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The journey from Cairns to Cape York is one of the true outback adventures this country has to offer. The 2,000 km return journey takes intrepid travelers across remote and rugged landscapes following trails and tracks that have remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Before you set off on the adventure of a lifetime, take a moment to check exactly what to take on your Cape York trip with our comprehensive Cairns to Cape York trip checklist.
Challenging though it might be, contrary to popular belief, the Cairns to Cape York drive is a trip that is accessible to everyone, even four-wheel-driving novices like ourselves.
Before we left we didn’t have a whole lot of 4WD experience and were frankly lucky we were shown the ropes by the many enthusiasts and experts along the way who relish the opportunity to share wisdom with newbies.
Regardless of whether you are a novice like us or a seasoned veteran, the journey up Cape York to Pajinka at the northern tip of Australia is one that requires careful planning and preparation to complete.
During our three-week trip from Cairns to Cape York, we put together the complete Cape York trip checklist of exactly what to pack for Cape York.
*If you find this packing list helpful and need to purchase something from the list, consider following the Amazon links in the article, it won’t cost you any more and will help support the blog!
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Planning What to Pack Cape York
Considering what to take to Cape York is a little different from your run-of-the-mill weekend get-away.
There are several things to consider given the remoteness and ruggedness of the location. Spare parts, recovery equipment, first aid, and specialized remote camping equipment are all things that you might need to check you have packed before you set off to the top.
The first thing to consider when planning what to bring to Cape York is the remoteness. Long distances between stops and communities where you can find fuel, food, water, electricity, mobile reception, medical or mechanical assistance mean you will need to be more self-sufficient than when traveling other parts of Australia where you are never too far from a Woolies or road-side assistance.
The second issue when thinking about what to pack for Cape York is road condition. The Peninsula Development Road or PDR is the major road running between the Cairns and Pajinka at the tip of Cape York. Much of it remains unsealed dirt road which varies in condition in different sections and at different times of the year.
Corrugation, dust holes, deep causeways, and flooding make this road a challenge, even for tough four-wheel-drive vehicles. In addition to the rough main road, the various Cape York tracks and trails that take explorers out to the beaches, waterfalls, and rivers of the Cape are even more treacherous. Steep creek banks, fast-flowing waters, deep ruts, and washed-out tracks pose a risk even to experienced off-roaders.
A Complete Cape York Trip Checklist
With your Cape York must-haves sorted, it’s time to pack the rest. Everything you need to successfully and safely complete your very own trip to Cape York. Read on to find out all of the things that we think you should take for the ultimate Cape York camping trip!
Spare Parts Checklist
Because of the ruggedness of the terrain, breakdowns are an ever-present threat. And because of the remoteness of the Cape, it is recommended to travel with some basic spare parts that will get you going again if your vehicle breaks down. It can be tough to find a mechanic out here, and tougher to find the parts you need when you need them. To avoid being stranded for a long time, grab the essentials before you head out.
Even if you don’t have lots of mechanical experience (like us) the Cape is a popular route for people handy under the hood who can help get you moving again. For example, while traveling one of the more treacherous parts of the journey along the Old Telegraph Track (OTT) we had our clunking shock absorber fixed with a new bush and our rattling winch reaffixed to our car and left this infamous route in better condition than we started thanks to the helpful bush mechanics (and actual mechanics) we met along the way. People are always willing to lend a helping hand on route to Pajinka at the northern tip of the Cape.
- Spare fuel
- Drive belts
- Radiator Hoses
- Air filter
- Fuel filters
- Engine oil
- Spare Tires
- Shock absorber bushes – The tracks here can put a lot of pressure on these weak points. One of our bushes was on the way out when we started the trip to the Cape and disintegrated on the OTT.
Outside of the specific spare parts for your exact vehicle, here are few other items that could come in hand on the drive to Cape York and keep you safe.
Tire Repair Kit
A tire repair kit will plug a hole if you manage to puncture a small hole in a tubeless tire. Of course for large holes or shredded tires, you’ll need a decent spare.
A basic mechanic tool kit including sockets, spanners, and pliers will help repair things along the way.
A simple solution to hold things in place (at least for the time being) when you don’t have the exact right tool or spare.
