Your guide for driving through the Australian Outback

Driving in the Outback

Toby Hagon

Posted May 16, 2022

You’ve only got to look at the car sales figures to get an idea of just how many Aussies are dreaming of exploring our great red desert.

There’s no shortage of locals and tourists aspiring to take off on the ‘Big Trip’.

Utes now make up more than one in five new-vehicle sales, and most of them are the off-road variety.

There are also now record waiting lists for 4WD wagons such as the Toyota LandCruiser.

But just because the brochure shows your swanky new four-wheel-drive splashing through a creek and traversing boulders you wouldn’t walk over, doesn’t mean you’re ready to head off into the yonder.

Make sure you and your rig are best prepared for what is some of the most challenging and unforgiving terrains in the world.

Get the right vehicle for the Aussie outback

There are off-roaders and soft-roaders, and you need the right one if you’re going to be on rough gravel roads, sand, mud, or rocks.

Most SUVs these days are designed for the suburbs. And even Jeep and Land Rover – two brands that created the four-wheel-drive back in the 1940s - build some cars that sell the image, but are not ideally suited to hard core tracks and trails.

Most proper off-roaders will have a dual-range transfer case, which unlocks a lower set of gear ratios to multiply torque and make it easier to trudge through soft sand or take it slow over craggy rocks.

But there are exceptions to the rule; the Volkswagen Amarok doesn’t have that dual-range 4WD system, but it is designed to tackle serious terrain. In fact, any of the 4x4 utes will do a great job in the bush or Outback.

Of the 4WD wagons, the shortlist should look something like this:

Know what off-road tech your car has

Four-wheel drives often surprise with what they’ll clamber over – if they’re driven correctly.

Equally, you can get stuck very quickly or do damage if you don’t know what you’re doing - so do your homework on the features of the car and how to plan and stay safe off-road. 

Stability control could save your life on a wet road, but it may get you bogged in mud or sand. Similarly, those locking differentials can work wonders in sniffing out traction when you need it most, but drive with them locked on bitumen and you could damage the drivetrain.

Modern traction control systems can work terrifically in a 4WD, but sometimes you need to feed on more power as the wheels start scrabbling.

Know what you’re dealing with and how and when to use it. The owner’s manual can be a good place to start, at least for warning what not to do. But there’s no substitute for experiencing your car in the real world and learning how the various systems can help you.

If you’re really unsure, consider taking an off-road course.


The Outback

There's nothing like getting out on the open road. 

Be discerning with modifications

Many people kit out their off-roader with accessories and modifications.

For some, it’s more about the tough truck look than fitting things that will make a genuine difference.

Conversely, well-chosen tweaks can add much-needed comfort or capability. 

Do your research and be discerning with the changes you’re making or things you’re adding. A bullbar could be handy, in part to fit driving lights or aerials on. Most new cars have sub-standard high beams for night driving in the bush.

Some basic recovery gear is a must in case you get bogged, and an air compressor is handy for adjusting tyre pressures for different conditions (lower them to 18psi or lower for sand driving).

Keep in mind that any extras you bolt-on – lights, bullbar, roof rack and bash plates – add weight, which needs to be subtracted from how much you load in the car

One handy addition is a UHF radio, especially if you’re travelling in a group. Many travellers run on Channel 40, and as well as having a chat, you can ask about the road conditions.

Don’t bother with cheapie kids’ radios, instead, make sure you get a 5W one with a decent aerial.

A sat phone is also worth considering, especially if you’re travelling solo. You can hire or buy one and sell it after your trip.

Consider the gear you’ll be taking with you. Outback roads can be rough, so things jiggle around. Pack carefully and strap things down so they won’t go wandering, potentially damaging the trim of the car.

Maintaining tyres in the outback

Any proper off-roader will have a full-size spare wheel. Depending on how remote you’re going, it could be worth considering for a second.

At the very least, make sure you will be alerted to a puncture or slow leak. Some cars come fitted with such warning systems, but if yours doesn’t, spend a couple of hundred dollars on aftermarket tyre pressure sensors. External ones take a few minutes to screw onto the valve and if you’re doing Outback touring they can prevent permanent tyre damage.

Most new SUVs – even LandCruisers and Patrols – have tyres that are more about the suburbs than the bush.

They’re typically more susceptible to a puncture than some hardier all-terrain tyres, which should resist rocks and sticks better.

But tyres are a compromise; by improving puncture resistance you’ll likely get a tyre that’s slightly heavier and/or stiffer, so the ride quality may suffer. They could also be noisier and have less grip on bitumen.

For that reason, don’t bother with mud terrain tyres unless you’re planning on diverting around bitumen altogether; they’re often too compromised for regular driving.

Before you take off, make sure you check your spare tyre and tool kit to make sure it’s ready to go. Ensure you can undo the wheel nuts manually; it may involve asking your mechanic to loosen them with a rattle gun.


BMW x3 in the outback

Some cars will get you through the outback without a worry, while some others will struggle to endure. 

Planning your outback road trip

Planning where you’re going is crucial in the Outback. Online maps such as Google can be handy for estimating how long you’ll take to get somewhere, but they can also be inaccurate.

There are specialised digital maps made for off-roading, even then, make sure you carry paper maps as a backup.

With any route planning, it’s important to remember that regional and Outback roads can be closed due to rain.

Check road updates for the state you’re travelling in, and don’t ignore signs warning if roads are closed; the fines can be frightening.

Be prepared to adjust your plans if the weather closes in. You may end up having to blow the froth off a few more beers at one of the iconic pubs that dot the Outback.

Oh, and enjoy the drive!


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