A road trip through the Northern Territory is an incredible experience and it is worth doing a little planning before you go. Unlike many other Australian road trips, the Australian Outback has a few unique factors you need to take into account for a successful trip.
So if you are planning a road trip to the Top End, our Outback Australia road trip essentials are a great place to start. We share 17 useful travel tips to ensure you get the most out of your trip to the NT.
We cover all the basic information you need to plan your trip plus some insider tips to ensure you have a great (and safe) time.
So whether you choose to explore the Outback by 4WD camper, car or motorhome, these Northern Territory camping and road trip essentials will give you plenty of ideas to help you plan to ultimate Outback Experience.
- 1 Outback Australia Road Trip Essentials
- 2 Campervan Hire
- 3 Driving in the Northern Territory
- 4 Things to do
- 5 Outback Camping Essentials
- 6 Fuel and Food Essentials
- 7 Hiking in the Northern Territory
- 8 More information
- 9 Book your Northern Territory Road Trip
Outback Australia Road Trip Essentials
In this article we cover plenty of Outback Australia road trip advice. So whether you are traveling to the Top End or Western Australia, these road trip tips will help you plan your trip.
We cover everything from the best type of vehicle rental, where to camp and how to get around.
If you are planning a Northern Territory road trip, here are two more articles to read in conjunction with this one:
Choose the right vehicle
Our first tip is to 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 take or 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 hotels are few and far between in the Northern Territory once you leave the major towns!
There are plenty of rental companies based in Darwin who offer return or one way rentals to other destinations like Broome or Alice Springs.
Due to high demand and a small window for travel in the dry season they do book out early, so we highly recommend booking as far in advance as you can to secure your vehicle of choice.
For a quick price check you can compare campervan and 4WD rental prices here.
Understand the rental agreement
One of the most important tips in our list of Outback Australia road trip essentials is to understand your rental agreement.
Driving conditions in the Outback can be much more variable than on on the East Coast so it is important to understand the agreement and any costs you will be liable for in the event of an accident.
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 the equipment in your rental is in good working order before you leave.
This can be a pain, and take a while, but it is absolutely 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 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.
A portable 4×4 air compressor is also handy to make travel off road more comfortable and is usually available to hire with your vehicle.
Avoid paying credit card fees
Many rental companies charge high fees for paying by credit card. They also need to hold your (often large) excess on a credit card for the duration of your trip.
If you are travelling from overseas and want to avoid paying more for your campervan than you need to, 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. We use and love Transferwise and highly recommend them.
Transfer money internationally with ease with Transferwise.
Transferwise is an online money transfer service which lets you quickly and easily transfer money much more cheaply than a bank.
Driving in the Northern Territory
Mobile reception is terrible throughout many parts of Northern Territory. That is why we recommend you have a GPS on board.
In addition it is useful to download online maps prior to leaving. And as a backup, when traveling in areas with poor reception we always carry a paper map.
The HEMA maps are excellent and we highly recommend them for Outback Australia. Click here to purchase the HEMA Northern Territory map.
Alternatively, the HEMA Australia Road Trip and 4WD Atlas includes detailed maps, 4wd tracks, fuel stops, campsites and points of interest, all in one convenient spiral bound book. Click here to see the HEMA Road Trip Atlas.
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 as they can change regularly.
If you are traveling in the shoulder seasons always confirm the roads and campgrounds you want to visit are open as some areas take longer than others to open up after the wet season.
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
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:
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 with local indigenous women.
Book tours in advance
For some activities, such as the gorgeous 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.
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.
Many of the waterholes in Kakadu are monitored for crocodiles at the end of the wet season and local information will confirm if it is safe to swim.
More information about crocodile safety can be found here.
Outback Camping Essentials
Arrive early at campgrounds
Many campgrounds in the National Parks operate on a first in first served basis so they cannot be booked in advance.
One of our top road trip Australia tips for non-bookable campgrounds is to try and arrive by lunch time as many of the campgrounds fill up quickly during the afternoon.
If you still have more exploring to do with your car in the afternoon, simply leave a table and chairs on the site so others know it has been taken.
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.
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 for the ranger to collect. No change and no card payments are available.
Often the ranger will come through the busier campgrounds in the early evening and check payment has been made.
How to Charge devices
Most campgrounds are unpowered, so if you have electronic devices such as mobile phones, kindles, laptops, camera batteries, or lighting there are a couple of options to keep them charged.
Your first option is to charge your devices whilst you are driving.
- To charge your devices you will need a 12v USB port adaptor. Click here to see our favorite adaptor.
- For laptops and camera batteries you will need a voltage inverter like this one if you are from the US for 110V or this one if you are from Australia / UK for 240V. It runs off the cigarette lighter in the car and larger wattage options can charge off the car battery too.
Your second option is to carry solar panels.
There is an amazing array of portable solar panels for campervans on the market.
If you are planning a longer trip it is absolutely worth looking in to the different set ups and finding one that works with your van.
Fuel and Food Essentials
Top up your fuel regularly
Always fill up your fuel tank when you pass a gas station, even if you have half a tank.
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 large 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 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.
In addition, consider traveling with a water filter bottle. They are handy on hikes to top up water from rivers and waterholes and a useful backup in campgrounds without drinking water if you run out.
We use and love the Grayl Geopress and have travelled around the world with it. It filters out 99.9% of waterborne pathogens, heavy metals, pesticides and sediment and filters 700ml of water in less than a minute.
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 favourite hydration reservoir system is the Camelbak. It is even possible for a child to carry a small hydration backpack like this one.
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!
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.
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