Caravans & RVs
Navigating the Red Centre
January 21, 2018 • Corey Grigg
14 min read
If you told your mates you wanted to go somewhere hot, dusty and far from civilisation, many of them would think you’re mad. Although the Red Centre is all that, it’ll be one of the most memorable adventures you’ll ever have. From the ever-changing sunburnt landscape to the sheer isolation of travelling in the outback, it’ll be hard to not think back on your trip with a new appreciation for the Red Centre.
But, dreaming of visiting Uluru and actually getting there are two different things. So how do you prepare your tow vehicle, caravan and most importantly, yourself for the trip of a lifetime?
Check out this guide to find out!
The Right Vehicles for the Job
Before you even consider heading into the outback, you need to make sure your towing vehicle and caravan are capable of handling the conditions ahead. Although it’s possible to complete the journey in the family sedan (as long as you don’t stray from the main highway), a 4WD is better suited to the harsh outback conditions you’ll be facing.
It’s a similar case with the caravan, camper trailer, toy hauler or pop top you’ll be towing. This will need to be capable of being towed long distances on some extremely corrugated roads. This shouldn’t be an issue if your trailer is designed to go off road, as these come with the upgraded wheels, suspension and chassis needed to handle these conditions.
I wouldn’t want anything less than a 4WD for a water crossing like this.
Pre-trip Vehicle Servicing
Go to the mechanic
Much like going to the dentist, we’re all guilty of not servicing our cars as often as we should. But, if you plan on clocking up some serious miles, you should always get your tow vehicle and caravan serviced before heading out.
When we say this, we don’t mean dropping them off at the mechanic the day before you leave. Instead, get them both serviced at least three weeks before you begin your trip. By doing it this far in advance, any spare parts you may need to be shipped in or big problems that need fixing, shouldn’t affect your departure date.
Once you’ve had your tow vehicle and caravan serviced, it’s time to give it a look over yourself. We don’t doubt your mechanic’s abilities, it’s just better to get another set of eyeballs to look over it to see if anything was missed.
Check over the basic systems of your 4WD including battery, wear on your tyres, headlights, suspension, fuel tank and chassis. Not all roads you’ll be travelling will be nice and smooth like back home. So, you need to make sure your tow vehicle can handle some fairly extreme road conditions and that nothing is going to break or wear out while you’re away from civilisation. For example, if you know your tyres are on their last legs, replace them before you leave. Simple as that.
You should also inspect your caravan in similar detail. Suspension, tyres and chassis should all be inspected. This may mean crawling around underneath it with a torch to give it a proper look. We also suggest checking all the seals and vents on the inside and outside of the caravan. If a seal is broken, you risk letting dirty outback dust into the cabin while you drive.
Accessorising for the journey
Driving in the outback will be a surreal experience, but it also requires some equipment your tow vehicle and caravan may not already have. As a minimum, we suggest having a bull bar, to protect from animal strikes, a winch to help pull yourself out of a bog as a last resort and a snorkel for performing water crossings.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service provides emergency medical services to Australia’s most remote regions.
First aid kit
It’s always better to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. You may never need it, but it’s better to have a fully stocked first aid kit than to find you’re missing that extra bandage when you need it most.
If you’re not sure what to include, it’s worth heading over to our guide to outdoor first aid, which covers a few treatments for common injuries and a comprehensive checklist on what to have in your kit.
Now we ain’t talking backup Maltesers if you lose your supply of snacks. If something were to happen while out in the endless outback, there’s a chance you might have to survive for a few days before help arrives, especially if you’re going to really remote places.
So what will you need? The Royal Flying Doctor Service suggests starting by grabbing a large sealable container and putting two days worth of food in it per person in your car. It’s a similar deal with water, you’ll want to take ten litres of water per person, per day in very hot conditions. If you plan on bushwalking or doing physical activity in the outback, you’ll need even more water.
