Motorhome and caravan free camp etiquette is now more important than ever with the number of Australians hitting the open highways and backroads rising exponentially over the past few years. Life on the road has become a way of life for many Australians, who pulled up stumps from their regular jobs to become the ‘grey nomads’. However, the COVID years from 2020-2022 saw a huge jump in caravans, camper trailers, and motorhomes on the road as people confined to their states looked for ways to get out.
The love of the great open road shows no sign of abating. Approximately 800,000 recreational vehicles are registered in Australia1, the majority of which are caravans, and these vehicles make some 12 million trips a year, mostly in regional Australia2. These numbers are forecast to grow in the next decade.
1- Caravan Industry Association of Australia Pre-budget Submission to Federal Government
2- Mordor Intelligence – Australian Recreational Vehicle Market Size and Market Share
Note: for simplicity, all road-trippers and travellers with motorhomes, caravans, campervans and camper trailers are coined the RV Community in this guide.
- Basic etiquette required
- What is a free camp?
- What is country pub camping?
- General tips for free camps
- General tips for country pub camping
- Helpful resources
Basic etiquette required
With an increase in travellers – especially those who have never camped or road-tripped before – comes an increase in the use of existing infrastructure. It’s essential that all of us who travel in this way are respectful to each other and that we do everything we can to preserve the facilities that are provided for us and that we hope to have in the future.
The road-tripping market has also changed over the years. Decades ago, caravan parks were the go-to for road travellers. History would likely suggest that these were the only places available; anything else was probably considered illegal. There was certainly no concept of a free camp, and the only pub camping was when a punter left their car there overnight because they’d had one too many. Back in those days, they probably got in the car and drove home anyway!
We haven’t written this guide to preach; far from it. We are huge believers that road-tripping is different for everyone. But, we think some general courtesies should be considered when free camping. Why? It only takes a few to ruin it for everyone else, and stories abound on social media of businesses that were once huge supporters of the RV community who have withdrawn their services for various reasons, which ultimately can be summed up as a lack of respect.
This guide is also written with first-time travellers in mind, although it’s never too late for us to learn new strategies or adopt new manners. It’s also not a guide about caravan parks because they aren’t in our circle of expertise. As motorhome owners, we have adapted our vehicle to be self-sufficient and self-contained to assist with free camping and being off the grid, so we rarely require the services provided by a caravan park.
If this guide saved one free camp or country pub from closing because of the RV community’s support and respectful behaviour, it will have been worthwhile.
What is a free camp?
The word free camp can take on many different definitions depending on the country or area you are in. It can also differ from person to person, depending on experiences and risk levels. Needless to say, it can sometimes vary widely.
This guide uses the following explanation to provide some parameters around where we think it’s okay to stay. As always, if you want to do something differently or have a different view, that’s entirely your prerogative.
A free camp is a general term given to a designated area provided by local councils, and authorities set aside for members of the RV community who are on a road trip. Unless signed otherwise, it doesn’t exclude people travelling with pop-top tents on the top of vehicles, camper trailers and even tents.
There are often no facilities – and in this instance, there might be a reference to self-contained travellers only – however, there can be public toilets at some.
They aren’t usually that pretty; often, you’ll find them on the side of the highway, but they are functional, which is often just what the travelling community needs. Free camps can also be a little wilder; think back roads in bushland areas, near creeks and sometimes even beaches.
But you need to watch the laws. Along many of the beaches of East Coast Australia, free camping is not permitted in most coastal areas. We recently saw a lot of free camping around Ellis Beach, north of Cairns. The signage along the Captain Cook Highway is very clear; free camping in these areas is not permitted. So always check the signage and ultimately camp at your own risk.
Legitimate free camping can also be done at many of the country pubs of Australia.
What is country pub camping?
The majority of country pub camping is free. By free, we mean no upfront fee is required to stay the night. But country pub camping can be paid for, and it can be in-kind. By in-kind, we mean that we follow the RV community’s code of travel by spending some money at the pub.
Whether it be lunch, dinner, or a few cold beverages, it’s a means of giving something back to the pub to say thanks for supporting us. Many country pubs do it tough in the regional areas and rely on the travelling community to keep them alive.
Good to know: Many of the country pubs are required by their local council to have special permits to allow the RV community to stay on their land. You know how it goes; councils require a permit and a fee. Additional insurance is also usually required to cover you and them in the case of an incident. Allowing you to stay doesn’t come free for the owner.
