What is the outback climate REALLY like? When is the BEST time to go?
If you’re working your way through our ‘Start Here!’ section, you’re probably wondering what the outback climate is really like and when is the best time to visit.
To help you plan your trip, we’ve written this very detailed page from the point of view of someone visiting t
he outback who wants to do a few hikes, some driving and maybe some camping.
Our resources section on this page shows you handy iPhone apps, guidebooks and links to weather bureau sites as well.
If you’re planning to visit as part of a package tour, you’ll also find this information useful in figuring out when to visit and what to bring along.
Fast Facts About the Outback Climate:
The area that people commonly refer to as ‘outback Australia’ is called an arid zone by scientists. The arid zone occupies 70% of the Australian continent.
Because this area is so big (check out our Australian outback maps page for further info), there are actually regional variations in outback climate and weather.
In fact, there are three different outback climates, determined by ‘isohyets’ or rainfall contours. Isohyets are contour areas made up of equal rainfall.
Based on isohyets, the outback climate is often divided into the:
- semi-dry tropics with 400mm of annual rainfall per year (Tennant Creek is located in this area)
- arid zone with 200-300mm of rainfall per year (Alice Springs is located in this isohyet)
- desert zone with 150mm of rain per year or less (Oodnadatta is located in this isohyet)
Based upon this information, you can make some generalisations about outback climate and weather:
- Outback summers are hot
- Winter is mild and even freezing in places in the outback
- Rainfall is low and often follows the summer monsoon in the tropical north of Australia
- However, rain can (and does) fall at any time of year
- Some years, little or no rain falls at all, in other years, we have floods!
- There are really only two seasons in the outback: a hot season and a cooler season
- Autumn and spring don’t really occur in the outback as they do in temperate or cool climates
Also it’s important to remember that as Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere, our seasons are opposite to those in Europe or North America.
So winter here is from June-August, rather than December-February.
Three Outback Climates
About 400km north of Alice Springs, you can really notice the vegetation changing.
Around the Devil’s Marbles it starts to get greener, you’re more likely to find a creek with water in it, the trees become smaller (but there’s more of them), and there’s a lot more savannah (grassland).
In this area, rainfall is about 400-500mm per year, and falls reliably in summer.
Very little rain falls in winter in this region.
Summer temperatures are warmer with daily averages of 38 C in December-January.
Nights are around 25 degrees Celsius (C), and there can be a lot of humidity.
One great thing about the dry tropics is that you get glorious winter days of 25 C in June / July. In the winter, temperatures, even at night, rarely drop below 6 C.
It’s a perfect climate for winter camping, hiking, driving and to escape the cold of Central Australian winters if you’re travelling up from down south. In the summer time though, you’ll absolutely need an air conditioned car and accommodation to travel through here.
Camping in the summer in this region is very uncomfortable – let us warm you. It’s very hot, humid and there can be lots of mosquitoes.
This is the ‘real outback’ climate, centred around Alice Springs. We live here, so we’re experts on this climate as we deal with it all the time.
In the arid zone you’ll see lots of Mulga (acacia) trees, River Red Gums, Bloodwoods, mountains, hills, sand dunes and Desert Oaks. It turns green a moment after rain, and returns to a golden brown/reddish colour very quickly.
In the arid zone (the largest outback climate), we get long, hot summers that last from around October through to mid-March.
The average maximum temperature for January is often 35 degrees Celsius (95 F) or more, and we often have many days above 40 degrees Celsius (104 F) in late January and through February. Most of our rain falls in the summer between December and March.
However, our winters are glorious. Can you think of anything better than mild, endlessly blue days around 20 Celsius (68 F) and cool, crisp nights of around 5 C (42 F), great for sipping wine around the campfire?
The bad thing is that winter nights (and days) can be FREEZING. Do not let anyone tell you that Alice Springs has hot days all year round.
We get frosts on about 50% of our winter mornings (we love frosts because they kill off all the flies!).
Whilst the ‘official’ coldest month of the year here is July, it is generally cold from mid-May through to late August. In August 2010, we had one day where it was a maximum of 6 degrees Celsius. This was the coldest day ever in outback Australia.
The months between April-October are generally the best one to visit the arid zone in, with May being the absolute best month to visit. The months of April and October are marginal, and will depend upon your tolerance for heat and flies as to whether you decide to visit.
Visiting the arid zone over summer isn’t impossible, it’s just a lot hotter. And there’s flies! Millions of them.
You’ll definitely need an air conditioned vehicle if you visit in the summer. Surprisingly, camping is still possible in the arid zone over summer because we have low humidity and night time temperatures drop to around 23-25 degrees Celsius.
Hiking and outdoor activities can be attempted in the mornings as long as you drink LOTS of water. However, we really don’t recommend that people from cold climates come here in summer time and engage in long, strenuous hikes.
Read our lips: LOTS of European tourists suffer heatstroke in the outback in the summer time because they simply aren’t accustomed to the outback weather.
Please make sure you’re prepared if you visit in summer.
Check the current temperature at Ayers Rock/Uluru (weather station at Yulara – the resort township 18km from Ayers Rock).
The Desert Zone
The area around Oodnadatta and the Simpson Desert is an example of the desert climate zone.
As you drive south from Alice Springs and into these areas, you start to notice the Mulga trees disappearing, being replaced by much smaller acacia and eremophila shrubs, saltbush, bluebush and even expanses of open country where there’s no vegetation at all!
