Outback Survival

One thing you soon realise as you travel the more remote roads within Australia, is that if there is an emergency, you're more or less on your own. It is absolutely imperative that you understand some of the basic rules of survival in the bush so that you can cope in an emergency.
Article By: ExplorOz Team
Created: June 2008
Revised: September 2016
Latest Feedback: September 2016

Safe Outback Travel

Adequate preparation before starting your trip will lessen the chance of jeopardising human life. There are numerous articles on the ExplorOz site about vehicle selection, specific vehicle and communications requirements such as EPIRB, Satphone or UHF Radio for going offroad, tools and recovery kits, driving skills etc.

You should also do a map study to determine what fuel and water sources are en route; the best route; what aids to navigation you will have; what alternative routes you could use if necessary; what positions of evacuation are available; and where the local inhabitants are located. The ExplorOz online shop stocks a very large range of maps - both paper and on CD, along with mapping software for use on computers and even to interface with a GPS for moving map navigation. For more information see our Navigation articles.

Planning how you will carry water, and where you will obtain refills is crucial to your trip planning. You should allow 4 to 5 litres of drinking water per person per day whilst travelling. See our Water Tank Article for more information.

Obviously, weather is an important consideration in planning your trip as many road conditions vary according to the local rainfall. You should be aware of the changes of season in the area of your trip as some parts of Australia really should not be travelled at certain times of year. See Itineraries for more information. You should also consider the time you have allowed for your trip, including a safety margin in case of minor mishaps. The ExplorOz site contains road condition reports for the whole of Australia, focusing on unsealed roads and remote areas - see Road Conditions.

Most importantly of all, before leaving on a journey through remote areas always notify friends, and relatives of your estimated time of departure, your proposed and alternate routes and your estimated time of arrival and don't forget to notify those concerned once you have safely completed the journey.

There are a couple of services available, including the not for profit VKS-737 Australian National 4WD Radio Network Inc., offering the traveller an extra level of safety and contact.

Basic Rules for Survival

Survival is best defined at simply staying alive. Generally speaking survival in the outback is a day to day proposition. For most people, a survival situation will be a traumatic experience. In fact, people who are survivors are often ones that have been able to keep their stress levels under control to enable them to: review the situation, determine an aim, list the factors affecting their survival, identify all course of available action, select the best course of action, and then make a plan.

The following 6 principles are a good basic guide that apply to anyone, anywhere to varying degrees.

First Aid

Obviously in an accident or emergency situation the first thing is to attend to is the vital life processes of the victim. See First Aid Principles for more information.


The next important aspect to ensuring survival is to minimise exposure (cold or hot/UV).

Shelter and Fire

The next step is to protect the body from the elements by seeking shelter.


Now you need to make yourself easy to find by search and rescue parties. So set up location aids - this may include fires, lights, mirrors, or more sophisticated methods such as activating an EPIRB.


Generally the body can survive - 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food.


Given the above, food is a low priority in a survival situation, unless no one knows you are gone. This refers to the searching for food, and is not as applicable to travellers that might already have a fully stocked larder. The issue here is that energy spent looking for food (bush food) is a waste of the bodies precious water resources. It is especially dangerous to eat if you don't have water as it increases the bodies need for water.

If you have taken the precaution of notifying someone of where you are going and how long you intend to stay, a search will no doubt be conducted to look for you if you don't return soon after the time you advised. Your task will be to use the knowledge and skills you have to stay alive until found.

Finding Water in the Outback

The following ideas are well documented methods of obtaining ground water in Australian survival manuals. Be careful not to drink contaminated water because infection will cause you to further dehydrate. If you have adequately prepared, you will have water purification tablets with you.

Creek Beds

Creek beds, even if dry, may have water just beneath the surface. Look in bends for damp sand or mud, or dig in a likely spot. Water can be extracted by soaking a rag in soil and wringing out the water into a container. Exposed tree roots can be cut in lengths and drained of their fluid early in the morning. To reduce the risk of infection, any surface water must be boiled.

Rock Formations

Rocky areas are ideal for rain catchments so if there is any water seepage from the ground it is likely to be found near rock formations.

Salt Lakes

After rain has fallen, the top 3mm of a salt lake is fresh water. It can be siphoned off by using a grass straw or tubing.


If you can see a windmill, then usually there will be a water supply such as a well, dam or soak. Check the water has not gone salty.

Animal Trails

Where a large number of trails converge together, it would indicate that water was not far away. Follow the trails to the water source.

Water Seepage

Natural springs and soft rock erosion area (slopes, banks etc)

Coastal Water Sources

In Western Australia, you can obtain drinking water by digging high up on the beach above the tidemark or behind the first sand hills. It tastes brackish and should only be used in small quantities.


Wipe down the vehicle with a cloth before sunrise and wring it out into a container.

