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Crossing The Simpson Desert For Beginners (Part 1)

by Barry Peters on 6th July 2012 in Australian Outback | 31 comments

For many four-wheel drivers, crossing the Simpson Desert is one of the great ‘must dos’. On the other hand, some find the very thought so daunting that it is never contemplated. The Simpson Desert is one of Australia’s great wilderness areas; a place of stark beauty and, for the most part, wonderful serenity. It is a place that is quite accessible with the right vehicle, the right preparation and the right attitude.

Simpson Desert

Not a bad part of the world, aye?

With so many people having 4WDs, but not leaving the bitumen, the potential for many more people to experience this amazing area is enormous. This is the first of 3 articles which will cover the essentials for planning a successful crossing that will provide great stories and significant “bragging rights” for years to come. There are significant challenges, but meeting these is not only rewarding but a whole lot of fun.

Having made two previous crossings and with number three about to happen, it’s certainly not a trip I take lightly, and preparation is the key to success.

The 3 articles will cover the following:

Part 1 – Vehicle preparation and how to get there

Part 2 – Meeting the challenges of remote area travel

Part 3 – A retrospective: what happened on our most recent trip

Safety in numbers.

The Vehicle

  • A high clearance 4WD with low range capability is a must and it must be in tip-top condition. This is not a place for all wheel drives and “soft-roaders”.
  • Have your mechanic give the vehicle a thorough check and service and ensure they know you are about to do a Simpson crossing so they appreciate the importance of the job they are doing.
  • It’s also important to note, even though they are not currently banned in the Simpson, that I am strongly of the opinion that this is not a place for trailers, no matter how strongly.
    • The desert contains the rusting remains of many that didn’t make it, picked over for any useable parts and left as a constant reminder of the folly of this action.
    • Another constant reminder of the inadvisability of trailers is found at the top of most dunes.
    • The large pot holes found as you near many crests are the result of wheel-spin as vehicles try to crest the dunes. The most common reasons – trying to haul a tonne or more of trailer over the top, or tyre pressures too high causing a lack of traction.
    • Having a broken down vehicle recovered from the desert could cost you thousands, so place as little stress on it as possible. I have little doubt that it will only be a matter of time before trailers are banned.

Now let’s look at some specifics.


One of the biggest challenges of all – how do you carry enough fuel and water and not exceed your Gross Vehicle Mass?

Shade is handy in the fierce desert sun.

  • Depending on where your last fuel stop is and which route you intend to take, you will need enough fuel to travel from 600 – 800km. Not nice smooth hig h range bitumen driving, but power sucking sandy tracks, dune climbs and probably some low range work for good measure.
    • Obviously there will be many factors that will contribute to your fuel consumption so a very handy reference is the ExploreOz.
    • Keep in mind that a good margin for error is required. Bad weather can require much harder going than usual, sucking even more fuel out of the tank.
  • A long range fuel tank is a great asset here, but not essential. If this is not going to be the type of trip you do often, the expense of a long range tank is probably not justified.
  • The other option is to use fuel safe jerry cans. These come in 10 and 20 litre sizes and, especially if carrying petrol, should be carried on roof racks.
    • Diesel, being far less volatile, can be carried inside the vehicle. Make sure you have a funnel with a fine mesh filter to ensure no dirt gets into the tank.
    • Also keep in mind that roof racks and the roof itself will have a weight limit – check your manufacturer’s recommendations. Never exceed this as broken racks from over-loading are quite common – they form another part of the litter found in the desert.
    • Every litre of fuel is just under a kilogram in weight.
    • You will only need to fill the jerry cans at Oodnadatta, Mt. Dare or Birdsville. I know, it’s a lot cheaper to fill up in the city or large towns and save “massive” amounts with shopper dockets, but this is false economy. The wear and tear carrying all that extra weight for great distances is not a risk you need to take. Fill these at the last possible opportunity and empty them into the tank at the earliest opportunity. This is simply good risk management.


A good set of tyres is essential, including a second spare. This is not an area requiring highly aggressive treads, with an all-terrain pattern usually providing better traction with less “digging in” in sandy terrain.