General tips for free camps
This is a standard rule that holds regardless of where you are. Never, ever empty your toilet cassettes or waste anywhere other than approved dump points.
Our tip: Search the Wikicamps app (Wiki) for dump station locations. Some of the official free camps built by local authorities have a dump station.
Grey water is another area that can cause uncertainty. All self-contained motorhomes and caravans have greywater tanks, and all should also have hoses. While I will admit that I used to freak out when I saw caravans letting all of their greywater out onto the ground at free camp areas, it is apparently quite normal and acceptable unless otherwise signed.
I draw the line, however, at running them into lakes, rivers and creeks. And yes, it does happen. A collapsible bucket is handy if you don’t have a tank.
Our tip: Be considerate of your neighbours at the campsite. If you are running grey water from your caravan or motorhome, ensure it’s not running anywhere near anyone else. We’ve been camped up and jumped out of our vehicle to find we have a small creek running past our front door.
Time of entry and exit
There are rarely any rules regarding check-in and check-out times at free camps, but some basic courtesies should apply.
Everyone understands that sometimes you have to drive late into the night. If you arrive late, don’t cover everyone with your headlights. Most of the RV community tend to retreat inside their caravans and motorhomes after dinner; for some, this can be quite early, like 6 pm. Keep your lights low and your noise levels down.
Find a spot as quickly as possible and set up in the same manner. Don’t talk loudly outside your vehicle, and don’t use it as the time to have a conversation with your travelling mates at top voice. If you’ve got a vehicle with a side sliding door, try not to open and shut that any more than you need to.
Sometimes the free spots can be reasonably busy, but if there’s room, don’t park as close as you can to someone else. There’s nothing worse than going to bed thinking you’ve got a bit of space near your door, only to find when you get out you’ve got relatively close company.
The same etiquette applies to early departures. Hopefully, if you know you’ve got to get away early in the morning, you won’t have set too much up at night that will require a pack down, so you’ll eliminate unnecessary noise.
Use of facilities
If you are lucky enough to have found a free camp with facilities, please look after them and use them in a way that respects all other users. Some free camps have toilets while others have been known to have camp kitchen facilities and sometimes showers. Clean up after yourself as much as possible and leave everything in a better way for the next person.
Only light fires if it is legal to do so, but be better than that and only light them when it’s responsible to do so. If there is a huge wind blowing, or you know it’s bushfire season, be mindful of your surroundings and always extinguish it properly. Never leave a fire unattended.
This should be a no-brainer, but it’s just a general rule of respect around any camping area. It’s great to catch up with travelling mates or newly acquired ones, but it’s essential to be aware of your surroundings and not impede the quiet enjoyment of others in the community. As mentioned above, many people go to bed early or retire inside when the sun goes down. You don’t have to do the same, but if you are a night owl and love sitting outside, just be mindful of others.
I get why people have them, but they are among the most significant contributors to ruining people’s ability to enjoy their own space, including the right to some quiet time. If you have to use one, try and secure a spot at a free camp as far away from others and don’t run it after dark.
Leave things better than when you arrived
This is a simple one. The area where you park and anything you touch while you are there should be left in the way you found it, if not in an improved state. If you see rubbish lying around the free camp, pick it up and put it in a bin; don’t just walk past it.
If you see something that needs fixing, find a contact for the authority that looks after the site, or tell the pub owner. When we stayed at Lake Elphinstone (Qld), Stirling noticed the septic tank overflowing, leaving a horrible – and growing – mess near the public toilets. He immediately rang the council, who sent a council officer out to inspect.
The more this community can proactively manage minor issues, the easier it is for the authority or owner to keep the status quo and maintain the site. Abuse it, or leave constant negative reviews, and you’ll give the competition (like caravan parks) ammunition to ask for the areas to be closed down or for the councils to direct their budget elsewhere.
Don’t park where you shouldn’t, even if others are
Don’t make the problem worse. If you see an area where people are free camping, but you are reasonably certain it’s not a legitimate site, then find somewhere else to stay. Doing the wrong thing gives those who dislike the RV community or don’t understand our love of the free camping world, a chance to complain and be negative or even hostile towards us.
Don’t park right beside someone if there is plenty of room
I’ll admit to this being one of my bugbears. I know some free camps are getting quite busy, but there’s usually enough room not to park right on top of someone else. If we wanted to park close to someone, we’d stay in a caravan park. If an area looks too tight, we’ll also chat with the people who have already parked up to see if they are okay with us pulling in. We travel in the great outdoors of Australia, spread out a little, and enjoy some room.