Assuming you’ve done this, you’ll have two days worth of food and 20L of water per person. Seems excessive? Perhaps, but if an issue does pop-up and you’re stuck in your car, you’ll be thankful you prepared this. It’s always better to be safe than sorry when travelling in the outback.
You’ll need to chose meals that are non perishable and don’t require refrigeration, which often means canned goods. Baked beans, canned soup, peanut butter, muesli bars, dried fruits, dehydrated meats and canned vegetables. You can also buy large water containers at most supermarkets too.
The less obstructions a UHF radio has, the longer it’s range is.
Communication and Navigation
Tracking your location
Google Maps ain’t gonna cut it in the outback. A ‘normal’ GPS isn’t ideal either. Although it will still give your location while on the main routes, it’s when you head off the beaten path that it becomes sketchy. A ‘normal’ GPS won’t have many of the remote tracks you’ll likely travel on.
We suggest investing in an off road GPS that comes with topographical mapping. This type of mapping gives greater detail of remote roads and national park tracks. An off road GPS will also provide more depth on ‘points of interest’ relating to campsites, caravan parks, 24-hour petrol stations and dump points.
As a starting point, we recommend looking at our guide to off road GPS for more information. Otherwise, here are a few popular off road GPS units worth considering for your trip:
That all being said, the battery can’t run out on a paper map, so you should still bring a hard copy of the area you are visiting and a compass too.
Communication is key
If you’ve ever seen a mobile coverage map from Telstra, you’ll have seen that the majority of inner Australia is unserviced by a mobile network. So if you’re planning a trip to the Red Centre, you need to decide on a way to stay connected without the use of a mobile phone. There are two main ways of accomplishing this, using both a satellite phone and UHF radio.
- Satellite phones: work by connecting to an overhead satellite orbiting in Earth’s atmosphere. They’re seen as a fairly foolproof way to keep in contact with others, but they are fairly expensive to buy and use. Before buying one, head over to our sat phone buyers guide for the full rundown.
- UHF radios operate on a line-of-sight basis, meaning that if you can ‘see’ the recipient with a clear line of sight, you can communicate with them. However, a UHF radio’s range is fairly limited. Expect to have a good signal over five to ten kilometres in typical outback conditions, or up to 25kms if on a hill. Most UHF radio units are installed into your 4WD and use an antenna mounted to a bull bar. You can use handheld units, but they are less effective than mounted ones.
We also recommend keeping the number of the Royal Flying Doctors Service handy at all times, as they will be able to get to you faster than most other emergency services.
Keeping in touch with home
Before venturing to the Red Centre, create an itinerary of where you plan on staying each day and where you’ll be travelling to. Give this to someone back home who you’ll be able to contact periodically to tell them where you are. By doing this, if you don’t make one of your ‘check-ins’ (for example you may have had a breakdown), the friend back home is able to alert authorities and send help to you faster.
Without the right supplies, you’ll never be able to witness the Red Centre in all its glory.
Since you won’t have access to a 7-11 on every street corner, you’ll have to stock up on supplies before you head out. Many of the necessities will be few and far between when you get into the outback.
- Fuel: The further you head away from the outskirts of civilisation, the fewer petrol stations crop up and the more expensive fuel becomes. It’s not uncommon to go hundreds of kilometres between fill-ups, so not only will you need a fairly sizeable fuel tank in your 4WD, but it’s a good idea to either install a secondary fuel tank, or carry a couple of 20L jerry cans on the back or in the caravan.
- Food and water: Much like fuel, food and water becomes limited and more expensive than back home. You should be able to find a supermarket in most major towns, but we suggest packing a few spare lunches and water containers to have while on the road to save money and time while travelling.
- Coolers and fridges: You’ll also need a way to keep your meat, fresh vegetables and dairy cool. A 12V fridge connected to your 4WD’s battery will work well. Your caravan’s fridge can be used too, but make sure it doesn’t drain the caravan’s battery while being towed.