  • A good compressor is an essential piece of kit as having the correct pressures for the terrain is one of the best actions to ensure a safe and trouble-free crossing.
  • Don’t be afraid to get out and adjust pressures as often as required as laziness in this area considerably increases the risk of punctures.
  • The South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage in their Desert Parks Information Pack suggest 18-20 psi (120-140 Kpa) when crossing the sandy dunes.
  • A puncture repair kit is also useful for temporary repairs of small punctures. Know how to use this and perhaps even practice on an old tyre but keep in mind that these repairs are only temporary.
  • Be sure to have the tyre checked out by an authorised tyre dealer as soon as possible and don’t take the risk of using a tyre you have repaired in high speed situations.
  • Another great reference is the Cooper Tires “4WD Driver’s Guide” available from Cooper Tires dealers
  • Check out Morgan’s Essential Tyre Pressure Tips for 4WDs for some extra handy hints.

Spare Parts

  • The spares you carry will depend on the age of vehicle, but the most common items carried are belts, hoses, fuses and a fuel filter.
  • If any of these are close to replacement, then have them replaced before leaving and keep the ones removed as spares.
  • Essential fluids such as engine oil, gear oil, brake fluid and coolant should also be carried in remote areas, and some epoxy ribbon or paste can be very handy to repair small leaks in fuel tanks and radiators.
  • If travelling in a convoy, share the load around – your luck has turned really bad if everyone needs the same spare!

Getting There

Come prepared. 

  • For most people, just getting to the Simpson is a fairly major undertaking, so a couple of weeks, at least, are needed to provide an un-rushed, enjoyable experience.
  • The most common, and easier way to cross the Simpson is from west to east, leaving from either Oodnadatta and along the Pedirka Track to Dalhousie Springs, or from Mt. Dare and then on to Dalhousie.
    • This is the direction of the prevailing winds which has the effect of making the climb up the western side of dunes gentler than the steep eastern side. This factor takes on an increased importance when you realise there are about 1100 dunes to cross!!
  • Some do make an east-west crossing leaving from Birdsville. This adds an extra challenge as you meet on-coming vehicles along one lane tracks and climbing steep dunes with a blind crest. The UHF will get a work out.
  • It is possible to cross the Simpson following only the French Line. The shortest route and pretty much dead straight.

To fully enjoy the beauty of the area, I prefer to take a variety of tracks that allow you to see more of the desert and provide a more varied driving experience – not just relentless dune climbing. Sure, it takes longer, but you’ve come this far, take the time to enjoy it. Our group’s trip starts from Adelaide and takes 2 weeks. I try not to rush the days and generally plan on leaving camp by 9am and arriving by 4pm, at the latest. I’ve included a general Simpson Desert itinerary at the bottom of this article.

Don’t be put off- start planning now. If you have a reliable vehicle, there is no reason why you shouldn’t experience this magnificent area. Better still, get a group together and travel in a convoy for a lot of fun and an extra level of safety.

Check out Part 2 of this series for information that will cover more aspects of that all important planning. In the meantime, check out David Leslie’s articles, 8 4WD Tips That Could Save Your Life and 5 ‘Must Haves’ for your 4WD Recovery Kit for more information on 4WD safety. Catch you soon.

Day 1

Adelaide – Roxby Downs 561km

  • Staying in cabins at a Myall Grove Caravan Park.
  • Take-away for dinner.

Day 2

Roxby Downs – Algebuckina 406km

  • Camping at the Algebuckina railway bridge.

Day 3

Algebuckina – Mt Dare 337km

  • Camping at the Mt. Dare pubDinner at the pub.

Day 4

Mt. Dare – Dalhousie Springs 81km

  • Camping at Dalhousie Springs.
  • Spend the day soaking in the springs.

Day 5

Dalhousie – Simpson camp approx 130km

  • Taking track from Dalhousie to Purnie Bore.
  • Turn on to WAA line at Wonga Corner.
  • Look for camp site after crossing Mokari Airstrip.

Day 6

Rest day – no travel

Day 7

Travel through desert approx 156km

  • Turn north on Colson Track and travel to French Line.
  • Along French Line until Erabena Track.
  • Follow Erabena Track to WAA Line and then to Rig Road junction.
  • Find campsite along Rig Road.

Day 8

Rest Day – no travel

Day 9

Travel through desert to Eyre Creek 197km

  • Follow Rig Road to Knolls Track.
  • Follow Knolls Track to French Line.
  • Follow French Line to Poeppel Corner.
  • Turn east on to QAA Line and travel to Eyre Creek.

Day 10

Eyre Creek – Birdsville 56km

  • Camp at Birdsville Caravan Park.

