Free Camping

This is probably the hottest topic in the camping industry right now. Seems everyone has an opinion but not everyone has all the facts - nor the answers. In this article, passionate bush-camper Michelle Martin discusses the issue and reminds us of our responsibilities & obligations when it comes to using bush camps.

The Problem for Campers

In recent times, we have observed many debates over the the extent of the law on free camping. For many people, especially those that have grown up utilising isolated free sites located in reserves, parks, and other crown land, the recent crack down on free camp restrictions has flared up tempers and created widespread confusion.

Most times these issues become ugly when people feel forced by council law to go to a commercial campground they feel is sub-standard when they would prefer to utilise their existing self-sufficient camping equipment (motorhome, caravan, camper trailer etc) in a more quiet location on the outskirts of the town.

We have all read complaints where people feel that the new policies are unwarranted, and some even suggest, there is no law to stop people using crown land. The problem is that each state has its own jurisdication on the matter, so you need to be conscious that each region of Australia can operate under different laws in regards to use of land for camping.

To better understand the law as it applies to camping, one needs to have an appreciation for the law of land ownership in Australia. The next section briefly summarises the law in simple practical terms as it applies to campers.

Land Use & the Law of Ownership

Land tenure systems dealing with ownership of land in Australia includes General Law (or “Old System”) Title, Torrens (or “Real Property”) Title, Strata Title, Native Title, and Possessory Title.

In Australia, land is predominantly held under the Torrens Title system, although remnants of Old System Title (Deeds of Conveyance) still remain. All land in the Australian Capital Territory is leasehold (effectively Torrens freehold) and much of the Northern Territory is held under Crown lease. Native Title is recognised as a separate form of ownership by Acts of Parliament and the Courts. Crown Land is “remaining” land which has not been allocated and is still held by the Crown.

By law, ownership implies the right to exclusive enjoyment and the owner is entitled to use it in any manner they please, subject only to:
  • their obligations towards neighbours & the public
  • any condition which may have been imposed in the Crown grant
  • obligations entered into by express agreement with others
  • restrictions & qualifcations imposed by legislation

The issue of boundaries is also interesting to note, especially for campers looking to pull over by the side of the road and camp on the "verge". There is a presumption at common law that where land is described as being bounded by a road, ownership extends to the middle of the road (the ad medium filum viae rule), unless there is a clearly defined intent to the contrary.

To use a practical example, this means that if you wish to pull over and camp by the side of a road you should check to see who owns the land. Just because the property is fenced backed from the road this fence may not mark the boundary of their property and to the full extent of the law, you should be seeking permission from the property owner before you camp there. In reality, most people have no idea how to contact the property owner and in many parts of Australia, especially along remote tracks & highways, contact with station owners is next to impossible on the spur of the moment. The rule of thumb is to acknowledge that you do not have any right to assume it is ok to camp on any unmarked section of land off the side of the road.


Reference: "Fundamentals of Land Ownership, Land Boundaries & Surveying" by G J Donnelly, Intergovernmantal Committee on Survey & Mapping.

When is Free Camping Okay?

Essentially, the easiest way to know you're doing the right thing is to take head of the following basic principles:
  • never assume that you have the right to camp on vacant land - all land is owned by someone and even unallocated crown land has laws that restrict people to camp only in areas designated for camping
  • Only camp where signs specifically state that camping is permitted and take heed of any specific restrictions such as not exceeding the 24 hr limit
  • buy and use reputable, current editions of camping guidebooks and only choose listed campsites
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Is Free Camping becoming a thing of the past?

Yes and No. The reality is that some non-allocated crown land in regional areas that was traditionally only used by a small number of incidental campers and travellers in past decades has become heavily used on a daily basis by the ever-increasing volumes of passing tourists. This increased use has brought with it an increase in problems that are difficult to manage, most notably sanitation. Despite some caravanners and motorhome owners doing the right thing, the impact of increased use cannot be ignored. When crown land is non-allocated, the issue of who has responsibility for its duty of care becomes problematic - especially where money for maintenance, waste management and safety is concerned.

