17 Essential Tips for a Northern Territory Road Trip

A road trip through the Northern Territory is an incredible experience. Whether you choose to explore by 4WD camper, car or motorhome, there is a lot to know before you go.

Here we share 17 useful travel tips to ensure you get the most out of your trip to the NT.

If you are planning travel to Australia and the Northern Territory, make sure to read our post on the Perfect two week Itinerary for a Northern Territory Road Trip.

Northern Territory Road Trip Essentials

Campervan Hire

Choose the right vehicle

Choose a vehicle that suits the terrain you are planning to explore. The Northern Territory is a big place and it is possible to stay on paved roads or spend most of your time off road. It is up to you!

If you plan to visit places like Maguk (Barramundi) Gorge, Jim Jim Falls or Koolpin Gorge in Kakadu National Park, you will need to hire a high clearance 4WD. If you plan to travel only on paved roads to the main sites then a motorhome may be more comfortable / suitable for your trip.

If you prefer to stay in a hotel or cabin then a car will do just fine, although these are few and far between in the Northern Territory once you leave the major towns!

>> Click here to compare campervan and 4WD rental prices

Understand the rental agreement

There are a couple of important things you should check before signing the rental agreement:

  • Check the agreement includes enough kilometres for your planned itinerary. For example, if you plan to drive from Darwin to Uluru and back you will most likely need unlimited kilometres included, as it is a 4,000 km (2,485 miles) round trip!!
  • Check the insurance excess. Some campervans have a very high insurance excess (for example the 4WD Landcruiser  we hired had an $8000 AUD excess). Rental companies will typically offer packages to reduce the excess but these are often expensive.
  • Check if they have any special conditions you need to be aware of, such as areas/roads that are off limits. Ask questions so you are fully aware of your rental obligations.

Check all equipment before you go

We strongly suggest you check all equipment is in good working order before you leave. This can be a pain, but it is worthwhile. We had an inflatable bed mat that didn’t inflate and a light which we couldn’t hang up due to a broken clip on our recent road trip to NT.

Thankfully we were able to purchase and be reimbursed for a new bed mat, but if we weren’t near a store this would have been very annoying. And uncomfortable!

If you plan to go off road you will need to check you have a snatch strap, spade, and an Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon (EPIRB) in the event you get bogged or lost and there is no help available.

When activated the EPIRB transmits an emergency distress signal to Australian rescue authorities. This is especially important as mobile reception is poor in many outback areas in the Northern Territory. Obviously this should only be used as a last resort, but we found it quite comforting to know we had it onboard.

Northern Territory Road Trip Essentials: Know your vehicle when driving in the Outback

Avoid paying credit card fees

Many rental companies charge high fees for paying by credit card. If you want to avoid paying more for your campervan, we recommend transferring money instead with TransferWise.

Transferwise allows you to transfer money anywhere around the world at a fraction of the cost of a traditional bank transfer. Setting up an account is quick and easy.

>> Click here to see how much you can save with Transferwise

Driving in the Northern Territory

Have maps available offline

Mobile reception is terrible throughout many parts of Northern Territory. That is why we recommend you have a GPS on board.

Alternatively, download online maps prior to leaving. As a backup, when traveling in areas with poor reception we always carry a  paper map. The HEMA maps are excellent and we highlighly recommend them.

>> Click here to purchase the HEMA Northern Territory map.

Australian readers can see the local map price here

Drive to the road conditions

Always check with the local tourist information centre, the staff at campgrounds or the locals about current road closures and road conditions.

Also avoid driving after dark whenever possible. Wild animals including buffalo and kangaroos and emus make driving after sunset a very risky activity.

For more tips on driving in the outback read this article 

Wild Buffalo on the Road - Kakadu National Park

Things to do

Check the Ranger Program Schedule

When planning your itinerary, check the Free Ranger Program Schedules at each of the National Parks for a list of free ranger led activities available.

You can find the schedules for each of the Northern Territory National Parks in the links below:
Kakadu National Park Activities 
Nitmiluk National Park Activities
Litchfield National Park Ranger Led Activities

Note: There are very few activities running on the weekend in Kakadu National Park. We modified our itinerary to ensure we were able to join a Ranger guided walk at Ubirr and a basket weaving class.

Book tours in advance

For some activities, such as the sunset or sunrise cruise on Yellow Water Billabong, and canoeing at Nitmiluk Gorge, it is worthwhile booking in advance to secure your preferred day and time as they are very popular activities.

>> Click here to check the price for the Yellow Water Billabong Cruise

Avoid the crowds

Some waterfalls and swimming holes get very busy and it is worthwhile planning to visit them either in the early morning or late afternoon.

Buley Rockholes, Wangi Falls and Florence Falls in Litchfield National Park were particularly busy during the school holiday and peak season period.

The other way to avoid the crowds at many of the swimming holes is to walk a little further. Often there was more than one swimming hole and by walking a little extra we had the swimming hole to ourselves.

Be Croc Wise

Always read the signs and follow the instructions regarding swimming and crocodile safety. It can be a little disconcerting seeing the warning signs, but if you use common sense and take note of the local advice, swimming can still be loads of fun.

More information about crocodile safety can be found here.

