Australian Outback Survival
How To Survive In The Australian Outback

Australian Outback survival: how do you stay alive when it's 45°C in the shade and the next water tap is well over 1000 km away?

I say, it's easy. Just don't do anything flat out stupid and you'll be right...

Honest, most of the time when I read Outback survival tips that are given to normal travellers, and read some of the recommendations, I shake my head.

Please note that I talk about normal travellers here. Bush survival is a great skill, and I nothing but admire people who go on week long hikes with little or no equipment. I have an interest in bush foods and know a lot of them, I wish I knew how to light a fire without matches, and I certainly wouldn't be above eating grasshoppers if I had to.

If that's the kind of thing you are looking for, good on you. If you have a chance to do a course on that, go for it. I would.

But none of those skills are in any way important to your survival if you, the average traveller, get lost in the Outback. And to make out that you need to be an expert in all that to survive in the Australian Outback is ridiculous. Unless of course you want to cross it on foot...

Read some travelogues and blogs of people who have been on tours through the Australian Outback, often titled "How I survived the rugged Outback" and similar, and you can be forgiven for thinking that this is one of the most lethal places in the world, with venomous creatures lurking at every step of the way, and where only the very toughest and fittest will make it to the other side. Yawn.

After living here for many years I happen to know what their tour was really like. The toughest part was that they had to put up their tent themselves and that there was no chocolate on the pillow...

Death in the Australian Outback

The opposite of Australian Outback survival is obviously death, and sadly the Outback does claim an average of 40 lives a year. Sounds lethal, doesn't it? Until you look at the details.

The deaths that receive widespread publicity are the deaths of people who got lost and perished because they made one or two crucial mistakes. Usually these mistakes are not taking enough water in the first place, and not staying with their vehicle when they became stuck or lost. (More about that later.)

But most deaths are due to rather unspectacular mistakes: drinking, speeding, and swerving for wildlife. It's as simple as that. Remote Australian Outback tracks are obviously not policed in any way. The great distances tempt people to put the pedal to the metal, and drinking and driving is sadly a very common habit out here as well, due to the scant chance of being caught.

Even the much policed roads kill people. The Lasseter Highway from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock is an excellent bitumen road, and one of the deadliest in Australia. Why? It's busy, most tourists underestimate the distance, and they are in a mad rush to fit the rock into their hectic schedule. And then these numbers are used to underline how hard it is to survive in the Outback.

You don't have to go to the Australian Outback to get yourself killed drinking and speeding...

What about the other deaths? The people who got stuck or lost and perished in the Australian Outback?

Let's first define what part of the Australian Outback we are talking about. Many Europeans and Americans seem to think a drive from Adelaide to Alice Springs, or to Darwin, or a detour to Ayers Rock, is a dangerous Outback survival adventure.

It's just a very long drive, that's all. A long drive on a normal road, a busy road, actually, with normal service stations and shops in very reasonable distances. Nothing to worry about.

One tourist reported on his blog that you need to take a tour to Kakadu National Park because there are no roads in the park, and it's too dangerous if not impossible to self drive. Goodness gracious. Kakadu has probably the very best roads of all national parks here, the best signage, the best facilities at every corner, and it is packed with people most of the time.

We're not talking about all the well known tourist attractions. If you stick to the usual stuff you don't need to worry about a thing, except don't get sunburned, and don't get heat struck. (Wear a hat and take a bottle of water on walks. How hard is that?). Oh, and watch where you are walking. If it has scales and slithers don't stand on it.

Australian Outback Survival
Before You Go

What we're talking about are the areas that are well off the beaten track, the big desert crossings, or the little detours that you might be tempted to take.

Even if you are only a few kilometres out of the way, if nobody ever goes there you might as well be out of the world and Australian Outback survival can become a challenge. It's easy to get lost in the confusing network of faint tracks that criss-cross the red dirt. If all you have with you is a can of Coke and a Mars bar you're not really in a good position...

If you're an Aussie you might have a few beers instead, and the melting ice in the esky, but be honest, how long is that gonna last? You might be there for quite a few days...

The truth is that it's actually the locals who most often get caught this way. We get a bit careless, thinking we know the place so well, and anyway, it wouldn't happen to us.

So, before you venture into any remote regions, take just a few very, very simple precautions. It's so easy to survive out here.

Australian Outback Survival Rule #1:
Take enough water. The single most important thing, the only one that really matters out here, is water. Don't work on two litres per person per day, work on ten. As long as you have water you will live. Simple. You can never carry too much water, and you can't survive without. All your fire lighting, grasshopper cooking skills won't do no good if you run out of water. Got that?

Australian Outback Survival Rule #2:
Let someone know where you're going, and when you intend to be back. If nobody notices you missing, nobody will go looking for you. Even the biggest water reserves will run out eventually, and let's face it, grasshoppers may be a delicacy to some, but grasshoppers every day...?

Additional Precautions:
Know thy vehicle. And know what it can and can't do. There are real four wheel drives, and then there are the toy four wheel drives for city slickers. A Toyota Hilux or Landcruiser is real, a BMW X5 isn't...

Make sure you know how to drive the car. People nearly died when all they had to do to become unstuck was engage the four wheel drive. People have died because they didn't know that deflating the tyres a bit will get you out of soft sand. (Actually, they died because they left their car and tried to walk back...)

I spell out a few tips for first timers on this page about driving in the Australian Outback.

That page also includes such obvious advice as taking good maps, enquiring about the current road conditions etc.

If you go an a serious trip take a satellite phone to call for help if something goes wrong, and an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) which will let people know where to find you. It's the best Australian Outback survival insurance there is. The Outback is a vast place...

(Here's a reader question asking for advice about EPIRBs versus satellite phones.)

Australian Outback Survival
Breaking Down And Getting Lost

Australian Outback Survival Rule #3:
Stay with your vehicle! A vehicle is much easier to find in the bush than a person. Walking will cost energy that you might need, you will lose more moisture than if you just rest in the shade of your vehicle, and you can only take a few litres of water. A few litres will last a few hours, and that's the end of it. Of you! Got that?

Additional Tips:
If you can, move your vehicle to an open spot so it can be seen. Open the bonnet so it's obvious that you are in trouble, in case someone sees you without you noticing them. If you aren't alone take turns sleeping. It would be a bit of a shame if you missed getting rescued because you were asleep when the rescuers came...

If you can do so safely light a fire and keep it going. But make sure it doesn't get away. If you can think of other things to increase your visibility (like making a sign with white rocks in the red sand) go ahead. But do it in the cool of the evening or early morning!

As long as you've let someone know about your trip they will eventually notice you missing, and rescuers will come! Preserve your energy, preserve water, and wait.

At the end of the day that's only three simple rules that you need to follow to survive in the Australian Outback. The Outback is no more dangerous than your city is. It's only that its hazards are unfamiliar to most people.

To venture off the beaten track in the Australian Outback without following those rules is just like stepping out onto a busy road from between parked cars without looking left and right. Stupidity can kill you anywhere.

Australian Outback survival related articles:
EPIRB versus satellite phone
Driving Across The Australian Outback
Dangerous Australian Outback Animals

Return to top

Find more articles and information about the Australian Outback

Return from Australian Outback Survival to Outback Australia Travel Guide home page

Home > The Australian Outback > Survival In The Australian Outback