Free camping gets some great press in Australia. Most travel bloggers make it look both glamorous and enticing, and there are even apps dedicated to helping you find the perfect free place to camp, but there are some things you should know before you pitch a tent just anywhere.
Free Camping in Australia
In Australia, there are more than 4,000 free camp sites all around the country. While most are located right on the main highway routes and usually not far from towns, some are more remote, and others are within National Parks.
Around the country on any given day too, there are about 80,000 people travelling around by motorhome, camper or RV. Many of them are what we fondly call ‘grey nomads’ … older Australians, over 55 years of age, retired and seeing the country at their leisure, enjoying life on the open road.
Both these grey nomads and tourists have made ‘free camping’ popular in Australia, but it’s important to know your rights and the ‘dos and don’ts’ before you consider it yourself.
Road side camp sites
Most of the ‘free’ camping sites along the highways (they’re more prolific in the rural areas), have been designed for long-haul truck drivers as a place to stop and sleep at any time. That said, these stops are not for the exclusive use of truckies, and can be used by any vehicles.
Taking regular breaks while you’re driving in Australia is a necessity. Fatigue remains one of the top four killers on Australian roads, behind mobile phone use, speeding and driving under the influence of drugs and / or alcohol.
When you’re not used to them, the travelling distances between cities can be vast. Drivers are encouraged to stop, stretch and take a break every two hours and so roadside stops are important for this reason. Over peak holiday season, many of these roadside stops offer coffee and tea too, to entice drivers to pull off the road and recharge.
What you need to know about ‘free’ roadside stops
Roadside stops are run by the local council of the area they’re in. This means they differ from one place to another … where you can park, what facilities are close by and, importantly, how long you can stay are all different.
It’s important to look out for signs that say ‘no camping or staying overnight’ – obviously staying in these areas (even if you come late and leave early) is a big no-no. Fines differ too, across Australia’s multiple jurisdictions.
However, for example, in New South Wales, fines for illegal camping range from an on-the-spot fine of $110 to a maximum of $2,200. For significant breaches, or for repeat offenders, Court Attendance Notices can be issued and these have a maximum penalty of $110,000.
As well as camping in places where it is not permitted, overstaying your welcome where you can legally stop is also a no-no, not disposing of your rubbish properly, starting a fire when it is not permitted.
Australia is currently going through some of the worst bush fires in the country’s history. Lives have been lost, homes destroyed and wildlife populations decimated. In Australia, starting a fire when it is not permitted to do so is taken very seriously under the law, punishable by fines and also jail time.
Many national parks offer free camping, or camping for a nominal fee. You can find these camp sites by checking out the National Parks or the Department of Environment website for each state.
It’s important to note though that when you camp in these areas you need to adhere to the rules and regulations governing national parks too.
Get the app
There are several apps you can download which tell you where to find both free and paid campsites as well as what amenities they have – toilets, barbecues, dump stations and more.
If you’re a traveller on a budget, then choosing the occasional free campsite that’s well located can help you to stay within your means while travelling, and because there are free sites in so many places across the country, they really do give you the freedom to stop anywhere, so they’re perfect in anyemergency.
But they can also be isolated, so while camping for free might sound like a great idea to save money, you also need to weigh it up against the cost of a paid camp site in a professionally-run caravan park. Most caravan parks are very reasonably priced, and have great locations, near the beach or in the centre of town.
Caravan parks offer more for a very low fee
There are significant advantages to staying in a professionallyrun caravan park, not the least of which is that you and your vehicle are safer and more secure.
Other advantages include clean, well-appointed amenities, laundry facilities, power if you need it to charge your batteries and devices, and also wi-fi.
Also remember too, that caravan parks in small towns contribute greatly to the local economy by paying rates and employing people and when you support them, you’re supporting the local town you’re staying in.
Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers content team.
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