Don’t Die in the Outback

21st Century Jacobsweg: Don't Die in the Outback

Author: Jacob Hill

So, you want to travel throughout the Australian Outback? Fantastic! I highly recommend this experience, which requires a lot of patience and endurance. The Outback is more than red sand and sparse shrubbery: The deeper you dare to penetrate this spiritually intense landscape, the more humbled yet empowered you become. Put simply, visiting is well worth the effort.

Your journey across the Outback will always be memorable – but whether these memories are good, bad, or tragic? Well, that depends on whether you respect the environment. By respect, I’m not talking about binning your rubbish, but rather that the Outback is an unforgiving landscape and has many, many ways of punishing you for not taking it seriously, including killing you.

To avoid a disaster of a road trip, here’s ten tips to keep in mind. These are very small actions that will make all the difference. If you keep the following in mind, you can avoid the biggest risks. And if something does go wrong, you have a good chance of coming out the other side unscathed.

1: Service Your Vehicle Before You Go

I get it: Dropping a couple hundred bucks on your car is never an attractive prospect (especially if you’ve been burnt by mechanics before). That service, however, means a clean bill of health for your vehicle. The last thing you want in the Outback is a drivebelt snapping, an engine mount cracking or coolant leakage destroying your radiator.

Shell out for the repairs, even for the things that seem minor: That chip in your front windscreen can suddenly become a devastating fracture, bringing your journey to a grinding halt. If only you spent the fifty bucks to get the chip repaired…

21st Century Jacobsweg: Don't get stranded in the Outback - service your vehicle
Far from home…and help.

Don’t count on a speedy rescue in the Outback. The nearest town might be over two hundred kilometres away. The nearest vehicle could be hours away and not everyone will stop their car to help you. Those that do may not have the tools to help you.

Reception can be non-existent. The nearest emergency phone may be fifty kilometres away. Even if you get roadside assistance to come for you, it could be several hours before they arrive. All the while, you’re being roasted alive by the unrelenting Sun. Please, just service your car before you go.

2: Check Your Tires

Another hit to the hip-pocket, but wheels are what keep your vehicle on the road. Make sure they have good pressure and aren’t balding. If you’re unsure, a mechanic can tell you if your tires are in good nick or not. If they need to be replaced, don’t mix tread patterns as this can affect breaking and turning. Also, keep the tread depths consistent.

Tires have expiration dates. Good tires can last up to 30-40,000km – about five years for the average motorist. But since you will be driving thousands of kilometres in the Outback, your tires will wear down quicker than normal. If you haven’t changed your tires recently, see if they will hold up on the long journey, taking into consideration fast speeds, extreme heat, rough road conditions and sudden braking (you will need to suddenly brake – more on that in tip nine).

21st Century Jacobsweg: the Outback wears down tires more than usual
Conditions are rough in the Outback, wearing your tires down quicker than normal.

Sometimes, a tire will inexplicably explode or get punctured. You can’t drive on a flat, so you’re not going anywhere. Carry a spare in case a tire decides to go AWOL. Check that it’s still in working order before you set off! Even if not used, an old tire deteriorates over time.

Also, carry a carjack and lug wrench (I like the spider-type personally). More importantly, practice changing a tire (if they’re not too busy, ask your mechanic for some guidance). It’s all well and good to have the tools, but if you have no idea how to use them, you might as well not have them. Avoid ‘learning as you go’ when it comes to working on your car, lest the carjack gives out and you get crushed under your car.

3: Have Spare Petrol

So, you got your car serviced and have brand new tires. Great! But having a well-maintained vehicle won’t mean squat if it runs out of fuel.

We’ve all looked at our fuel gauge and been shocked that we only have enough for the next eighty kilometres! But in the cities, the solution is simple: there’s a servo on every corner, just pull up and fill up. Remember: in the Outback, the next town could be two hundred kilometres away. Don’t skip filling up!

