​​​​A Beginner’s Guide to Overlanding

Overlanding—recreational vehicle-based expeditions that play out over weeks, months, or even years—has become more and more popular over the past several decades, and these days is a truly worldwide phenomenon.

If you’re intrigued by the prospect of camping out along a wild road amid spellbinding and exotic landscapes, ditching the ho-hum routine of the 9-to-5 game for a bit of motorized vagabonding, read on to learn how you might go about getting started on your own overlanding adventures.

WHAT EXACTLY IS OVERLANDING?

Jeep Gladiator Wayout Concept Overland Expo West

The Jeep Gladiator Wayout Concept at Overland Expo
Photo taken in Flagstaff, AZ on May 17, 2019 by
Patrick MacNamara for Overland Beard Company
The term “overlanding” originates from Australia, where it historically referred to the long-distance driving of livestock. These days, though, the word has come to mean multiday driving journeys through remote or semi-remote country. Perhaps the defining element of overlanding is a focus on the journey itself, rather than any specific destination.

Intrepid adventurers have overlanded in vehicles since cars hit the scene back in the early 20th century, but the tradition can—loosely, anyway—be traced much further back to all manner of expeditions through far-flung backlands conducted by horseback, camel-back, foot, and other means of non-motorized transport.

In North America, overlanding overlaps somewhat with more widely used terms. It can be considered a variety of “car-camping”, for example, which is commonly employed to distinguish vehicle-based camping from foot-powered backpacking.

Car-camping, though, doesn’t specify the setting in which it’s done: Camping out of a vehicle in more developed areas, such as municipal or county parks in heavily populated regions, wouldn’t necessarily meet some people’s definition of overlanding.

“Road-tripping” is often used in the U.S. to refer to extended recreational travel by automobile and therefore could be synonymous in some instances with overlanding, though here again road-tripping can take place in decidedly non-remote areas, and often camping out is not part of the equation at all.

Besides the emphasis on the act of traveling itself and on sparsely populated and semi-wild surroundings, overlanding hinges on self-sufficiency. That is, of course, simply an outgrowth of the first two themes: relying on a vehicle to transport you through “back-of-beyond” countryside—the outback, the boondocks, the bush—demands some resourcefulness and savvy packing on your part, after all.

WHERE TO OVERLAND

There are some legendary overlanding routes coveted by enthusiasts the world over. They include (to name a few):

Some popular extended overlanding adventures trace any number of different routes, including treks between Europe and South or Southeast Asia and loops around the South American continent.

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Camping in Coconino National Forest just north of Flagstaff, AZ
Photo by Patrick MacNamara for Overland Beard Company
In the Lower 48 of the USA, you’ll find such worthy overlanding passages as the Rubicon Trail surmounting the Sierra Nevada of California, the Mojave Trail across the desert outback of the Mojave National Preserve, and the Trans America Trail spanning Tennessee and the coast of Oregon.

All of the above are grand adventures, but keep in mind that you can overland just about anywhere depending on your ambitions and your goals.

In many parts of the USA and Canada, you’ve got a vast network of backroads well away from major highways with which to scheme up long-distance treks. These could be casual boondocking trips through rural small towns or more remote explorations of primitive tracks deep in lightly developed public lands.

As we’ve mentioned, overlanding is really about the journey itself, about having a vehicle-based adventure of whatever scale suits you. Your mindset and your enjoyment are the important things, not bragging rights or nitpicky rules about what is and isn’t a “real” trek.

Overlanding can mean months-long, off-the-grid expeditions through forbiddingly isolated deserts or mountains or rainforests, or it can mean a couple of days spent happily touring tucked-away towns and quiet county campgrounds.

GETTING STARTED WITH OVERLANDING

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Grand Canyon National Park in Grand Canyon, AZ
Photo by Patrick MacNamara for Overland Beard Company
We’re going to dig into some of the basics of outfitting yourself for overlanding shortly, but let’s cover some general points for getting started in the activity.

Keep in mind that you can pursue overlanding on your own or join guided tours, which are increasingly popular in many parts of the world. For a beginner eager for adventure or even veteran overlanders feeling out of their comfort zone in a particular country or region, a guided trip can be a great way to go.

If you’re taking the independent route, you definitely want to consider your mechanical proficiency, which can help determine where you can realistically explore. Conventional modern overlanding relies completely on a vehicle, after all, and commonly takes place (a) on rough roads or cross-country tracks that beat up a set of wheels and (b) in remote places where an auto garage is not exactly likely to be found just around the bend.

It’s possible to customize a vehicle for overlanding (see below) without knowing your way around a ratchet set or a torque wrench—if you’ve got the financial means, you can always pay somebody else to do the work—but if you’re not going to be able to fix an inevitable breakdown yourself, you’ll want to limit your overlanding to routes within easy reach of help. (And, of course, you can also opt to expand your skillset in the auto-mechanics arena to prepare yourself for more ambitious overlanding down the line.)

