Free vs. Fee

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When it comes to driving those holiday dollars further, few can debate the appeal of free camping. After all, every dollar saved can be reallocated to the fuel budget to get you even further. For many, an ideal spot is beside a river or creek, with afternoon shade, a view and few others to share it with. The only challenge is finding such a spot. So, does shelling out a few bucks yield a better camping experience? Let’s take a look. 


Free camping in most instances is camping on Crown land; that is, land owned by a particular government body, be it a local municipality or state body. It could be a state forest, national park where fee collection is difficult, a wayside stop on a major highway, or an overnight stop maintained by a community group such as the Lions Club. And on the odd occasion, you’ll find a special place on private land.

A free camping spot is often characterised by a lack of facilities; some may not even have rubbish bins. So you must be self-sufficient, with your own water, toilet, cooking and power supplies.

Rarely will you enjoy these spots on your own; overcrowding is common, with many people seeking to save their pennies.

If adjacent to a major highway, you’ll need to contend with the roar of road transport all night. In addition to overcrowding, rubbish can be an issue. Bins, where supplied, are often overfilled, with rubbish left to scatter across the landscape. Without toilet facilities, keep an eye out for unburied human waste and toilet paper confetti left flapping in the breeze, particularly with the increase of backpacker vans, those Kombi-style campers without an onboard loo.

State forests can be a haven for trail bike riders, so keep that in mind if you are planning a quiet weekend somewhere.

Beware of free camps within a township near any man-made obstacles, such as train tracks and roundabouts. The constant noise of tyres over the tracks or vehicles braking, changing gears and re-accelerating can be an annoyance to some.

Last of all is the beauty of the landscape or, more to the point, the lack of it. Sure, there are some exceptions, but many free camps are free for a reason. They are just not always the best place to be you’ll need to shell out for that!


Showgrounds and national parks are prime examples of low-fee camps. Showground camping has increased in recent years with nomads seeking lower cost overnight accommodation rather than caravan parks. Like free camps, facilities are often limited, so you’ll need to be self-sufficient. The area is usually managed by a volunteer who wanders around each day to collect fees. Alternatively, these can be council managed.

National parks are a favourite camping destination, blending beautiful locations, basic facilities, wildlife and modest fees. Due to their mandate to balance recreation with conservation, overcrowding is never an issue, as to do so would impact the delicate environment and scare off the wildlife that many travel to see.


So-called fee camping includes caravan parks and station stays. These destinations offer more facilities in return for a higher fee. Many caravan parks offer a long list of attractions, including playground equipment, water, toilets, ensuite sites, a barbecue area, recreation room, swimming pool and more, and are generally close to the local township for the convenience of stocking up on supplies. This infrastructure has a cost to build and maintain, is reflected in their fees.

Many caravan parks are right on the beach, a lake or in an area of high appeal.

Station stays draw their appeal from people seeking to appreciate living on the land. Others are drawn to the attraction of bush camping, similar to a national park, but seek a few more facilities. These are centrally located, so you can still camp away from the crowds, but return to base for a hot shower as required. Some stations have trailerable toilets, which is just as well, as the ground can be hard and rocky, almost impossible to dig a hole. 


Whether you prefer free camping or don’t mind spending a few dollars, you ultimately just have to get out there. Here a few free (or low-cost) camps that you might enjoy…


WHERE: 160km east of Marble Bar

CAMPING: Free camping on Oakover River

ACTIVITIES: Fishing, kayaking, swimming, wildlife spotting

CARAVAN ACCESS: Offroad RVs only


OTHER: Pet friendly


WHERE: 275km south-east of Katherine

CAMPING: Low cost camping at various sites

ACTIVITIES: Wildlife spotting, fishing, sightseeing

CARAVAN ACCESS: Offroad RVs only

FACILITIES: Boat ramp (Towns River, Limmen Bight Fishing Camp and Munbililla)



WHERE:  Cape York west coast, about 100km south of Bamaga

CAMPING:  Two dedicated bush camps with a toilet, or camp on the beach (provided you are travelling self-sufficiently)

ACTIVITIES: Four-wheel driving, fishing, croc spotting

CARAVAN ACCESS: Compact campers only

FACILITIES: Long drop toilets and a picnic table with shelter at campsites only


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