Kangaroos, emus and cute Koalas. Australia is a unique destination and one of the best ways to experience all it has to offer, is to go on your own Australian road trip. I know you are thinking how accommodation costs eat away at money reserves, what with Dorm beds hovering around $40/night and budget hotels around $100. But I have great news! Free Camping in Australia will save you tons of money.
More importantly, free camping provides authentic and priceless Australian experiences.
What You Will Find in This Post
Our Australian Camping Credentials
Are we qualified to offer advice?
We have been exploring Australia on and off in two different caravans over the last eight years in Queensland and New South Wales. We’ve also camped in an RV for 3 weeks in Canada including the beautiful Banff to Jasper trip, but that is another story!
There was our caravan trip from Townsville to the Gold Coast return.
Back in the 80’s we drove our Nissan E20 long wheel base Campervan 6,000 km from Perth in Western Australia, up the west coast and across northern Australia to Townsville. Our van had overheating problems if we drove at speed, so we did the whole trip at 80kph. Talk about Slow Travel!
300 km of that distance (between Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek) was then unsealed road. The fine red dust that hid the potholed and corrugated road base infiltrated every nook and cranny. (Look at dust-proofing your vehicle when travelling over dirt roads).
In 1987 we undertook a two month/6000km trip towing our then camping trailer behind a Commodore Station Wagon. We experienced a lot of Australia on that trip from Townsville in North Queensland to Adelaide in South Australia and return – all with our 6-8 month old baby along for the ride.
In the intervening years we’ve camped in tents extensively with the family, from The Daintree in Far North Queensland to the Sunshine Coast, including Magnetic Island near Townsville. Although most of Magnetic Island is National Park (no free camping allowed) there are paid camp sites at Bungalow Bay Backpackers Horseshoe Bay and Base Backpackers Nelly Bay.
And then there are our mother and daughter four day tent camping week-ends at Palm Creek Folk Festival south of Townsville. What happens at Palm Creek stays at Palm Creek!
We’ve become avid free campers.
In the last few years we’ve embraced free camping and met many interesting people as a result. We’ve stayed in diverse places we wouldn’t otherwise have stayed and saved a lot of money in the process.
To put it simply – we’re hooked on Free Camping.
Whether camping short-term or planning an epic road trip around Australia the free camping guide we’ve compiled below is designed to both realise the potential of free camping and answer your questions.
What are free camps like in Australia?
Iconic Australian Camping Spots
Free Camping spots are some of the best camping spots in Australia. You could well find a secluded piece of Australiana – by a lazy river or close to crashing surf.
Free Roadside Camping places
With huge distances between Aussie towns, the less glamorous free roadside stops really come into their own. Long distance truck-drivers regularly use these roadside camps and as they run generators at night, camp well away if you’re a light sleeper.
In the free camping guide below I’ve called on the expertise of some fellow bloggers, to share their favourite free camping tips. But I’m getting ahead of myself – first of all you will need a vehicle.
Finding a Vehicle for Camping
Short term travellers might consider renting/hiring a campervan. It is easy and relatively affordable for short trips.
- Aussie Campervans
- Apollo Camper
- Hippie Campers
- Wicked Campers
- Camper Champ – Comparison site.
- Vroom Vroom Vroom – Comparison site.
Purchasing your own vehicle for free camping in Australia
For longer term travellers, ownership is the way to go. Once purchased, your vehicle can be resold at the end of the trip recouping the investment, while ongoing fuel costs can be reduced by inviting others to ride-share.
Look in car dealerships and on-line at Gumtree for a vehicle and while you’re about it – Gumtree is also a good place to buy used camping gear.
Regardless of where you buy, their guide below contains handy information.
- Choosing a vehicle
- Registration and Insurance
- Mechanical check list
- Outback Travel Requirements
Camping Vehicles are called different things around the world. The below options use Australian terminology.
The most popular vehicle for those on a budget is the humble station wagon. It comes with a large flat space in the rear, plus the back seat folds down to make it even larger – the perfect sleeping platform for two. Add a cheap mattress and a mosquito net and bob’s your uncle.
Station Wagons are a cheap stand alone option, although some travellers choose to use the back area to store camping gear/luggage and sleep outside of the car in a small tent.
