Exploring the great outdoors can be a great thrill, but you need the right kind of vehicle to get you where you want to go. Having a vehicle capable of performing in a variety of treacherous terrains is obviously a great place to start, but where do you go from there? Most overlanders prefer one of two choices: trucks or SUVs. But which is better?
For most overlanders, trucks are the go to choice, because of their all-terrain capabilities, wide variety of features, access to aftermarket parts, and unmatched storage capacity.
Just because trucks are preferred by the majority of overlanders doesn’t mean they’re the hands-down best choice for everyone. There are plenty of arguments to be made in favor of SUVs. If fact, any kind of vehicle may be able to serve you for overlanding as long as you keep in mind the conditions you’ll be traveling and the vehicle’s capabilities.
The Terrain While Overlanding
Being able to tackle off-road conditions is the most important aspect when considering a vehicle for overlanding. After all, it’s no fun overlanding on paved pads!
To make sure your vehicle is up to the task—whether it’s a truck or SUV—there are several important factors can help you “get there” on your overlanding adventure:
Both trucks and SUVs are great options for off-road adventures. Most come with advanced drivetrains that maximize performance in a variety of conditions. There are several important considerations about drivetrains to consider before making your overland vehicle selection:
- Rear-wheel drive – These vehicles are propelled by the rear axle (or back wheels). The front axle simply spins along as the rear axle directs it. If the rear wheels slip, you’re not going anywhere. This makes rear-wheel drive the least effective drivetrain for off-road situations.
- Front-wheel drive – These vehicles work just like rear-wheel drive cars, except the power is coming from the front axle. Front-wheel drive is generally considered better than rear-wheel drive because pulling from the front is better than pushing from the back when trying to direct a forward-moving vehicle, but they’re still not ideal off-road.
- All-wheel drive – As the name implies, all-wheel-drive vehicles get power from both the rear and front axles. They’re better than single-axle vehicles for off-road conditions because they offer more traction points.
- Four-wheel drive (4WD) – This drivetrain may seem the same as the all-wheel-drive to those unfamiliar with drivetrains, but there is a subtle difference. While all-wheel drive is always activated in vehicles with that drivetrain, 4WD vehicles usually operate in two-wheel drive until the owner switches them into 4WD. The main differences between AWD and 4WD is that four-wheel-drive vehicles typically come with locking differentials, which means the tires spin at the same speed. When all the tires rotate at the same speed, you’ll experience less slippage on off-road conditions! 4WD vehicles are by far the best for off-roading.
Most modern SUVs and trucks are either all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. Generally, light SUVs are equipped with all-wheel drive, while heavy-duty SUVs and trucks have four-wheel drive.
All-wheel drive vehicles are designed to operate using mostly a single axle, with power being transferred to the secondary axle if the vehicle detects any slippage.
For example, an all-wheel-drive vehicle may be primarily front-wheel drive, but if you’re driving on slick roads and the front wheels slip, the rear axle activates to give the vehicle more traction.
Four-wheel drive vehicles are two-wheel drive until the driver decides it is time to kick the car into 4WD. To enhance fuel economy, the driver likely keeps the 4WD vehicle in 2WD for daily use. When you find yourself in a major snowstorm or decide to go off-road, you can push a button to switch the vehicle into 4WD.
There’s usually a 4WD high and a 4WD low option for most 4×4 vehicles:
- 4WD high – For traveling at higher speeds. For example, if you’re on a snowy interstate and want some extra traction, you’d switch your vehicle to 4WD high. You could keep driving the speed limit with all axles engaged.
- 4WD low – This is used in extremely treacherous conditions to help your vehicle crawl over or through obstacles. In 4WD low, your truck or SUV won’t be able to go very fast, but it’ll give you a boost in torque to help you get through the most hardcore off-road conditions.
While both all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles are great options to take overlanding, 4WD is better.
While all-wheel drive transfers power based on slippage—which will leave one axle more powerful than the other—four-wheel drive provides equal power to both axles. The distinction between “high” and “low” gives the driver more options to tackle all driving conditions.
When choosing an overland rig, make sure you know whether the vehicle is 4×4 or AWD. Heavy-duty SUVs, like Ford Expeditions or Chevy Suburbans, will have 4WD capabilities. However, light SUVs, like Nissan Rogues or Hyundai Santa Fes, will be all-wheel drive. It’s important not to confuse the two and overestimate your vehicle’s ability to perform off-road.