Day 11

Rest day in Birdsville

Day 12

Birdsville – Mungerannie 286km

Via Inside Track

  • Camp at Mungerannie.
  • Dinner at Mungerannie Pub

Day 13

Mungerannie – Copley 321km

  • Cabins at Copley Caravan Park.
  • Dinner at Leigh Creek Pub at Copley.

Day 14

Copley – Adelaide 569km

Next: Crossing the Simpson Desert for Beginners (Part 2)

Barry Peters

Barry Peters

Some camping as a child, and being a boy scout, developed a love of the outdoors. After living in Coober Pedy for 6 years in the 70's, this became a great appreciation of the outback. Every opportunity was taken to travel with family using a combination of tent, camper trailer and caravan accommodation. In more recent times, after becoming a "empty nester", I have organised and led many outback trips for family members, friends and acquaintances, including three crossings of the Simpson Desert. Although most of our outback travel has been in South Australia, a recent caravan and camping trip through the Northern Territory, the Kimberley, down the W.A. coast and across the Nullarbor will be the start of some longer trips exploring some of the more out of the wayplaces across the country.

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  • Sam says:

    Hi Barry, Great report and insight into the trip. Thanks for sharing.

    I am an experienced 4wder and camper and am planning to take my wife and 18month old daughter across the desert in July/August next year. I understand the obvious risks (requiring basic first aid, water requirements etc) but I’m interested in your opinion on whether you would deem this “sensible” or an unnecessary risk for such a young child.

    She travels well otherwise.


    • Thanks for the comment Sam. I have passed it into Barry who will reply soon – he’s not always active online, so give it a few days. Cheers, Paul

    • Barry Peters Barry Peters says:

      Hi Sam
      What a great opportunity to take the family to this incredible place. I don’t have a problem with what you are planning as long as there are no outstanding medical issues that may require assistance. This is not an area that even the Flying Doctor can get to easily. The other issue is the safety of your daughter from the natural hazards that may be encountered – snakes, scorpions, spiders and sharp thorns on some bushes. You don’t want to have to keep her in a small “prison” every time you get out of the car. A good backup supply of water and food is essential.

      On our last trip across we had a number of children. We purposely delayed the trip until the youngest was near school age. They are old enough to have safety explained and also old enough to appreciate the fantastic experience.

      Hope this helps in some way.


  • Tim Pearl says:

    A great website and very useful reference for those contemplating crossing the simmo. I’m looking at crossing in a very small group this year. Whilst all have crossed previously we are beefing up on spare parts etc as the Simpson will form part of a much larger trip. How many litres of engine oil, gear oil and brake fluid do you folks take on your trip?

    • I’m envious, Tim! There are a few guys here looking at heading off this year too.

      I will get an answer from Barry for you on how much engine and gear oil and brake fluid they took.

    • Barry said in an email to me, Tim:

      “On a trip such as the Simpson I carry 5 litres of engine oil and 1 litre each of brake fluid, gear oil and limited slip gear oil (if appropriate). I would have to say, on the multitude of trips undertaken I have never used any of these. I guess it’s insurance and peace of mind but modern vehicles well maintained are incredibly reliable.”

  • Rob Turner says:

    I’m planning a solo crossing of Simpson in mid May 2015 in a BT50 Mazda ute. Re fuel,it has a 70 ltre tank and gives 650/700 km range at moderate speeds on gravel roads. I’m planning on taking 80 ltrs extra on jerry cans for the crossing. Any experienced drivers out there like to comment as to whether this is too little for the shortest crossing. I travel very light (no fridge, generators tents etc and 40 ltrs water)

    • Barry Peters Barry Peters says:

      Hi Rob
      Check out the real world fuel figures in Part 3 of the blog. I assume your ute is diesel so my Hilux would be the closest comparison. You should have plenty based on those figures. Also check the blog “Simpson Desert Alert” to ensure you have the correct sand flag arrangements. The only other comment I would make is perhaps to carry a bit more water, just in case of breakdown or bad weather that could find you in the desert longer than expected. Also, it takes a great effort just to get to the desert, so take your time, keep the speed down, ensure appropriate tyre pressures and enjoy this fabulous area.