Transpiration Method

Water can be obtained by placing clear plastic bags over the leafy branch of a non-poisonous tree and securing the end of the branch. Ensure there are no holes in the bag. The action of the sun on the plastic will cause water to be drawn from the leaves and run to the lowest part of the bag. Do not disturb the bag to collect water, simply cut a small hole in the bag then reseal it with tape. The leaves will continue to produce water as the roots draw it from the ground. Water should be drained off every 2 hrs and stored. If no large trees in the area, break up clumps of grass or small bushes and put them into the bag.

Distilling Sea Water

If the only water around is undrinkable (such as sea water), then boiling it will create steam (which is fresh water). Provided you can find a method of collecting the steam, such as trapping it as condensation, you can drink it.

Shelter in the Outback

Extremes of heat and cold are the enemies of human survival and both these qualities are found in inland arid regions where very hot days are followed by cold nights. Vehicles are a source of shelter as they provide protection from the sun during the day and the cold air at night. Ideally, you'll be planning to camp out and have packed a tent or swag. If not, branches or blankets can be used to keep direct sun from the vehicle. Bonnets can be removed too and arranged to create shade.

Warmth in the Outback

Fire cooks, warms, sterilises and acts as a signal if necessary. Ideally, your vehicle is well stocked with matches and a gas cooker or lamp. To start a fire without matches can be a challenge for modern man - but all you need to do is find a "fuel", and add heat and oxygen. Some "fuels" could be dry animal manure, kindling, timber, or reactive chemicals. Heat can be created by friction, chemical reaction, spark or magnification.

In an emergency, you could create a fire by one of the following methods not requiring a match:
  • Soak a rag in a little petrol and touch a heated cigarette lighter to it

  • Pull out two wires from the vehicle and attach to the terminals of your battery - run them away to the ground. When the ends are touched together they will spark and you can ignite tinder (starting fires from batteries is extremely dangerous. Keep fire well away from battery to avoid an explosion)

  • Hold steel wool over the negative terminals of a 6 volt torch battery and brush it against the positive terminal. The sparks produced should ignite the steel wool which you can then use to light nearby tinder.

  • Condy's crystals can be mixed in equal amounts with sugar and grinding them with the flat of a knife blade producing a brief but intense flame

  • Use a lens from binoculars or camera to focus sunlight onto light tinder such as leaves

Food in the Outback

In the case of statistics of self-drive travellers that have become stranded and died, very few actually die of starvation. Most travellers will have some food stored in their vehicle, and if they stray from the vehicle they tend to die of dehydration not starving. Remember - the human can survive only 3 days without water, but up to 3 weeks without food. Any food should be eaten sparingly if you are unsure of how long you may have to until rescued, and it is better to have one meal a day, than to nibble small amounts.
Here are some useful tips:
  • The body uses fluid to digest food, so foods with a high water content should be considered before others. If no water is available, then avoid eating, particularly meat

  • You can stay alive by eating lizards, insects and grubs for several days. These can be found under rocks, tree stumps and other shaded areas

  • Avoid food contamination and infection by washing and/or cooking all foods

  • Bush food is generally tough, and unpalatable and to some even nauseating, nevertheless it is food. Mostly people prefer the following foods in order: marsupials, birds, fish, fowl, reptiles, vegetarian, grubs and insects

Navigation in the Outback

In almost every case, it is best to stay with your vehicle but there may be an occasion when you have become stranded from a walking party and find yourself lost without a compass. Every person entering the Australian outback should know how to navigate without map or compass.

Watch Method

To find north using your watch stand holding your wristwatch horizontal with the number 12 pointing in the direction of the sun. Bisect the angle between the hour hand and the 12 o'clock position to give you the approximate position of North.


Australia is in the southern hemisphere and consequently, shade from bushes in the heat of the day always occurs on the southern side of a bush.

The Shadow Stick

Push a stick vertically into the ground. Place a stone at the end of the stick's shadow. After 20mins place another stone at the end of the shadow. Draw a line in the ground between the 2 stones - this lines will mark the approximate West - East direction. Stand along the line facing towards the stick with your left foot between the 2 stones and your right foot outside the stones - you will now be facing North.

Types of Emergencies

When all is going well, your vehicle should provide you with shelter, food and water - all key elements of survival. However, most of these attributes only work for you when the vehicle is generating power from the alternator to keep batteries alive, which in turn keep the fridge and air conditioner running etc. It doesn't take much in the way of vehicle breakdown to cause a life-threatening situation so anything to do with your vehicle and its safe and continuous operation is a survival factor.

Typical emergencies that eventuate when the vehicle is compromised are:
  • Vehicle breakdown (mechanical problem, becoming stuck, out of fuel, or lost)

  • Blocked access (natural disasters such as bushfire, flood, or blizzard)
You can prevent these incidences becoming life-threatening by PLANNING and COMMON SENSE. Always notify authorities/family/friends where you are going and when you expect to return. Take adequate communications equipment and know how to use it. See our Guide to Communications Equipment article. Always take the correct 4WD recovery gear and know how to use it, better still travel in the company of other vehicles and look after one another.

Stuck or Lost?

