Outback survival guide

By: Colin Kerr, Photography by: Colin Kerr

When you’re heading out bush you need to be prepared. Here are some tips for getting lost and back again in one piece.

Outback survival guide
Taking a basic vehicle recovery kit with you is essential

Exploring the vast Australian outback is a memorable experience and the huge variety of attractions on offer have never been easier to access, with better vehicles, more self-sufficient offroad caravans and campers, better maps and navigational aids, and more services and facilities available throughout the country.

But there are still dangers lurking out there which can not only spoil your long-planned holiday or retirement travels, but could lead to real disaster and, at worst, even death. This can usually be avoided with good preparation and forward planning.


Obtain the best and most up-to-date paper maps available for the areas in which you will be travelling and, if you are quite remote, a topographical map with large scale mapping perhaps down to 1:25,000 could be handy. In-car sat/nav systems (and even smartphones) are also extremely good these days, but always carry paper maps in support.

Where possible, it is best to travel with another vehicle as one can help out the other in case of a breakdown or other emergency.


Taking a basic vehicle recovery kit with you is essential. Click here to find out what essentials you should include in your kit.

In remote regions, mobile phones or CB radios probably won’t be of any use. As an alternative, consider hiring or buying an HF radio which can put you in touch with other users, HF radio bases (such as the 737 network) or RFDS bases around the country.

A satellite telephone (which can be hired) is another good option to help you keep in touch with friends, family or emergency services. These are much cheaper than they used to be.

Travellers should also carry emergency supplies and equipment, including a first aid kit, compass, plenty of water, spare fuel, signalling mirror, torch, waterproof matches, water sterilisation, plus a knife and whistle.


Ensure your vehicle is in first class mechanical condition with an adequate supply of spares, including fan belt, engine hoses, two spare tyres, tow ball, extra fuel and water.

Carry your water (at least 5-6L per person, per day, plus a margin for your vehicle and emergencies) in several different containers, so that if one container is punctured or splits, you haven’t lost your entire supply.

When heading into really remote country, always leave details of your trip, including your estimated time of return or arrival at a particular place, with a responsible friend, relative and/or local police or rangers.


If, at any time, you do become lost or break down, first and foremost – don’t panic! Sit down in a comfortable, shady spot, have a drink, make a cuppa and try to work out, using a map and compass, your best route to safety. If you’re broken down, it is worthwhile to work out the problem and determine whether, with the help of your vehicle handbook, you are able to get yourself mobile again.

If it comes to the stage that you are totally lost, or your vehicle is completely immobilised, then it’s time for you to work out how you’re going to get out safely and alive. You need to think things through and don’t rush into an action as that may make things even worse.


Firstly, remember your best chance of survival is to remain with your vehicle and spend the hot hours of the day in the shade, using as little energy as possible. A vehicle is much easier to find than a lone person and all vehicles have a reasonable amount of survival gear as part of their normal equipment.


If you’re alone, and after much cautious thinking you do decide to leave your vehicle for a short distance walk to safety or water, always leave a message of your planned walk and directions on your vehicle. Make sure you mark your trail if you are not walking on a defined track so you can find your way back. Only leave your vehicle, however, if you are certain you can reach safety or help by nightfall.


Assuming you decide to remain with your vehicle and you have concluded that your best chance of survival is to rely on someone finding you, there are a few other things you can do to improve your chances.

Make a fire, particularly a smoky one, which can often be seen for many miles. Three fires in a triangle about 30m apart is an even better signal to attract attention from the air. Use can use oil from your car engine as well as your spare tyre and tube on your fire (progress to your other tyres and tubes as the days go on). You can also use green shrubs for plenty of smoke. Property owners, if there are any within sight of your fire, will always come and investigate a fire on their property. Be careful to clear the area around your fire/s so that you don’t accidentally start a bushfire which could make things even worse.

One of the safety precautions often taken by regular outback travellers who have a boat at home is to take some of their boat safety gear with them including the flares and V-sheet (an orange plastic sheet with a large black ‘V’ which can be spread on the ground or on top of your vehicle and can be readily seen from the air). The letter ‘V’ means you require assistance.

You could also build a large ‘SOS’ in a cleared area near your vehicle with sticks, rocks or other sizeable objects – just make sure it is big enough to be seen from the air.


In a survival situation, you must remember, above all else, to look after your body. The four most important ingredients for remaining alive are water, warmth, shelter and food. In different situations, the relative importance of warmth and shelter may change but in outback Australia, dehydration and exposure are the prime killers.

If your water supplies are low, it is better to avoid eating as it takes precious body fluids to digest food and you can live a lot longer without food than water. In fact, the average person can last for several weeks or more without food but, especially in hot conditions, people can perish in just a few days without water.

If you have water, never just sip it. Always have a good drink – a cupful at least. Sipping does not prevent dehydration and can severely reduce your chances of remaining lucid. There have been numerous recorded cases where people have been found with sufficient water with them, but they have still died from dehydration.

Above all, don’t panic and the chances of coming back alive and well are greatly improved.

Click here to read more Caravan World features

The full feature appeared in Caravan World #537 May 2015. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!