you can see immediately outside. If your bound for a particularly notorious track here is a little list of things to do before you lock up and set off.
In and out of the van;
-Be sure to lock all cupboard doors and draws. If your manufacture uses bungee cord too be sure to secure all doors with them. I recommend you do a double check again just as you are about to lock the door (it is easy to overlook some if you have multiple and especially if you have been travelling long term).
-Secured all loose items in the van. If you often store things to travel on or under beds/ bedsheets, have lift off fans, non lock floor hatches, a tv, kitchen appliances even washing baskets- these can and most likely will move during rough drives, so secure them to ensure they don’t break or fall.
-Seal up all your van vents. For those who have vans with uncovered external vents or that aren’t 100% dust proof take the time to cover the gaps. The dust and red dirt is incredible to see but once it’s inside it’s the biggest pain in your rear end. Some outback roads are pure bull dust and this will engulf your car and van, whilst it will look spectacular in its flurry, the damage to your walls, sheets and sanity is not worth skipping a thorough cover up job.
-Ensure windows are shut securely and both external doors and windows locked. With many roads often corrugated you don’t want any doors or windows to open accidentally and let in dust or let our your cargo.
-Ensure all caps, latches and hatches clipped and closed; doors, drop down trays, pop top roof latches, PowerPoint covers, hot water heater covers, water tank caps, storage doors and draws and steps secured.
In and on the car;
-Secure everything in the back of the car. A cargo barrier is a very good safety addition to any expedition vehicle. It stops bags, boxes you name it from tumbling forward into the cabin of the car. We use the cage of the cargo barrier and occy straps to secure awkward or heavy items if there is room to move. We also have a draw system and fridge slide to keep small things contained and the fridge secure.
-Keep the dash free from items that will move about, this is also a very valuable habit Incase of an accident too.
-Be sure to properly secure any rooftop items you are carrying to prevent damage to the car or loss of your items.
Checking over your vehicle and van
Tighten or check everything external that you can reach on both the car and van. Do this before you leave and a good habit is to repeat these each night and the easier to check items when you stop for lunch or after a particularly rough section. This would include things like UHF aerials, driving lights, tow mirrors, wheel nuts, external van bolts, safety chains/ D shackles, Anderson plugs, van plugs, gas bottle or shovel holders and harder to reach things like bash plates ect.
Always be mindful that on planned extended out back journeys you may find yourself carrying too much much. So be sure to pack mindfully to keep you weights down. We recently wrote about the way that we manage our weights for remote travel.
Something to also keep in mind is your safety chains- do you know the reasons you are meant to have them crossed over and not too low? Despite the common misconception, during a hitch failure where the car and van seperate, the chains are not just there to provide a point of connection between the car and van, it can also be used to provide a cradle to catch the drawbar in the event of a hitch disconnection. If your chains are straight and/or loose, your hitch may fall and hit the ground, dig in and cause immense and inadvertent damage to your van, car and the road. A loose chain that hangs too low could become a further hazard during outback road travel.
This was all valuable information provided to us during a Sydney Tow-Ed approved certified training course we both attended prior to leaving on the trip. Click here to see a short video of our one day towing course with Graham, who was an absolute champion.
Know how to use your 4WD.
It may sound simple enough but it your responsibility as the driver to know how your car works. Before you leave on an outback adventure know your car, your van and your own capabilities. It may be beneficial to complete a 4WD driving training course or joining a 4WD club if you have never driven Offroad. This will help in teaching you the ins and outs of your 4WD like when and how to engage low range and diff locks and how to complete hill starts ect.
UHF radio use and communication
Once your off the black top and you’ve hit the dirt, knowing how to use your UHF radio will make travel so much smoother for you. Must people with a UFH installed in their cars will know the truck channel is 40, this and channel 18 are the most commonly used amongst caravaners too as it’s the way everyone can communicate and know what’s happening. It’s no different in the outback.
In fact, it’s probably much more important to be on channel on the outback roads to be able to know when is safe to overtake, if someone needs to overtake you and especially if you have road trains in your area. Adding unsealed roads, bull dust, reduced visibility, rocks and huge 3-4 (sometimes more) trailered road trains to share the road with, its a very valuable skill to have.
Any communication is better than none! Don’t be scared to communicate with other drivers to know what’s happening, but on channel 40 try keep it to road related communication and use other channels for general chit chat.
We typically travel 90 km on all sealed roads when towing, it great for fuel economy and it puts less pressure on the car to pull our 2.5 tonne van, but on the dirt we drive to the road conditions. Conditions you should take into consideration in regards to your speed include things like mud and/or wet roads, bull dust, corrugations, rough/ rutted sections, rocks, road size, low hanging trees, frequency of passing vehicles, road trains, time of day, visibility etc.
Many of these conditions will impact the speed we drive at, typically on a relatively smooth, wide, empty road we will travel 80kms but when passing oncoming vehicles we will slow and move to left. Generally a rough, rocky or heavily corrugated road might see us doing 30-40kms but a continuous small but lightly corrugated section we could skip along at 60kms.
