Have you ever felt the overwhelming urge to get in your car and just leave it all behind? Then you’re already familiar with the main gist of overlanding! But what is overlanding exactly?
Overlanding is defined as vehicle-reliant travel, in which the main goal is the journey, not necessarily the destination. Think of it as a mix between a road trip, off-roading, and camping.
Most overlanders like to take their fully equipped rigs out into the remote wilderness to enjoy off-the-grid camping for several days, months, or even years at a time! It’s truly the best way to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life for a relaxing, secluded getaway.
If you’re interested in overlanding, here’s everything you need to know about the rugged, off-road camping adventures that more and more Americans are falling in love with every year.
Intro to Overlanding 101
As I said, overlanding is a mix between road trips, off-roading, and camping; but it’s also not either of the three. I know that sounds confusing, so I’ll explain.
It might be similar to road trips, but road trips are all about the destination. You spend hours in a car on boring stretches of highway to reach the fun destination at the end. For overlanding, it’s about the journey. You enjoy the scenery and take your time traversing idealistic landscapes. That’s the appeal! You only stop (reach your destination) when you get tired or want to take in some extended natural beauty. Many overlanders don’t even know where they’re going; they just want to go.
It might also be similar to off-roading, but again, it’s not exactly. Off-road enthusiasts leave the house with the express purpose of weaving their vehicle through treacherous off-road trails. While overlanders might travel off-road, the type of road makes no difference to them. Overlanders might find themselves traveling through cities and on paved highways to reach the next dusty trail or scenic overlook.
Finally, overlanding is similar to camping, but it’s more temporary. Campers set up a camp and stay for days at a time. Overlanders see camping as merely a necessity, not the destination itself. They only stop to eat and rest up before heading back out on the trail. It’s much more nomadic and requires overlanders to pack light for easy setup and teardown.
Overlanding is all about getting out and taking long trips to see what the world holds. You move from place to place, using your vehicle for everything from mobility and storage to lodging and cooking. And you don’t use paved campsites with electric and water hookups; it’s backcountry exploration that requires complete self-sustainability. Just you, your vehicle, and nature.
If that sounds interesting, keep reading to find out more about the wonderful world of overlanding.
A History of Overlanding
Overlanding isn’t a new activity. In fact, it’s over 100 years old!
In 1910, not long after Henry Ford debuted his game-changing Model T, another car manufacturer called Pierce-Arrow released a touring vehicle with a rear seat that converted to a bed that also included a chamber pot and a fold-down sink. Many consider this to be the first RV—and the beginning of recreational overlanding. People could travel anywhere and live out of their vehicles!
As vehicles evolved, so did the overland rigs. By 1923, the Zagelmeyer Auto Camp Company was selling conversion kits to turn your Model T into a pop-up camper, much like the rooftop tents available today!
Overlanding really became what it is today in Australia. As workers built the massive cross-country road systems across the barren land, they needed somewhere to stay. Many of the workers modified their vehicles (which were capable of traversing the rough terrain) to include living spaces. These were the first “overland” rigs.
From there, overlanding became a purely recreational activity, as adventure-minded people took to the wilderness to get away from it all. Overlanders would stay on the road for weeks, months, or even years, traveling the world in their adventure-ready rigs.
The Rise in Popularity of Overlanding
The internal combustion engine was definitely the beginning of overlanding, but technology is really what made it popular and accessible to a wider range of people.
In the beginning, overlanding was a necessity. The ranchers and road workers in Australia needed overland rigs for travel and lodging as they worked. Most people couldn’t just uproot themselves and take long trips into the remote wilderness for days, weeks, or months at a time. At least, until technology allowed them to.
Today, it’s easier than ever for people to be remote. A laptop, a little bit of electricity, and an internet connection is really all you need to keep making a living while on the road. Without the need to punch a clock or go into an office every day, more and more people can hit the trails for extended periods of time!
Overlanding is also a cost-effective way to see the world. Flights and hotel rooms are expensive. Even a simple vacation can cost thousands of dollars for a weekend getaway. Most people already have a vehicle. With a few upgrades and supplies, you can turn your vehicle into a rig capable of taking you anywhere you want to go for cents on the dollar compared to traditional means of vacation travel.
Not only is it cheaper, but overlanding allows you to travel on your own terms and at your own pace. You don’t have to worry about sticking to travel itineraries, check-in times, or even pet restrictions. You can go wherever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want (including your furry friends). It offers freedom and flexibility that can’t be beat by any other form of travel, making it a popular pastime for outdoor enthusiasts all over the world.
What Are the Best Vehicles for Overlanding?
Typically, overlanders prefer vehicles with four-wheel drive, lots of storage, and plenty of ground clearance. Because of the off-road prowess and storage necessities, most overlanders gravitate to either SUVs or small trucks. Here are some of the most popular vehicles for overlanding:
- Jeeps (really any model, but most overlanders like Wranglers, Gladiators, and Cherokees)
- Land Rover Defender (the “primo” when it comes to overland rigs)
- Toyota Land Cruiser
- Toyota 4Runner
- Toyota Tacoma
While small trucks and SUVs certainly dominate the overland scene, there are plenty of examples of creative overlanders converting anything from sedans and station wagons to minivans and full-size trucks into incredible overland rigs. There’s even an overlander who travels the world in a Ferrari F40!
