Free camps can be anything from an overnight roadside gravel pit, to fantastic community run facilities with toilets, water, and on rare occasions even kitchens and showers.
Everyone loves the idea of travelling around Australia without ever paying for accommodation, but is it really possible? Well the answer is yes, and no. Yes, there are some amazing free camps across Australia, but ‘free’ isn’t always free – often they’re super low cost, or by donation, so that’s the first thing to take into account. Please don’t be that guy who stays at the ‘by donation’ camp and doesn’t pop some $$’s in the tin!
Your average free camp also generally has little to no facilities, so if you’re not pretty self-sufficient with power, water, a toilet and the ability to take all your rubbish with you then free camping may not really be an option. You’ll also find that in the more popular areas of the country, free camps can be few and far between (good luck finding anything in Byron Bay. Can’t even park there for free!), compared to inland outback areas and smaller towns where there tends to be a lot more options.
Some of these outback options can also be extremely isolated – we’ve camped in places where there likely isn’t another human soul within a few hundred kms. And for us, we love that. But it’s not for everyone – many people get a little freaked out being on their own in the middle of nowhere, and I’ll admit, the old imagination can run away with you sometimes! (Our tip: Never, ever watch Wolf Creek)
But even with all that in mind, free camps can be a fantastic option. In fact some of our all time favourite campsites cost us not a single cent. And sure, if you really wanted to you could probably manage to travel Australia and stay in only free camps, but I’m not so sure it’s really desirable when there are so many other great options out there as well.
All states and Territories have national parks with camping facilities, but they all run them slightly differently, and prices can vary wildly. Some have a few free options, others are as little as $3.30 per person, others can be in the region of up to $15-$20+ per person. Some can (and must) be booked in advance (and in more popular places like Cape Range, and Cape Le Grand we’re talking well in advance). And some have first class facilities like hot showers, flushing toilets, camp kitchens, and bins, whereas others have nothing at all.
Being national parks, what they generally have in common is great scenery, plenty of wildlife, and often nearby access to hiking trails or other natural attractions. And for the most part, they’re definitely one of our preferred options.
For some reason caravan parks often get a bit of a bad rap with long term travellers. Sure, they’re one of the more expensive options, they often fit a lot of people into a small space and they tend to be more geared towards holiday makers rather than full time travellers. But they also offer something that other places don’t, and they certainly fulfil a need.
Even the most diehard free camper will likely find themselves pulling into a caravan park from time to time. Caravan parks are one of the only camping options that will consistently offer facilities like powered sites, hot showers, laundry facilities, camp kitchens, and in your more upmarket options, playgrounds, swimming pools, and entertainment nights.
Now if we stayed at caravan parks all the time we’d blow the budget pretty quick, which is why we’re always glad to have a range of options available to us, but we still love caravan parks too. As with everything they vary widely and some are fantastic great value options, whereas others can seem a bit overpriced for a tiny little patch of grass with only a few centimetres between you and your neighbours. So we choose which caravan parks we spend our money at the same way we choose other sites – by doing our research and choosing ones that have the best recommendations and reviews. Which is of course where the CamperMate app really comes in handy.
We love a good station stay. In our experience there are two types: working stations that allow visitors to stay as a bit of side income, and ‘station’ stays that are now purely accommodation businesses on what were previously working stations. Personally, we prefer the former, but we’ve also stayed at some great non-working stations over the years.
Now these vary a lot depending on location and facilities. We’ve stayed at some ‘station’ stays are really just gorgeous beach camps with little to no facilities, and others that are on working cattle or sheep stations where you can choose to get in on the action and learn a little about station life. Some have petting zoos. Some have campfire entertainment. Some have five star facilities, others have none. But they all seem to have that special atmosphere that comes from staying in a beautiful outback location with working Aussie families, which we love.
We love a good country pub as much as we love a good station stay. And gees there’s some iconic outback pubs out there that allow you to camp on the premises – sometimes for a fee, sometimes ‘free’ in the hopes that you’ll put some money across the bar or in the bistro. Be warned though, this is not an option if you’re trying to save money. If you’re anything like us I can guarantee you you’ll end up spending more than you would on a regular campsite. But it will be worth it for the excellent food, drink, company and atmosphere.
And then of course there is everything else. Council run sites which tend to be fairly basic but low cost. Showgrounds. Roadside rest areas that allow overnight stops. And of course a trip around Australia is a great chance to visit friends and family (and maybe even new friends you’ve met on the road) and utilise their backyards and driveways!
How to find them
A great app like the CamperMate app is your best bet to finding the best spots. We remember some of our earlier trips way back before smart phones were a thing and we used the old Camps books to find free spots. It did the job, but having an excellent camping app where people can search for locations, add in sites, rate sites, and provide up to date information on each place has absolutely revolutionised the concept. It’s now easier than ever to find a great spot to camp, and to share those spots with others.
Facebook pages and groups are also another excellent resource. Following other travellers who have Facebook pages (like ours of course – The Great Escape Australia!) is an excellent way to get recommendations of places to stay, and find places you may otherwise not have come across. The same can be said for caravan and camping Facebook groups – they’re a great place to ask for advice and recommendations. A quick search of Facebook groups for key words like camping, pub camping, station stays, or free camping should give you a myriad of groups to join and find some tips from.
But even with all the technology available to us, word of mouth recommendations are still invaluable. Often if we’re travelling one way on a road we’ll meet travellers coming in the other direction. And if they tell us about a great place they’ve come across then we generally do our best to stop in and check it out. And if we’re hearing about the same places over and over again, then it’s almost always guaranteed to be an excellent spot. And of course, we’re always happy to share our recommendations too.
However one thing to remember when it comes to camping and finding the very best places is that everyone likes something a little bit different. There’s a reason we have so many options available and that’s because not everyone likes caravan parks, and not everyone likes free camps. We prefer a healthy mix of all of the above, but we have learned that a place we like may not be to the liking of someone else, and vice versa. At the end of the day the only way to find out is to get out there and see it for yourself. And when you do, and you find that amazing spot that you just never want to leave? Well then make sure you share it with us so we can go check it out too!