What is Overlanding?

August 19, 2020

what is overlanding

If you enjoy camping as well as the occasional off-road adventure, then allow us to introduce you to your new favorite hobby: overlanding. A century-old activity originating in the Australian Outback, overlanding is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States, and one that has been steadily growing in popularity over the last decade or so.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to have an expensive, tricked-out road vehicle to overland. As long as your vehicle can reliably get you into national forests and public land, you can start overlanding.

But let’s back up a minute. What is overlanding and how do you get started? In this guide, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know.

What Is Overlanding?

Let’s start with the basics of overlanding. What is it, exactly? While there is some disagreement over the official definition, overlanding can be generally defined as vehicle-dependent travel to remote locations in which the focus is centered on the journey and not the destination.

jeep overlanding

If that sounds a bit vague, that’s because overlanding is a pretty subjective activity. Overlanding can involve quick, off-the-grid weekend trips as well as month-long excursions into the remote wilderness. You can modify your vehicle with luxurious amenities or take a minimalist approach and carry only the bare essentials.

To help paint a clearer picture of what overlanding is, here are a few common characteristics of overlanding trips:

  • Off-Road Travel: To access remote locations and secluded vistas, most overlanders try to avoid highways and paved roads as much as possible. Forest service roads and designated 4x4 trails are primarily used to maneuver between points.
  • Self-Reliance: Overlanding is about being self-reliant for multiple days, weeks or months. It encourages packing only the basic necessities. This allows overlanders to put their knowledge—and their vehicles—to the ultimate test.
  • Adventurous Spirit: If you have a taste for adventure, you’re going to love overlanding. Overlanders are known for embracing the spirit of exploration and taking the road less traveled. And in doing so, they tend to come home with some incredible stories.

At the end of the day, overlanding is all about going on an epic adventure and trying to be resourceful. If you’re ready to start overlanding, keep reading for a basic overview of what you’ll need to get started.

What You Need to Start Overlanding

First and foremost, you need a reliable vehicle with off-road and on-road capabilities. As you’ll soon discover, choosing an overland vehicle is a highly personal decision that no one can make for you.

You’ll also need basic camping equipment and a few additional items to keep you safe in the remote wilderness. The good news is that you may already have a lot of these essentials if you go camping or backpacking regularly.

overlanding suv gear

Ready to get started? Let’s take a closer look at the basic essentials that most overlanders need to get out there, plus a few additional considerations.

1. A Reliable Vehicle

There’s a common saying in the overland community: The best beginner vehicle for overlanding is the one you already have. Depending on the vehicle you have parked in your driveway right now, you may be a little skeptical.

Obviously, you’re not going to be doing any rock crawling through the Moab in a Miata. But most beginner overlanders aren’t rock crawling at all. They’re doing weekend warrior trips on dirt roads and established sites.

Here’s some advice: Take your time when choosing an overlanding vehicle. Do a few weekend camping trips where you bring only the essentials. Figure out what you want in an overland vehicle before you drop thousands on a new rig that may or may not suit your needs.

The Best Overland Vehicles

Let’s say that you have money to burn or that you’re in the market for a new vehicle anyway. What is the best vehicle for overlanding?

overlanding suv rugged road

Since overland travel tends to be off-road in highly remote places, having four-wheel drive is essential. Lots of folks use a full-size pickup as their first overland vehicle because it’s a great base for a starter overland build and pretty affordable. Plus, you can easily adapt it to overlanding by adding truck bed storage, which could be useful for more than just overlanding.

Other suitable vehicles for overlanding include SUVs, Jeeps and camper vans. Dual-sport motorcycles are another solid option that is growing in popularity because they’re super affordable and emphasize minimalism.

Modifying Your Overland Vehicle

Now, it’s time to turn your vehicle into an overland rig. This could be as simple as adding a rooftop cargo carrier to the top of your vehicle and switching out your old tires for off-road tires.

Then again, it could be far more complicated. If you want to do some serious rock crawling, you may want to add body armor and skid plates to your rig. It all depends on your budget and what type of overlanding you want to do.

In general, it’s important for your vehicle to have the ability to traverse muddy and rocky terrain, as well as deep water crossings. Here are some essentials that you might want for your overlanding rig:

overlanding rig essentials

  • Quality Tires (all-terrain or mud terrain)
  • Winch + Winch Kit
  • Suspension Upgrade
  • Off-Road Lights
  • Tire Recovery Kit
  • Air Compressor
  • Vehicle Snorkel

2. Food and Water

Most overlanding adventures span at least a few days, if not weeks or months. Therefore, it’s important to consider how you will keep yourself fed and hydrated without modern amenities such as running water.