If you have the creativity and the know-how, you can convert almost any type of vehicle into an off-road capable overland rig.
Why It’s Important to Tread Lightly
No matter which vehicle you choose, it’s important to tread lightly and limit the impact on the environment. Overlanding is all about appreciating nature. If you tear your rig through a meadow and disturb the sensitive ecosystem, it goes against everything overlanding stands for.
Clean up after yourself, leave no trace (don’t litter!), and do your best to preserve the environment. Avoid sensitive areas like wetlands, streams, and shorelines; go over obstacles on the trail instead of going around, so you don’t widen the trail; and wash your rig before and after each outing to prevent the spread of invasive species.
If you leave the environment the same way you found it, others can enjoy its beauty for generations to come.
What to Pack for Overlanding?
Packing for an overlanding trip is all about forethought and sustainability. Since you’re going deep into the remote wilderness, you’ll need to bring everything you need to survive for as long as your trip lasts—like food, water, and shelter. In addition to things you know you’ll need, you should also bring things you might need, like emergency supplies and first aid.
Here’s a quick list of things you should pack on an overland expedition:
- Camping equipment – tent, sleeping bag, blankets, etc.
- Food and drinks – enough for the duration of your trip
- Cooking gear – portable stove, fuel, cooler/refrigerator, utensils
- Recovery gear – winch, tow strap, recovery boards
- Tools – socket set, screwdriver, zip ties, car jack, spare tire(s), etc.
- Emergency equipment – first aid, fire extinguisher, radio
While this list is by no means definitive, it’s a good start for any overland newbie. The more you travel, the more gear you’ll add to your setup. If you get stuck and don’t have any recovery boards, you’ll definitely pick some up for the next trip! After a few adventures, you’ll have a fully stocked rig that’s ready for anything.
What Skills Are Needed for Overlanding?
Since overlanding involves traversing rough terrain and camping in remote locations, it can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Picking up a few extra skills will help you stay safe and keep your rig in once piece out on the trail.
First and foremost, overlanding is about traveling through remote locations. In many instances, that means some rough, off-road driving, which requires a special skill set. You should know how to drive over uneven terrain and obstacles without damaging your vehicle. That also means you need to know your vehicle’s limitations. You shouldn’t drive over a log if you don’t have the ground clearance!
Before you take your first overland adventure, read up on off-road driving. It also wouldn’t hurt to take a few classes if they’re offered in your area. If you’re an overlanding beginner, stick to simple trails, so you can get the feel for how your rig handles off-road. Then gradually increase the difficulty as you gain more experience. The more prepared you are to handle the potentially treacherous conditions, the better and safer your trip will be.
If you’re serious about overlanding, you’re going to get stuck at some point. It’s just a fact. So, you need to know how to properly use your recovery gear. Knowing how to use recovery gear—like winches and recovery boards—might make the difference between getting home safe and an expensive tow bill.
Basic Vehicle Repair
You don’t need to know how to rebuild a transmission or replace an engine, but a basic understanding of vehicle repair is essential for overlanding.
When you’re traveling over rough terrain, there’s always a chance something on your vehicle will break. Knowing how to change a tire or replace a fuse can keep your adventure going if you run into mechanical trouble on the trail. Plus, if you know how to fix your rig, you can avoid expensive repair bills when you get home.
Basic camping skills—like knowing how to start a fire, pitch a tent, and cook over a camp stove—will make your overland adventure much more comfortable and enjoyable. You can learn the basics from online articles and videos, and be sure to read all the instruction manuals that come with your camping gear. While all that will be helpful to get started, nothing beats plain-old experience when it comes to picking up camping skills. Practice makes perfect!
Emergency Survival Skills
Finally, it’s important to know emergency survival skills, just in case something happens. You’re going to be pretty far off the beaten path, so you need to know how to handle emergency situations. Learn about things like how to disinfect cuts and craft a tourniquet. You never know when you might need it!
Popular Overlanding Destinations in the U.S.
The United States is home to countless geographical wonders and vast expanses of wilderness to explore. While there’s no “bad” place to go overlanding, there are a few spots where overlanders tend to flock. Here are a few of the favorites:
Rubicon Trail, California
The Rubicon Trail is a world-famous 4-wheel drive trail that winds its way through the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, just to the west of Lake Tahoe. If you’re looking for pristine mountain views, this is where you need to be!
If you want to tackle the Rubicon Trail, you need to be prepared. At one time, it was rated a 10/10 for off-road difficulty because of its rocky passages, steep inclines, and occasional mud holes. You should only attempt this route if your overland rig has four-wheel drive, skid plates, and plenty of ground clearance.
There are tons of opportunities for camping and admiring the scenic views along the 12-mile trail. This trip tops the “must do” list for many overlanders.
