Australia. The land of snakes, spiders, sharks and ‘drop bears’. The land of extreme heats and then near-death cool weather in a matter of minutes out in the desert. The land of pure remoteness and desolate locations with no one in sight for days. It’s the place where it sometimes feels like nature is working against you everywhere you turn. It’s bloody tough out there.
But for us Australians, we were made to be tough for this very reason. We know to shake out our boots before we put them on, we know how to pack for the extremes and how to generally be self-sufficient.
However, when we’re heading out bush sometimes we need to take extreme measures to ensure we can get out of any adverse situation which may unexpectedly arise.
We spoke to Hugh Brown, an adventurer photographer who knows his way around treacherous places all over the globe, on his ultimate survival guide for anyone wanting to venture out on the road less travelled.
For those wanting to venture away from mobile phone towers for more than ten minutes, there are a few very simple things that I would recommend off the bat. These are some of my non-negotiables.
Do a survival course and have a survival kit ready
First thing I would do is a two-day survival course. My good friend Bob Cooper runs these in Western Australia and the skills his courses give are life-saving. Breakdowns happen regardless of how careful we are. So the key in these situations is to know how to respond in such a way that peoples' lives are not put at risk.
Then, I would buy an outback survival kit (slightly larger than a tobacco tin) and two survival blankets. Plus two 20 litre jerry cans that can carry sufficient water in the event of a breakdown. Maybe even three depending on how long you are going out bush for.
This setup demonstrates the use of survival blankets and their importance in surviving in extreme heat. The foil reflects the heat. Conversely, in cold weather, the foil is faced inward and can be wrapped around the body. A fundamental piece of survival gear. I carry two on my walks. This was taken in an extremely remote area of the Kimberley (access only by helicopter in December a couple of years ago).
If you have these three key things, these will get you through almost any situation in outback Australia. Regardless of whether the conditions are exceptionally cold or wet and the heat is extreme. I’ve used these items myself on multiple occasions when undertaking survival walks in situations of extreme heat. And without food. Food is a low-level priority in extreme heat.
Basic survival gear I carry with me on my wet season solo walks in the Kimberley and Pilbara. One should look at a similar setup (tailored for their specific needs) when out driving in remote areas.
Next thing would be a UHF radio. On outback roads in Northern Australia, this is a vital piece of gear for me at two levels. First, overtaking road trains. I usually radio ahead to the driver to check that there is nothing coming the other way. And then second, for driving at night, I often radio to approaching traffic and check to see that there is no stock on the road (kangaroos, cattle, camels, etc.).
Then an EPIRB or satellite phone for the event of breakdown. A communications device that will enable you to contact the outside world if you end up with a broken axle or dead battery in the middle of nowhere. But fundamental to this is ensuring that the batteries on either of these devices remain charged.
I returned from the Siberian Arctic recently where our vehicle broke down (due to the mafia mixing water with the fuel to boost fuel volumes) in minus 55 degrees Celsius. The water in the fuel froze. When we went to use the satellite phone the battery was dead. Fortunately, we were able to save that situation by plugging the phone into my mini jump starter (see next item mentioned) and all was good with the world.
Get a jump-starter
Then, I would carry two mini-jump-starters in the event of a flat battery. Sufficient for the size of your engine. These are very cheap these days and will start a 4.5 litre diesel (which is what I drive) without any problems.
The above are your starter items before even thinking about speccing up the vehicle. Once you have got these things it’s time to start looking at the vehicle. But only after you have bought a second spare wheel of course if you are going off-road.
The perfect survivalist's adventure vehicle
One of the very first things I did when I got into this field was to install a dual battery system. The first battery was used exclusively for starting my vehicle and was then separated by an isolator from the second battery.
This second battery was used to drive auxiliary appliances such as my camera battery chargers, my laptop computer and whatever else. Because these devices were all 240 volts I installed a Pure Sine Wave Inverter. The pure sine wave variant is key as it ensures a consistent - rather than fluctuating - level of current flowing through to the appliances meaning that appliances are not destroyed. A refrigerator also ran off this second battery.
The isolator in this setup is key though. It means that if the second battery runs flat, the charge is then not pulled from the first battery meaning that you can start your car when you wake up in the morning.
REDARC BCDC charger as secured between the radiator and front grill.
Stepping it up
What is also key here, however, are individual needs which vary obviously. The dual battery setup outlined above works brilliantly if you are either moving regularly (i.e., most days) or you are able to plug into 240-volt power when you are not moving for an extended period.
If you are not moving regularly and/or can’t access 240-volt power then you need to be looking at an additional auxiliary power source such as portable solar panels or a generator or whatever else. The sophistication then starts to step up.
The inverter and dual battery setup should be a high-level priority if you want to go out bush.
It’s hard to photograph the under-the-bonnet set-up but this gives you a feel for the dual battery set-up and battery isolator and BCDC charger. I have used REDARC gear for as long as I can remember.
Traversing difficult terrain
One of the key things to surviving out there is getting familiar with how your vehicle operates on different terrain, but some of these general rules apply.
Over rocky terrain, is about learning how to manage your tyre pressure and learning how to drive without staking tyres. It’s about knowing how to get up steep tracks without spinning the wheels and sliding backwards, without going over the edge of some steep cliff. A large part in that is managing the weight of your vehicle.
In sand, it’s more or less the same. You need to know what times of the day to travel in thick sand and when to venture off-track and stay on track. Know what recovery gear to carry and then know how to get yourself out of being bogged in sand.
Most people forget to drop their tyre pressures. When you do that you can usually drive out of your situation without any care in the world. But then beaches can be different from somewhere such as the Canning Stock Route.
Most (but not all) of my Australian experience is in the Kimberley and the Pilbara. The Gibb River Road and the access track into the Bungle Bungles are great for gaining a degree of familiarity with rock and scree. And there is scope to venture off the Gibb particularly which can test your skills a little further. As for sand, the Cape Leveque Road north of Broome is a great way to familiarise yourself with how vehicles behave in sand.
But even just practising in dunes behind beaches is a great way to familiarise oneself in sand as there are usually tracks behind them once you get outside the major urban centres.
Get yourself in a situation where you do get bogged, and then learn to get yourself out of it so you can learn about the behaviour of your vehicle in different conditions. It’s a process that is never-ending.
Ideally what you would do here is tag in behind someone else who knows what they are doing so they can assist you if you run into any problems.