How to: Travel around Australia with kids

Some people called us crazy when we told them we planned to do a 'Big Lap' of Australia with our young daughters who were only 18 months and 4 years old when we left. Some even called us irresponsible but the overwhelming majority could see that this would be a special time for us and our kids and it was worth any risk or hardship.

And they were right!

The reality is that having kids is a challenge no matter whether you are living at home or travelling around Australia but on our 16 month adventure we learned a few things that you may like to take on board.

Ease The Transition

We started talking to our kids about our 'Big Trip' about a year before we left. We put up a map on the wall and marked our proposed route. When we saw a place on TV we planned to go we'd point it out and talk about it.

Basically we built the anticipation so they were looking forward to it. We also had plenty of time to discuss any fears they may have before we got going.

We also emulated their bedroom to an extent in our camper trailer - we took their quilts, pillows, books and special toys so that they had a tangible connection with their life at home, again easing the transition.

It didn't matter where we were geographically, their familiar and secure bedroom was always with us.

Keep The Routine

While half the fun of a Big Lap of Oz is getting away from routines and clock watching, kids feel secure when they have consistency. To strike a balance we always made sure the bedtime routine was consistent. This usually involved brushing teeth and a couple of stories in bed before sleep.

Kids also need their sleep and fortunately this was easier to achieve on the road. When you are basically sleeping outside and don't have TV you tend to work your day around the sun so with 12 hours of night, getting the kids to bed at 7:30 was easier than getting them there at 8:30 at home.

Play

When you're a kid, Life = Play so we gave our daughters a toy bag each which they could bring some of their favourite toys from home. For example, books, colouring in stuff, baby's and dolls, dress up clothes etc. While we were actually travelling they could take a few things in the car and we put pockets over the back of the front seats they could stash their bits and pieces into.

Don't go overboard though because kids are great at improvising and you really want them interacting with the environment so they learn new things. Our eldest, Savanna, built an Indian Tee Pee from a small tarp and some sticks and we made several cubby houses from tarps & rope along the way.

Savanna proudly showing off the teepee she built from sticks, a tarp and a bungee cord
Savanna proudly showing off the teepee she built from sticks, a tarp and a bungee cord

Entertainment

One of the best investments you can make before you go is an in-car DVD player. I realise that some people will argue that you don't go on holidays to watch movies but put it in perspective. You'll spend upwards of 400 hours in the car on a lap around Australia and there are only so many games of I Spy and 20 questions you can play. Allowing the kids to watch 2 or 3 movies on a long driving day will keep them sane and give you some quiet time to chat or just enjoy the drive.

We bought a DVD folder that has sleeves in it and transferred all the girls DVD's into it before we left home which was much more compact and easier to manage that the DVD cases. You'll also want to get headphones with your DVD player so you don't have to listen to the same movies a dozen times.

Kids also love playgrounds and when we checked into a caravan park or stopped at a park for lunch, we always had an eye out for a good playground. They will play for hours and then be so tired that they'll sleep soundly all night . . . perfect!

These days most kids have iPods and iPads and they will keep the kids amused with games and movies for hours. Most have an inbuilt camera so the kids can be taking photos of the things they discover along the way and building their own photo library.

Driving Days

We soon learned that travelling with kids had an impact on the distance we could realistically cover in a day. Forget 800km days. We tried to set a limit of 500 km and even then we found that we'd cover an average of about 50km every hour so it was still a long day. You need to build in more and longer stops to allow the kids to get out and run around otherwise, well, they'll drive you crazy!

We met a couple of families on our trip who were using their 3 months long service to do a lap of oz. We calculated they needed to cover an average of 300km every single day to get around the country which probably explained why they looked pretty tired and frazzled.

Friends

Kids make friends very easily, in fact sometimes a bit too easily. While it is great that they can walk up to some other kids and be playing happily 5 minutes later, this does create an element of risk that you need to keep front of mind.

In Alice Springs, Sara, who was about 2½ at the time, made friends with another boy near our camp and ended up wandering off with him to his site about 100 metres away. We found her 15 minutes later but it was a pretty nervous 15 minutes.

