What is a grey nomad?
For a fair few years now, grey nomads have been doing their Big Lap (driving around Australia), or criss-crossing the country in their motorhome, SUV or 4WD, often with a caravan or camper-trailer in tow.
Or they're simply going on frequent and brief, short-distance trips to get away from their home.
They’ve been quietly driving and exploring this great country, and spending their retirement cash at countless caravan parks, camping sites, tourist attractions, restaurants, pubs and cafes.
You see them everywhere you go, but just what exactly is a grey nomad? Well, I’m glad you asked. Here is our definitive guide on grey nomads.
What is a grey nomad?
The grey nomad definition may be formally detailed as “Australians over 55 years old who travel for an extended time — from weeks to months — and cover more than 300 kilometres in a day across semi-arid and coastal Australia” – well, that’s according to abc.net.au.
A grey nomad, it may be assumed, is retired, but that’s not always the case because the meaning of the term itself is almost as free-ranging as the people it describes. For the purposes of this yarn, we’ll focus on grey nomads who are actually retired and actively exploring Australia on almost a daily basis.
They may have left their family home only temporarily – at the same time every year for their regular adventure – or they may have sold the house to fund a much longer trip.
They spend the lion’s share of their time sight-seeing, taking part in tourism and/or outdoor activities (guided bush-walks, swimming, fishing, sailing etc), cultural experiences (indigenous art tours), or simply taking it easy.
They may take up part-time work to help fund their travels – picking fruit or doing light duties on a farm – or they might volunteer at community centres or museums during their travels to ‘do their bit’, meet some new people, or simply to avoid their partner. Fair enough.
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And how long does a grey nomads trip last on average? Well, if you’re a grey nomad, you know there are no “average trips” but generally their journeys are mid- to long-term ones, so anything from a few months to a few years, or perhaps indefinitely.
They love caravanning, private camps or free camping, but they’ve been known to stay in a hostel or two, or even act as house sitters for family or friends, or friends of friends.
The grey nomad way of life is all about the free-roaming lifestyle, which is why you see them everywhere: New South Wales, Northern Territory, Queensland, Western Australia … everywhere.
And the Australia grey nomad sub-culture is thriving, thank you very much. It’s mostly an informal mob, although there are websites aplenty – some well-meaning, some not so much – aimed at catering to their every need.
What vehicles do grey nomads generally use?
Grey nomads generally opt for vehicles that give them plenty of comfort – because they spend a lot of their time in the vehicle – and that offer them a lot of freedom in terms of its capabilities for towing or off-roading.
On a recent trip out into NSW’s western fringes, a mate of mine said there were many Toyota LandCruiser 200 Series (as expected), older Mitsubishi Pajeros, Ford Rangers (mostly XLTs), as well as plenty of Isuzu D-Maxes, and also a smattering of Land Rover Discovery 4s and newer Range Rovers.
Grey nomads like comfort and capability in their vehicle, as evidenced by the many 200 Series, Pajeros, and Rangers, for travelling and towing.
In recent years, I've also seen the Toyota Prado become a firm favourite with grey nomads, due to its functionality and robust nature.
But again, grey nomads are a mixed bunch, so there’s really no one vehicle that grey nomads are drawn to; their car of choice hinges on their budget, needs, wants and purpose.
Those who tow big caravans will want something with ample pulling power; those with lighter camper-trailers won’t need so much grunt, but might prefer it anyway. LandCruisers, Nissan Patrols and Ford Rangers tend to be popular choices as tow vehicles among grey nomads.
If they plan to head off the beaten track though, they’ll also want an off-roader that’s very capable, reliable and with a strong spare-parts network, just in case.
Where do grey nomads go?
Grey nomads are very clever in that many of them tend to follow the seasons: they head up north into Queensland during Australia’s winter to avoid the bitter cold of the south during that time, and then they range about, spending the majority of their time in warmer, or at least milder, climates.
If you're heading up to far North Queensland, give this a book a read before you go.
Typically, you’ll spy many grey nomads along the east coast, either tackling their lap of Australia, or simply doing the east coast – Queensland and New South Wales – as a trip unto itself.
But, having said that, you may bump into grey nomads absolutely anywhere – even on one of the world’s most remote and dangerous journeys: the Canning Stock Route, a desert track, stretching more than 1800km from Halls Creek in the Kimberley region to Wiluna in Western Australia. It passes through the Gibson, Great Sandy and Tanami deserts. (Note: the CSR was closed at time of writing.)
A word from the wise (that’s me, obviously): whether you’re a grey nomad or not, if you’re travelling in remote areas, you should have given someone an idea of their immediate travel plans, and you should be well-equipped with a working satellite phone and an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon).
Where do grey nomads camp?
Grey nomads are normal people, just like you and I, so they’re willing to stay in a variety of accommodations, ranging from budget to not-so-budget, depending on their finances and frame of mind at the time.
Obviously they prefer to save their money so they like (legal) free-camping as often as possible but they also like to feel pampered every now and then, so they’re not averse to spending the extra money and staying somewhere perhaps significantly nicer then their usual nightly accommodation.
Caravan parks are convenient but can be expensive, and, in age where developers have been aggressively snapping up potentially lucrative properties from underperforming businesses, the numbers of caravan parks are dwindling. Also, these premises sometimes vary wildly from venue to venue in terms of the quality of service and amenities on offer.
Do grey nomads work along the way?
Even though they may have ready access to wads of cash – retirement savings, cashed-in super, anyone? – grey nomads also see the value in earning even more during their travels.
While some may be working remotely as they go, working in jobs in areas through which they are travelling is a great way for grey nomads to meet people and make valuable local contacts in all of the regions they visit.
It’s not unheard of for grey nomads to offer their services as hairdressers or mobile mechanics in the caravan park they’re staying in, or to work as waiters/waitresses at nearby cafes or eateries, or to pick fruit, undertake light duties on farms, or even sell arts and crafts as one of their many side hustles.
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They also may act as house sitters or even farm sitters during their travels, looking after someone’s land and property in exchange for accommodation and even payment.
Grey nomads are renowned for taking on outback jobs as part of their travel experience, but they’re also well regarded as crucial volunteers for many regional community-based attractions, such as small museums and tourist spots.
What sources or forums do they use to find information about their trip?
As with any group of people, the quality of online sources of information vary greatly.
For a solid source of news, destination yarns, tips on trip prep and how to choose a vehicle, classifieds (including ‘help wanted’, ‘work wanted’, and ‘for sale’), and more, grey nomads could do worse than visit the aptly titled The Grey Nomads. It also has a lively forum space. The people behind this website also put out a free e-newsletter called The Grey Nomad Times, every fortnight.
Beyond that, do your own research, keep an eye on local-travel-related government and council websites, and chat to your fellow travellers.