It’s also common for four to share a station wagon with two sleeping in the back and two in tents, or everyone in tents and all the gear in the back. It’s a great way to save money.
Keep in mind that it’s not always possible to set up tents at roadside stops.
The blue station wagon in the photo above has the rear door open to allow air-flow with a (bed) net to deter mosquitoes. You can see in the photo that the mosquito net has a circular top but I think a square top would work as well. The white campervan has a specialised mosquito net over the open side door. They are parked beside an internal road in a roadside free camp. During summer in tropical areas of Australia it is too hot to sleep with the doors closed without fan or air-conditioning.
4WD and All Wheel Drive Vehicles.
All Wheel Drive Vehicles have more traction than 2 wheel drive vehicles but not as much as 4WD vehicles. To my mind (you may disagree) all wheel drives are basically a poor man’s 4WD. Having a 4WD opens up more of the world of camping around Australia, in particular beach camping in more isolated places. Having said that, free camping is totally doable without one.
Most Campervans are not much longer than a Station Wagon but have more height inside with a small kitchen and a bed that transforms to seats and a table. Fancier vans have a two way gas/12 volt fridge while others make do with an Esky (Cooler with Ice).
Larger Camper vans (called Motorhomes) are the Australian equivalent of an RV, with a kitchen and bathroom.
A camping trailer is a small trailer towed behind a vehicle. The trailer contains a fold-out tent and annexe. It may include a roll-out kitchen and storage space and usually a mattress for two above ground on the trailer with space for folding beds in the annexe. Look on Buy Swap and Sell Facebook sites for them plus used camping gear bargains.
There is a different kind of Camper Trailer. It is a hard bodied mini-caravan (Jayco is one brand) with a hard pop-top that folds down and clips to the base when being towed. It has canvas/insect-screened sides enclosing a living area with kitchen sink, table and seats, plus sleeping platforms that pop out each end.
We towed ours (the hard bodied type) with a Commodore Station Wagon with our baby sleeping in the canvas pop-out sleeping area with a bed edge. We realised after several sleepless nights that her canvas covered bed was much colder than our end which was fibreglass and she was crying from being cold!
Caravans are towed by a vehicle.
In USA they are called camping trailers, but not here in Oz. The more expensive ones contain toilet/ shower/possibly a washing machine and air-con. In Australia there are strict rules about the pulling capacity of the vehicle required to tow a caravan. The weight of the caravan and the towing capacity of your vehicle must be compatible.
Planning a Lap Around Australia is a great Facebook group for everything caravan and camping in Australia.
The Pros of Caravans
- Loads of storage space
- Larger refrigerator
- Can be detached from your vehicle when sight-seeing
- Ease of food preparation
- Quick set up time on arrival
The Cons of Caravans
- Expertise needed when towing a caravan
- Expensive to purchase
- Increased fuel consumption for towing vehicle
- Not suitable for all roads
ⓘ Whatever camping vehicle you decide upon, you may want or need a portable toilet. This article compares the surprising range available.
Kathy Marris from 50 Shades of Age
On our big lap around Australia in 2014 we discovered not only a vast country full of beauty and wonder, but we also discovered a lot of information and tips that made our trip a whole lot easier.
Like a lot of fellow “Big Lappers” we initially purchased our copy of Camps9 from RACQ. It is a comprehensive “camping around Australia book” detailing rest areas and camp spots throughout Australia. Although a wonderful resource, it is bulky, heavy, expensive and not easy to read whilst you’re travelling along trying to make a decision on where to camp for the night!
Fortunately, early into our trip another traveller put us on to the WikiCamps App, a free camping app that we downloaded onto our phone. Unlike Camps9, WikiCamps is a database of camping spots, added to, modified and shared by thousands of travellers constantly, so it is right up to date. It also gives you the exact location of the free camping site, with co-ordinates that you can plot into your GPS Navigational Device. It indicates full information of the camp site, if it has toilets, showers, water, power and is dog-friendly. Plus there are great reviews written by people that have stayed at the camp spots.
I think WikiCamps Australia is the absolute must have of camping accessories when you’re doing the Big Lap, or even for shorter camping holidays within Australia.
