DIY Vanlife Around Australia

Location: Sydney, New South Wales

The great Australian road trip has enticed many a foreign (and native) traveller around it’s sunny shores, through its hot red centre, and along it’s bushy green paths. With so many things to do and see spread across this wide brown land, what better way to experience the land down under than driving across it in your very own van. After five months of continuous travel, Siu On and I have learned that there is no single right way to do it; however, if you’re new to the vanlife way of traveling it does pay to be prepared with planning your route, buying or hiring a good van, and kitting it out to make your van a comfortable abode on the road. 

 1. Choose a starting and an end point.

Australia is a really big place. In fact, it’s about the same size as continental USA and Europe, so driving a circuit around the country in less than two weeks is probably not going to happen (or be much fun). To start your van life adventure  choose a starting point and an end point at one or two major capital cities. Some people choose to end at the same point that they began at to make flights out of Australia easier on a return ticket. Alternatively if you end at a different city to the one you began at, you can spend a lot more time seeing things along the way because you don’t need to back track. Ending in a different city is also good if you want to continue traveling to other international destinations in a more ’round the world’ fashion.

The Travelleur's Journey Across Australia

The route that you take in between your starting and end point will also depend on the season. A lot of travelers who drive a van around Australia will usually follow the warmth, for example in the wintery June, July and August months they’ll head across the northern part of Australia and take in northern Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland; where the weather is mild and sunny. Alternatively during the hot summer months of December, January and February, many travelers will head south choosing to visit a combination of a few of the southern States including New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and the southern part of Western Australia.

There are also many different routes that you can take to see the big Australian sights, for example, you can follow the eastern beaches for an endless surf holiday and drive from Sydney to Cairns along the east coast, or drive through the red centre of Australia from Adelaide to Darwin and see Uluru and the harsh desert landscape. How you get from point A to point B, really is up to you, and is only shaped by what you want to see and experience.

 2. Getting your van and taking care of it.

After you’ve settled on a starting point and the route you want to take, you can start searching for your new soul mate, your van. Depending on what you’re after it can take awhile to source something that falls within your budget, and I can tell you right now that I’ve never met anyone that has bought a van with spare change left over and no need for further modifications, so be generous with your budget because you’ll probably exceed it in some way or another.

Buying a Van

Buying a used van off a fellow traveller can be a great way to find an already kitted out van, but be aware of the age of the vehicle and how many kilometers are on the clock, and make sure you have it serviced before you leave. You don’t want to be stranded out in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone range, and not a single person driving past you because the engine blew!

Other important things to check out on a used van should include checking the following:

  • Radiator and radiator hose are in good condition and not leaking or worn.
  • Brakes don’t screech when you hit them and that the hand brake holds the van on an incline.
  • Look for rust or visible damage, which can indicate that the van has been in an accident and whether the owner is telling you the truth.
  • Look for oil and fluid leaks. Oil leaks are normally indicated by a dark oil patch under the engine. Also make sure that you check underneath the car whilst it’s running to see if any other fluids are leaking.
  • Check for cracks on the windscreen and other windows.
  • Air-conditioning and heating should be in good working order because believe me, you’ll want the air-conditioning to work in the middle of an Aussie summer!
  • Tyres. Check the pressure is correct and that there is no uneven tyre tread or bald patches.
  • All the lights work (including warning lights). Check that all the interior lights and outside lights (headlights, indicators etc) are all in working order. Also make sure that none of the engine warning lights are flashing.
  • Exhaust. Check the colour of the exhaust smoke as it should be a grey color. Engine problems are indicated by white, blueish or black smoke.
  • Always ask to see the vehicle history, or the log book, as this should be updated with every service the car has had.

Other useful websites:

Sorting out some van problems

Maintaining a Van

It is definitely in your best interest to have a qualified mechanic look over the van prior to buying it, and also visiting a mechanic regularly to keep it in good running order along the way. However, in between check ups there are some things you can easily do yourself including checking and topping up your fluid levels including the oil, and regularly checking your tyre pressure too. It’s also a good idea to have a basic set of tools handy and duct/electrical tape, and also have spare items in the van including a bottle of  engine oil, a fan belt and two radiator hoses (in case you need to have these fixed but the local service station doesn’t carry your van’s particular parts).

Hiring a Van

Alternatively, if you are short on time then you’ll have to hire out a van which takes all the hassle out of buying a van, but make sure you have adequate insurance cover for the duration of your hire period (either your own travel insurance cover or take the one that the van hire company has). Another bonus with hiring a van is that they will usually include things like a basic kitchen set up, camping equipment, and most importantly emergency vehicle assistance if you do run into some trouble.

A few popular van rental companies include, but are not limited to:

Lastly, make sure you understand the terms and conditions of hiring a vehicle, as some have restrictions on the types of roads you can take the van on (e.g. non sealed roads), or even particular routes (such as the Gibb River Road).

 3. Be street legal.

Legally, as a minimum your van must be registered and have an appropriate cover of insurance to be deemed road worthy in Australia. Some Australian States will require a Roadworthing Certificate in addition to registration and insurance, and failure to comply with this will result in you being stopped by the police and given a hefty fine. Do this enough times and you’ll end up in court, and eventually in jail. So please do the right thing, check what the legal requirements are in your State and comply with them! For further information including State and Territory information refer to the Australian Government website.

A Wicked Van

 4. Prepare for the journey.

You might be lucky and have the previous owners throw in everything including the kitchen sink with the van, but if not take some time to get the basic necessities such as cooking and eating utensils, and some camping equipment to help make your vanlife experience more comfortable. Siu On and I put together our Top Ten Vanlife Essentials list and is a great resource for people who are looking to invest in some good gear.

Other important things to prepare prior to your departure should include non perishable food items, fuel and water, and hard cash because many regional stores and even campsites won’t accept credit or debit card for payment.

 5. Hit the road.

I honestly don’t think there is enough time in the world to be ready, and sometimes you just have to make sure you have the essentials and then head off. Don’t worry if you’re not completely ready because you can always buy things along the way. Just get out there, keep left on the road and have fun!

Hanging out back of the Delica

If you’re dreaming of packing up and living out of a van or even converting your car you can read my DIY Vanlife articles here and here, as well as get some great advice on doing some of Australia’s premier road trips including crossing the Nullarbor, Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, and rolling into Sydney via the Grand Pacific Highway. As always, you can follow our adventures on Facebook or on Instagram, @thetravelleur.

Photography by Jelena Stipanicev.