Final Verdict: Either trucks or SUVs can provide excellent drivetrains for overlanders, but trucks will more universally use 4WD. SUVs will come in a mix of all-wheel drive and 4WD.
This is another important consideration regarding your vehicle’s ability to “get you there.” The style of body frame will impact how much abuse your rig can take off-road. Let’s be real, even the most advanced overlander will take a ding or two.
There are two main body frames for vehicles that can affect how much wear and tear your rig can take:
- Unibody – With this type of frame, the chassis and the body are one unit. They’re more rigid, which means force spreads throughout the entire vehicle, but they’re also lighter because they don’t need a separate frame.
- Body-on-frame – This design utilizes a structure that absorbs stress (a frame), with the body of the car resting on top. These vehicles are heavier but have better noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) ratings than unibody structures.
Unibody frames dominate the SUV market because they’re easy to make, offer better fuel economy, and generally sit closer to the ground to provide protection against rollovers—an enticing feature for families with children.
They’re also designed with what are known as “crumple zones,” which are portions of the frame designed to absorb impact in the event of the crash and direct impact away from the passengers. This technology is statistically proven to save lives in high impact crashes.
Despite the many benefits of unibody designs, they do have some drawbacks for overlanders. They don’t handle twisting motions particularly well, which can lead to frame damage when going over ditches, rocks, or any other surface that takes the vehicle off the level ground and leaves one side higher than the other.
Repairing damage is often more extensive and costly for unibody vehicles, as damage to one part of the car is more likely to cause damage to another part. If you choose a unibody rig, be aware that more work will be needed to fix the minor dings you accumulate out on the trail.
Body-on-frame designs are the more traditional framing method for vehicles. While this design is largely being abandoned for use in everyday cars, it does offer a host of desirable qualities for overlanders:
- Taller ride height – Because the body of the car is mounted on top of a supporting frame, body-on-frame vehicles will sit higher than unibody designs. This is a significant perk for overlanders who want to avoid bottoming out over rough terrain or bogging down in deep mud or snow.
- Withstand twisting force – Body-on-frame designs can withstand twisting forces much better than unibody structures, as the frame absorbs most forces. When driving through ditches and over rocks, the body of the vehicle won’t experience any damage.
- Increased towing capacity – Body-on-frame vehicles have higher towing capacity than unibody designs because of their sturdy frames. This is important for overlanding for hauling gear, winching out your buddies, or towing a camper trailer.
- Cost-effective – These vehicles are usually easier and cheaper to repair than unibody vehicles. When either the body or frame gets damaged, you won’t have to fix both. Small body repairs are easier and less expensive than having to replace the entire shell.
The drawbacks of body-on-frame vehicles are related mainly to everyday use, which explains why unibody structures have become the preferred frame design for most consumers. Namely, the separate body and frame make them heavier, decreasing fuel efficiency. Also, the separated frame does not allow for crumple zones, making them less safe in highway accidents.
The important thing to consider is that if the vehicle you are looking into purchasing will be used primarily for overlanding, then body-on-frame is your best bet. If you’re going to use your rig as a daily driver, then a unibody design might be preferable for better fuel efficiency and advanced safety features.
Final verdict: Trucks typically have more options for body-on-frame designs, which is preferable for overlanding.
While not as crucial as drivetrain or body frame in terms of your vehicle “getting you there,” wheelbase may be something worth considering, especially for those trucks that feature beds over six feet long.
Wheelbase refers to the distance between the center of the front axle and the center of the rear axle. When the axles are far apart, the vehicle is said to have a “long wheelbase.” If they’re close together, it’s a “short wheelbase.”
For illustrative purposes, a school bus has a very long wheelbase, while a smart car has an extremely short wheelbase.
There are a couple advantages to a longer wheelbase:
- Smoother ride – You’ll feel fewer bumps because of the time between the front and rear wheels hitting rough patches.
- Stability – With a larger “footprint” in contact with the ground, you’ll feel more stable in just about any conditions.
However, there is one primary concern with long wheelbases that should be of note to overlanders, which is the increased risk of bottoming out on large obstacles or even getting stuck on top of an obstacle with all your tires off the ground (high centered).
While a short wheelbase might not give you as smooth of a ride, it’s much better for climbing over obstacles and rough terrain without getting high-centered.
This is why Jeeps are famous for climbing over rocks and jutting ledges. Not only do they sit high off the ground, but they also have very short wheelbases, making them nearly impossible to high center.
If you plan on going overlanding on particularly steep hills or crawling over rocky terrain, you ‘ll want to make sure your wheelbase isn’t too long.
