Outback Survival Guide

People die in the bush and the outback of Australia every year. Australian's die and visiting foreign tourists die. We're not talking about heart attacks, car crashes, snake bites or falling from the top of Uluru. We're talking about death from exposure and dehydration after being stranded in a remote corner of the outback.

Most of these people die as search parties are looking for them - it is a rare for an unknown body to be discovered by accident.

If we understand this fact then we can draw the conclusion that most people who die in the Australian bush - do so because they make fundamental errors in judgement.

The following article isn't going to tell you about planning your trip, making the local authorities aware of your plans or any of the other details required for safe outback travel. We simply aim to tell you how to go about preserving your life if you find yourself stranded in the outback of Australia.

How and Where Outback Strandings Occur
abandoned old car in the outback

We aren't referring to the highways and byways that criss-cross the Australian continent. The Great Northern, Barkly or Eyre Highway's are not places where people break down and subsequently perish.

People generally perish when they drive, walk or ride into remote outback locations along isolated dirt or gravel roads - either by plan or by accident. They perish when they haven't taken enough water, haven't let anyone know of their plans and then make poor decisions when things go bad.

A common scenario is a couple of people who decide to visit a remote inland location and set off only to have their vehicle break down midway through the journey. Ill prepared and with diminishing supplies they set off for a track that they passed a few kilometres back, rationalising that it must go somewhere. Of course it doesn't really have to go anywhere - an abandoned homestead, a broken windmill or a thousand kilometre sand track into the Simpson desert.

Some day's later, suffering from exposure and with crippling dehydration, unable to walk on, they settle for a shady gum and wait for help to arrive, finally expiring two days later. Which is exactly what they should have done in the first place. Waited.

What to Do

Regardless of the amount of water you have, the outside world's knowledge of your whereabouts or your perceived abilities as a bush craftsman there is 1 attitude and 5 basic rules to maximise your chance of survival in a dire situation.

In most cases the body dies through dehydration, exhaustion and exposure - exposure from either heat or cold.

Medical experts will tell you that the body eventually kills the brain and life expires. In reality the brain kills the body. The body expires through poor decision making processes. The minds natural tendency is to react rather than think things through in a calm and realistic manner.

The very first thing to do when things turn sour is to recognise the problem for what it is and then plan accordingly.

Remain calm and don't underestimate the seriousness of your situation. From the outset understand that any stranding in a remote area of Australia has the potential to be lethal. Assume that you may be in a very serious situation and plan accordingly.

Stay With the Vehicle

People's cars break down and they get lost in the bush all the time. In most cases they stay with the car and get rescued. Their story makes one paragraph on page eight of the newspapers.

People who get stranded and abandon their vehicles often die. They end up with a coronial enquiry and a front page story. These are just facts.

Other people travel on roads and tracks and search parties begin a sweep of the roads. This is where people travel and this is where search parties first expect to find people. Cars are bigger than people - they are easier to see from an aeroplane or helicopter. Push the vehicle into the open, pull the hood, open the doors - make it visibly large. Aim the mirrors upwards to catch the sun's reflection. Get noticed.

If you absolutely must abandon the vehicle leave a note with the car, indicating your direction of travel.


There are certain things the human body simply must have to survive and getting these priorities right ensures the best chance of survival and consequent rescue if you you become destitute in a remote outback location.

1. Water

Without water the human body expires in 2 - 3 days. It can last 2 weeks without food.

When the body becomes dehydrated the brain starts to make poor decisions. Decisions like abandoning the vehicle.

Ration your water, stay out of the sun and don't exert any more than absolutely neccessary.

2. Warmth

The deserts of the world can be extremely hot by day and ming-numbingly cold by night. People who get lost in places like Victoria's 'Grampions' usually die from exposure to the cold. Get warm and everything, especially the brain, works better.

3. Shelter

Shelter, like warmth protects the body. Whether it is shelter from blistering sun or biting cold a roof or covering protects and reassures. Bodies exposed to the elements lose moisture fast. By avoiding direct exposure to the sun, moisture is better retained. Similarly, covering naked skin helps keep everything cool.

4. Signals

After everything has been done to protect the mind and body signals can be used to attract attention. Whether it is noise, reflections or fire, anything that gets noticed may work in your favour.

A regular camp fire will burn a rubber tire and create a massive black cloud of smoke. Car mirrors will reflect light and a pile of rocks saying S.O.S. will attract the attention of an aeroplane pilot looking for other signs.

5. Food

Last and least is Food. There is an abundance of bush food in the outback. Any recognisable insect or creature has the potential of providing sustenance and keeping you alive. You don't need Mars Bars. Providing it's not a spider, snake or brightly coloured insect it can probably keep you going long after your water supply is depleted. An ant colony can keep you alive for weeks.

This article Driving and Target Fixation offers some driving tips on how to avoid trouble in the first place.

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