If you’re looking for a way to save a LOT of money on your Big Lap, then free camping your way around Australia is the way to go!
In this article I’ll show you where to find places to free camp, how to be prepared for free camping and some tips for staying safe.
How much money can you save by free camping around Australia?
The three biggest expenses you’ll have on your road trip around Australia are:
- Accomodation (Caravan park site fees)
Caravan park site fees could easily be the biggest of these three so free camping your way around Australia can literally save you thousands of dollars.
For example if you travel for 12 months staying in caravan parks every night and spend an average of $50 per night for a site, you’ll spend $18,250 in site fees.
So converting even just 2 or 3 of those nights to free camps will save you up to $5000 in the year.
Better still, free camp for 6 nights a week and check into a caravan park one night per week to wash your clothes, have a decent shower and generally reconnect with the world and you’ll save over $15,000.
In reality it would be difficult to free camp 6 nights a week all the way around Australia because some of the places you want to go and visit won't have any free camping option available.
But if you have the flexibility to use free and low cost camps wherever they are available you will end up saving thousands of dollars in the year.
Australia is a big country with a lot of open space and there are thousands of free camping opportunities.
You just need to know where to find them.
Types of free camping
Roadside Rest Areas
One thing Australia has plenty of is long stretches of driving between towns and cities. Often several hundred kilometres at a time.
With long haul truck drivers and other travellers like Big Lappers needing to take regular breaks to reduce fatigue, a network of roadside stops exists around the country's outback highways.
Each state & territory manages their own roadside stops so the availability and facilities vary, but many include basic toilet facilities, water tank, BBQ, picnic tables, shelter, information bay and even fire places and firewood if you’re lucky.
And of course many don’t have any of these facilities, just a place to pull off the road, so you definitely need to be self sufficient if your free camping your way around Australia.
There will often be separate roadside stops for trucks because trucks need long straight stretches to pull into, especially road trains that can be over 50 metres long.
Long haul truck drivers are required by law to take programmed rest breaks to avoid fatigue and they will generally have their stops planned in advance.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s okay to pull into a ‘Truck Only’ roadside stop with your car and caravan. At the very least you’ll get woken at all hours by incoming trucks and annoy the truckies by making it difficult or impossible for them to park.
You also risk being hit by an incoming truck during the night or a fine from the local law enforcement.
One group of travellers who take full advantage of roadside stops are grey nomads.
Rising early with the sun they hit the highway and travel a few hundred kilometres up the road before pulling into another roadside stop before the heat of the day.
Leaving the van hitched to the car, they roll out the awning, setup the chairs and crack a cold drink and sit back and watch the world go by.
Forming small clusters as they travel, these impromptu communities support each other with good company and ‘safety in numbers’ security.
Best of all they’re not burning their nest egg savings on caravan parks when they have all the facility they need built into their caravan.
As these grey nomads know, taking full advantage of roadside stops is a great way to substantially reduce your trip accommodation costs and a great reason to focus on building a very self-sufficient rig.
Each state and territory, and even local councils have their own laws regarding overnight stopping in roadside stops but the one thing they have in common is that they usually don’t want people camping beyond 24 hours.
Some will specifically say ‘No Overnight Stopping’ but the majority will allow up to 24 hour stops without any issues.
Personally, unless there is a sign explicitly saying that I can’t stop overnight, then I assume I can and I know many other people feel the same.
At the end of the day (literally), it’s better to stop overnight and rest and arrive at your destination alive than to keep driving into the night and risk an accident.
State Forests & Reserves
Once you get beyond the highways and major roads, then you move into the territory of ‘bush camping’ and State Forests & Reserves are the best place to start looking.
Many of Australia’s public forests & reserves are open for camping and other recreational activities like horse riding, motorbike riding, four wheel driving, hiking, prospecting etc.
While some will require payment for camping, most are free and they usually allow dogs as well!
You will need to be self-sufficient though.
Don’t expect fresh water on tap or reliable toilet facilities. There may be a 'long drop toilet’ available but you might also find yourself using your onboard bathroom or taking a walk into the bush with shovel in hand.
You’re not going to find the level of ‘amenity’ that you’d find in a National park, but you’ll also have more freedom and less restrictions on what you can do.
And usually not have to spend any money.
Sounds good to me!
When there is no Rest Area or State Forest available and you want to pull over for the night then it’s a case of using common sense to find somewhere suitable.
With more and more travellers embracing ‘Van Life’ and sleeping in their self contained RV’s, many local councils in tourist hotspots are clamping down on overnight campers with discouraging signage and fines for ’sleeping in your vehicle’.
They are under pressure to keep public areas available for everyone to use and also from local caravan parks who feel they are missing out on potential business.
As you travel further from towns and cities it gets easier to find places to stop for the night and once you get into the outback there are plenty of opportunities.
Many outback roads are criss crossed with small tree lined creek beds which can be a great place to pull in for the night. Just be wary about camping in the actual creek bed as flash floods do happen.
