The Big Lap of Australia – Planning your ultimate Road Trip

Are you thinking about doing the Big Lap of Australia?  Driving around Australia is definitely a bucket list road trip but it’s also a huge undertaking.  You probably have so many questions about this epic journey.

When is the best time to go?  Which direction should you go in? How long does it take? What vehicle should you drive? Where will you stay? Can you get food, fuel, water everywhere?  What about phone and internet?  How much money will you need?

We spent 3.5 years on our Big Lap around Australia, and we learned a lot on the way.  In this post we will answer some of those big questions.  We will give you our honest opinion, and also some tips and tricks from other travellers we met along the way.

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big lap of australia map
Big Lap of Australia Map

What is the Big Lap of Australia?

There are several ways to travel around Australia.  You can fly between the cities and main attractions, but that gets expensive and you’d miss out on so much.  Backpackers often take busses and stay in hostels, but those journeys can be looooong.  We think the best way to travel Australia is to do a road trip in a vehicle you can eat and sleep in.

As the name suggests, the Big Lap is a road trip around Australia.  Most people on the Big Lap stick fairly close to the coast, maybe ducking into Central Australia to see Uluru, Kings Canyon and other Red Centre attractions.

National Highway 1 is a series of roads that connect all the state capitals, following the coast (or near enough).  This is the longest highway in the world, at 14,500km or 9,000 miles.  This highway provides the basis for the Big Lap of Australia.

However if you’re sticking to Highway 1, you’re missing a lot of the best places!  We love visiting those hidden gems, and getting off the beaten track.  We drove over 80,000km (50,000 miles) on our 3.5 year big lap which included plenty of detours (and a bit of back-tracking there.)

Campervan driving on the dirt road to Arkaroola

How long does the Big Lap of Australia take?

Australia is a BIG country – about the same size as Western Europe, or the 48 contiguous states of the USA. Don’t think you can drive around Australia in a few weeks, or even a few months.  Well, you can, but you won’t see much!

While the record for driving around Australia on Highway 1 is just under a week, most people spend at least 6-12 months completing their Big Lap.  Having said that, we know people who have been on the road for many years, who stop and work for a while before heading off again.

We would recommend spending at least a year on your Australia road trip, and even then you won’t see everything.  It’s essential to spend some time planning your Big Lap of Australia Itinerary, but also be flexible, as once you get out on the road, your plans are bound to change. 

You’ll meet people who will recommend places, and some you’ll want to travel with for a time.  We also found that we wanted to slow down after we’d been on the road for a while.

Campervan in front of the Devils Marbles, NT

When is the best time for the Big Lap Australia?

Being so large, Australia has several different climate regions.  You’ll find tropical summers with frequent heavy rainfall in the far north, to scorching desert temperatures in the centre during summer, and even snow in the alpine regions.

The basic rule is north in the winter and south in the summer.  (If you’re coming from Europe or North America just think the opposite of what you’re used to).  We’ve seen several maps with suggested time frames, but these usually spend too much time in empty areas and not enough in other areas where there is so much to see.

Look, you’re never going to be able to be everywhere at the perfect time.  We planned to follow the sun, and yet we spent a few weeks with freezing nights in the deserts of Central Australia, and then an entire winter along the south of the country.  

Even less comfortable was arriving in tropical North Queensland too early, and sweltering in hot humid weather. Having said that we did spend months on end without any rain throughout Central Australia and the north west of Western Australia.  

If we had to design the most ideal route to road trip Australia over 12 months, we would suggest an anti-clockwise loop:

May – June: Brisbane to Cairns
July – August: Cairns to Alice Springs and back up to Darwin
September – October: Darwin to Perth and the South-West corner
November:  Cross the Nullarbor and north of South Australia
December – January: South Australia and Victoria
February – March: Tasmania
March – April: Melbourne to Brisbane

If you’re starting in Sydney, heading north at the beginning of April would be ideal.

things to do in Uluru, uluru road trip

What is the best vehicle for a Big Lap of Australia?

While it’s possible to drive around Australia in a regular car, staying overnight in motels, eating at road-houses or even camping in a tent, most people choose to travel in a vehicle set-up they can cook and sleep in.

When it comes to choosing your vehicle (rig, set-up) for your Aussie Road Trip, the choices are endless. Some people sell their house and spend $250k + to buy a top of the range caravan and brand new 4×4 to tow it.  Others put a roof-top tent on the top of a 4×4.  Some even ride a bike or walk!

We chose to road trip Australia in a self-contained campervan.  Our van was a 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter Van. We converted the van to a campervan ourselves, during the first Covid lockdown.  We designed the van for off-grid living, meaning we could stay in more remote places for longer.

Your vehicle of choice will depend on several factors: your budget, whether you prefer to be off-grid, or staying in a caravan park with all the facilities, whether you are happy to tow a caravan and many others.

Nigel and sue adventures, vanlife australia, road trip australia,

Where will you sleep?

Where you sleep on your Big Lap will largely be dictated by the vehicle set-up you choose.  There are plenty of motels, road-houses and other accommodation options dotted along highway 1.  Even in the remote outback you can find basic accommodation every couple of hundred kilometres.

If you’re travelling with a campervan or caravan you can choose between caravan parks – which can cost upwards of $50 a night, staying in campsites in national parks, showgrounds or even free camping.  Where you stay will also depend on if you are self-contained.  Many free camps and low-cost camps require you to have a toilet on board and a tank to collect your grey water.

We used the WikiCamps app to find campsites, along with some recommendations from social media and fellow travellers.  This app has a one-time fee of $8 (although we have heard they are moving to an annual subscription basis).  You can filter the campsites listed to show only free camps, or free and paid.