Plenty of free camping sites are dog-friendly, which is terrific. Always keep your dogs on a lead when moving about, and never let them stray into someone’s space unless invited. Too often, our calm dog has been frightened while sleeping in her bed in our camp space by dogs off lead or coming under our vehicle from the other side.
Be a responsible pet owner. Not everyone is comfortable with other people’s animals, and sometimes our pets have reasons (medical issues is one of them) why being enthusiastically approached by another is not acceptable.
It doesn’t have to be much, but we all need to spend money when we travel. We buy in small amounts, ensuring that whatever we spend, we spread it across as many towns and businesses as possible.
We find many free camps, especially the pubs, via word of mouth. We put energy into supporting the great sites we find rather than take up our precious time writing negative reviews. We also go out of our way to share the love of our local towns, camps and businesses on our social media channels. A little bit of support from everyone also goes a long way to helping everyone in the communities out.
General tips for country pub camping
Many of the tips above apply to country pub camping as they are common sense or courtesy. But the pubs sometimes have a few rules, so it’s good to be across them as much as possible.
It is considered highly unusual to have dump facilities at a pub. Pubs are there mostly to offer a safe place to park for the night, with access to the pub’s facilities when it is open. Unless it is a paid pub stay, in which case facilities might be part of the fee you pay. An example of this is the Forrest Beach Hotel in North Qld.
Supporting the pub
Buying food and drinks at the pub is the best way to support them, but I understand that this isn’t always possible for many reasons. You might not be able to face another pub meal if you’ve been travelling for a while, or you might need to save some money. If you aren’t able to spend money at the pub, be mindful that you are still on the pub’s private property.
It’s a good idea, and courteous to boot, not to sit outside your rig drinking alcohol purchased elsewhere. If you’ve got your alcohol elsewhere, try and keep it as low-key as possible.
No doubt, everyone will have a different view on this, but having talked to many pub owners over the years, this can be a real bugbear. Some pubs now have local rules to prevent this.
Tell people you are there
It’s not always easy to find the pub’s owner; sometimes, they aren’t on site, but it’s easy to find someone at the bar to speak to. Find someone, say g’day and tell them who you are. It doesn’t hurt to say thanks, either.
It’s not cool to sneak in and sneak out. We know people do this, but so do the pub owners. At a recent pub stay in North Queensland, the owner knew we were parked out the back well before we went inside to introduce ourselves. She had seen us arrive and park via the external security cameras.
Time of entry and exit
If you can, check the forums where you heard about the country pub for any indication of special instructions for arrival, departure or opening days. Not all pubs offer their property 24/7, 365 days a year. The Currajah Pub in Wangan (Far North Qld) for example, isn’t open for camping on Sunday and Monday and only has room for about five rigs. It’s also best to call ahead of your arrival.
Use of facilities
Some pubs are incredibly generous, allowing the RV community to use their facilities. Treat them just like you would if you were at home, and never tip any of your waste products into their facilities.
The one challenge we find when looking for free camps is that it is all a moving feast and no one app, forum or website has a one-stop-shop. Reviews can also vary widely and wildly! Those mentioned below are part of our everyday planning arsenal. We often hop from one to the other when looking for somewhere to stay.
Quite often, one of us will be on Wiki – usually Stirling, as he has all the filters set – and I like perusing the Country Pub Camping Facebook page, as I can use the search function better and scan for relevant details.
- Wikicamps – a desktop and app-based service that requires membership.
- Country Pub Camping and countrypubcamping.com Note there are several FB groups with similar names, but this is our preferred.
- Free Camping Australia – website-based and FB group.
- Full Range Camping – website-based and FB group.
Our tip: Always check as many forums as possible for your planned stopover. Details can change regardless of whether it is free, paid or country pub. The work required to keep all of these apps, websites and FB pages up to date is an enormous administrative task. Keeping everything current all of the time is not physically possible.
While not everybody likes rules, there are rules in place, and general courtesies should apply to try and keep this system operating for everyone. A substantial proportion of the RV travelling community loves and prefers free camping, so it would be sad if these privileges were taken away because of poor behaviour and a lack of respect for the land, the towns, the business owners and other travellers.
As always, we do whatever we can, without being militant, to try and support the local businesses, including the pubs, wherever we can. The more of us that do that the greater the opportunities that forward-thinking, supportive business owners will create.
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