While its popularity and renown is significantly slimmer, overlanding has existed as an activity for about as long as off-roading has. The thing is, there wasn’t always a term for it. Back in the days of the “great white hunter,” when it wasn’t uncommon to see a hunting party traverse the savannah in what are now known as classic Land Rovers and Jeeps, it was simply called going on safari. Make no mistake, however, this was one of the earliest forms of overlanding.
Today, the term — and the activity — is much more widely known. It’s also far more accessible than it ever has been before. Granted, it’s not as cheap and simple as learning how to hike, but it’s still a good deal easier to get into now than it was back when the term was first coined. The thing is, unless you grew up around off-roading, car camping, and (obviously) overlanding itself, you might not know where to begin. That’s where we come in. We’ve put together the following guide to help you learn how to start overlanding from scratch.
A Unique Vehicular Experience
What’s probably the first thing to get straight regarding overlanding is distinguishing it from simple off-roading. Yes, they share many similarities, in that they both encompass taking a vehicle off the smooth asphalt of the groomed track and onto rough, uneven, less-traveled terrain. The big difference, however, comes in the timespan and intensity of the experience.While off-roading is something that can be accomplished within a timeframe as short as just an hour or two, overlanding will often take weeks or even months. While off-roading is something that can be accomplished within a timeframe as short as just an hour or two, overlanding will often take weeks or even months.
To liken the experiences to other outdoor activities, regular off-roading is more like a day hike, whereas overlanding is a backpacking trip. Similarly, that means there are other implications therein. For instance, off-roading requires you to bring along a very little amount of gear — just what will get you through a short trip. Overlanding, by contrast, requires you to have everything on-hand to keep both you and your vehicle going for a much greater span of time. That means you have to have a greater knowledge of and confidence in your vehicle, more gear to keep everything in working order, a sturdy grasp of the land over which you will travel, and more.
Off-Roading vs. Overlanding
This is just a brief primer on what sets apart overlanding from other vehicular activities. You can learn about it much more in-depth via our off-roading versus overlanding ultimate guide.
Picking The Right Vehicle
A Proper Steed
In the case of off-roading, we’ve often heard it said that the best vehicle to get you started is the one that you already own. And that makes a lot of logical sense, so long as you’re the owner of something with four-wheel-drive, off-road tires, and a decent ground clearance. If you don’t, then you probably shouldn’t be trying to off-road in the first place,The truth is, overlanding requires a lot more out of a vehicle than regular off-roading. and you definitely shouldn’t consider your vehicle one that’s well-equipped enough for overlanding.
The truth is, overlanding requires a lot more out of a vehicle than regular off-roading, as the longer off-the-beaten-path form of traveling necessitates something that can stay on (and off) the road for significant periods with little or no maintenance. Even some off-road-worthy vehicles don’t necessarily qualify as good picks for overlanding, be that due to reliability, capability, storage space, or otherwise. With that in mind, there are a few key things you should look for when shopping for a worthwhile overlanding vehicle. They are as follows (ranked by importance):
Often a standard feature on larger SUVs and pickup trucks, four-wheel-drive is a system that allows engine power to travel to all four wheels of a given vehicle with equal power distributed between wheels on the same axle. And it is likely the most important factor to consider in choosing an overlanding vehicle. The reason is simple: uneven terrain — be it rocky, muddy, sandy, or wet — will sometimes cause your vehicle to require traction and power to all four wheels. Two-wheel-drive (front or rear) simply does not offer this in any way, as only two of the wheels receive power at any given time. AWD (all-wheel-drive) does offer some of the same benefits, namely power to all four wheels.
However, the difference is in the differential. Four-wheel-drives typically come with locking differentials, which sends the same amount of torque to wheels on the same axle and balances the output between both axles. AWDs most-often feature limited-slip differentials and do not, which can result in wheelspin — when one of the wheels freely spins regardless of the motion of its mate. There are exceptions to this rule (Toyota’s 4Runner comes with AWD and a center-locking differential), but most AWD vehicles are better suited to short-form off-roading.
As mentioned above, locking differentials are vehicular systems which send equal power to all four wheels on a given vehicle, with torque equally distributed between axles. The reason this is important for overlanding is the amount of time you will be spending off-road and on uneven terrain. Sure, you could get by just fine in many light off-roading circumstances with a limited-slip differential. But for hardcore overlanding, locking differentials are greatly preferred.
High Torque Rating
When it comes to street-going vehicles, typically a big horsepower rating is the most sought-after factor, as it means a high top-speed. However, when considering an off-road vehicle, slow and steady wins the race. In that case, torque is the most important factor, as it will tell you how capable that vehicle is when handling any compromising off-road terrain. A high top speed will not get you very far, but a good amount of torque could be the difference between getting stuck in a rut and successfully completing your overlanding trip.
Inevitably, overlanding is going to cause your vehicle to bounce around quite a bit. And a standard road-going suspension simply can’t handle that level of activity. As such, your vehicle of choice should have a beefier off-road-ready suspension that can take the bumps, bounces, shifts, dips, abrupt climbs, etc. The last thing you’ll want to deal with out on the trails is bottoming out on a busted shock.