For the purpose of this article, we are assuming that you are a traveller with a vehicle, and your vehicle (and possibly the tent or swag stored in it) is your source of shelter. Your number one life-saving tip to remember is "always stay with your vehicle". Ideally, if you've broken down in your vehicle and been adequately prepared you will have enough water for many days and have a method of contacting someone using remote communications equipment. This would be the ideal situation, and should lead to your quick rescue. However, if you do not have enough water for the next 3 days you must recognise that you could die without it and hence you should look for water. Most deaths that have occurred when travellers have become stranded have been due to dehydration after becoming lost or having their vehicle break down in remote areas. Remember - the body can generally survive only 3 days without water and in this time your physical strength and emotional resources are at their strongest so if you have to take action it must be worthwhile to your survival so your first efforts should be directed towards conserving what water you have and conserving body energy by staying cool or warm. If you have no water, then you will need to be resourceful to establish a good water supply without expending too much energy or moving too far away from your vehicle. For tips see Finding Water.

If you do become lost, try to remain calm as panic will put you at a psychological disadvantage. Don't try to push on in the hope of ending up "somewhere". It would be safer to return the way you came by retracing your tracks back to a point where you can establish your location. If you have to leave your vehicle temporarily to search for water, mark your trail on the ground with sticks or stones (drawing a line in the dust could vanish with a small breeze) so you can find your way back. Only walk in the cool part of the day to minimise fluid loss and exposure to the sun.

Avoiding Fire

You can avoid creating bushfires by observing fire bans and being vigilant to extinguish every campfire you make before you leave. If planning to travel on tracks in open grasslands, you should equip your vehicle with flymesh across the radiator to avoid build up of spinifex that may cause the engine to overheat and catch fire to the grass beneath your vehicle as you drive along the track. If you do get caught in a large bushfire and cannot get out of its path, you must stay in your vehicle. If possible position the vehicle in a clearing. Close windows, vents and doors. Leave the hazard lights on, and engine running, air conditioning on set to re-cycle air. Protect yourself with blankets, towels, coats etc.

Avoiding Floods

You can avoid being caught out in a flash flood by never camping in a dry creek bed and by planning trips during the dry season in tropical zones such as Far North Queensland, the Top End in NT, and North West WA.

When driving through water crossings you should always test the depth first. Never assume that its safe to cross if you have not seen another vehicle cross immediately ahead of you, even if you see wheel tracks exiting the bank of the river on the other side. There could have been rain overnight, or the tide could be higher. If you're not sure - stop and wait for more travellers to come to the crossing and discuss it with them. Remember, engines can easily stall if water enters the air intake - you should not attempt river crossings without a snorkel fitted and a radiator blind is also recommended. Drive through water crossings with windows DOWN in case passenger evacuation is needed. For more skills and tips see our Water Crossing section in the Driving Skills article.

Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS)

The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) is sometimes thought of as ambulances in the sky, although it also uses utility land vehicles and 4WDs. The RFDS has gained a very high reputation for there continued support in humanitarian services in rural and outback Australia. Some of the services that are provided include: on site emergency first aid, transportation of general practitioners to rural or remote communities and the safe patient transport to hospitals. Locations for operating bases include:

Central Operations

These include bases at Uluru (Ayers Rock), Alice Springs, Port Augusta, South Australia and Adelaide

South East

Includes bases at Broken Hill, Dubbo, Bankstown, Melbourne, Essendon and Launceston


Includes bases at Mount Isa, Cairns, Townsville, Rockhampton, Brisbane, Bundaberg and Charleville

Western Operations

Includes bases at Derby, Port Hedland, Meekatharra, Perth (Jandakot Airport) and Kalgoorlie

The RFDS is steadily improving their service with advances in medical and communication technologies. This invaluable service still relies heavily on community donations and it’s a great cause to be involved with. Find out more about this fantastic organisation and help and support those that support others.

Emergency Signals

As outlined in other articles on this site, there are numerous forms of outback communication devices and navigation aids that can be purchased or hired. An EPIRB is the minimum recommended for outback survival in an emergency. Click for EPIRB or see our Communications and Navigation articles. Without modern safety aids, you can also use the following methods to indicate your position to potential rescue parties looking for you.


A smoking fire will aid searchers, both in daylight and at night. Obviously extreme care must be taken not to let your fire get out of hand.


  • One blast at regular intervals = searchers looking for lost party

  • Two blasts repeated regularly = acknowledgement of distress signal

  • Three signals together, regularly spaced = distress signal by lost party

  • Four blasts = recall signal for search parties

Gun Shots and Torch Flashes

Same as for whistles - guns to be discharged into soft ground, not the air.

Signal to Aircraft

Write SOS using figures that are 8 - 9 metres in length. Use rocks, logs, brush, or dig trenches in sand.

Aircraft Signals Back

Aircraft will rock from side to side during daylight to indicate that it was seen your message. At night they will make green flashes. If not understood, the aircraft will fly in complete right hand circles or make red flashes at night.

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Eflare Ef350, Bush Tucker, Bush Food, Bob Cooper, First Aid

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