    • Claude says:

      I have done the crossing from east to west. My experience was from the day I said….”let do the crossing”….to my wife !!
      As mentioned, if you have a Diesel you should be fine. Your fuel average on gravel road is not a good reference point, it will be more. I find that the first half was easy on fuel, the second half was a bit more. What an adventure !!!
      A bit more water would be wise. Take a bit of timber as well, again the first half didn’t have much (still enough) the second half…plenty. Another good advice is to have some good tyres. I met a group of 9 car at the beginning, they just finished the crossing, with only 3 punctures, but all on the same car. That driver turn around and got a new set before going further, round and black is not enough !!
      Maybe do a bit of training in sand, to experience tyre pressure.
      All the best, I hope that you will enjoy that adventure as much a my wife and I did.

  • S & S Norris says:

    Great website. We cannot wait to complete our full Simpson crossing this year.
    S & S Norris

  • Felipe says:

    Hi there, I just did Bourke, wanaaring, white cliffs and finished at Broken hill, felt in love for the out back!!! I want go far now, my idea is go from Tibooburra to Alice Springs, is it possible? What you guys reckon? Anyone keen to go?

  • Jim Greer says:

    is it possible for a 1999 petrol land cruiser gxl to cross the simpson desert and still find petrol stations in the outback offering petrol at the bowser. i have a 175ltr long range tank and 200 ltr spare fuel on board.
    or would i end up consuming all my petrol reserves and end up without fuel and stranded in the outback?


    • Barry Peters Barry Peters says:

      Hi Jim
      Your question raises a number of issues. I cannot stress too much the isolation of this area. You need to be self contained and your vehicle in absolutely top condition. The only places fuel is available prior to crossing the desert are Oodnadatta, Mt Dare or Birdsville, depending on the direction of travel. You will only get unleaded at each of these places. There is no fuel available across the desert. If would also like to stress that the cost of recovery of a vehicle could well break the bank.

      As stated in Part 3 of the blog, a 100 series V8 petrol Land Cruiser used 154l to travel 640km. The sand was fairly firm at this time so fuel consumption was not bad. If the desert is dry and the sand very soft fuel consumption can go up dramatically.

      The last issue I would like to mention is the way you intend to carry 200l of extra fuel. It is not good practice to carry petrol inside a vehicle and having that much on the roof is inviting disaster. These tracks can be very rough and many roof racks have been shaken to pieces in the past.

      I’m sorry if this all sounds a bit negative and I don’t want to put you off the trip. Good, solid preparation is the key.

      Good luck.

      • Jim Greer says:

        Hi Barry,

        Thanks for the quick reply, i’ve got a 1999 petrol v6 land cruiser and a 175 ltr long range tank so in total i have about 275 ltrs of petrol in the tank to be filled at birdsville before the crossing and my roof racks are home made out of solid steel that can easily take on more than 500kgs of weight and g forces compared to the ones sold in the market with aluminum frames. so in total i would have about 200ltrs securely shaded on the roof from the sun’s heat and 275lts in the tank. would that be enough roughly to take me to the next petrol station across the simpson? i intend to travel from west to east taking the most direct route which is the french line in around july to august next year coz this would be our first crossing. i will be traveling with family and friends of about 3 or 4 vehicles in the convoy.


        • Barry Peters Barry Peters says:

          Hi Jim

          Sounds like you will have plenty of fuel. A west to east crossing is definitely the better way to go as the slope up the dunes is gentler. Just a couple of other things to be aware of. Firstly, carrying fuel on the roof significantly raises your centre of gravity. Be really careful with this as there are many areas on the track where sharp turns are required, sometimes just after cresting a dune. With too much speed and a high centre of gravity, the chance of a rollover is much higher. The other thing to be aware of is the Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM) of your vehicle. If you exceed this you potentially void your insurance in the case of an accident. Just something to be aware of.

          All the best.

          • Jim Greer says:

            Hi Barry,

            Thanks so much for the advise. It was very valuable for me to make the decision to finally make the crossing and convince the missus that she wont have to get out and push in case we run out of petrol. :-)

            You’re spot on to point out the center of gravity and GVM as those things are the main concerns for me once i made sure about the fuel. Towing a camper trailer is certainly out of the question. We are a family of 4 with 2 teenage boys with a lot of bits and pieces of accessories/tech gadgets to bring with them and a rooftop tent mounted on top of my roof rack basket thereby adding to the already overweight truck and high centre of gravity.
            Thanks for the advice and more power to you


        • Miles says:

