Self-drive the NT

Northern territory Self Drive Guide

Self drive NT seems cheaper when you are planning your visit to the NT. It also has the advantage of the freedom to choose where to visit, when to visit and how long to stay in your favourite places. Best of all you do not have to be told what to do and herded around like sheep on those big organised tours … yep, a self-drive mission is looking good.

Before you embark on your big kahuna self-drive mission there are a few mini missions you will need to complete before you go.

MISSION 1: Choosing a vehicle for your self drive NT holiday.

Driving in the outback comes with its challenges so it’s important to choose the right car for you. Some questions you should answer before you choose: What are your driving licence restrictions? If you are looking to hire a car in the NT, check whether you can drive automatic or manual. This will help you narrow your search down.

Do you need a full driving licence?

If you are on your P Plates, you may not be able to hire a car in the NT as most car rental companies will only rent to full driving licences. Is your international driving licence valid for Australia?

You may need to apply for an international driving permit depending on the country your licence was issued and your  overseas licence must be translated into English. Check all of the driving travel information on the Government website before you hire.

Do you need a 4WD or a 2WD to drive the Northern Territory?

The great news is that the Stuart Highway, which runs from Darwin through central Australia to Adelaide, is completely sealed and possible to drive in a 2WD. There are many fuel stops along the route, a roadhouse for food and accommodation and national parks you can access easily in a 2WD. If you are planning on going off the sealed road then a 4WD is possibly the best option.

There are many places you can explore off the Stuart highway and national parks that are not sealed and you can access areas less crowded by tourism. With all 4 tyres, it is much easier to get out of sticky situations and stay on the road. Saying this, there have been cases where people have hired a 4WD, got bogged and when assistance came it was found that they had not engaged the other 2 wheels and were in fact operating as a 2WD.

Moral of that story is that if you are going to hire a vehicle, make sure you know how to drive it and what all the buttons do.

Top Tip: Check the hire company terms and conditions. Most hire companies do not allow their vehicles of any type to go off road so beware of this when hiring. Insurance will be voided if you drive and damage the vehicle outside of the go zones.

Do you want to hire a Campervan in the NT?

A roadhouse along the Stuart Highway may offer accommodation, but most will have a caravan park for you to camp. If you are planning any overnight stays, check your accommodation options before you decide on the car hire you need for your Northern Territory self drive trip. It is possible to hire 4WD campervans or a rooftop tent, so don’t think you are limited to only 2WD. In fact, the camping grounds in National Parks may be off road so take this into consideration.

Do you know what to do if you break down in the Northern Territory?

Unexpected and rare, but the chance is always there to ruin a perfectly good road trip. Perhaps one shouldn’t say rare, as this may depend on the quality of the vehicle you hire and the company from which you hire. Ensure you choose a hire company with a good break down cover, 24/7 assistance and excellent reviews. Some hire companies may offer a back up car if you do break down so you don’t have to cut your Northern Territory self drive holiday short.

Always make sure you have insurance for the car you hire. Rental companies will offer liability reduction schemes, or you can purchase temporary car rental insurance elsewhere to cover your liability. You can’t have a wonderful experience without insurance right?

What is the total cost of your NT hire car?

$45 a day sounds great for a hire. That is, until you get the list of other costs which go with it. Things like insurance, tyre levy, one way drop off levy, extra KM levy (price can change in the wet and dry season); all of these bits and bobs add up. Most important levy to think about is the KM per day limit you have as standard, the Northern Territory and Stuart highway are huge, you will want to ensure you are not charged a crazy amount for a long road trip. Also check the fuel consumption of your car hire, if you are eyeing up a 6-berth diesel motorhome, you will be doing many fuel stops along the Stuart Highway. So you have sorted a car out and now are ready to plan your self-drive NT tour. Time for nuts and bolts.

MISSION 2: logistics of your Northern Territory self drive holiday

The Northern Territory is a huge state in Australia, it could take you 15 hours to drive the Stuart Highway from the Alice Springs red centre to Darwin, without stopping, even for fuel. Nobody wants to drive straight through Central Australia without stopping to see the spectacular sights like Uluru / Ayers rock resort, Nitmiluk national park, the Katherine Gorge, Kakadu national park or Litchfield national park right? So lets ensure you have all of your logistics organised ahead so you can have the best Northern Territory self drive holiday!

Planning your Northern Territory itinerary

If you have got this far in your plan, you must have a list of the best places to visit in the NT like national parks, waterfalls, walking tracks, wildlife spots, view spots, picnic spots and famous roadhouses. Travellers may want to go with the flow but driving the outback can come with it’s dangers, such as no phone signal in remote areas, fewer fuel stops and high temperatures, and that’s not even mentioning the wet season. Even if you want to be spontaneous, I would recommend you still plan the following:

1. Note down your best places to visit on the Northern Territory map (you don’t need to go old school and find out an old paper map, you can pin locations straight to a google map)

2. Calculate the time it would take to drive between each place.

3. Make a note of all the accommodation and caravan park options as this will inform you where to go on each day of the trip.

