The Whitsunday islands are a group of 74 islands just off the coast of Queensland, Australia accessible via Airlie Beach (pronounced “Early” by the way) on the mainland, which is between Brisbane and Cairns. The islands are a playground for the rich and famous with yachts filling the marina and with fancy villas dotting the nearby hills.
Despite the glamour, there are still the remnants of a backpacker vibe to Airlie Beach, and accommodation can be found cheaply at Magnum's hostel for example (the complex is huge, and it seems pretty much everybody stays here).
Most people experience the Whitsundays through a sailing tour, whether just a day trip or a couple of nights live-aboard, which can be good way to sample the various islands, but which also can be quite expensive on a tight, backpacker budget. A lesser known option is camping. To my knowledge there is just one company, Scamper, who provide transfers from Airlie beach and between the islands, and who also provide camping kits. The transfer costs $155AUD and the camping kits cost $40AUD for night one and $20AUD for subsequent nights. You also need to request a permit online, which is easy enough (although the website isn't the best) and is cheap at $5AUD per night. Given the transfer is the main expense, obviously you get better economy the more nights you camp for.
There are campsites on most of the islands, and which island you choose depends on your interests. For example, you may choose Whitehaven beach, which is the most popular and famous, if you want a beach experience, or perhaps Hook Island for snorkeling. We chose Whitehaven beach on Whitsunday Island, and we were not disappointed.
The camping kit includes most things, such as
2-3 man dome tent
Vinger (just in case you get jellyfished)
Gas stove (we were given 2 butane/propane canisters for our 2 nights)
Cutlery, pot, pan and plastic plates/bowls
Washing-up liquid and scrubber
10-20L water canisters
Big esky cooler box (not just to keep things cool, but to keep the animals out!)
Optional extras (at cost, see website)
Snorkel and stinger suit (prob not worth it on Whitehaven, but may be on other islands)
I'd also suggest you bring (I wish I had!):
Insect repellent and long trousers and long-sleave top (the midges are truly brutal at night), plus anti-histamines if you usually need them.
Inflatable pillow or at least something to use as a pillow.
More water than you think you'll need.
Very strong bags to secure rubbish against prying animal paws, claws and beaks.
Handwash/alcohol gel and dry shampoo
For meals, we had those pots of porridge where you just add boiling water for breakfast and tins of soup for lunch. The first night we had sausages (since it was day 1 they were ok, but obviously no more meat without a fridge), rice and salad for dinner and on our second night we had tins of chili and nachos (the healthy option). We also took yogurt muesli bars and fruit. Whatever you do, don't keep any food outside the eskee (and keep something heavy on top of the eskee). Louise shrieked very loudy upon entering the tent on night one when she was greeted by a “fawn-footed maloney” (basically a big mouse) who was enjoying our apples after nibbling through the tent mesh!
There are toilets, so you will be glad to know that you don't need to relieve yourself in the forest, but these are quite basic – they are connected to a composting septic tank/hole in the ground, but they were reasonably clean. There are no sinks and no showers. The campsite on Whitehaven was fairly small (maybe there were 10 tents when we were there – all a reasonable distance from each other), and is set back a little off the beach into the forest. You should expect a lot of nature. There were Goannas (big monitor lizards), wallabys, huntsman spiders, possums, skinks, cockatoos and more right in the midst of the campsite, which was great as far as I was concerned, but may be unnerving for some as the forest is a noisy place at night, with lots of creatures stomping around nearby.
Waking up on Whitehaven beach before any of the tour boats got there was fantastic. The sand is so white and actually squeeks beneath your feet as you walk over it, and seeing it stretch for miles with no one else on it was great. The water was still a little on the cold side (September), but was crystal clear and refreshing each morning. The gear scamper provided was top-notch. The transfer to Whitehaven took around an 1hr15mins and was perfectly pleasant. One downside is they can be quite late (they told us 11am and picked us up at 4pm! Apparently due to engine trouble). We stayed on just Whitehaven beach, but there's nothing stopping you from mix-and-matching a few island campsites to get a broader experience. From Whitehaven beach, you can also walk the length of the beach (7km) and cross the inlet to the hill to take the famous picture postcard snap. Be careful though and make sure you time the tides well to give yourself plenty of time to return as there were tales of a guy getting stuck over there until he got rescued by a passing dingy when we were there.