          Thanks to this site and other, I have done my crossing. Thanks. That was a trip of a life time. While doing the Simpson is an adventure, it really start when you got the idea in your head. I think this trip is fantastic, a bit over rated in difficulty (in some case in could become harder)….but fuel wise, you should be fine, the crossing is around 550 km, take your worst ever fuel consumption (doing some 4×4, not going shopping !!)…and take a bit more. Prepare…prepare…and prepare you 4wd, while chances are you will meet people, the towing is $$$$. Be as light as you can. Take your time, don’t rush. Get some good 4×4 tyres with good sidewalls. I found that the corrugation around Mt Dare to be the worse part of the trip.
          All the best,

  • part 1 is really awesome. looking forward to the part2. thanks for sharing such an awesome post. keep up the good work

  • Driving in such harsh conditions is a very difficult task for both driver and his vehicle. The preparations made for this kind of trip is the key to success for completing this kind of journey and after finishing it the vehicle is in great need of a general check up and repairs if necessary, so  that it can start another journey after this. So keep your vehicle and yourself ready to enjoy next adventurous ride through another difficult track. 

  • Miles says:

    Hum…I haven’t found the part 3 of your very interesting article….I probably missed something but not sure what :)

  • shane says:

    I’ll stick my head above the trench and disagree in part with the trailer comment. Having completed an East-West crossing in Sept 2013 towing a trailer, I have experience to comment, I’m not sprouting hearsay and innuendo. Responsible trailer towing in these regions requires adherence to pressures (trailer included) and due process. When you have lost momentum/traction, you stop. You dont go digging for gold with the tug. In 1100 dunes, there was only 3 I could not do unassisted. I stopped, I reversed, I layed maxtrax (we had 12 in the party) and then I was over. No hole digging, no damage to the dune surface and no issue. They must have had a clean up as there was no trailer wrecks to be found.

    What concerned me the greatest, was my observation that most oncoming vehicles appeared to be running way high pressures. And I was so glad to be heading West, even if the Eastern slopes are arguably steeper. The Western slopes were holed to buggery. I would have had a lot more difficulty had I chose that route. But in conclusion, this is one place where the “recommendation” of not towing trailers, I can appreciate. Its not easy, but with the right pressures and following due process, its also not unachievable. Problem being, a lot dont know (or give a damn) about pressures or due process. Hence the repeated trailer bashing.

    Thanks for letting me even up the score a little.

    Kind regards

    • Brian says:

      I’m in the trenches with you Shane. In 2012 we made the crossing West East towing a KK. With all the bad publicity about towing trailers I was very conscious of track care. You are very right about the holes on the western side being a problem and tyre pressures being the answer. People who are experienced in towing like yourself will understand the following, those who don’t probably wouldn’t. You cannot drive fast approaching dunes with dug out holes when towing because the drawbar of your trailer pitches excessively up and down lowering your speed and increases the chance of damage. We only had 2 dunes where we had a second go and as you said as soon as you loose momentum, stop, back down and try again and lowering tyre pressures if needed. Our approach to these dunes were to almost idle up the bumpy section and power over the drift sand at the top. This is a much more comfortable way for all to travel with no damage to the track as the drift sand at the top changes on a daily basis. Being the lead car in our convoy I could see all the wheel spin from the cars last over the dune from either direction and most of those were NOT towing. When we got to Big Red we lowered pressures again to 16psi all round and cruised up first go with camper in tow. I would prefer to have two attempts at an obstacle than to break something trying to do it once.

      Thanks to those who read this.

      Kind Regards

  • Wash all perishable foods such as fruits & vegetables before you leave home. Pack all foods in air tight bags or sealed plastic containers. This helps prevent cross contamination, not to mention a mess.

  • John says:

    Great blog! For those more experienced and looking for a different route, it is worth mentioning the Bookie Track and Madigan Line. They both have their challenges, including some navigation on the Madigan, but well worth considering for experience desert travellers.

  • Mike Woud says:

    I fully agree with your claim about the use of trailers in the Simpson Desert. The last time I crossed it (2009), every vehicle towing a trailer had to be snatched over every sand dune leaving churned up tracks behind them. I,ve left a detailed blog on Rita’s Outback about trailers on Goog’s Track.

    • Barry Peters Barry Peters says:

      Thanks for the comment Mike. When we did the trip a few weeks ago we came across 2 camper trailers that were massive and obviously very heavy. To top it off they were travelling from east to west, no doubt digging even more holes on the eastern side of the dunes. Apart from all the damage and wear and tear, it can’t be a pleasant experience.


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