A Note about Free Camping in Australia

While there are plenty of free camping opportunities in Australia, most of these tend to be in more remote areas and away from the coast.  Many of these free camps require you to be self-contained.  During our travels we saw a LOT of campers who were clearly not self-contained staying in these areas.  

We also saw lots of free camps left in a really disgusting state, with not only rubbish, but toilet paper and human waste littering the area.  What ends up happening is these free camps get closed down.  We saw this happen with several popular spots.

If you are going to free-camp, and you’re not self-contained, please take a shovel and some plastic bags to clean up after yourself.  Leave No Trace!

Campervan at Betty's Beach Free Camp

Practical Info: Fuel, Food, Water and more

Fuel

One of the biggest concerns many people have is where to get fuel?  Will there be plenty of fuel stations?  Do you need to take a jerry can?

If you’re sticking to the main roads you’ll find a fuel station every couple of hundred kilometres.  Its only if you’re going onto the really remote outback roads that you really need to consider carrying a whole lot of extra fuel.  A 20 litre jerry can will probably be more helpful for your peace of mind than getting any actual use.  We didn’t even take a jerry can.

The price of fuel tends to vary a lot in Australia, particularly as you head out of the main cities and towns. While you might be paying $2 per litre in the cities, the price in the outback could be $3 per litre or more.

We used the Petrol Spy app to check fuel prices.  Often there isn’t a choice, but sometimes just driving an extra 50km can save you over 20c per litre.

Food

Likewise with food, you’ll find Coles or Woolworths supermarkets in most larger towns, but once you head out of the towns, you’ll be relying on the smaller, more expensive IGA supermarkets and even roadhouses for basic food supplies.

The roadhouses also serve meals, which tend to be basic burgers, pies and hot chips style food.  If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you will struggle to find many good options in the outback.

Of course, when you’re travelling with limited space, it can be difficult to stock up.  We always tried to carry one “emergency meal” which was usually spaghetti with a jar of arrabiata sauce!

Kimba SA, halfway across australia, south australia road trip

Water

The WikiCamps app also shows you where you can get drinking water and empty your toilet and grey water. Most towns have a place where you can fill your water tanks, even if it is just a tap in a park.  In Australia its customary to have a sign on a tap if the water is non-potable.

In a pinch, we would fill our watertank at a petrol station when we were fueling up.  Most of the time they would give us water for free.

We only needed to pay for water a handful of times on our lap – the most expensive was in Tasmania, which surprised us.

Phone and Internet

Once you are out of the cities and towns, and particularly away from the east coast, mobile phone and internet coverage is very patchy.  There were times when we drove for a couple of days, only being able to check our phones at roadhouses.

Telstra is probably the best network, with the most coverage however at National Parks in the Northern Territory, most of them only had Optus towers.

More and more travellers on their Big Lap are installing Starlink for their internet needs.  Starlink now covers the entire country, anywhere your dish has a clear view of the southern sky.

Camping at Ellis Beach

What does it cost to do the Big Lap of Australia?

Your Australia Road Trip budget will really depend on a lot of things.  How quickly you choose to travel (faster equals higher fuel costs), whether you stay in caravan parks or free camp, and how often you visit expensive activities and attractions  – these are just a few of the things that can have a big impact on your budget.

Different parts of the country are more expensive than others, and sometimes you’ll drive long distances without much to see (hello WA) and other times you’re stopping for something amazing every hour or so (Tasmania).

Let’s give you a rough idea of our Big Lap Budget as 2 adults travelling in our self-contained campervan. We averaged between $750 to $1000 a week over the 3.5 years we were on the road.  Prices got significantly more expensive during that time.  

For example, when we first started, fuel was around $1.30 per litre for diesel, and at the end of our trip, we were regularly paying over $2.00.  In the outback that was often closer to $3.00.

You can save money by travelling slower, preparing your own meals in your van, chosing nature based sightseeing (hiking, beaches etc) rather than expensive attractions like boat trips or helicopter flights.  

Having said that, some of those big-ticket attractions really are once-in-a-lifetime things; for example the daytrip to Rottnest Island was an amazing experience.

Other expenses to consider are your travel insurance (especially if you’re not an Australian resident) and breakdown cover.

90 mile straight, crossing the nullarbor, Western Australia, australia road trip,

What to See and Do on your Big Lap of Australia

Australia is not only big, it’s also incredibly diverse.  We have tropical rainforests, vast red deserts, alpine regions that actually do get snow, and arguably the best beaches in the world.  We have delicious seafood, local produce, world-class wines and a burgeoning craft brewery scene.  The wildlife here is unique.  

There really is something for everyone here in Australia, whether you’re a city person, or prefer getting out in nature.  Here’s some of the highlights of an Australia Road Trip:

  • Take a ferry on Sydney Harbour to see the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House
  • Visit the Red Centre to see Uluru
  • Check out the crocodiles and aboriginal art at Kakadu National Park
  • Snorkel or dive the Great Barrier Reef off Cairns
  • Drive the Great Ocean Road to see the Twelve Apostles
  • Head to Tasmania for the iconic Cradle Mountain
  • Sip wines in the beautiful Barossa Valley
  • Go on a whale watching cruise from Hervey Bay
  • Drive across the Nullarbor and camp on the Bunda Cliffs
  • Hike the Blue Mountains

If you’re like us, you probably like seeking out those off-the-beaten-path places, hidden gems and places out in nature.  There’s certainly no shortage of lesser visited places – you can see some of our favourites over on our YouTube Channel.

Need help planning your Big Lap of Australia Itinerary?

We are happy to answer your questions, and we also offer a full itinerary planning service. To find out more, send us an email. We look forward to helping you with your plans.

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