This list is by no means exhaustive. If there are other spare parts that are unique, known weak points, or hard to track down for your specific vehicle, go ahead and pick up a spare. Your mechanic or a forum dedicated to your vehicle type are the best places to ask for vehicle-specific recommendations. You don’t want to be caught without a hard-to-find item at the top of the Cape, it will be time-consuming and expensive.
Recovery Kit Checklist
The Cairns to Cape York journey has many opportunities for off-roading adventures including the infamous Old Telegraph Track. If you are going to the Cape you owe it to yourself to check out, at least a bit of one of Australia’s most legendary off-roading challenges. But before you do, make sure you have the necessary equipment to pull yourself out of trouble if you get stuck with this 4wd checklist!
A winch is a worthy addition to any 4WD vehicle and definitely something to consider as part of your Cape York 4wd touring checklist. The upside to a winch is that unlike some other recovery kit options it doesn’t require a second recovery vehicle to get you going again. While there are usually heaps of enthusiasts on the 4WD tracks with you, the ability to self-recover can be appealing, especially if you plan to deviate from the busier routes.
Tree Trunk Protector
An essential part of your recovery gear if you have a winch. A tree trunk protector wraps around the tree to provide a safe recovery point for your winch to attach to.
A popular addition to any recovery kit, recovery tracks allow you to self-recover if you get bogged in soft sand or mud. Recovery tracks are a must on any Cape York 4wd checklist if you are tackling the 4WD tracks or plan to drive on some of the remote beaches.
Recovery Strap / Snatch Strap
Make sure you carry a recovery strap so someone can pull you out if you get stuck. A recovery strap can also be used (in a pinch) if you don’t have a tree trunk protector or can’t find one, just wrap the strap around the tree a few times because a snatch strap is longer, and has more stretch.
If you are headed to the beach or plan on doing some off-roading in Cape York, make sure to pack a shovel. No one wants to get their hands dirty digging you out of a sunken situation.
If you have off-road tires* with re-enforced, treaded tire walls you may opt to lower your tire pressure when tackling the 4WD tracks or even when driving on the PDR and other unsealed roads in the Cape due to the severe corrugation.
Having a portable air compressor lets you adjust your tire pressure to the road conditions which could come in handy as you drive from Cairns to Cape York. An air compressor will also be a blessing if you puncture a tire and are able to repair it using a tire repair kit.
*If you have road tires, letting the pressure down is a bad idea. You will put the weaker tire wall on the ground where a rock or stick is likely to punch a hole in it.
Safety Gear Checklist
The journey from Cairns to Cape takes you far from civilization into some of the more remote parts of the country. Taking a few pieces of key safety equipment can provide some peace of mind far from home. While most of these items are included in our Cape York ust-have list, we think they are so important that they are worth mentioning again.
Personal Location Beacon
A Personal Location Beacon or an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon is an emergency distress signal that is monitored by a global network of satellites. Once activated a distress signal and location will be provided to search and rescue services who will initiate a rescue mission within a few hours. This small and relatively inexpensive safety device is worth its weight in gold in the remote Cape, where telephone reception is extremely limited.
A HEMA Map
Google Maps stops working somewhere north of Cooktown. To be sure you always know where you are consider investing in a map of the Cape to help plot your journey. HEMA has a reputation for the best digital and print Cape York maps.
UHF or CB Radio
A cheap and easy way to make sure you are staying safe on the road, UHF or CB radio will allow you to communicate with the large road trains that tear up and down the PDR leaving a dust cloud behind them.
Medical Supplies Checklist
Medical supplies are few and far in between on the drive from Cairns to Cape York so adding the basic medical supplies to your Cape York trip checklist are a must. The roadhouses along the way will carry basic items, but it is unlikely that you will be at a roadhouse when a medical “emergency” arises.
So here is our list of basic medical supplies that we think you should consider when deciding what to pack for Cape York!
- Antihistamines – Good if allergies flare up due to the dust or if you have a bad reaction to an insect bite.
- Pain killer
- Insect repellant
There is no shortage of great campsites located on the drive from Cairns to Cape York. Camping beside freshwater creeks, at local watering holes, on wild beaches, the options are endless. To take advantage of the incredible camping here, make sure to check this list of essential gear as you prepare your own Cape York camping checklist.
Tent or Swag
Accommodation is available at all of the roadhouses along the PDR, but to get the most out of your trip to the Cape and its beautiful remote camping opportunities, you will need to bring a tent or swag.