You’re going to want to start small and local when it comes to your first overlanding trips, even if you’re a seasoned traveler and a savvy mechanic: Use short, accessible jaunts to get into the rhythm of the process, to identify deficiencies in your inventory (or your vehicle), and to generally work out some of the newbie kinks before you’re tackling any kind of extended and far-flung foray.

Traveling in other countries demands plenty of homework on your part: researching necessary documentation, immunizations, traffic rules and etiquette, and the like. It’s all the more complicated when planning a multi-country drive, but of course these truly international trips make some of the greatest overlanding adventures of all.

TYPES OF OVERLANDING VEHICLES

Overland Beard Company

Samson by Expedition Overland
Photo taken at Overland Expo in Flagstaff, AZ on May 17, 2019
by Patrick MacNamara for Overland Beard Company
One of the joys of running into fellow overlanders on the trail—or attending an all-out off-roading rally—is surveying the fabulous diversity of rigs out there. It’s very easy to spend a great deal of money on a new, decked-out, monster-sized, luxurious overlanding vehicle, but it’s also thoroughly possible to pull off years of happy around-the-world adventures in an everyday car, truck, or van you’ve tweaked a bit to serve as a nomad’s home-on-wheels.

All sorts of different vehicles can serve as overlanding rides. That’s true because many overlanders take it upon themselves to modify their rigs to greater or lesser degrees: adding cargo racks or boxes, modifying suspensions for more rugged capabilities, installing solar panels for off-the-grid self-sufficiency, etc.

But it’s also true because—as we’ve already mentioned—this category of travel can mean many different things for different people, and plenty of overlanding goes down on improved, even fully paved roads with ready access to the comforts of civilization.

Your existing car, truck, van, or motorhome may be workable for overlanding, quite likely with some fine-tuning. Choosing the right overlanding vehicle means considering what kind of touring or trekking you’re hoping to do.

In general, a 4×4 of one kind or another is the best all-around overlanding rig, though you’d be amazed how many genuinely hardcore long-distance journeys 2WD cars have pulled off.

A higher-clearance vehicle is obviously advisable if you’re going to be tackling rougher roads (or ditching roads altogether). Depending on the settings you’re going to be overlanding in, you may be looking for specific performance or modifications to contend with river crossings, major mud, sand dunes, gravel, and other terrain and substrate challenges.

Cargo capacity is another no-brainer feature you want to key into. Again, there’s much you can do to add on additional space for gear and supplies, but there are some fundamental limiting factors such as wheelbase to evaluate. Towing a trailer is an option for boosting cargo space, but often not optimal for many overlanding routes that incorporate primitive tracks or truly off-road sections.

Overland Beard Company

Rivian R1T Truck
Photo taken at Overland Expo in Flagstaff, AZ on May 17, 2019
by Patrick MacNamara for Overland Beard Company
We’ve already mentioned the importance of realistically assessing your own mechanical skills when getting into overlanding. This can definitely influence the kind of vehicle you choose.

Again, if you’ve got deep pockets you can have a professional mechanic custom-outfit your overlanding ride, but if you don’t and you’re not a particularly capable mechanic yourself, you’ll likely want to go with a newer model that’s especially designed and equipped for off-roading. If you are good under the hood (and around the rest of the car), you’ll have some more flexibility: You might be able to buy a cheap used vehicle and then retrofit it into overlanding shape yourself.

You also want to bear in mind the availability of spare parts and skilled repair work for a particular vehicle in a particular place. If your fancy brand-new 4×4 breaks down in the middle of nowhere in many parts of the world, you may find the local mechanics—often exceptionally skilled and knowledgeable—unable to obtain a replacement part or navigate the semi-impenetrable computerized system required to diagnose and remedy a problem. In many areas, you’re better off with an older, familiar model—a Land Rover or Toyota Hilux, for example—that’s much more easily fixed even in remote areas.

Speaking of the Land Rover and scrappy, up-for-anything Hilux (Pickup), they’re definitely among the truly classic smaller to midsize overlanding models along with such options as the Range Rover, the Toyota Land Cruiser, the Nissan Patrol, and the Mitsubishi Pajero. You’ll still see many Land Rovers and Land Cruisers in Africa, for instance, and more than a few Patrols in the Australian bush—and the Hilux just about everywhere.

Jeep is also a familiar make along the world’s overlanding routes, and these days offers several cutting-edge rigs ideal for off-road journeys, including the pickup-style Jeep JT Gladiator Rubicon and the Jeep JL Wrangler Rubicon.