You can't keep them locked up so you just have to keep your eyes on them all the time - we would tell them constantly that if they can't see us, we can't see them.

Whenever we spotted other kids camped nearby we'd try to say hello to the parents and we'd always find they were as happy for their kids to have someone to play with as we were. We would also then both be keeping an eye on the kids, which created a larger safety net.

We were also a little cautious with the types of caravan parks we'd stay in. Generally, the more 'touristy' the better. We avoided parks that were predominantly full of permanent residents, partly because they were not geared for travellers but also because they can occasionally attract some less than desirable characters.

The Big Lap Budget Bundle

Safety

Having touched on safety, I'll expand on a few more points.

Wildlife

There are inevitably risks associated with snakes, spiders & crocodiles but realistically these are minimal if managed. We trained our daughters not to jump over logs or run blindly into the bush and to be aware that snakes are around but don't be terrified of them because, given an easy exit path they will happily take it.

Our rule was that if you encountered a snake, STOP and freeze, then slowly back away from the snake, tell anyone else nearby to watch out for it then come and tell mum or dad. Savanna and I actually encountered a large Western Brown snake one night on the floor in a toilet in Karijini National Park and rather than make a big drama of it, we stood quietly and watched it and in a few minutes it went on it's way.

Crocodiles are the other real risk in the northern part of the country. We taught our daughters that unless we absolutely knew otherwise, we assumed that all water had crocodiles in it. We didn't tell them that crocodiles were bad or monsters but that they were wild animals that were always looking for food and if you get into their patch of water then they may accidentally mistake you for food. This was all it took.

Cars

I actually think that the biggest danger kids face while travelling is from speeding cars in caravan parks. Too many people ignore the 'Drive at walking pace' rules in caravan parks and they speed around at anything up to 60km/h sometimes. Kids can so easily walk out from behind a car or caravan and not see or hear a car coming at them. If you see someone speeding in a caravan park, do everyone a favour and point out the dangers to them (one way or another) and if that doesn't work, report them.

Realistically the danger of hitting a child in a caravan park while speeding is many times greater than having an accident while speeding on the road - unfortunately some people don't think about the 'what if' factor.

Getting Lost

Given your environment changes so frequently it may be hard for your 3 year old to explain where their camp is. It's worth writing your mobile phone number on a card and putting it in your kids' pocket so that in the event they do get lost then someone who finds them can give you a call.

You do have to be more alert for your kids safety while travelling but don't let it put you off or worry you too much. Common sense and a good radar for trouble will keep them safe. Don't try and shelter them too much - they should know why crocodiles and snakes are dangerous and how to avoid them but at the same time learn to love them for the amazing wild animals they are - it's about respect, not fear.

Schooling

I can't speak with authority about schooling your kids on the road because both of ours were pre-school age. However we did meet plenty of parents with school age kids along the way.

Here's some of the tips we gleaned from them:

  • The education department will give you far too many books and materials to take with you however apparently the Queensland Education Department has a compact travel schooling kit so this might be worth looking into.
  • The workload set down is hard to keep up with and most parents seem content to let their kids learn as much as possible from the trip itself and catch up the academic stuff later.
  • It is easier to do the schooling in concentrated bursts than bits every day.

Obviously the older your kids are, the greater the pressure will be to keep the schooling up so they don't fall behind. One observation we made was that high school age teenagers were probably the least enthusiastic about the whole experience because they missed their friends and life back home and didn't want to fall behind at school. This is something you would need to manage if you plan to travel with teenage kids.

Having said that, keep it in perspective. Not many kids get to travel around Australia at all and the lessons your kids will learn about Australia, life and other people should not be undervalued.

Read more: 5 Tips for homeschooling on the road

New Experiences

Sharing new and often unplanned experiences with your kids is a great adventure. Kids are highly durable and adaptable so don't smother them in cotton wool. When we broke down in the middle of Western Queensland we were stuck for three days waiting for parts to arrive so we could fix the car. We had no facilities at all. We washed in a nearby creek and dug a hole for a toilet. The kids couldn't have cared less. They take it all in their stride. In fact it has turned out to be one of the more memorable experiences of our trip.