Between Rest Areas and Roadside Stops, State Forests & Reserves you could quite conceivably travel around the entire country and spend nothing on accommodation.
The trick is to be as self-sufficient as possible and I’ll discuss this in more detail further on.
So where do you find all of these Roadside Stops, State Forests & Reserves?
Where to find Roadside Stops, State Forests & Reserves
If you’re really adventurous, you could just hit the road and figure it out as you go, but the easier option is to grab a book and/or app to help you do a bit of planning in advance.
Here are the ones that I use:
The Camps Australia Wide book (now in it’s 11th edition) has long been the 'go to guide' for finding roadside stops and other camp sites around Australia.
While there are a couple of similar publications out there, Camps Australia Wide is the most popular.
The book includes over 5000 free & budget camps, caravan parks, national and state parks, community campsites, show grounds and station stays.
So it’s really a ‘one stop shop’ for all camping options - free and paid.
Each site has it’s GPS coordinates listed as well as other details of the facilities available and also whether it is dog friendly.
The most popular ‘camp finding’ app is Wikicamps.
This app is crowdsourced meaning that the user community adds new camp sites and rates and reviews the existing ones.
So the more people that use it, the more useful it gets.
With built in digital maps you can see campsites, roadside stops and other points of interest in your vicinity and use the map to navigate your way there.
With most of Australia NOT covered by mobile phone service the app downloads maps and campground listings so it will work offline.
Wikicamps has over 9,000 campgrounds listed along with 2500+ caravan parks, 800+ backpacker hostels, 9000+ day use areas, 800+ public dump points and 16000+ other points of interest.
You can filter campgrounds by ‘free’ or ‘paid’, dog friendly or not and many other factors and also just scan around the map looking for camps nearby. Then drill down and see what they offer.
The app is pretty simple and straight forward to use and does everything I’ve needed it to so far.
Over the last few years it’s really become my starting point when looking for somewhere to camp.
The app is under $10 and it’s a once off purchase, no ongoing subscription.
It’s available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone.
How to be prepared for free camping
The trick is to be as agile and self-sufficient as possible.
On our Big Lap we were towing a camper trailer which takes more time to setup and pack up than a caravan making it not an ideal rig for roadside stops. It also has a big footprint which doesn’t help.
Consequently we didn’t really take advantage of them very often on that trip.
If you’re towing a caravan, driving an RV, sleeping in your van, sleeping in your swag, have a rooftop tent or any other vehicle that you sleep in then you are well setup for free camping your way around Australia.
Make sure you have your own water and power on board and either your own toilet or the tools to take advantage of a quiet spot in the nearby bush. Many offical roadside rest areas and state forest campgrounds have toilets but not all of them so you have to be prepared to be self sufficient.
In my most recent trip up to the Kimberley I travelled with just our dog, Buddy, and we travelled light and slept in the Landcruiser. This made it very easy to pull into roadside stops for quick overnighters.
Staying safe while free camping around Australia
While free camping your way around Australia is a great money saver and adds more adventure to your trip, it isn’t without it’s risks.
There’s an element of vulnerability that you need to take into account and I’m not talking about the wildlife!
When I’m on the road and looking for a roadside stop for the night I’m looking for one of two things when it comes to safety:
1. Other Campers
There is safety in numbers and I’m wary about camping solo in roadside stops on major roads when looking for a free camping spot.
If I see a group of other travellers who have pulled into a stop for the night then I’m happy to join them.
I have no doubt that the chances of being bothered by undesirable types is reduced if there are other campers nearby.
Also, don’t invite trouble by leaving your gear out where it can be easily stolen and make sure you lock your doors at night.
We’ve never been harassed by anyone while free camping and never had anything stolen on any of our trips and I think it’s largely to do with being cautious (but not super paranoid!)
2. Solitude or ’Stealth Camping'
If there aren’t many other campers around then I’ll look for somewhere to camp that is quite a distance from the road (100m to 500m) and basically ‘invisible’ to passing traffic.
Somewhere in the trees or behind a hill for example. This way if anyone is travelling down the road late at night and looking for trouble, they won’t even know I’m there.
As I mentioned earlier, many outback roads are criss crossed with creeks and rivers which provide good opportunities to get off the road far enough to be invisible and find a nice private campsite.
You’ll also find many roads which are subject to seasonal flooding have tracks cut off them into the bush which act as drains to clear the massive amounts of water off the road when it’s raining heavily.
These also provide an easy access point to get a couple of hundred metres off the road and into the trees where you can 'stealth camp’.
It’s not about being paranoid or afraid as Australia is one of the safest countries on earth to travel around. But it still pays to be cautious and not unnecessarily expose yourself to possible trouble.
Australia is a massive, safe and largely unpopulated country with thousands of fantastic free camping opportunities.
Free camping your way around Australia is not only very viable way to travel around the country but an excellent way to slash thousands of dollars off your trip cost.