10 tips for crossing the Simpson Desert

Recently we did our first Simpson Desert crossing and it was a challenging but awesome road trip and I can't wait to get back out there again.

Once you get into the desert there are no services or facilities so you have to be very well prepared and completely self sufficient.

Of course just like any road trip, we learned some lessons before and during the trip.

So here are my 10 best tips that I want to share with you and hopefully inspire you to get out there if you're undecided or help you plan if you've already made the decision to go.

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments at the end and I’ll do my best to answer.

Want to see more?

Watch the film series about our trip 'South Australian Outback Adventure' which is available on DVD or Online - Click here for more info

1. Travelling West to East is easier than East to West

The main route across the Simpson Desert between Dalhousie Springs and Birdsville is the French Line and QAA Line.

You can drive either direction but if you are looking for the easiest route, then drive west to east.

The reason is that the prevailing wind which forms the dunes comes from the west resulting in the western side of the dunes being a more gentle slope and the eastern side being much steeper and more difficult to climb.

With this being our first crossing and driving alone, I wanted to stack the deck as much in our favour as possible so we went west to east and I’m glad we did.

There were only a handful of dunes that we had to have a second or third run at to get over but it would have been a very different story travelling the other way.

Obviously if you’re up for the challenge then east to west is there for the taking but just be prepared for a tougher drive.

2. Best time to go

The best time to be in the Simpson Desert is April to October when the daytime temperature will be comfortable.

Nights will be cool to cold so make sure you carry plenty of warm bedding.

The crossing is closed completely between December 1st and March 15th due to the extreme heat.

Average monthly maximum and minimum temperatures in Birdsville

3. Allow at least 4 nights to do the crossing

We spent 3 nights in the desert after Dalhousie Springs and before Birdsville.

This was part of our 20 day outback ‘circuit’ that took us up through the Flinders Ranges, Marree, Oodnadatta Track, Coober Pedy, Oodnadatta, across the Simpson to Birdsville then back down the Cordillo Downs Road and Strzelecki Track.

On paper, allowing 4 days / 3 nights to cover the 420km from Dalhousie to Birdsville seemed like enough time but in hindsight it wasn’t.

It’s hard to imagine that driving more than 100km each day could be a challenge, but it was.

The main issue is not so much the 1000+ dunes to cross but the fact that the track in between the dunes is like the moguls on a down hill ski run.

Consequently the vehicle is up and down and up and down constantly like a roller coaster and you just can’t get any speed up.

So overall we averaged around 15 km/h of actual distance covered, meaning that we were looking at around 7 hours of driving per day on average to keep to our schedule.

This is certainly doable and we did it, but next time I’ll build in an extra night or two so we can take it easy, have slower starts in the morning and find ourselves a camp at least a couple of hours before sunset.

Once you get out into the desert you find it to be a magical place and the last thing you want to be doing is rushing to get to the other side.

Average distance travelled - 15km/h

4. Buy your desert parks pass well in advance

A Desert Parks Pass issued by National Parks South Australia is required to enter & camp in:

  • Witjira National Park east of Dalhousie Springs
  • Simpson Desert Conservation Park
  • Simpson Desert Regional Reserve

All of which you will travel through crossing the Simpson Desert.

It also allows you to camp for up to 21 days at a time at these desert parks:

  • Innamincka Regional Reserve
  • Malkumba-Coongie Lakes National Park
  • Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre National Park
  • Tallaringa Conservation Park

The pass is valid for 12 months from purchase and comes with a permit, handbook with plenty of information and maps of the desert parks.

It’s $160 to buy but when you consider it covers the cost of camping as well, then you only have to stay a handful of nights before it’s actually pretty good value.

With my long list of things to do in preparation for our trip, I had left ‘Buy a Desert Parks Pass’ pretty much to the last minute, or until a few days before we left at least anyway.

I was thinking that I would just jump online and pay the money and print out the permit, and the later I left it, the longer it would be before the 12 months expired.

What I soon found out once I got online was that it included the handbook and maps which needed to be posted so I needed to allow about 3 weeks for it to arrive!

That was obviously not an option so instead I bought ours at the Oodnadatta Pink Road House which worked out okay (it was $160 cash only).