Generally, off-road ready vehicles come with some kind of undercarriage protection — like skid plates. The purpose of these is to keep safe the vulnerable bits on the underside of your vehicle from getting dinged-up, scratched, torn open, or broken — specifically, your fuel tank, oil tank, differential, and/or transfer case. The things that need to be protected will vary from vehicle to vehicle, but this is nearly a must-have for overlanding, as damage to any one of those systems could be catastrophic out on the trails.
High Ground Clearance
If your car, truck, or SUV has an off-road suspension and undercarriage protection, the likelihood is that it also has a high ground clearance. However, it is not necessarily a given. When it comes to overlanding, this factor is important as it allows your vehicle of choice to travel over uneven terrain. The higher the ground clearance, the less likely your undercarriage will scrape against rocks, dirt, sand, gravel, or whatever else. Of course, the downside to higher ground clearance is that it also raises the center of gravity, making it easier for your vehicle to topple over — just something to keep in mind.
This is going to change depending upon a couple of factors. For starters, you need to know how many people are coming with you. If you are going solo or just have one other person, a pickup truck will do you just fine and offers plenty of onboard storage for all your other gear. If you have more passengers than that and/or you don’t want all of your stuff exposed to the elements, an SUV, van, or wagon is the way to go. In this case, you’ll also probably want a roof rack for extra storage (perhaps you’ll want this even with a pickup truck). However, a roof rack can be purchased as an aftermarket part, so it’s less important initially.
These are last on the list for the simple fact that they are an easy aftermarket addition. They are, however, extremely important. It doesn’t matter how high your ground clearance is, how hardcore your suspension is, or if your undercarriage is bombproof, so long as your tires can’t handle the trip. All-terrain tires are tougher, thicker, and offer more traction than normal tires (which are more likely to pop or just spin in the dirt). As mentioned, you can buy them after the fact, but if you have the option, getting them with your vehicle is a good call.
Truck vs. SUV vs. Wagon
Which Is Right For You
Once you know the kinds of things you are looking for in an off-road vehicle, there is still one major hump to climb over: choosing between a truck, SUV, wagon, or something else to suit your overlanding needs. Most of this decision is going to come down to two factors.First, you have to figure out the proper passenger to gear ratio. Then, you have to factor in your personal preference. First, you have to figure out the proper passenger to gear ratio. Then, you have to factor in your personal preference.
Let’s start this by saying, whatever your decision for the type of vehicle you choose, you should still depend upon the factors laid out in the previous section. And yes, there are vehicles in just about every class that meet them in some form or another (or at least come close enough that aftermarket modifications can get the job done). While that doesn’t help narrow down your search too much, it does mean there’s hope for finding the right ride for you, regardless of the type of vehicle you prefer.
Pickup trucks, especially mid or full-size, are a superb option for those who need to haul a lot of gear but not too many passengers. Their long beds are spacious and relatively secure for off-roading (thanks to their high walls). However, sleeping inside of one is pretty much out of the question, unless you enjoy neck kinks and cramped legs — so a camping tent is a must-have in this case. For one to two people, you can’t go wrong with a solid overlanding pickup truck.Still, for one to two people, you can’t go wrong with a solid overlanding pickup truck.
SUVs, especially those based on the same platforms as pickups (the Toyota 4Runner, for instance, is on the same platform as the Tundra pickup), are certainly the most popular vehicles for overlanding. And it is extremely easy to understand why: they’re spacious inside, have plenty of exterior storage (so long as they have a roof rack), and still offer all the other off-roading accouterments you would get with their bedded counterparts. They’re a safe pick with great overall value; we really don’t have anything negative to say about overlanding-appropriate SUVs.
Wagons that are acceptable for overlanding are few and far between, but we don’t want to say they don’t exist. You just have to pick and choose your battles when it comes to their overall features. The best of the bunch is probably the Subaru Outback. It’s plenty roomy inside, comes with standard AWD, has the best ground clearance of its class, and also has roof rails for easy roof rack mounting. The downsides: not every model comes with a locking or even a limited slip differential (though this can be added, for a price), even the most middling SUVs still have better ground clearance;Vans are an excellent option for an overlanding vehicle, so long as your pockets are extremely deep. and — let’s be honest — many people don’t really like how wagons look. Still, the option is there.
Vans are probably the toughest of the categories because, while they certainly have the most interior room, they also require the most money and work to be turned into off-road ready overlanders. For instance, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter can be purchased from a dozen or more different aftermarket customizers and it will be the best-performing overlanding adventure van you’ve ever seen. But it will also cost you over $100,000 out of the gate (not including any additions you may want or need). The point is, vans are an excellent option for an overlanding vehicle, so long as your pockets are extremely deep.
8 Best Overlanders You Can Buy Off The Lot
If you’re still having trouble deciding on a vehicle (or you don’t even know where to start), you can hardly go wrong with one of the picks on our list of the 8 best overlanders you can buy.