The biggest thing to consider with speed (other than the legal sign posted limit) is you as the driver must feel comfortable doing the speed you are and always be in control, remember you are quite often towing and this will slow your breaking reaction time significantly on dirt roads.
Although it would make sense, its not always thought about but its safer on outback dirt roads to give way were necessary to the larger vehicle. If you have a tight section of a road and a road train coming toward you, the safest thing to do is move off the road completely, if you can move away from the road too and stop.
A road train cannot pull up anywhere nearly as quick as a car towing or not, no matter the speed and especially if they are fully loaded. Passing an oncoming road train whilst still moving is extremely dangerous, not only rocks being unintentionally sprayed up and potentially hitting your car/ windscreen but often causing a blinding dust cloud too.
Have you ever had a moment where you are driving a vehicle at any speed with zero visibility, complete loss of spacial awareness; no idea of what’s around you, where the truck trailers are or even the side of the road? You never want to, we have heard many recounts and seen our own horror stories of people who don’t understand what danger you can put yourself and the other drivers on the road in.
If you expect the road train to share a tight road you are putting the driver at a huge risk and we have seen this first hand with a very impatient caravanner, passing us after we had already pulled over. Having such a large rig with many trailers, riding half on and off a dirt (or bitumen for that matter) road can lead to crumbling of the side of the road, hitting a bank or a ditch and causing loss of control, roll or severe accident. These vehicles should and do have right of way and so it’s best to move over and they will be forever grateful.
When it comes to normal passing of fellow travellers and vehicles on a dirt track or road, pull to left when passing on coming traffic and slow down a little or as they say in the outback ‘lift em right foot’. This is to reduce dust but especially the risk of spraying rocks up. If the vehicle is stopped and your passing them especially on your side of the road, slow right down for the exact same reasons but then also to check they are ok- travelling slow allows the passengers time to flag you down if they are in need of assistance.
And lastly don’t drive in another cars dust- not only does it creates poor visibility and effectively a complete blind sight for you, it can lead to decreased spacial awareness and poor decision making. If you are planning on overtaking on a dirt road especially one with decent dust kick up, radio the car in front and give them a heads up that your planning to overtake. If they cant see you in their dust and they change lines, brake or turn off you are likely to cause a collision.
This has personally happened to me when driving the Oodnadatta Track. A 4WD choose to try and over take me from my dust, whilst I was slowing and turning right across the track onto another, with a road train heading towards us a km away. Although it freaked me out, I had foresight enough to consider he might do something stupid and I accelerated slightly faster to cross but that I needed to be careful of too. Had I not realised last minute, this could have caused me to pull out of the turn and either roll our car and van or worse been hit by him and ended up between both the road train and the 4WD. This incident is partly the reason I felt I needed to write this blog.
Keep back, communicate, be safe and drive responsibly.
Drive to the Road conditions
As always in the outback whether it be bitumen or dirt, there are many things to be mindful of and on the look out for.
A big ‘look out for’ is wildlife and livestock. No matter how fast you think you are- they are going to be faster. Always be scanning the roads and into the surrounding area for animals. If there are animals close to the side of the road, just slow down as you can be guaranteed the time you don’t, they will cross in front of you. The times to avoid driving are before dawn and after dust- the animals become mesmerised by the headlights and you can just guess what tends to happen.
Be prepared for the track/ road conditions to change frequently and unexpectedly. Be scanning for things like potholes, ruts, deep corrugations, bull dust, rocks etc. Be cautious when approaching (signed or unsigned) crests, dips, cattle grids, gates and even various types of water crossings. It is safer to err on the side of caution with outback roads and slow down in challenging road conditions.
Before heading into notoriously unpredictable outback tracks check for road closures or restrictions, especially within a few weeks after raining. Sign boards are sadly not always up to date, so check online if you have internet reception or check with the local roadhouse/ general stores of outback towns.
When travelling the remote tracks that have varying conditions such as heavy corrugations, mud ruts, bull dust, rocks etc you may find you need to drive the smooth, safe line. If you take a central or right side line- you are responsible for your vehicle and your driving! You must remain very aware, alert and sensible, never cross lines (much like over taking) in restricted vision, during or leading up to turns/ corners, approaching crests or dunes. You must remain in control and very aware of your speed and surroundings at all times.
Make it yours
When you are travelling in the Outback its all about mateship. Treat the roads with respect, the other travellers with a wave and use your common sense. Your experience will be so much more incredible.
Now this is by no means every possible outback travel tip, but it’s the main points we can think of to share that make a big difference for us. Not all our ideas may work for you but the biggest thing about outback overland travel is that it’s an incredible journey and if you prepare yourself, your vehicle and your van well, it can be one of the most rewarding travel experiences of your life.
Go out, get dirty and have a cracking Outback Adventure!