So if you are planning to buy one online from the SA National Parks website, make sure you do so at least 3 weeks before you plan to leave.

Click here to order your pass as well as find out where you can buy one enroute.

Call National Parks on (08) 8648 5328 for more info.

5. Carry about double your usual fuel usage

Driving in sand will have you revving higher and going slower than normal and you can expect to use significantly more fuel than you normally would for the same distance.

There are no services at all between Mt Dare in the west and Birdsville in the east so you’ll need plenty of fuel to allow for the higher usage AND some in reserve for unplanned situations.

As a guide, our 80 Series Landcruiser with 4.2ltr turbo diesel averages around 17 litres / 100 km normally.

We left Coober Pedy with our main tank (90 ltrs) and long range tank (166 ltrs) completely full, so around 256 litres on board.

Travelling via Oodnadatta, Dalhousie Springs and across the French and QAA lines to Birdsville we covered around 814 km.

In Birdsville I filled up again and we had used 164 ltrs to get there from Coober Pedy.

164 ltrs for 814km = 20.1 litres / 100 km average

Overall pretty good considering the low speed high revving we were doing across the desert and the fact the Landcruiser was fully loaded.

Keep in mind though that roughly half of the 814km was fairly easy going between Coober Pedy & Dalhousie Springs so assuming my normal 17 litres / 100 km for that leg of the trip, it looks something like this . . .

  • Total Fuel Used Coober Pedy to Birdsville = 164 ltrs
  • Coober Pedy to Dalhousie 377km @ 17 ltrs / 100 km = 64 ltrs of the 164 ltrs used
  • Dalhousie to Birdsville 437km using 100ltrs = 22.9 ltrs / 100 km

That works out to about 34% higher fuel consumption than average for the Simpson Desert leg, which I'm pretty happy with.

We had around 90 litres in reserve by the time we arrived at Birdsville which is a comfortable amount and would have given us the capacity to detour or back track in the event of an emergency, track closure (rain etc.) or other unforeseen event.

If you don’t have that much fuel capacity on board then you can fill up at Mt Dare. Mt Dare to Birdsville across the desert is approximately 510km.

SA Outback Adventure - Simpson Desert

6. You must have a sand flag

Besides being common sense, it’s now mandatory to have a sand flag on your vehicle when driving in the Simpson Desert.

The flag must be at least 300mm x 290mm and fluorescent red orange or lime yellow in colour.

If mounted to the front bull bar or front of the vehicle the flag must be 3.5 metres off the ground and if mounted to the roof rack, the flag must be at least 2 metres above the vehicle roof.

Once you get out into the dunes it soon becomes apparent why the flags are necessary.

As you’re approaching the crest of the dune, the first sign you’ll see of a vehicle coming up the other side is their flag waving around and this will give you time to move to the left and avoid a head on collision.

We use this modular 3 Piece Sand Flag from Bushranger which attaches easily to the bull bar with a quick connector and packs up into a carry bag that’s just over a metre long.

Motorbikes don’t need a sand flag but must have their headlight on at all times

Sand flags are mandatory for crossing the desert

7. UHF Channel 10

Make sure you have a good UHF radio in your vehicle and keep it on channel 10 to communicate with other vehicles.

We found this is especially useful when approaching oncoming vehicles and we could volunteer to pull over and let them though if we could see a clearing on our side of the track or vice versa.

It’s also handy to warn oncoming traffic on the other side of dunes that you are approaching the summit.

Use UHF Channel 10 to communicate with other vehicles

8. Make sure you carry at least one form of satellite communicator

There are no facilities, services or mobile phone reception between Dalhousie Springs and Birdsville, a distance of approximately 420km.

If anything goes wrong you are on your own.

Carrying a satellite phone or other satellite communicator (Spot Tracker, Garmin InReach) makes good sense.

If you don’t have one of these devices and don’t feel the need to rent one for the trip, then I'd recommend that at the very least you carry a Personal Locator Beacon like the KTI Safety Alert PLB so that in the event of an emergency (accident, snake bite, serious breakdown etc.) you can send a distress signal to emergency services and get help.

