Safety tips every outback explorer should know

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Braving the great Australian outback is no easy feat, and safety should be your number one priority to make sure you return from every trip you embark on.

Luckily for us, Australia has one of the most diverse and unique landscapes of all countries on earth. Due to its sheer size, it has many different climates and topography and if touring, you’ll quickly learn that it takes years to fully see everything this great country has to offer. However, it can’t be denied that Australia is a country of extremes. Due to these extremes, the outback and other remote areas must be entered with caution and safety preparations should always be the first consideration.

While you might roll your eyes when foreigners talk of their fears of coming to Australia due to stories of its wildlife – the man-eating spider myth hasn’t helped matters – there is definitely truth to the rumours of how dangerous Australia can be, especially when you’re away from the cities and in the hot, arid desert. And while there are animals that can strike you or your vehicle, it’s more likely that harsh weather and road conditions will bring tragedy on your travels.

With all this said, having a thorough plan and all the right safety gear on board can make all the difference to your outback adventure. Preparing for any possible scenario is crucial. Ultimately, the conditions in outback Australia are no joking matter and without the risk of sounding cliché, it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to packing everything you may need.

Preparation is key

Any seasoned tourer knows that preparation goes well beyond planning where to go and packing lists. Sometimes people forget, especially if they haven’t been on the road properly in decades, that driving long distances on outback roads can take a toll on any driver, so it’s important to be in the right state of mind to be able to concentrate and be patient, and of course, always being well rested. It is extremely dangerous to drive while tired — particularly on monotonously long roads — so have a rough idea of how long it takes to get from one destination to another and take regular breaks to keep your focus sharp. It can also be hard to sleep at night in the outback during the warmer months due to the high temperatures. Being mentally and physically prepared is especially important when towing a caravan or camper trailer, as driving is more difficult and even the slightest unplanned movement can result in tragedy.

One of the most important things to consider is whether you have enough fuel and water. Without these two, your survival in the outback has little chance. Especially if it’s 40+ degrees … good luck going even an hour without water then. You should aim to have about 10L of water per person per day, which should be enough for drinking, cooking and washing, but make sure you’re conserving it whenever possible. With regards to fuel, try to top up whenever you can and it’s always a good idea to have a couple of jerry cans full so you can have peace of mind on those long drags between servos. You should know the terrain ahead, refuel points and your consumption so you can estimate your needs. If your tow adds about 2L per 100km on the highway, then it’s going to be a lot more if you’re in thick sand going uphill.

It’s also important to ensure your tyres are pumped and have sufficient tread to tackle whatever may come, and always have a spare with you. With this, it’s vital to be aware of your vehicle’s capabilities and limitations so you know exactly which roads or remote tracks you can travel on. If you haven’t towed a rig in a while or just need a few top tips, many motoring organisations offer driving and towing courses covering offroad driving conditions and will help you get prepared for all types of terrains.

What to pack

You can’t prepare without packing the right things and when it comes to the outback, the items you might need can be extensive. Chiefly, you must have the right gear (including clothing, food and water) and you must have the correct safety equipment and supplies (including recovery, first aid and comms equipment).

First and foremost, good reliable communication is essential. This can be achieved in the form of a satellite phone (or sat phone). This is vital because mobile reception in Australia’s regional and remote areas can be poor. Although sat phones are not cheap, there are options to hire one from companies such as Landwide for a period of remote travel. Another handy comms tool is a personal locator beacon (PLB) which can show you or emergency services where you are if lost or in an emergency you can’t fix yourself. A good UHF CB radio is another potential addition — make sure you familiarise yourself with the emergency channels just in case. And if you have plans to work on the road or similar, consider updating to a modern satellite communication system such as Starlink. This system uses satellites through Elon Musk’s SpaceX to deliver superior net speeds in the most remote of locations. Just remember the receiver likes wide-open skies, so make sure to move the dish away from your rig if parked in a shady spot.

Another essential when travelling in the great Aussie outback is being able to know exactly where you are and where you’re headed. When you’re in vast areas with barely a signpost or soul as far as the eye can see, a GPS with remote-area mapping can help. If your GPS fails or runs out of power (this shouldn’t usually be a problem with in-car charging capabilities, but you never know) it’s wise to have a backup in the form of a paper map and compass. Although technology rules the roost when it comes to navigation, it’s important to be prepared when it does fail.

Image: Hema Maps HX-2 GPS

Any offroad tourer will know the vitalness of having a long-handed shovel and a pair of traction boards, such as GoTreads, in your vehicle. Soft sand can suck your tyres in and leave you stuck so it’s important you can get yourself out of the situation without needing to wait for another vehicle. Also, with the need to partially deflate your tyres in these conditions, you will need to consider bringing a pressure gauge and an air compressor to help pump them back up when you return to hard surfaces. You should also carry a snatch strap just in case you come across someone who needs help. And a jack plate can come in handy because if you are in soft terrain and need to change a tyre, your jack might just sink into the ground.