Yellow Water Billabong Sunset Cruise, Kakadu National Park

Camping essentials

Arrive early at campgrounds

Many campgrounds in the National Parks operate on a first in first served basis. They cannot be booked in advance. For non-bookable campgrounds we suggest you try and arrive by lunch time as many of the campgrounds fill up quickly during the afternoon.

If you are looking to free camp on your Northern Territory road trip, then the WikiCamps app is essential. You can find more free camping hacks here.

Download the WikiCamps app now on Android or IOS.

Pack Right and Light

Be prepared for a road trip to the Outback with our Road Trip Packing List.

It can be tempting to fill the car with travel accessories to cover every possibility, but it soon becomes a mess and difficult to find a home for everything each day as you pack and unpack the car.

Our best tip is to pack what you need, but don’t over pack the car. Pack as many re-usable and eco-friendly products as possible to reduce waste and minimise impacts to the gorgeous parks you visit. If you are taking your own vehicle and plan to camp instead of hiring a 4WD camper, this camping checklist will ensure you don’t forget anything.

To keep clothing organised, different sized packing cubes make a huge difference, especially when traveling with kids.

Have cash on hand

Ensure you have a supply of cash in small bills to pay for self-managed campsites. At these sites you fill in your details on an envelope and money is placed in the envelope and left at the campground. No change and no card payments are available.

Charge devices en route

Many campgrounds are unpowered, so if you have electronic devices such as mobile phones, kindles, laptops, camera batteries, charge them whilst you are driving.

Camping Essentials - Setting up camp in Kakadu National Park

Fuel and Food Essentials

Top up your fuel regularly

Always fill up your fuel tank when you pass a gas station. There are large stretches of nothing in the Northern Territory and you may not know when your next opportunity will be.

Plan meals in advance

There are large distances between supermarkets and few restaurants out of the main towns. For that reason we recommend you keep groceries topped up whenever you pass a supermarket.

It can be challenging to squeeze large quantities of groceries in to your campervan, but supermarkets are not that common in the Top End once you leave Darwin.

There are major supermarkets in Darwin and Katherine. Jabiru also has a supermarket with a good but basic range of groceries. Small (more expensive) general stores are in Pine Creek, Batchelor, and Adelaide River.

Gas for cooking

In terms of cooking, many smaller campervans come with a portable gas stove that runs on butane gas canisters. Make sure you have a number of extra butane gas canisters on hand so you don’t run out when you are far from anywhere! They can be purchased at most supermarkets.

The number of gas canisters you will need depends on how often and what type of food you cook. To give you an idea, on our recent Northern Territory Road Trip we used 8 canisters in 14 days for a family of 4. We used the gas most mornings for coffee and toast and every evening to prepare dinner.

Carry plenty of drinking water

It is very important to stay hydrated on your road trip to the Top End. Dehydration can easily sneak up on you when daily temperatures are over 30 C (86 F) each day.

Note that drinking water is not always available at campgrounds. Ensure you have a jerry can suitable for storing drinking water in your campervan. Otherwise you can purchase 10L boxes of spring water at most supermarkets.

Hiking in the Northern Territory

Pack plenty of water

Ensure you take sufficient drinking water when hiking in the Northern Territory. Due to the high day time temperatures, it is recommended to carry at least 3 litres per person per day.

That is a lot of water to carry! We find the only way it is possible to carry enough water for 4 people is by placing a hydration reservoir in each day pack.

Hydration reservoirs hold a lot more water than water bottles and they come in all shapes and sizes.  They are also more comfortable to carry than multiple water bottles as the weight is distributed more evenly in the pack. Our favorite hydration reservoir system is the Camelbak. It is even possible for a child to carry a small hydration backpack like this one.

>> Click here to see the Camelbak options and styles

Australian readers click here to see local Camelbak prices and options

Start your hike early

The heat can make hiking challenging, particularly with kids. Even in June/July, temperatures can reach 30 C (86 F) by late morning.

We recommend you set off at sunrise to beat the worst of the heat. Plan to return by early afternoon for a swim to cool off!

Northern Territory travel tips - Set off hiking at Sunrise to avoid the heat

More information

If you are looking for help to plan your Top End itinerary, check out our 2 week Northern Territory Road Trip Itinerary.

To make packing for your trip easy we share our full Outback Australia packing list here. Complete with a free downloadable checklist, we cover everything you need to pack for a trip to the Northern Territory.

For more information about the Northern Territory and the National Parks, here are some great resources to help plan your trip:

Book your Northern Territory Road Trip

For campervan rental in the Northern Territory we recommend Motorhome Republic . They are one of the biggest motorhome rental companies in the world and offer great deals on a large range of vans.

For flights to Darwin or Alice Springs, your best bet is to start your search on Skyscanner. Remember to try and book outside school holidays for a better deal.

Search for hotels in Darwin on HotelsCombined. With over 260 options you are sure to find the perfect place.

For multi-day tours out of Darwin, visit Viator for a wide range of options.

You may also like:

2 week Northern Territory Road Trip Itinerary
Outback Australia Packing List
10 Best Road Trip Activities for Kids

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About Rachel Rodda

Rachel is the founder and writer for Adventure and Sunshine. She has been exploring the world with a backpack since her early twenties and threw it all in to take her kids around the world on a Family Gap Year in 2017. She is passionate about family adventure travel and helping others adventure more.

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