Although people think of sand dunes when they think of deserts in this area, there’s also hills, mountains, gibber (rocky) plains and the occasional outback oasis complete with date palms!
As we’ve said above, rainfall is low, averaging only 150mm per year. It’s very unreliable and can fall at any time of the year.
Temperatures in the desert zone average 36-39C in summer and 18-24C in winter. However, summer temperatures of 50 C have been recorded.
Although this area is one of the hottest on the Australian continent in the summer, it has a temperate winter. As with the arid zone, winter nights in the desert zone can fall below freezing.
Throughout winter (June-August) you can expect clear days with perfect blue skies, and temperatures of around 20 C.
The nights often fall below 0 C (30 F), so make sure you take plenty of warm clothes and a warm sleeping bag. July is generally the coolest month in the desert zone, and frosts occur on 50% of mornings.
Unlike the arid zone, most people will find that summer travel in the desert zone is simply too remote, dangerous and uncomfortable. There are millions of flies, very few places to stay, and you’ll most definitely need an air-conditioned vehicle.
What’s more, large parts of the desert zone are closed to travellers between 1 December and 15 March, to prevent people from perishing!
That being said, we’ve travelled the Oodnadatta Track twice during summer and have thoroughly loved it. Whilst it will be too hot for most people to camp or hike, if you can stay in an air-conditioned cabin or hotel, you’ll find that it’s a great time to sit about with a cool beer and really get to know the locals.
Forget hiking or anything outdoors here in the summer, unless it’s done around 6am -7am. It’s simply too hot and dangerous to do over summer here.
When is the Best Time to visit?
If you’re planning to see and do as much as you possibly can, then the best time to visit Australia’s outback is between May and September.
This could be a bit difficult if you’re coming to Australia from elsewhere and planning to visit over out summer. Although Australia’s summer is the BEST time to visit places like Sydney, Melbourne and Tasmania, it’s actually the WORST time to visit the outback.
This is something you really need to be aware of when you’re planning your visit.
What’s more, whilst you’ll be told that April and October are good months to visit the outback, keep in mind that both of these months mark the change over from summer to winter. They can still get very hot and there’s still lots of flies.
The flies settle down once the night time temperatures fall below 10 C. The cold nights kill them off. Over the winter, there are very few flies in the outback, unless you’re near cattle and other stock. For this reason we really recommend visiting in May-September.
Another problem with visiting the outback during summer is rain. When it rains here, it rains a lot. Creeks flood very quickly and lots of roads are closed. In fact, many roads are completely washed away.
The bad thing about this is that if you’ve planned your entire vacation around a visit to these places and it rains, you can be almost guaranteed disappointment as the roads are closed to prevent people getting bogged and damage to the roads.
So whilst summer might be great for visiting places in the south-east of Australia, when it comes to visiting the outback and the Top End (that’s places like Darwin, Kakadu and Broome), because of our outback climate, it’s not a very good choice.
That’s why careful planning and thinking about the places and experiences you’d really like to have when you visit is very important before you go.
In this section of the page, we’ve selected the best Australian weather links, iPhone applications and guidebooks to help you plan your outback trip.
Useful Weather Links:
- Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) Northern Territory page
- BOM South Australia page (for Coober Pedy, Lake Eyre, Oodnadatta)
- BOM Western Australia page
- BOM Queensland page
- Elders Weather – has very good 7 day forecast graphics
- Weatherzone – for those who like to be barraged by lots of advertising
There are an ever-growing number of weather apps for iPhone. The ones we’ve selected here are made by Australian programmers.
We figure that locals know their own weather best!
We’ve included a few guidebooks here which feature information on outback weather and climate, and are written by Australians who’ve actually spent a lot of time in the outback.
The Lonely Planet Central Australia: Adelaide to Darwin (Regional Travel Guide) is a travel guide to the whole centre portion of the Australian continent.
Although the book lacks the deep local knowledge we’ve given you on this page, the book provides a good general overview of the climate in the central portion of Australia, as well as a wealth of info about accommodation, costs and itineraries.
The Centre: The Natural History of Australia’s Desert Regions is without doubt the best non-scientific guide to the climate and habitats of central Australia that you’ll find anywhere.
This book tells you everything about climate, geology, landforms, birds, plants, animals and reptiles in central Australia. Whilst it’s not as detailed as a field guide (such as those you’d use for birding), it’s a very readable and extremely well-illustrated introduction for people who want to learn a little bit of everything when it comes to natural history.
It might seem odd that we’d recommend the Hema Maps Desert Tracks Atlas, but this book is so much more than a book of maps.
The Hema people have written a complete guidebook to travelling in remote outback Australia that contains a wealth of information about climate, geology, plants, animals and birdlife.
Whilst it’s full of detailed maps and GPS coordinates, it’s full of information about about trip planning, equipment, repairs and natural history. If you are planning to go offroad in the outback, this is one book you can’t do without.
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Planning Your Outback Trip – What you need to know
- A complete guide to getting around the outback -via plane, car, bus… bicycle!
- Getting to the outback – half the fun of the trip!
- Outback maps – how to choose the right maps, free downloads and much more
- Outback Destinations – all the places you’ve heard of and more
- Outback Accommodation – the tips that the experts don’t want you to know