- Shade: Shade is a precious resource in the outback, so when you’re stopped on the side of the road for a quick break, you’ll want a way to escape the sun if there are no trees or buildings around. We suggest investing in either a 4WD awning that attaches to your roof racks or a portable gazebo that you can quickly pop up.
Free-camping is a great way to save money on your trip.
Where to stay
Like all tourist hotspots, even the outback has a ‘tourist season’. Unsurprisingly, many travellers head into the Red Centre mid-winter when the outback is at its coolest. If you plan on travelling then, be warned that the limited accommodation gets booked very quickly. If you travel during the shoulder seasons or during summer, there are usually more options available.
But, a word of warning about travelling the outback in summer – it gets hot, really hot. The average temperature for January in the outback is 35 degrees, while it’s also not uncommon to reach the high 40’s every now and again too. This intense heat will affect when you travel during the day and what activities will be available since a fair few business shut down to escape the heat.
Since you’ll be travelling with a caravan, you’ll be most likely staying in caravan parks or in national parks. However, since the outback is such a vast open place, some establishments such as pubs and motels also offer caravan parking.
Never brake suddenly in front of a road train, as they require far more braking distance than a normal truck.
It would be an understatement to say that outback roads are a mixed bag. You’ll come across everything from freshly paved roads, to corrugated tracks on your journey to the Red Centre. The main highways towards Alice Springs are usually sealed and well maintained.
But, if you’ve got an itch for adventure, you’ll want to get off the tarmac and get on the dirt. This is where the quality of roads change. The more popular dirt roads (for example the Mereenie Loop Road), are often graded after the wet season and a few times during peak season to ease the corrugations. Less popular dirt roads may only be graded once after the wet season each year or not at all.
In your travels, you may find the occasional road with signs that say, ‘4WD only’. These signs aren’t up as a joke, as the roads will often have obstructions, water crossing and terrain only a 4WD can handle. If you decide to take the family Falcon down one of these roads, you risk serious fines, damage to your car or worse, getting stuck far from help.
Other road users
Even though you probably won’t be seeing any traffic jams on the road, you’ll still need to deal with other road users while you drive. The general rule of the road is the bigger vehicle has right of way over the smaller one.
So if yourself with a large caravan and another person in a station wagon are approaching each way, the smaller car would move over. But if you with the 4WD and caravan were approaching a road train, you’d have to move over instead.
It may take a bit of experimenting to set up your cabin just the way you like it.
Preparing the cabin
If you’ve been following the guide so far, you’ll have heard us mention how bumpy the roads can get and the long distances you’ll be travelling. That makes it all the more important to prepare the cockpit of your car and cabin of your caravan for the roads ahead.
Locking down the caravan
- Distribute your gear evenly in the caravan to maintain a balanced centre of gravity
- Leave the fine china at home. Avoid bringing anything that could break due being knocked around by the road
- Put things in sealed containers if you think they might get thrown about
Setting up the cockpit
- Set up your GPS, water bottle, sunglasses, UHF radio and sat phone all within arm’s reach of the driver’s seat
- Have snacks at the ready
- Have entertainment such as CDs and music players in the glove box or centre console
- Keep the ‘toilet shovel’ close by
- Keep first aid in a location that you could grab it at a moment’s notice
Driving at dusk and dawn is prime ‘kangaroo time’.
Knowing what to do if it all goes wrong
Now, we’re not saying that it’ll all go belly up, but I’m sure you’d rather know what to do in a survival situation than run around like a headless chook. The most important thing to remember if something goes wrong is to stay with the vehicle. Not only is it far easier for a plane to see a car than a person, but your vehicle should be equipped with a fair bit of survival gear to help you survive until rescue arrives.
Check out our article explaining what to do if your vehicle breaks down in the outback we did with Bob Cooper for some in-depth advice.
The Red Centre is kind of like the Wild West of Australia. It’s the final frontier that many Aussies never get to truly experience – which is a shame really. We’re sure you’ll do just fine and have plenty of stories to share with us when you get back - just be sure you're stocked up with everything on the checklist below!
Discover More: the great Australian road trip