But let’s say you skipped fuelling at the previous town, figuring you can make it to the next stop on the fuel you have. What if you were wrong? Your car’s range is just an estimate, not holy writ. You don’t want to end up on the side of the Stuart Highway with an empty fuel tank. If only you spent five minutes filling up…

21st Century Jacobsweg: Uluru and Kata-Tjuta illustrate how remote the Outback is
The nearest petrol station is a long way away…

To avoid that disastrous scenario, bring some spare petrol. An emergency twenty-litre jerrycan gives me more than enough fuel to reach the closest service station if I miscalculated my petrol situation. That hasn’t happened yet, because I fill up at every single town I come across in the Outback, even if I’ve barely used any petrol – Keep that tank full!

WARNING: Petrol expands when heated and that pressure could be too much for your jerrycan to handle. While it won’t explode into a fireball, it could leak and cause major issues! Store your emergency petrol out of direct sunlight. Cover it with something to shield it further from sunlight.

4. Protect Your Skin

NOTE: Although I recently went in Summer, this tip applies in Winter too; Winters in the Outback are hotter than an average Summer in London!

Imagine having such severe sunburn that just looking at it hurts. Now imagine that excruciating pain along the entirety of your arms, your legs, your face and the back of your neck.

And now imagine having to drive the next day for hours at a time, all the while the Sun is blasting radiation against your already unbearable injuries…

They call Australia the Sunburnt Country for a reason. Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world because of the Sun’s harmful UV rays. To protect yourself from deadly solar radiation, cover up as much skin as you can. It sounds counter-intuitive, but exposing your skin to the Sun, especially in the Outback, will only lead to heat-stroke, severe sunburn and dehydration. There’s not much shade in the Outback, and sunscreen and aloe vera can only protect you so much.

At the risk of sounding like a prude, it’s time to cover up! Loose-fitting long sleeve tops and pants are a must, but don’t go reaching for the leather jacket or nylon pants – your clothes need to be made of breathable material like cotton or linen.

A broad-brimmed hat is essential.

21st Century Jacobsweg: The Outback provides little to no shade, so you need to protect your skin
There’s no shade from the Sun out here. Cover up!

Pay attention to your hands! When you’re holding the steering wheel, you may have no choice but let the Sun scorch them. As a result, the rest of my body was fine, but my hands got so burnt that they started to bubble and ooze!

In the Outback, you will be constantly bombarded by the Sun’s rays, even when you’re in your car. If you’re not the type to dress modestly, just remember: Your skin will not win a twenty-round bare-knuckle boxing match with the Australian Sun.

5. Bring Lots of Water

Well, duh.

Seriously, you need to pack way more water than you’d think. I planned four litres a day, even more if I was going on a walk. I found I was consuming much more than that – I was starting to guzzle my backup water! I made sure to buy lots of extra water at every stop. If you end up stranded in the middle of nowhere, having water to last you a week or two will be reassuring.

You need to drink water, even if you’re not feeling thirsty. Even with the aircon on full blast, you will be sweating buckets. But because it evaporates so quickly in the bone-dry air, you barely notice just how dehydrated you’re becoming. And the last thing you want to experience in the desert is dehydration.

Dehydration affects your decision making, your concentration and your physical ability. Drink in small amounts on a consistent basis to combat it. Do not ration the water. Running out of water is bad, but dehydration is always worse. Hikers have been found dead from dehydration with plenty of water on their persons. If you’re feeling thirsty, you’re already dangerously dehydrated and need to replenish your fluids, even if it means running out.

21st Century Jacobsweg: A salt lake in South Australia. Water is hard to come by in the Outback
A lake in the Outback. This is a salt lake – the only water you can drink is the water you bring with you.

6. Remember to Eat

But I don’t even feel hungry.

That’s an illusion! Heat can trick you into thinking you’re not hungry, but you still need to put energy and nutrients into your body. Driving requires a lot of concentration, even on the endless desert highways. Being underfed will affect your concentration and decision making, much like dehydration will.