ⓘ I totally agree Kathy. We use the Wikicamps Australia App and love it. Like your experience, we first heard about it from another traveller while sitting around a campfire one night. Another thing I love is how the App also details paid camps and local points of interest. Wikicamps App Cost $7.99 AUD.
How to Make Great Fresh Coffee when Free Camping
Jean Cheney from Traveling Honey Bird
You won’t find any bland instant coffee in our camping kitchen box. Just because we are outdoors enjoying mother nature doesn’t mean we can’t have great fresh coffee. Hiking, biking or free camping it doesn’t matter – we also take a small coffee machine to get the best espresso experience possible. It’s such a simple pleasure that it seems silly to go without.
If space isn’t an issue then you can’t go past a Moka pot. These sturdy pots are easy to put over the fireplace or on a small gas stovetop. The small size and ease of use make them perfect for those early mornings caffeine needs. We even have a small battery operated whisk to fluff up some warm milk.
If we do decide to hike then a must take is a small hand held espresso maker like a Wacaco minipresso. This small hand held espresso maker is super simple to use. Just add coffee to the basket and hot water in the barrel, then pump, pump, pump to extract a beautiful shot of coffee – short, sweet and so easy to make and drink.
The one thing that people forget is to have a decent travel mug! We love our GSI mugs (shown in the photo) for keeping the coffee nice and warm.
Camp next to rivers, lakes or beaches
Rachel from Adventure and Sunshine
We love free camping in Australia, but one of the challenges is access to both drinking water and bathing facilities.
If we are planning to free camp for more than a few days in one place, we look for a site next to waterway. Beaches are good, but rivers and lakes are better.
Not only does a river or lake give you a source of drinking water (once boiled), it is a lovely natural bath too!
We recommend avoiding the use of soap when washing in the river. A thorough rinse when swimming is usually enough to get by until you reach the next stop with a proper shower.
On a similar note, when you wash dishes make sure to tip the soapy water out on dry land, well away from the river.
Free camping comes with responsibility. It is important to protect our waterways from pollution any way we can.
Get a Solar Lantern
Sally from Our 3 Kids V The World
I recently come across a new camping light on the market and was lucky enough to be able to road test it on a recent camping trip. Perfect for people who like to go off the grid, out of the caravan parks and therefore have no power. It is a solar puff lantern from SOLIGHT Design. Not only is it solar powered (no more batteries to worry about) but also water proof, collapses flat (so easy to pack), has a velcro strap on the rear and each charge provides EIGHT hours of light.
During our camping trip I utilised the velcro strap and strapped it to the pole behind my head and used it as a reading light, plus we strapped it to the top of the tent as a light to put the kids to bed by each night. It was perfect for my midnight dash to the loo and the girls kept a spare one in their tent. First thing in the morning it went out on top of the tent to recharge for free in the sun.
Perfect gift for someone who loves cool camping gear by the way.
A Solar Panel is Invaluable
Emma Walmsley from Small Footprints Big Adventures
We have recently started travelling around Australia in an old caravan and as we’re trying to do it as sustainably as possible, have invested in a 300 watt solar panel. It outputs enough power to fully charge a 100AH AGM deep-cycle battery, which keeps up with our little camping fridge and the LED lights in the van.
We find this perfect when we free camp, as the fridge and lights are essentials in our opinion. As we can power them anytime from the solar panel our food lasts well and we don’t need to rely on torches or lamps at night with young kids.
Another Aussie road trip tip we try to stick to, is to arrive at our free camping spot by 4-5pm at the latest, to get set up for the night before it gets too dark. Collecting firewood, setting up the portable toilet and other outdoor gear is so much easier in daylight.
Solar panels like those Emma suggests are great for all campers, even tent campers. While newer caravans have fixed solar panels on the roof, this free-style type are great because you can position them in the sun, even if your van or camp is in shade. Arriving early is essential at popular free camps as space is often restricted. Night falls quickly in Australia, especially in the northern states.
Leave No Trace
Kati Craythorn from Queensland and Beyond
One of the fundamental principles of hiking and camping, is to leave no trace. It’s amazing how often this seemingly simple principle is disregarded, and cans or wrappers are strewn about campsites.
Leave no trace is an internationally accepted principle that entails treating the environment with respect and minimising our impact on the places we visit.