Final verdict: SUVs will typically have shorter wheelbases than trucks, making this one area where an SUV would be a better choice—especially when overlanding over steep surfaces.
There’s a general sentiment that heavier vehicles are better on slick surfaces. While more weight will allow your car to “dig” into mud and snow and grip hard surfaces, more weight also means more brake power is required to stop.
When overlanding, you need powerful braking as you go up and down hills. In general, a lighter vehicle that won’t sink into mud or snow and is easier to stop is preferred for overlanding.
Final verdict: Smaller SUVs like Jeep Wranglers will be the lightest overland rigs you can find. However, there are some smaller trucks like Toyota Tacomas and Ford Rangers that can give you all the benefits of a lightweight vehicle with all the perks of a truck.
Profile of an Ideal Overlanding Vehicle
There are advantages and disadvantages to both trucks and SUVs for overlanding travel purposes, and it might not be possible to get the best of all attributes in a single vehicle.
In fact, some desirable overlanding characteristics, such as a body on frame design, make the vehicle heavier, which may undermine your ability to get a low overall vehicle weight.
Still, in a dream scenario, an ideal overland vehicle, rated strictly for “getting places,” would have these features:
- Four-wheel drive
- Body on frame
- Intermediate wheelbase, preferably on the shorter side
In general, trucks will provide more of these features than will SUVs—especially small to mid-size trucks.
Camping While Overlanding
While “getting there” may be the primary purpose in selecting a vehicle for overlanding, camping is a close second. As overlanders are likely to spend multiple days away from home, they need to consider which type of vehicle offers the most comfort and practicality in terms of camping.
Hauling Gear and Equipment
There’s no shortage of things you need to take with you when overlanding: tents, cookware, bedding, personal hygiene—the list goes on.
Trucks, with their large, open beds, are ideal for hauling all your camping gear and equipment. There’s no shortage of space for even the heaviest packer. Install a camper shell or cover to protect your gear from the elements.
While the back of SUVs have a similar amount of space to a truck bed, especially if the seats are laid down, they are not as good as trucks for hauling due to safety concerns.
During accidents, a surprising amount of damage is caused by moving objects inside the vehicle. If you were traveling with camping equipment in the back of your SUV and got into an accident or even hit your brake suddenly, a flying cooler or gas canister could cause a surprising amount of damage.
Final verdict: Trucks are superior to SUVs for hauling camping gear and equipment.
SUVs are called “sport utility vehicles,” but it sure seems like trucks offer more utility for overlanders—especially in the realm of bedding.
There are so many ideas that you can use to make comfortable bedding quarters with your truck:
- Add a roof rack to your bed cover and install a rooftop tent – Not only does this allow you to keep that great storage space beneath the bed cover, but it also provides an exceptionally flat surface on which your rooftop tent can rest.
- Cover the bed with a camper shell – Camper shells make a super convenient sleeping arrangement. All you have to do is lay down a pad, and your truck bed becomes a cozy apartment.
- Connect a full camper unit – There are complete camper units that can attach to the bed of your truck, turning your truck into a small, capable, go-anywhere RV. While this takes away some of the pure storage space from the truck bed, it essentially replaces it with a small house.
You can sleep inside your SUV just like a truck, but most SUVs simply don’t have the same amount of space as trucks. You can’t lay down flat inside a Jeep Wrangler. There’s simply not enough space!
Final verdict: Trucks offer a far superior array of sleeping options at the campsite than do SUVs.
This is one aspect where SUVs are superior to trucks. While trucks are getting more and more spacious, there’s no way they can match the ability to haul passengers like SUVs do.
SUVs are particularly attractive to overlanders who bring their dogs with them. Dogs in the backseat of a truck can become a distraction to truck drivers, while dogs in the back seat or cargo space of an SUV are far enough away to prevent getting into the driver’s business.
Final verdict: SUVs are better than trucks when taking many passengers overlanding.
The Best Overlanding Vehicle: Truck or SUV?
All in all, trucks generally offer more advantageous features for overlanders. They’re the more popular choice because they’re great for traveling over rugged terrain and offer diverse camping considerations compared SUVs.
Still, SUVs aren’t a bad choice for overlanders. They can be just as capable off-road (sometimes even moreso) and can carry more passengers comfortably.
While trucks offer more overlanding benefits, there’s no “best” option for everyone. At the end of the day, it’s all about knowing what you want and how you plan on using the vehicle. Weigh the pros and cons and choose the truck or SUV that’s right for your unique needs.