Water isn’t the only thing lost in sweat. Electrolytes are also lost, which must be replenished from your food supply. Otherwise, you’ll be left feeling fatigued or nauseous. Sometimes it may feel like dehydration, but if you’ve already downed four litres of water and still feel like downing another four, you’re probably suffering Hyponatremia (low salt levels). Drinking more water isn’t the solution: This will dilute salt further and can make you feel worse. Eat something first and see if that makes you feel better.

Snack regularly on things like trail mix, nuts, legumes, crackers, and dried fruits. Avoid foods like bread, doughnuts, or chocolate. Fresh fruit is also great, but due to biodiversity concerns, there are quarantine checkpoints throughout Australia for fresh fruit, plants, vegetables etc. They warn you about upcoming stations so you have an opportunity to bin contraband beforehand. If you want fresh fruit, eat it immediately after buying it. Save yourself the quarantine headache.

21st Century Jacobsweg: It's important to eat in the Outback
Eat plenty of food to replenish energy and nutrients lost from sweat.

7. Rest

The infinite stretch of pavement can be mind-numbingly boring, especially if you’ve been driving for two hours. The heat can also make you more sleepy than usual. It’s easy to misjudge just how tired you are, or to rationalise, saying you don’t feel that tired.

It’s simple: If you feel tired, stop driving. Combined with inadequate eating and drinking, inadequate rest will affect your judgement and increase the chances of avoidable accidents.

Stop at rest areas in the Outback regularly. Have some lunch, stretch your legs out, go to sleep. But for the love of God, don’t ever try to ‘push through’ the fatigue. The next rest stop could be anywhere between ten to seventy kilometres away and it only takes a few seconds to crash your car at 110kph due to a microsleep.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Make sure you rest in the Outback at a rest area
They’re not pretty, but rest areas like these are few and far between. Make sure you have a rest!

8. Obey the Speed Limit

It’s very tempting to zoom down these long, empty roads at incredible speeds. But you need to watch your speed carefully and stick to the speed limit. It’s difficult to judge how fast you’re actually going: There was a point where I thought I was doing 110kph, only to discover I was actually going 160kph!

But what’s the big deal? You’re already going so fast that any crash is likely fatal. These highways are not patrolled by police. You can see cars coming from miles away. Besides, you want to spend as little time in the desert as you can, right? Why not put the pedal to the metal?

Simple: Speeding in the Outback (or anywhere, for that matter) is just not a good idea. First, the roads are narrow; there’s not much room for error. Going faster means less time to manoeuvre if something goes wrong, especially if you’re driving at night – things can appear ‘out of nowhere’ in the pitch black (more on that soon)!

Second, you waste petrol. The faster you go, the more efficiently petrol is consumed…up to a point. Your car will then be competing against road friction and air resistance, meaning more fuel consumed. So while you save time, you lose precious fuel, which means spending more money at the pump.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Rain in the Outback, South Australia
The roads are narrow – slow down! The clouds are dumping precious rain onto the parched Earth.

Third, If the highway is wet (yes, it does rain in the Outback!), you will lose almost all traction. Even the tiniest film of water can make your car skid. I discovered this the hard way. Luckily, I was ‘only’ going 70kph, but any faster and I would’ve had little chance of recovering.

It’s not a race. Australia is huge – you’re not getting anywhere in a hurry. Enjoy the drive! There are car wrecks left on the side of these remote highways, some of them barely recognisable as a result of the insane speeds they were going. They’re there partly because it’s because it’s too much of a hassle to tow them away, but more importantly they serve as a grim reminder: This could be you – slow down.

9. Be on the Lookout for Wildlife

Another great reason to not speed: Animals wander onto Outback roads and often get hit as a result. They get spooked by vehicles and don’t always act rationally – i.e. they’ll run directly into your path. And more often than not, they appear out of nowhere, especially at night, meaning a hard slam on the brakes!

