Wild camping for hikers

Hiking Practice

For many hikers and campers when they first start out it’s common to go with an organised group or club, or with a more experienced friend who can show them the ropes. Typically if campsite bookings are required these will often be done for you, magically happening in the background. Unless you look in more detail you can be forgiven for thinking you can camp anywhere you like; a term more commonly known as wild camping.

However this is not always the case. Australia’s various states and territories each have their own rules and regulations on where you can and can’t camp. Because the rules vary, it’s hard to keep track about what applies to each state and territory particularly given there always seem to be exceptions.

While I’ve been camping as a hiker for many years and know the rules for my local area, I often find when I travel interstate that my knowledge is lacking and I’m opening myself to the potential of a fine or being moved on. The rules and regulations that apply in each state and territory have been developed for good reason, usually based around protection of the environment. In this article we provide a brief overview of these rules and regulations to help with planning your overnight adventures.

Relevant camping terms

There are a number of different terms that apply to camping and many of them will be unfamiliar to most people but if you are searching out sites to use, it pays to know them.

  • Free camping
    • From an Australian perspective free camping is the opportunity to camp in a designated campground without cost. There are a number of free camping sites around Australia with most aimed at caravan and car campers. Typically they have limited facilities and often they’re just a pull-off area at the side of the road. While these sites may be open to both vehicles as well as walk-in campers, they are often nothing more than a patch of dirt and not always the most comfortable or protected for hikers.
  • Wild camping (backcountry camping / bush camping)
    • Wild camping is more a term associated with hikers and typically implies camping away from designated campsites in national parks, reserves and state forests. Many reserves will allow you to camp as a walk-in camper (hiker) with reservation. However it’s not unusual to have some areas off limits to campers of any type or have limitations placed on the number of campers allowed because of environmental concerns.  Anecdotally many hikers aren’t aware of this booking system and if they are, they often don’t bother to book.
  • Stealth camping / guerrilla camping
    • These term are used interchangeably and essentially mean you are camping in an area where you shouldn’t. The implication of these terms is that you are doing so knowingly and as such you will set up camp in an area that is hidden away so others can’t see you. In doing so you open yourself up to being asked to move on and being issued with a fine if you are caught.

Australian Capital Territory

  • Hikers
    • In the Australian Capital Territory walk-in camping is allowed in designated campsites as well as much of Namadgi National Park which makes up approximately 46% of the Territory. Camping is also allowed in the Bimberi Wilderness Area but because this area is connected to the Territory water source, limited numbers of campers are allowed on a daily basis and you will need to obtain a camping permit
  • Car campers
    • Vehicle-based camping is only permitted in established campgrounds

Free camping resources

New South Wales

  • Hikers
    • All formal campgrounds in NSW national parks now require a booking, which attracts a $6 booking fee. So you need to take this into account when exploring the ‘free’ camping NSW has to offer
    • You do not have to make a formal booking for remote camping (walk-in campgrounds that are not listed on this website), but you must complete a trip intention form prior to arrival
    • If you’re camping in Kosciuszko National Park in the Main Range Area which is Australia’s rooftop, there are restrictions in regard to how close you can camp near the lakes and waterways
  • Car campers
    • Vehicle-based camping is only permitted in established campgrounds
    • State forests provide many established camping areas. Some contain space for a number of tents or caravans, fireplaces and toilet facilities. Many state forests have picnic sites with facilities such as tables and barbecues. Use established fireplaces wherever possible. Please note that there are some state forests that don’t allow camping so you will need to check prior to turning up
    • All state forests are free to camp in
    • COVID has impacted camping areas and as at July 2022, you still need to book to ensure that campsites aren’t overused and social distancing is maintained

Free camping resources

Queensland

  • Hikers
    • Camping in national parks and state reserves is reasonably wide spread but like other states and territories, you need to check on each park on a case by case basis
  • Car campers
    • Roadside camping is not allowed in the state and you can receive a violation and a fine for doing so. This rule was put in place by Australian authorities to protect both campers’ safety and the safety of those driving on the road
    • On the Gold Coast, sleeping in your car is part of the definition of camping according to council by-laws. This means you can only sleep in your car if you are in an area where it’s legal to camp, such as a public camp site or designated rest area

Free camping resources

South Australia

  • Hikers
    • Check with each park or reserve on the option to wild camp
  • Car campers
    • It’s legal to camp on the side of the road as long as you don’t put anything outside the van e.g. chairs etc and look as if you’re camping there
    • In more remote parts, there are cleared areas where you can stay and you’ll often see a number of vans together for the night

Free camping resources

Tasmania

  • Hikers
    • Tasmania is one of Australia’s hiking hot spots and is one of the most accessible camping areas with state forests being very relaxed about camping. Having said that there are also a number highly sensitive areas that will be off limits
  • Car campers
    • There are laws in place that prohibit parking in some areas to protect the wildlife and aboriginal land. However, there are plenty of free and low-cost places to park your RV and enjoy camping in the Tasmanian wilderness
    • It’s not illegal to sleep in your car in Tasmania

Free camping resources

Victoria

  • Hikers
    • Camping in Victorian parks and reserves is available in designated sites along with wild/bush camping. Camping is allowed in 25 of the 35 national parks
    • Camping is also available on other crown land however its on a case by case basis
    • Camping in Victorian sate forests is limited in most cases to designated camping area
  • Car campers
    • Vehicle-based camping is allowed in Victoria however local councils may have their own regulations

Free camping resources

Western Australia

  • Hikers
    • Camping is permitted on Crown land reserved for campsites, but not on other reserves
    • Camping is allowed in national parks in designated locations
    • State forests are also worth a look – you can camp for up to three nights on any clearing in the forest. Remember to leave nothing but footprints behind and use a fuel stove instead of a campfire for cooking
  • Car campers
    • Vehicle-based camping is only permitted in established campgrounds but Western Australia also has a number of free camping sites

Free camping resources

Final Thoughts

I must admit that trying to find out details concerning camping in each state and territory isn’t the easiest thing to do. There is no one all-encompassing source to access for all the details.

Every hike you do involves some degree of planning so you need to be familiar will the rules and regulations of the state or territory you will be camping in. Even then there are always exceptions that may not be obvious or easy to find out – if in doubt, the state and territory parks service is a good place to start. Knowing where you can and can’t camp will help you get the best out of your overnight adventure and will also help to protect the environment.

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