In some circumstances councils settle the problem by errecting no camping signs as they are unable to manage the needs of the campers using the area. For the nearest town this can be a good opportunity for the local caravan park, if handled properly, but there's always going to be complaints from the public when free camps are closed down.

The flipside is when the councils or State Dept of Environment assumes responsibility and decides to manage it. They can only do what they feel is most managable for their particular circumstances. Some towns shift the free camp to an alternative location, such as town showgrounds, others keep the original site operating by adding bins, and maybe toilets if budgets allow.

In remote areas, bush camp sites are often on the fringe of very large station properties and pastoralists will bear the cost of basic maintenance so that it doesn't interfere with their operations.

In all cases a free camp can only be sustainable if it is cared for by the users. With the indisputable increases in people taking camping holidays over the past two decades, it's no wonder that many camps that we've previously enjoyed as free camps are now becoming unsustainable.

There are also people who don't understand how their single-night stay can leave a profound and lasting effect on the environment. If a road brought you to this place, then so too will it bring the next person and the next and they'll all see evidence of your bush camp and take comfort in the notion that if others camped here then it must be ok for them too.

If you use a remote bush camp and see evidence of a previous campfire - you should try to reuse that fire pit - not dig another one. All too often, bush camps are spoiled by a black fire pits full of rusting unburned cans that cause damage to tyres and people's feet and spoil the natural ambience forever. If the previous campfire users have not cared for their firepit however it can be an awful mess to reuse it - but do the right thing, take your time, clean it up and when you leave it do it right for the next person. For tips on how to prepare and extinguish a fire pit correctly see the Campfires section in our Travel Etiquette article.

Another point to consider is wheel tracks to camps. Each time you push your vehicle just a little further away from the main camp to get the privacy you want, you are making tracks for others to follow. For camps near rivers, the banks often become eroded from over use - a problem particuarly in the Kimberley. Before you blaze a new trail - consider if its absolutely necessary. Remember the motto "Leave no Trace".

The single biggest issue that most regions face with offering free campsites to the public is management toilet waste. Free camps on unallocated land would have no facilities by their very definition. If you use a camp with no facilities you can't expect someone to come out and clean up after you. When you use these camps you must take full responsibility for its sustainability. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that proves the majority of free camps are used by ill-caring or ignorant people that must be oblivious to the myriad of problems caused by toilet waste. The best practise is to carry your own portable toilet and use it whenever a properly functioning toilet (flusing, or pit) is not provided. Failure to bring your own means you must be prepared to ensure everyone in your party digs a hole when they go to the toilet and that this hole is dug to a depth of at least 30 cm to ensure wild animals do not dig it up. The all too common unsightly ribbons of white toilet paper strewn about the trees in the bush is due to animals digging up shallow toilet holes. The best practise is to take a gas lighter or match and burn your toilet paper deep in the hole before you backfill it with soil. You should also never pile the soil ontop of your toilet waste to create a mountain - you must dig out the soil first, backfill and then flatten the surface back to normal with the back of a spade or stomp on it with your boots. What better motto is there than "Leave no trace!"

At the end of the day, when non-allocated land is abused by campers, the problem is more than likely addressed by a local government decision to restrict camping. It is up to each and everyone of us to take more responsibility for the land we use when we pull up for the night, or even just for a short break. Some simple rules apply:
  • no littering - do not expect rubbish collection facilities and if bins are provided by are overflowing do not add to the problem by piling more rubbish on top. Clearly when this happens, you are making the situation worse and giving good cause to the site being closed, not better managed.
  • responsible toileting means do not create "bog" toilet holes in these free campsites ever - the ground cannot sustain this type of use. Use your own portable toilet - or choose a better location for your bog toilet by going 200 metres away from the camp use area and learn how to effectively use a sanitary bog toilet - see the Toilets & Bush Drop Pits section of our Travel Etiquette article for specific "how to" information
  • avoid creating your own backtracks at well-used bush camps to avoid extending the usage of land. Don't camp on top of your neighbour but try to avoid unnecessary expansion of the camp.

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