And it’s not just wild animals you need to worry about: Livestock wander onto the roads because pastures aren’t fenced. A long, long time ago, my uncle had bought a new car and was driving along the Stuart Highway. not too far outside a town, he hit a bull! He was lucky he survived, but his brand new car was destroyed (as was the bull).

I’ve had several near misses with cows in the Outback myself. But I’ve had near-misses with lots of animals in the Outbackm including:

Dogs, emus, goats, pigs, camels, kangaroos, wallabies, sheep, snakes, lizards, echidnas, various bird species, wombats, rabbits, deer, possums, koalas, owls, tortoises, dingoes, horses, cane toads, and even an alpaca!

21st Century Jacobsweg: Emus in the Outback in the Northern Territory
Watch out – emus are notorious for running head-on towards your vehicle!

If there’s an animal in the way, what action you take depends on what type of animal it is. Don’t kill them on purpose (obviously), but crows or rabbits are just not worth swerving your car for – hit the brakes and hope to God they get out of the way. On the other hand, wombats and kangaroos are cinderblocks with legs – do whatever it takes to not hit them! Sure, you might wreck your car in the process, but you will definitely brick your car if you smash into one of these guys!

10. Avoid Driving at Sunset/Sunrise

The Sun is very, very bright, especially out in the middle of woop-woop where there’s no trees, mountains or buildings to obscure its glorious incandescence (reminder: protect your skin!). Even with an excellent pair of sunnies, squinting will in no way help you see the lines on the road.

I made the mistake of driving directly into the sunset (I messed up my timing and the next rest stop was further away than I thought). I was going roughly 100kph, but as the light grew more brilliant (and more blinding), I decided to drop down to 60kph to give myself more time to react to any dangers.

I could barely see the road, so I was surprised when I felt a loud ba-thoomp underneath my wheels. I had hit something I couldn’t see. I looked in my rear-view mirror and witnessed a wallaby soaring through the air, limbs and guts pinwheeling in every direction. Grief-stricken, I asked the poor wallaby for forgiveness before checking the front of my car.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Sunset in the Outback, South Australia
Sunset in the Outback after the Sun has disappeared over the horizon.

Luckily, there was no damage (not even a blood splatter), but if I had maintained my high-speed, that wallaby would’ve totalled my car, resulting in a crash that could’ve injured or killed me. Wallabies and kangaroos are also notorious for getting their fur and flesh jammed into the engine upon impact, disabling your vehicle. That I avoided such a fate is miraculous.

So, as best as you can, avoid driving at these times. Better yet, plan your route so that the sun is behind you. Here’s a handy reminder:

Sunrise is in the east (->), so drive west (<-) in the morning.

Sunset is in the west (<-), so drive east (->) in the evening.

 But you will inevitably face a blinding sunrise or sunset along highways that run east-west. In that case, have a rest. The dangers outweigh any gains.

BONUS TIP: Don’t Wander Off

Of course, despite all your best-laid plans, “shit happens.” The Outback is an unpredictable place and will sometimes throw curveballs your way. If, for whatever reason, your car becomes incapable of moving, stay calm. Then, whatever you do, stay with your vehicle.

Rescue teams always find vehicles, but the occupants are usually found much, much later…as corpses a few kilometres away. Let me be clear: THERE IS NOTHING OUT THERE THAT WILL HELP YOU. YOUR CAR WILL BE FOUND. ALWAYS STAY WITH YOUR VEHICLE.


So, there you have it: ten things to do to survive in the Outback. Of course, these are very basic precautions and can be applied to travel in general, but if you’ve never driven in the Outback, this list is non-negotiable; These are the rules of the outback. Respect it, and it will respect you.

*                           *                           *

Thanks for reading! Be sure to check out other posts and share them around if you enjoyed it, I would really appreciate it! Stay safe out there and have a wonderful day – Jacob

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