Free camping is one of the best things about traveling around Australia by road, in my books. You can save some money, discover some really great spots, and meet awesome people. We free camped more often than not on our Cape York trip last year, and I’d highly recommend it!
Before you hit the road planning to free camp your way around Australia, I’d suggest having a few basic tips in the back of your mind.
Do your homework
Finding a great free camp isn’t all that difficult. There’s many ways to find places to camp. I know some people who swear by the Camps Australia books, but personally I favour the WikiCamps app (available for Apple or Android devices).
I like the map interface of the WikiCamps app – particularly when you’re already on the road – as it’ll show your location and where campsites are around you. You’re also able to filter by campsite type (it covers free camps, low-cost camps, caravan parks, and even some other facilities that might be of use while travelling like dump points), and can download maps covering certain areas for offline use if you know you won’t have phone or internet reception. My favourite feature of the app is the ratings and review system for the campsites – it makes it so much easier to filter through and find the best campsite by reading about experiences others have had!
Be wary of the reliability of the information in the older versions of the Camps Australia books – while they are updated regularly and a great resource you may find that a campsite listed in an older version is no longer accessible.
Are you actually allowed to camp there?
Just because a campsite is listed on the WikiCamps app, is in a Camps Australia book, or your mate who stayed there last year told you about it doesn’t mean it’s still open to the public! Sometimes rules or local council laws change, properties change ownership, and what was once a free camp is no longer.
If you find somewhere that looks like a nice spot to camp along the side of the road in your travels use your best judgement to decide if you are allowed to camp there. Some local councils may not have signs up in local parks prohibiting camping, but it still may be illegal to stay there. Rather than risk hefty fines it’s probably better to find somewhere else to spend the night.
If a free camp is associated with a business, like the kinds of campsites you’ll find behind country pubs or at fuel station truck stops, please ask permission before making yourself at home! I heard a few stories from various owners of establishments of travellers who’d pull in to what they thought was the camping area and set up either on neighbouring properties or grassed thoroughfares. Small town pub owners are usually up for a chat and love hearing stories that travellers bring, so definitely take the time to talk with them!
Respect the owners
This ties in with the last point – if the camping area is owned by a farmer or a local business please introduce yourself and support them. For a local pub, why not take the night off cooking and have a meal there, or even just a cold beer? For a fuel station, why not top up your vehicle and grab some snacks for the road? And if its farm land, please respect any livestock and leave gates the way you found them. These people are kind enough to let us travellers use their land for free or little cost, the least we can do is respect that privilege.
A lot of free campsites are true “bush camping” locations with no toilets or showers, but these sites can be some of the best and you might be lucky enough to have them to yourself! Be prepared to rough it for a night – have your own toilet and shower, or know the basic etiquette for bush toileting and carry some Wet Wipes for a quick freshen up. Definitely take out any rubbish, and know any local laws (eg. total fire bans, no solid fuel fires, etc.) before lighting a campfire.
One popular bush camping location when travelling Cape York is “The Bend” at Coen. It’s such a lovely spot and definitely worth checking out if you’re up that way. It’s not one you’re likely to have to yourself, but if you get there early enough in the day you still should have your pick of camping spots, and there’s plenty of room.
Don’t rule out National Parks
Yes, these campsites aren’t free, but at $6.15 per person per night in Queensland (as of March 2017) they are worth considering! Some even have basic amenities, too. National Parks have their own sets of rules. Dogs aren’t allowed in National Parks so keep that in mind if travelling with your fur-children. Some also don’t allow fires. Interestingly, you can’t operate a drone in the South Australian National Parks unless you have a commercial permit (which doesn’t come cheap!).
You’ll need to organise a permit to camp in these spots, too. Queensland requires you to book for the date and campsite you specifically want to stay at, whereas in other states it may be that permits cover multiple parks for a set duration. Know the regulations in the areas you’re travelling.
Some of the most beautiful locations in Australia are classed as National Parks, such as Eliot Falls and the associated camping area. Another favourite spot we stayed at on our Cape York trip was Deepwater National Park near Seventeen Seventy. We only shared the campground with a few other travellers and definitely were grateful for the showers, even if they were cold. A great feature was the fire rings with grills – these things actually cook really well once you’ve had the fire going and get the coals nice and hot!
Consider your safety
Everyone’s circumstances are different. Some of you may be travelling alone, others in convoys. Some may be spending the night in secure caravans, others in tents or swags. My best general advice is this: if you don’t feel comfortable and safe, don’t stay there!
Truck stops, for example, can be busy places attracting a lot of different types of people, with campsites often tucked well away from any safety that security cameras may offer. If you’re a lone female traveller perhaps these sorts of places aren’t the best for you to stay. If you’re travelling alone it also might be wise to not broadly advertise that fact. I’ve heard of solo women travellers having a pair of men’s boots and other items that they leave around their campsite overnight to suggest to passers by they’re not alone. Sadly, there have been cases in the media recently of young, female backpackers who have fallen victim to some pretty brutal attacks. Please don’t become another statistic. Australia is, in general, a pretty welcoming place and safe to travel – even solo – but a little common sense goes a long way to help you stay out of trouble!
Risks that wildlife pose is another consideration. Might there be snakes around? Crocodiles? What can you do to minimise the risk of a bite or attack? Do you know what to do if you were to be bitten by a snake? Rooftop tents are a great idea when you’re travelling in some remote places where wildlife may be more commonly encountered, but even taking measures like avoiding walking in long grass where possible and not setting up camp on a river’s edge or leaving fish scraps around in croc country will help you stay safe.
Have you taken advantage of free or cheap campsites in Australia? Any favourites you’d recommend? What about advice for travellers using these campsites? We’d love to hear from you.