12-v Compressor Fridge
A 12-v compressor fridge is a great addition to any camping trip but especially on the Cape. Ice is hard to come by and is in limited supply in Cape York. A 12-v compressor fridge might set you back a bit, but it is well worth it to have a nice cold beer after a long dusty drive on the red clay.
Car Awning or Gazebo Tent
Cape York is hot. Having your own shade is important to escape the relentless sun. Whether it is an awning attached to your car or a gazebo tent you will be racing to put it up when you settle in for the day at one of the many great campsites in Cape York. If you don’t have a roof rack and still want to attach an awning, check out our guide on how to attach an awning without roof racks for all our vanlife tips and tricks!
Outdoor Camping Lights
Camping in remote locations means limited access to water. Make sure your rig is fitted out with enough capacity to carry at a minimum of 5-7 liters water per person per day. We carry 60 liters of water with us and can last roughly 5 days being careful with our water consumption. You will also need to make sure you pack a hose as well as a tap fitting and hose connector set to attach to the water tap.
For washing dishes, and here in Cape York, for washing the red dust from your clothes. We prefer a collapsible basin to save on space.
Fo With few laundry facilities on the drive from Cairns to Cape York, washing your clothes with water from the creek and hanging them out to dry is your next best option. Make sure to bring a clothesline because you won’t want to be drying your clothes by hanging them on your dusty vehicle.
The remoteness of Cape York means a toilet is not always available. Make sure to pack a trowel along with some recyclable toilet paper for the times when nature calls and nature is the answer. (If you have packed a shovel as part of your recovery kit and it’s easily accessible, this is even better!)
Biodegradable Toilet Paper
For when nature calls and when nature’s the answer. This toilet paper won’t harm the planet but don’t forget to bury it with everything else.
Being remote doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be dirty all the time (although being dirty is inevitable with all of the dust on the roads to the Cape). And while showers are available for $5 at most of the roadhouses, having the ability to shower at your remote campsites by the creek is helpful.
Water Purification Tablets or Water Filter
If you miscalculated and your water runs dry, the many creeks and rivers of the Cape mean that freshwater is usually not too far away during your drive from Cairns to the Cape.
Having the ability to purify your own water makes you a little more flexible to explore the wilderness of the Cape at your own pace.
Wild camping means you have only the light of the moon and the stars at night, but if that’s not enough a headlamp can make camping at night a bit easier.
Lighter / Matches
Sitting around the fire and swapping stories at the end of a long day in the Cape is one of the best bits of the trip…don’t forget the matches.
Recreation Gear Checklist
The Cape is a wild land, and the appeal for many is the vast, unexplored and untamed environment, just waiting to be conquered. Outdoor and adventure is the name of the game here so you may want to consider bringing some recreation gear.
All-Terrain Vehicles (ATV)
Driving from Cairns to Cape York we saw plenty of people towing ATVs, dirt bikes, and other types of all-terrain recreational vehicles being towed on off-road trailers. If you are an enthusiast, the Cape is a great place to bring your gear and tackle the tracks.
Fair warning the fish out here are massive, and the apex predators that hunt them are even bigger. If you don’t want to get laughed at, and lose a lot of fish and gear, take something more heavy-duty than the small boat rod and spin reel we took.
If you have a small boat and the capability to take it with you to Cape York, either mounted to the roof or on a serious off-road trailer, bring it. If not, you can rent a boat in New Mappoon from Bully’s for the day for only $360 plus fuel. We highly recommend getting out on the waters of the Cape which are teeming with fish and marine life. It was a particular highlight of our trip from Cairns to Cape York. We saw a few people traveling with kayaks however given the number (and size) of crocs and sharks we saw on our trip I would be wary…
This Cape York trip checklist is meant to highlight some of the essentials needed on a recreational trip to Cape York. But of course, it is by no means exhaustive. If you have a question about your packing list for the Cape, ask us below. Or, if you’ve completed the journey and you think we’ve missed something, let us know what you would add to the Cape York trip checklist!
If you found this packing list helpful and need to purchase something from the list, consider following the Amazon links in the article, it won’t cost you any more and will support the blog!
Do you have other unanswered questions about driving to Cape York? Check out our FAQ to find everything you need to know before you go to Cape York!
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