Put simply, it’s about leaving a place in the same state it was found, or at least, as much as possible.
This is often taken to mean taking all our rubbish home. And yes, that is a big and important part (and one that I find is all too often ignored), but leave no trace involves far more.
It includes avoiding places, e.g. free campsites, at peak times and thereby minimising the stress we’re placing on our chosen spot. It’s about not trampling down vegetation to create new sites where others already exist. It means not camping too close to water sources (at least 50m away) to protect lakes, rivers and the ocean. It’s about getting rid of waste in responsible ways, and yes, this includes toilet waste and dirty, soapy water.
Beyond that, leave no trace also means not getting too close to wildlife and respecting culturally significant sites.
When free camping our impact on nature can be so much greater than within established campgrounds, so following the leave no trace principles is key.
Take a small sharp gardening shovel for digging a toilet hole and backfilling where no amenities exist.
Be Water Wise
Finding fresh drinking water in Australia.
Finding fresh drinking water to fill your caravan tanks when free camping is not always straight forward, so conserving water is critical. Some sources of water (and dump points) include, commercial caravan parks, local Showgrounds (Showground Camping in Australia provides good low-cost camping), service stations and RV Friendly towns.
When travelling in remote areas of Australia, it is wise to carry an additional 20 litres of extra drinking water in a separate container.
Wikicamps App as mentioned above, also advises sources of water.
Conserve water when Camping in Australia.
It is amazing just how much water is used in basic daily living. In a house, water is always available albeit at a cost, but although caravans and camper vans do have taps/faucets, the tank’s holding capacity is limited.
Our caravan has two water tanks that jointly hold 160 litres. Between showering, dish washing and toilet flushing, it soon disappears. I’ve become compulsive about conserving water.
Showering in a caravan.
For us it’s a case of getting wet, turning the water off, soaping up and then turning the water on again to rinse off. Luckily Marty has no hair and mine is very short so we don’t use much water shampooing.
Less Washing and Cleaning.
We each have our own cup and drinking glass and re-use them without washing every single time. I have also been known to wash certain clothes at the same time as showering, just by having them underfoot (no judgements please!).
Use less pans when cooking.
Another way to save water is to cook one pot meals. I adore this tip and love rising to the challenge of using just one pan. The more dishes used, the more cleaning is required and besides it is just so easy and convenient. Now if we were being really stingy with water we could eat from the pan it was cooked in…
It is not unusual to use around 30 litres per person per day, resulting in only 2.5 days supply.
Use a dish washing tub when Camping.
A plastic dish-washing tub is one of the best camping accessories you can have with you when camping in Australia. They are so versatile and can be purchased anywhere from a supermarket to a camping shop. Pack the tub with things on your camping list that might leak, like washing up liquid, cooking oil or shampoo. When it is time for dishwashing, the tub will be vacant and you will be ready to save water.
Anaconda, BCF and Camping World are some camping stores in Australia.
On innumerable occasions I’ve noticed campers washing dishes beneath a running tap in a camping area. This wastes a lot of water and Australia needs to conserve water. Free campgrounds might only have one tap, so it’s best to partially fill your tub leaving the tap free for fellow campers.
Pack a durable and comfortable camping chair.
By Jan from Budget Travel Talk.
You can buy cheap camping chairs and I’ve done so only to find they give me a sore back. I can’t sit in them comfortably and eventually I throw them away.
If you’re towing a caravan in Australia you should be conscious of the weight of everything in your van to comply with towing regulations. So the weight of the chair may be of importance to you.
Personally I love the convenience of chairs with mini tables attached and camping chairs that recline.
The Verdict on Free Camping in Australia
Now that we’ve been free camping for a few years, we know we will always continue to do so.
Do we exclusively Free Camp?
The answer is no.
Sometimes we stay in paid Commercial Caravan Parks. The reasons for this are three fold:
- We want to camp in a particular location and there are no free camps in the area, or it is expressly not allowed.
- We need to top up our drinking water and/or use a dump point or other facilities like a swimming pool.
- In inclement weather we may wish to use our air-conditioner which does not run on 12 volt power.
Has this post fired your imagination and given you an idea of what free camping in Australia is like? Have you visited our Australia Travel Blog?