Have your default routines to keep them in balance but also be prepared to adapt your trip to suit theirs and your needs. With clear boundaries and lots of love they'll have the adventure of a lifetime with you.

And one more thing, buy them a digital camera each before you go. In years to come being able to look back at the photos from your trip will far outweigh the relatively small cost of a couple of cameras now.

More articles to help you plan your road trip

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21 thoughts on “How to: Travel around Australia with kids

  1. Sheree burns says:

    hi we are going to be having our big trip in March 2015. We will be travelling from tas to broome and back, 2 kids 8 & 6.Taking not quite 8 weeks. We are not doing the southwest corner of wa. We are going across the nullabor to perth then following the coast. Any suggestions for free camping spots or kid friendly not too expensive parks.

  2. Alan Smith says:

    Hi, me and my wife with 4 young children (13 months, 3, 6 and 8) are planning our trip for next march 2015. We love your web page and DVD and found it very helpful for ideas and costing. We live in Tassie and planing of going clock wise with our old 60 series landcruiser and homemade double camper trailer. The only thing different theres no plans of returning to tassie. We are going to sell every thing, leave everything and find a new home, while traveling.

    Cheers Alan

    • Steve Baile
      Steve Baile says:

      Nice one Alan - sounds like a great plan. You don't need $200k worth of 4WD and caravan to do the Big Lap - just the motivation to make at happen! Have a great trip.

  3. Desley says:

    Hi Steve,
    Your DVD arrived in the post today! My boys are giving it to their Dad for christmas, and I am so glad theres only 2 day to go because I can't wait till we can all sit down and start watching it. It will be the perfect way to start getting our boys used to the idea of what our trip might be like next year. We can't fit in a full lap unfortunatly but we are doing a improvised version that will include central QLD, Kakadu, Darwin, The Kimberlys, Broome and then home through the Centre over 3 months. Your site has been a fantastic resource so far, and I know that the DVD will be too.
    Thanks
    Regards
    Desley

  4. Damien says:

    I forgot to mention we will have a 2 & 4 year old with us. We have a 2012 Newage big red with bunks and all the rest, and a 2011 Pajero

  5. Emma says:

    Hi
    I'm just wondering if anyone out there is using laptops/tablets for kids schooling. We are travelling around oz next year, leaving after easter. kids will be doing grade 3 and 5. We already have a laptop and samsung galaxy note 10.1, am I gonna need to get ipads? distance ed in melbourne/vic havent been that helpful!! And if they need ipads, I would rather santa buy them than to find out in March I need them.
    Thanks Emma

  6. Graeme says:

    I am on my first night of out of big adventure. Starting in Sydney and then heading clockwise. We have our three kids with us, 5, 7 and a 9 year old. I am trying to find a good site to write a travel blog, something with a mapping feature to help the kids show their friends where we have been. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks Graeme

    • Vanessa says:

      Hi, I need some advice! My partner and my two young children and I are heading around Australia to live in porthed land, we live in Sydney, leaving end of December, my kids will be 2 and 6 months old... What direction do u think we should head, worried about the weather if we should go anti clockwise or head down? We will be purchasing a caravan ( any suggestion on caravans for young kids) we only want a second hand one under $10,000 A few friends keep saying we are crazy going with two young kids, but I don't think there is anything wrong with it? Are we pushing it with the young one? Excited for your options!!

      • Damien says:

        Vanessa

        I live in port Hedland and will be leaving soon to drive around Oz. you want to avoid north QLD, NT and northern WA at between October and March perhaps even September. Due to rain, flooding, cyclones etc. for example it was 43 here yesterday and very high humidity.

        If you want to contact me let me know Nd we can sort something out.

        Damien

  7. iris frenkel says:

    hi, we are allso planning to travel this summer to australia. ill realy be happy if you can tell me about the budjet.....?how mutch does it coast to travel with the kids..?