4. Consider the needs of your travel group. Are there babies, mobility issues or other considerations that need to be factored in when planning your stops along the Stuart Highway?

5. Pin all of the fuel stops along the Stuart Highway, off road or in National parks.

6. Download your Google map to view offline for those moments you lose phone signal in remote areas.

The best time to travel the Northern Territory Natives in the top end love it all year round but the best time for any travellers to see the most of the Northern Territory is in the dry season, which runs in the cooler months from May to October. You will still be warm on your trip as average temperatures range from 21°C to 32°C.

The weather is great in the winter months as you can enjoy all the wilderness activities in the red centre at a comfortable temperature with lower humidity, clear skies and minimal rain. Saying that, don’t let the wet season, which runs from November to April, put you off.

In the North top end of NT, you can experience tropical mother nature at it’s best, from dramatic storms, cyclones and some of the best sunsets you can see. Seeing the bush flooding between Litchfield National park and Kakadu national park is unbelievable for an area often thought of as dry and hot. The summer months are also the best period to visit if you want to avoid the busiest time for tourism. Word of caution here though, the right time varies through the year and can vary from day to day. Beware of school holiday peak season and school groups on tours of the National parks if you want a quieter holiday enjoying the peaceful waterholes and hikes.

The dangers of Northern Territory travel

Safety is a big issue in the NT as all the elements are wild. The weather variations are extreme whilst the fauna and flora are always keen to remind us that we are still part of the food chain. Things to be aware of when planning your road trips in the Northern Territory:

1. Snakes and spiders. Some of the most dangerous snakes in Australia can be found in the NT. If you are hiking in remote areas around the red centre or in the North, ensure you wear closed shoes and carry a snake bite kit.

2. Crocodiles. It pays to be croc-wise in the NT, especially if travelling in the wet season as rivers can be in full flow. Only swim in waters with a sign saying it is safe to do so but note there is still a chance of freshwater crocodiles, do not approach them. They tend to survive on fish and will only attack if you bother them. Never swim in an area with saltwater crocodiles as they will attack.

3. Flooding. Check the weather warnings and travel information before your Northern Territory self drive trip.

4. Low signal. Save your maps, emergency contacts, break down contact and any information you need before setting off into remote areas.

5. Fewer medical assistance. In remote areas you can be far from emergency services so ensure you pack a solid first aid kit and just always be careful.

Food and water in the Northern Territory

As soon as you leave the city or town in the NT, you could be 200km away from the next roadhouse, fuel stop or water pump. Always check if there are facilities in the region you are visiting and always take a back up of refreshments just incase it is closed, you detour or break down. Nobody likes to be hungry and thirsty on a normal day, never mind when they are cruising through the outback. Water is the crucial element so make sure you have plenty of that. Enough water is roughly 3 litres per person as a minimum for an average day in the Top End in the dry season. It usually works well but have a secret stash of emergency water just in case of another 3 litres per person if you are travelling to remote areas.

Stuart Highway Fuel Stops

The outback has come a long way since it was first built and you can find a roadhouse fuel stop every 100km or so along the main highway. Always fill up your tank even if you have only used a quarter just incase of emergencies, remember you will have low signal in a lot of areas. If you are driving 4WD off road, there are some tracks that do not have any fuel stops from more than 200KM so always pack a few space tanks if you can.

MISSION 3: Education on your Northern Territory road trip

Aboriginal people have been living in the Northern Territory for 65,000 years and there is beautiful culture to explore as well as geology, anthropology and astrology to name a few. We travel to experience different ways of life and learn about the world so make sure you do your research before visiting as we have mentioned, poor phone signal will be an issue and Siri won’t be able to answer your burning questions. If you can tap into a local tour for one or two experiences this will add massive value to your holiday as they share local knowledge and tips which you can then use for the rest of your journey. So research the culture, immerse yourself in the way of life, book an educational tour and create amazing memories to write home about!

MISSION 4: Begin your self drive Northern Territory holiday

So you got a car, you have a plan and you are on your way … oops.

Flat tyre !

What now ?


A. Fix tyre (have you changed a tyre before ?)

B. See emergency plan (do you have an emergency plan ?)

C. Forget the self drive tour idea and join any one of many organised NT tours. From Darwin Day tours to multi day tours there are plenty of NT
tour options. Group categories include: private tours, micro tours, small group tour, medium and large group tours … a size for everyone