If you want to scale up, there are a host of larger, 4×4 and 6×6 military-style utility vehicles and trucks popular among diehard overlanding enthusiasts, among them the Mercedes-Benz Zetros, the Pinzgauer High-Mobility All-Terrain Vehicle, and the UNICAT MXXL 24 AH.

For a somewhat less intimidating, land-invasion-type look, you’ve also got a wealth of beefed-up vans and motorhomes specially designed for off-roading and overlanding expeditions, from the EarthCruiser EXP to the Global Expedition Vehicles (GXV) UXV-MAX.

OVERLANDING GEAR

When it comes to overlanding gear, you want to think beyond everyday essentials and a few creature comforts to prepare for contingencies. You need the tools and parts to attend to a vehicular problem, you need first-aid materials for any injuries or sicknesses that might befall you, and you need the extra supplies to see you through any unexpected delays in your journey. Again, self-sufficiency is the name of the game.

Let’s first go through a few of the basic overlanding gear; we’ll then list a number of additional items you’ll likely want on hand—not exhaustive by any means, but at least a starting point to inspire your own customized inventory.

Tent

You may or may not be using a tent during your expedition—depending on the vehicle, all kinds of interior sleeping setups are possible—though for many this is a defining element of the camping part of overlanding.

Some opt for the traditional free-standing tents, while others use rooftop shelters on the vehicle.

Vehicle Essentials

You’ll want of course the fundamental items for maintaining your vehicle and attending to basic mishaps—fluids, jack, jumper cables/battery, lug wrench, tow strap, etc.—but also the specialized tools and spare parts for dealing with more serious repairs: backup belts, fuel pump, filters, fuses, spark plugs, a complete socket set, and the like.

More often than not you’ll also likely want extra fuel on hand, though how much depends of course on your particular route.

Navigation Essentials

It’s never been easier to find your way given the multitude of GPS units, navigation apps, and other modern navigation technology. By all means use your favorite gadgetry and software, but don’t neglect the old-school tools in the process: paper maps and compass.

You may never need to glance at either if your computerized system works like a charm throughout your trip, but you never know when a GPS, laptop, or smartphone will go haywire or all-out die, in which case you’re definitely going to appreciate having a hard-copy map and an über-reliable compass on hand.

First-Aid Kit

You’d be surprised how many travelers neglect to pack a first-aid kit, but of course it’s an absolute must. Make sure to regularly evaluate its contents, too, and replenish anything that’s running low.

Extra Food & Water

Reserve supplies of food and water should be a part of every overlander’s storehouse in case you become stranded or lost en route.

Water Filter

Speaking of water, it’s always a good idea to have the means to filter and purify natural sources or any other source whose quality you question. Boiling water is a surefire method of purification, but it’s not the quickest or most convenient; having one kind or another of water filter or purifier gives you some convenience and peace of mind in remote regions.

Warm Clothing & Blankets

Mother Nature can be fickle, and you never know what she’s going to throw at you. Beyond the clothing you’ve packed for whatever weather and conditions you expect on a trip, make sure you have extra insulating layers for emergencies.

Axe/Hatchet/Machete/Knife/Saw

Cutting, splitting, and sawing tools are immensely useful to have in your overlanding vehicle, whether for preparing firewood, clearing a blocked track, jury-rigging a splint, or any number of other tasks.

Here are some other potential items you may want in your vehicle on an overlanding trek:

  • Portable refrigerator
  • Gas stove and/or portable grill
  • Folding chairs and table
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Solar panels
  • Auxiliary battery
  • Air compressor

ANSWER ADVENTURE’S CALL: GIVE OVERLANDING A TRY

There’s no question it can be a little overwhelming when first considering trying overlanding for yourself: assessing what vehicle to buy or how to trick out your current ride for the Big Empty, organizing in your brain all the tools, gadgets, storage containers, camping gear, and other equipment you’ll need—let alone tracking it all down.

Remember, though, that it’s not only possible but advisable to dip into overlanding at the shallow end of the pool. Read others’ accounts of their overlanding experiences, and try reaching out directly to ask questions.

Try a weekend getaway close to home to get a low-stakes taste of the activity, and consider signing on to guided group itinerary that requires less investment on your part.

And keep in mind that there really aren’t rules when it comes to overlanding (local traffic regulations and environmental ethics aside): Don’t feel pressured to go bigger or more extreme if you’re perfectly happy with a more laidback, lower-intensity approach.

As fantastic as assembling the roughest, toughest expedition rig possible and roaming the far corners of the world is, you don’t need to spend a lot of money or leave your own neck of the woods to enjoy overlanding.

It’s not hard to catch the overlanding bug—especially if you’ve put in the groundwork to have a safe, enjoyable first taste of it, whether on your own or as part of a tour. That bug can be pernicious, too: You may even find yourself adopting an all-out overlanding lifestyle.

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