Click here for more info on the KTI Safety Alert PLB

KTI PLB

9. There is plenty of fire wood

Camp fires are not allowed in Witjira National Park,  however they are allowed everywhere east of Witjira which is the majority of the trip.

This is good news as night time temperatures can fall below zero making a camp fire very welcome.

The other good news is that there is a surprising amount of firewood available.

Don’t expect to find any large logs, however with the dry and arid conditions, the smaller plants die and collapse into a bundle of dry sticks that burn very well and are fairly abundant.

There are no allocated camp sites along the track east of Witjira National Park so you can find yourself a flat piece of ground between the dunes and with a decent supply of firewood nearby. This is frankly a much better idea than having only designated camp areas and spreads the visitor load gently across the desert rather than concentrating it in specific areas.

Time to make a camp fire

10. Leave your trailer at home

While trailers are not banned in the Simpson Desert, they are actively discouraged from being taken and for good reason.

Driving up and over 1000+ dunes is challenge enough for vehicle and occupants without the added drag of a trailer.

Towing a trailer will require much harder revving and tyre spinning which will certainly take a toll on the track surface, making it harder for those following.

You’ll may also find yourself needed to disconnect the trailer and winch or snatch it up seperately on the tougher dunes which would take the fun out of things fairly quickly.

Also, if your trailer breaks and needs to be recovered, it could cost thousands of dollars.

If despite that you do still want to take your trailer then I’d recommend driving west to east as it will be the easier way to go.

This trailer didn't make it!

Watch our Simpson Desert Film:

The film series we made from our Simpson Desert crossing South Australian Outback Adventure is available to watch on DVD or Online.

The 3 episode series will give you a first hand account of our trip, the challenges we faced and what to expect when you get out there.

You'll also get to see the Flinders Ranges and a decent amount of Outback South Australia.

Check it out here

SA Outback Adventure - Simpson Desert

Resources in our Shop for your Simpson Desert adventure:

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13 thoughts on “10 tips for crossing the Simpson Desert

  1. conrad johnston says:

    Hi Steve - love your article. We were thinking of doing the trip travelling west to east as you suggest. I have a question about the type of car which could pull off the trip - we have a Range Rover Velar - newish model from Range Rover - my doubting friends have said it is a city based SUV and would not recommend it - any idea if it could do it?

    • Steve Baile
      Steve Baile says:

      Hi Conrad, it's a great question. I'm no expert on luxury 4x4's but as I understand it, the Range Rover might be targeted at the Toorak Tractor market but is no less capable a 4X4 than other models. In England I'm sure they get driven all over wet and muddy fields dragging horse floats around. I'd certainly love to see you give it a go and prove your friends wrong - send us a pic from the top of Big Red if you do. What I'd suggest is that you send an email to a Land Rover Club and ask them what they recommend you do to prep it for the trip. I'm sure they would be just as keen as me to see you succeed and uphold the great Land Rover reputation so I'd expect they'll be more than willing to help. Good luck.

  2. Anton de Vent says:

    You make no mention of importance of correct tyre pressures. I have crossed the Simpson 3 times and I believe that lowering tyre pressures to 15 to 18 psi is one of the most critical pieces of advice for this crossing. My next crossing will be east to west. I have done about 60 kms in that direction once when we had a vehicle failure and although it was much steeper, it was much smoother. I think that this is because inexperienced people go west to east, many without the sand driving knowledge and they chop the approach to dunes by having to much pressure in their tyres and going to fast.

    • Steve Baile
      Steve Baile says:

      Thanks Anton, lowering tyre pressures is definitely critical. I have a separate blog talking about what tyre pressures I run http://www.expeditionaustralia.com.au/2016/03/what-tyre-pressures-do-i-run-on-road-trips/

  3. Richard Clarke says:

    Thank you for sharing this trip, I’m now arranging to travel from the UK to Mongolia and return in July/August this year in my 4 wheel drive Sprinter, it’s alraedy driven from Uk to Malaysia 3 years ago, one month in China,but I will be crossing the Kazakhstan desert and the Mongolian grasslands, no roads?

    • Steve Baile
      Steve Baile says:

      Awesome Richard, sounds like you are pushing the Sprinter way beyond where Mercedes ever thought it would go 🙂

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