Gear Up For The Long Haul
Even if you buy a super-high-end off-road machine, there’s a strong likelihood that it still won’t come with everything you need to get started overlanding. There are some obvious things you’ll want to bring along — just as you might if you were camping or backpacking. For instance, you’ll need to bring along with you all of your clothing, plenty of drinking water, food (and perhaps a camp stove to cook it on), sleeping arrangements (a camping tent or a rooftop tent if your vehicle is too small or crowded to sleep inside), and pretty much anything else you might normally bring on a car camping or backpacking trip.
That’s not, however, what this section is about. Rather, there is a good amount of gear specific to overlanding that you should have in or on your vehicle if you hope to make the most of the experience (and avoid any trip-ending pitfalls). In alphabetical order, our overlanding bare necessities are as follows:
Hopefully, your vehicle never catches fire. However, engines (and off-road 4x4s in general) have a lot of things that are flammable in and on them. As such (and since you’ll likely be far from civilization when it happens), having a fire extinguisher onboard is of the utmost importance. It won’t stop your engine from catching fire, but it will help stop the damage from spreading.
As is the case with any outdoor activity, overlanding will put you in situations where you might get hurt and there won’t be any way to get immediate help. Most often this will come in the form of minor cuts, bruises, and burns. But sometimes, it can be more serious. Whatever the case, a solid first-aid kit is definitely a must-have for overlanding.
Your body needs food in order to continue functioning. As such, you should always bring along enough food to get you through an extended camping or hiking trip. Well, similarly, your vehicle feeds on fuel in order to keep functioning. And while there’s a good amount of room in an onboard fuel tank, it’s a supreme idea to keep a separate emergency reserve, just in case.
Never underestimate the importance of a jack, especially when it comes to off-roading and overlanding. This handy device was built specifically to work with vehicles that have a high ground clearance and it will give you the ability to perform maintenance — like changing a tire — and can even help with getting your car, truck, or SUV unstuck from any unforgiving terrain.
Mechanic Tool Set
If you’re going to be spending an extended period of time away from civilization in a vehicle, you should familiarize yourself with its mechanical makeup enough to perform basic maintenance. And, in order to perform said maintenance, you’ll need a toolkit. You can’t go wrong with this one, and you’re not going to want to do without it. Trust us.
In conjunction with a winch and/or jack, a recovery kit is going to be your overlander’s best friend. This handy kit contains everything you need to help get your vehicle unstuck from even the muddiest pits on or off the road. Do not risk traversing any questionable terrain without it. If you do, you might find yourself having to call for backup or abandoning your vehicle entirely to go get help on foot.
Even if you have the roomiest SUV or a long-bed pickup truck, adding a roof rack can do no harm. It’s an easy way to add an abundance of storage to your vehicle and also helps keep the interior clean (you can house your filthiest gear on the roof). This one is maybe not 100% a necessity, but we’re willing to put money down that says it’s a must-have for most overlanders.
Possibly the most important aftermarket device you can buy for your off-roading or overlanding experiences, a winch is the equivalent to a public pool’s lifesaver. That is to say, it’s instrumental in getting you and your vehicle out of tricky situations. If you get stuck in the mud, you can use the natural surrounding terrain in conjunction with this device and get yourself unstuck. You can also use it to help save other stuck overlanders, if you’re traveling in a convoy.
12 Best Off-Roading Essentials
While off-roading and overlanding do differ a bit in form and purpose, much of the gear you’d want to bring along with you overlaps between them both. Take a more in-depth look at everything you’ll want to bring with you on our list of the 12 best off-roading essentials.
Thoroughly Plan Your Trip
Know Where You're Going
It’s hard to rank exactly how important it is to know where you’re headed when overlanding, but it should certainly be considered with the utmost care. Before you ever hit the road, you should know how to get to where you’re going — even without a GPS system. No, we’re not suggesting you abandon technology altogether — go ahead and bring along your smartphone, a solar-powered battery charger, battery packs, a GPS tracker, and whatever else you might want.Before you ever hit the road, you should know how to get to where you’re going — even without a GPS system. Just remember that, especially when away from civilization, technology can be unreliable and failure-prone.
To circumvent this, you should also bring along things like topographical maps of the areas you plan to travel and a compass, even just as a contingency plan. You should also familiarize yourself with navigational tactics — same as you might when hiking. These could end up being survival skills that keep you alive. At the very least, they will help build up your confidence and self-reliance (and that’s hardly a bad thing).
You should also leave a trip plan with someone back in the civilized world. Whether this is a family member you trust, a governmental agency, or even your insurance company — just let someone know your plan, where they should expect to find you at any given time, and a means of communicating with you (a satellite phone isn’t a bad idea, either). The wilderness can be a dangerous and lonely place, and nobody wants to be trapped, especially if supplies are running low. Follow these guidelines and stay safe, whether you’re headed out for your first trek or your fiftieth.
How To Read A Topographic Map
Technology can be fickle and unreliable, especially when traveling off the beaten path. Don’t depend on it to help find your way when overlanding. Instead, learn how to read a topographic map and you’ll be good as gold.
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