Moab is a haven for off-road and overlanding enthusiasts. It features dozens of 4×4 trails that twist their way through the picturesque Utah desert.
Moab is filled with trails ranging from “so simple a sedan can do it” to “absolutely, downright treacherous.” No really, the trail descriptions on the website feature phrases like, “Don’t take anyone you care deeply about on this trail” and “Requires adult diapers.”
But just because Moab has some of the most difficult off-road obstacles on the planet doesn’t mean you should be intimidated. There are plenty of easy trails where you can learn the ropes and get comfortable driving off-road. If you’re not ready to take on the big-time trails just yet, you can test your skills on the easier trails and slowly work your way up until you’re an off-road driving expert.
Telluride is another popular overlanding destination set in the beautiful mountains of Colorado. Much like Moab, there are several trails you can take to climb to dizzying heights for breathtaking views.
In the high-mountain countryside, you’ll find all sorts of incredible sights to see:
- Pristine alpine lakes
- Panoramic mountain vistas
- Intriguing ghost towns
- Picturesque waterfalls
- Colorful wildflowers
- And plenty of off-road trails (of course)
Since Telluride is in the Colorado mountains, the weather can get pretty treacherous in the winter. It’s best to make this a summer destination (unless you’re into skiing!).
Black Bear Pass, Colorado
Black Bear Pass is one of the more popular trails in Telluride, Colorado. It’s a steep mountain pass that goes from the top of the 11,018-foot Red Mountain and winds its way into Telluride. The trail is only 3.6 miles long, but it features some of the most breathtaking sights Telluride has to offer, including the highest waterfall in Colorado: Bridal Veil Falls.
This trail is only for experienced off-road drivers and requires four-wheel drive and a high vehicle clearance.
The Georgia Traverse
If you’re looking for an extended overland adventure, the Georgia Traverse might be for you! It’s a collection of several state, county, and Forest Service roads that intertwine through Northern Georgia. The entire trail spans an impressive 390 miles!
Throughout the hundreds of miles of trails, you can find plenty of places to set up camp and enjoy the natural beauty of the American South. Since there aren’t any official designated campsites, it’s up to you to find out if camping is allowed in specific areas.
Because of the length of the route—and the very limited amenities and services—think ahead before attempting the Traverse. Make sure you bring enough fuel to get you from start to finish. And if you plan on taking several days to conquer the trail, be sure to bring enough food and water as well.
Popular Overlanding Destinations Worldwide
Of course, there’s much more to the world than just the United States. For international-minded overlanders, there are tons of unique places to explore all over the world!
Before you go crossing any borders, be sure you understand the local customs and rules of the country you’re entering. Things like which side of the road they drive on or common hand signals and their meanings are important to avoid fines or offending someone accidentally.
Here are some of the most popular overlanding destinations around the world:
Back to where it all began. Overlanding was basically invented in Australia, so it would make sense that some of the best overlanding spots would be there too!
While there are a few cities, most of Australia (especially Central Australia) is nothing but wide-open space, perfect for overlanding. Overlanders from all over the world flock to Australia to adventure through the legendary Outback. There you’ll find incredible landscapes, unique animals, and a once-in-a-lifetime adventure you’ll never forget.
There are many legendary roads in the world—Route 66, the Autobahn, the Blue Ridge Parkway, etc.—but few can match the length and variety of the road between Cape Town, South Africa and Cairo, Egypt. That’s right, there’s a single road that spans the entirety of Africa from north to south, and it’s perfect for overland expeditions!
This 6,000-mile road will take you through many incredible destinations that speckle the continent:
There’s certainly no shortage of things to see and do when you travel across an entire continent!
Europe and Asia
In 1955, a group of adventurous overlanders took it upon themselves to drive from Singapore all the way to London, covering almost 10,000 miles across two continents! Ever since, this trip—dubbed the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition—has been on the bucket list of many overlanders.
The Singapore to London route crosses more than 20 countries and covers some of the most unique landscapes in the world. The original expedition took over six months to complete!
It takes a lot of preparation to make the incredible journey. For starters, you’ll need to pack enough food, fuel, and supplies to last for extended periods (there aren’t many gas stations or grocery stores out there).
Many of the countries in that part of the word are secluded and have strict rules for outsiders who want to come in. You need to consider the different travel restrictions when crossing borders into certain countries. Make sure you know the rules ahead of time and prepare accordingly.
While there are certainly difficulties to overcome, there’s nothing else like this overland route in the world. If you complete it, you’ll earn a lifetime of bragging rights and an experience you’ll never forget.
Are You Ready for the Exciting World of Overlanding?
I hope this article was able to answer your What is Overlanding question.
Overlanding is a unique experience that can transport you away from the hustle and bustle of daily life to remote destinations that few have ever seen. If you’re ready to mix the fun of road trips, camping, and off-roading into one exciting package, maybe it’s time for you try your hand at overlanding!
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Life is about the journey, not the destination.” No other activity embodies that mentality like overlanding. All you need is a vehicle, a little know-how, and a few supplies to get started on a lifetime of adventure.