    • Steve Baile
      Steve Baile says:

      Hi Iris, your best bet is to download our big lap budget spreadsheet which will give you a starting point. Click on the link in the right sidebar of the site to access it.

  8. Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot says:

    Aha, "in-car DVD player" sounds perfect. We spend 18 months in Central America with our three, yes, it can be done but as you say you have to take it slower with kids in tow.

    The earphones are a good tip too. I once had to listen to the Tellytubbies CD constantly (this was before personal DVD players) on a six hour drive. Sent me a bit lala:)

  9. david and tanya and kiera frost says:

    we are doing the same we had been planing this for about 3 years ,we bought a 40ft bus for $6,000 from adelaide and i flew over there and drove it back to perth on my own and just took 3 days and i have decked it out as our motor home it took me 2 years on weekends to do we have been to adelaide and back and i have made a few mods on it as you do it has every thing that you need in the bus and by doing it ourself s we have set it up to suit us at a cost in total $40,000 ,then i bought a 1986 pajero for $2,000 and then set it up so we can tow behind our bus on a A frame as these old 4x4 you can tow straight on the road so dont have to bother with a trailer .it has very thing we need such as roof top tent, roll out awning full mosquito and fly net on the side ,fridge ,draws storage ,s/s water tank holds 50lt with pump ,work lights,spare parts, winch ,2 spares ,recovery kits and so on ,this has been done so we can park the bus in a caravan park and put in storage and then take of in the 4x4 for a few weeks at a time to explore surrounding areas as we like fishing,prospecting and wild life and tacking pics and video we are going to home teach out little girl that is nearly 5 we have rang the eduction department and there is no problem with that,we have no time so could be on the road for more than 10 years as i said no time,we will work as well i am a boilermaker welder by trade i have a mr licence as well fork lift ticket and boom ticket and my wife is a pc nurse but very handy with my hands . we hope to have every thing ready at the end of this year ,i have retired about 3 months ago so i can get every thing ready and my wife has gone back to work and i look after the little one , by doing 90 percent of work ourself s we have saved a lot of money .we are on face book so if ya want to see what we have done look for david frost and there is a pic of the 3 of us and a small dog near a hay stack or just email or ring on o432026419 if ya want to ask any questions o just have a chat

    • Steve Baile
      Steve Baile says:

      Sounds like a great setup. I reckon you'll find more work than you need, especially in the remoter areas where skills are harder to come by. We met a sparky who had stopped announcing that he was a sparky when he arrived at places because he suddenly had lots of jobs to do and was trying to have a holiday. If you get the urge to do a more detailed write up on your rig with some photos, email it to us and I'll post it on the site which will open it up to feedback from other people as well.

  10. Tania says:

    Hopefully March next year. Have just been looking at the Tambo campertrailers that you took on your trip. How did you find setting up and pulling down with two kids in tow? Our biggest worry with a camper trailer is the heating and cooling. I remember being up North in our caravan in 45 degree heat and not moving from the a/c!

    • Steve Baile
      Steve Baile says:

      Hi Tania, having the kids and the Tambo was no problem. We'd arrive at camp and they'd be off playing while Jen and I setup. We had stretcher beds for them but invariably Sara, the youngest, would climb up with us during the night. No real issues with heating and cooling. On warm nights we'd open all windows and have the breeze coming through and very glad not to be in a caravan. If it were a 45 degree day we'd find relief somewhere besides in the camper eg. the pub. Only really cold nights were in and around Alice Springs and we'd generally be out around the camp fire until bed time anyway. Was never a real issue.

  11. Tania says:

    Hi to the Baile family!
    We are the Smith's based in Country Victoria. We are in the process of looking at selling our house, buying our dream van and heading off on a trip around Oz. Hubby and I went on a working holiday for 2 years in our 1967 Franklin Caravan and had the absolute time of our lives. Now we have two children a 4 and 3 year old and want them to experience what we did. Have joined your facebook page and can't wait to read more about what you guys are upto!

    The Smiths

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