Free Camping Sites in Australia
Free Camping on the Beach
Finding great free camping sites on the beach gets more difficult every year as councils and local authorities squeeze campers away from popular coastal areas and into caravan parks.
It's virtually impossible to find free camping spots at tourists town like Cairns, Margaret River, Narrabeen or Broome and campers need to get away from the populated metropolitan areas to find great oceanside real estate.
The free camping areas that are provided alongside beaches are often light on amenities like toilets and tables and are often situated a reasonable distance away from the water - often behind the first row of sand dunes.
The further north you head the greater the chance to pull up at some real surf side locations. Once you get a long way north (above the Tropic of Capricorn) you begin to strike crocodiles, sandflies, mangroves and big tides. You also find tropical weather, isolated beaches, great fishing and coconuts growing in the sand - which makes the need to camp away from the water's edge a minor inconvenience.
There also some great beach side camping locations along the Great Australian Bight in the south and there are a few beaches around Australia where it's possible to take a two wheel drive vehicle onto the hard-packed sand, but usually a 4WD is required to get onto the beach proper.
Free Camping in the Bush
For many people free camping in the bush is the ultimate getaway and there's plenty of places and plenty of opportunity to find a unique spot, build a new fire-pit, set up camp and relax under a gum tree with only the kangaroos and cockatoos for company.
There is a natural tendency for human beings to want to pitch camp beside a waterhole, lake or creek and there is no bath or shower so invigorating as the wash-up conducted in the bush.
Soap, shampoo and detergents present a problem for native animals as does a group of campers who are preventing them getting in for a drink.
Bush camping etiquette is simple:
- Leave the gates as you find them.
- Don't pollute the waterways with soap and detergents.
- Allow the native animals ample chance and space to get in for a drink.
- Prevent bush fires and extinguish camp fires thoroughly.
- Pack your gear and food away at night to keep dingos, possums etc. at bay.
- Make your toilet pits deep and cover them properly.
- Leave the camp site looking like you were never there.
Free Camping in Parks and Reserves
National Parks often have park entry fees and/or camping fees. Mostly reasonable (under $10) these fees generally mean camp sites will be well appointed with BBQ's, toilets, shelter and sometimes water and showers.
Fees are paid at the local park administration office or an honour box, a ranger at the park entrance or can be collected by a ranger visiting various campsites.
Camping in National Parks is extremely popular and vacant camping grounds can be impossible to find during holidays and long weekends, with some parks requiring a booking to be made beforehand.
A few National Park fees also verge on extortion - Karijini and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Parks spring to mind.
Camping in State Forests, reserves and conservation areas is a more relaxed experience with sites normally being free from fees while the regulations and ranger monitoring are less intense.
Free Camping on Private Property
As a means to encourage passing travellers to pull up and spend a few dollars in a local community, some establishments offer free camping 'out the back' or may charge a small fee for hot showers and electricity.
It's a common occurrence at many outback pubs where the unspoken expectation is that you'll buy a beer or a meal in exchange for the chance to camp on a shady bit of grass (or a bit of unshaded dirt).
Many stations (ranches or large grazing properties) offer what is known as 'Station Stays' where a small fee enables you to setup camp on a genuine working cattle property. Sometimes meals, guided tours or exploring the property by 4WD are available.
What many folk aren't aware of is that the vast majority of cattle stations are actually commonwealth land and that legally station owners can't bar access to these properties.
Public gazetted roads often run right through a cattle station and a gate that is shut doesn't mean you can't legally enter (nor does a'Private Property' sign). Understandably, station owners who are 4th or 5th generation custodians of station lands feel they have a genuine right of ownership and there are legal obligations for people traversing or free camping on stations.
The golden rules are: (1.) Leave the gates as you found them - shut is shut, open remains open. (2.) Don't camp on top of watering holes. Livestock (and native animals) die quickly in the outback if they miss a day water. (3.) Don't start bushfires and put out your camp fires properly. (4.) Leave windmills and plant and equipment alone. These do actually belong to the station owner. (5.) Take all your rubbish out with you.
Ocean side stations such as Ningaloo or Warroora in the north west of Western Australia charge a small fee for accessing their beaches for camping. Whether the fee is completely legal is debatable but it's usually insignificant compared to the chance to camp on the pristine white sands alongside Ningaloo Reef.
Free Camping at Roadside Rest Areas
Once upon a time pulling up for a nights sleep at a highway parking bay may have seen you moved on by an over-zealous ranger or even charged under the vagrancy act.
Today travellers are blessed by National Legislation that positively encourages drivers to pull over and have a 'Driver Reviver' before they become another drowsy road statistic caused by driver fatigue.
The humble roadside parking bay has evolved from a patch of gravel and a battered 44 gallon rubbish bin to, at some bays, mini cities equipped with chemical toilets, BBQ's, picnic tables, shade huts, water supplies and occasionally even a solar shower.
Driver Reviver rest areas may see the local Rotary Club turn out to provide free coffee, a Mars Bar and possibly a sausage sizzle.
Trucks and Road Trains have their own designated rest areas although some roadside rest areas are shared between passenger cars and heavy vehicles.
Truck bays are to be avoided as places for a free nights camping and at many heavy vehicle bays camping by travellers in passenger cars or with caravans is prohibited.
Roadside rest areas are administered and maintained by a variety of bodies including State Transport Authorities, Councils and Community Organisations.
Free camping is not permitted at all parking bays (or 'P' bays) and locations in large metropolitan centres or along tourist beaches often have 'No Camping' signs displayed in prominent positions.
Essentially if you've chosen to make camp in a parking bay along the Cairns waterfront then it's up to you to decide whether you're simply taking advantage of a million dollar view or whether you felt it was unsafe to continue driving and pulled up to refresh yourself.