It’s also wise to have a kit of basic tools and materials to aid with accessory failure or similar — a lot of these breakdowns/failures have to do with aftermarket accessories like roof racks, bullbars, driving lights, battery trays, spare wheel carriers, UHF antennas and so on, as much as general vehicle systems (e.g., shocker rubbers, radiator, exhaust system, tyres and fuel tank). Due to the sheer amount of vibration and shock loads, it’s best to give yourself the tools and materials to repair or patch up. Once in the outback, Bunnings or Supercheap Auto are not just around the corner so consider enough vehicle fluids backup should something go wrong, such as engine, brake, transmission fluid, and so on.

Image credit: GoTreads

And of course, you can’t go on any trip without a medical or first aid kit. Not only is it important to have the right kit with all the right bits and bobs, but you must possess the knowledge to know how to use it. Your kit should be tailored to your personal needs, such as backups of personal medications, but it must also include everything you would need to keep an injured or unwell person in a stable condition until proper medical help arrives.

Lastly, consider making up a backpack survival kit for those longer trips. The idea here is this will get you through the next 72 hours, so should contain energy-dense food such as muesli bars, freeze-dried foods, water bottles, up-to-date maps, waterproof matches, a PLB, a fold-out shovel and medical supplies.

How to survive

Ultimately, survival is about having the right knowledge, equipment, state of mind and discipline to get home safely. We like to follow the ‘Principles of Survival’ known as Protection, Rescue, Water and Food. It’s important to follow these principles in sequence and without deviation. Here’s a summary from Australia’s leading adventures and mapping business, Hema Maps:

PROTECTION — this refers to the protection from infection, accident and the environment. For example, remove yourself from a burning vehicle and tend to the wounds of others. Erect a shelter to get out of the sun, wind and rain. If your 4WD is safe to be near, a good way to protect yourself from the elements in the outback is to dig a shallow pit underneath as it will be cooler during the day than sitting under the awning.

RESCUE — this starts before you leave home. Tell people where you’re going and when you expect to be there. On the road, call your designated contacts and let them know what you’re doing as well as when you arrive at each location. If you do break down, stay with the car. Aerial searchers will be able to find your vehicle much easier than if you’re walking around. Activate your PLB sooner rather than later and set up passive signalling devices, like a giant SOS in the sand. When writing in the sand, try to make the letters at least 6m long and 1m wide, or utilise logs and dark vegetation to create contrast. Snap off the mirrors and light fittings from your car and string them up on a tree (or from a pole) so that they swing in the breeze and reflect sunlight. You can also make a signal fire — consider using one of your spare (or busted) tyres to generate lots of smoke.

UHF radio

WATER — stay hydrated by rationing your sweat, not your water. This is why the Western Australian police recommend travelling with 4–5L of drinking water per person per day. It’s best to carry water in various containers and have a spare jerry containing just emergency water. Have drink bottles handy in the car for every occupant so that your travel party remains hydrated while you’re on the road. You can use your survival blanket as both a passive rescue aid and as a way of capturing dew in the morning.

FOOD — you should have plenty of food on board for all passengers. While it’s important to carry non-perishable canned food, you can save weight by supplementing these supplies with a few dehydrated packages like peas, textured soy, powdered milk, dried fruit, instant potato and more. You should also have at least 72 hours of emergency rations tucked away in your ‘grab bag’ or ‘backpack survival kit’ (as mentioned above). Think of dehydrated or freeze-dried instant meals, cups of soup, a bag of rice and another of flour. Bags of seeds and nuts and some tinned tuna can go a long way too. Another handy item is a small food box in the vehicle’s cabin — including all your favourite on-the-road munchies like protein bars, lollies and chips.

Where AL-KO comes in

Whether you are hauling a camper trailer or caravan, it is your foundation that will be carrying your accommodation and all your gear. It’s therefore vital to ensure the correct choice is made when picking a suspension system and chassis.

AL-KO produces chassis in Australia for tough Aussie conditions. When AL-KO acquired G&S Chassis, they inherited the ‘built to last’ craftsmanship synonymous with the brand and the experience to build chassis that will not rattle apart on rough roads like South Australia’s Oodnadatta Track. Having a sturdy base that will go everywhere your 4WD will pull is vital, as having a caravan breakdown can leave you almost as vulnerable as a tow vehicle breakdown would.

AL-KO’s range of suspension options and correct selection will minimise vibration through your tow vehicle, reducing fatigue on the build and failure of crucial equipment. Having a super-high-capacity suspension is not ideal — it will be too rigid, and vibrations will be excessive. Having the correct suspension and chassis on board is critical for surviving the outback.

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