If you’re an experienced backpacker, a lot of this may be familiar to you. But in case you’re not, let’s go over a few food and water solutions for surviving in the backcountry.


A good rule of thumb is to have at least one gallon of water per day per person. However, keep in mind that you may need to increase this amount based on the weather and your activity.

If you’re taking a weekend overlanding trip, you don’t need anything too fancy. You can find a couple of five-gallon potable water containers online for less than $25. This will be enough to keep a single person hydrated for two days and provide extra water for washing dishes and cleaning up.

In addition to a gallon container, consider bringing a smaller water container (i.e., a water bladder) and/or a water filter. A water filter is a great way to reduce water weight because it enables you to drink from any water source.


There’s no reason you can’t eat like a king or queen on your overlanding trip, especially if you’re just doing the weekend warrior thing. All you need to do is plan a few delicious overland meals, prepare your food in advance and pack a cooler with ice. (Pro tip: Pre-chill the cooler at your house by loading it with ice the night before your trip. It will keep your food cooler for longer.)

20qt cooler in truck bed

Searching for the best cooler for overlanding? Shop coolers at Pelican’s official store.

It’s also a good idea to bring a few meals and snacks that you can eat quickly without making a mess (think: trail mix, granola bars and fruit). Trust us, you’ll be grateful for these easy meals when you’re exhausted and don’t feel like getting out all your cookware.

3. Kitchen Essentials

Speaking of cookware, don’t forget to pack all the basic equipment you need to whip up delicious meals. Here is a quick list of kitchen essentials:

  • Utensils
  • Bowls and plates
  • Cutting board
  • Seasoning
  • Large coffee mug (preferably, one that can double as a bowl)
  • Camp stove + fuel
  • Cast iron pan
  • Dutch oven
  • Pot with a lid
  • Lighter/matches
  • Dish washing bin
  • Knife
  • Tongs
  • Spatula
  • Mixing spoon
  • Reusable silicone bags
  • Kettle
  • Fire gloves

Of course, you may not need all of the items on this list. Like choosing an overlanding vehicle, you should take the time to find out what you like and dial in your kitchen checklist to fit your cooking needs.

4. Shelter

There is no “best” shelter for overlanding. It all comes down to the type of vehicle you’re driving, your needs and your budget.

So, what are your options? Let’s break it down.

  • Sleeping in Your Vehicle: If you’re just starting out, sleeping in the back of your vehicle is an inexpensive way to start overlanding. Simply buy an inflatable air mattress, put it in the back of your truck and you can sleep under the stars. The biggest downside is that you need to move your gear every time you need to sleep.
  • Hammock: Hammocks are lightweight, compact and inexpensive, making them ideal for ultra-light overlanding. The obvious disadvantage is that you need trees to string them up, which can be a problem depending on where you’re overlanding. It’s also not the greatest for inclement weather.

overlanding shelter

  • Ground Tent: If you go camping regularly, you probably own a ground tent already. This option is ideal if you don’t want to move all of your stuff just to sleep in the back of your vehicle. One disadvantage is that you need to find flat ground for your tent, which can be a rare commodity at times.
  • Rooftop Tent: Perhaps one of the easiest ways to identify an overlander is by their rooftop tent. Rooftop tents are popular with more experienced overlanders because they are comfortable, convenient and safe. If you’re camping in bear country, being up off the ground is a huge benefit! The biggest downside is their steep cost. Rooftop tents can cost anywhere between $800 and $4K, making them the most expensive option on this list.

5. Safety Gear

Emergencies happen, and when they do, you’re probably going to be far away from civilization. While buying emergency items for overlanding may be much less exciting than modifying your vehicle, skipping these items would be downright foolish.

  • First Aid: Not to needlessly frighten you, but it’s important to remember that you’re heading into remote wilderness and that emergency crews may not be able to reach you quickly. A well-stocked first aid kit could make the difference between life and death in an emergency situation.
  • Fire Extinguisher: It’s a good idea to keep a fire extinguisher in your vehicle. An ABC-rated fire extinguisher could potentially help prevent a small fire from getting out of hand.
  • Vehicle Recovery Gear: Even the best overlanding vehicles get stuck sometimes. In addition to your tire repair kit and winch kit, be sure to invest in other important vehicle recovery gear such as a hi-lift jack, recovery straps, tree saver, shackles and a good pair of work gloves.

safety gear headlamp

  • Shovel: Get a nice shovel. You’ll be amazed at how much you use it. From removing dirt from under your tires to digging trenches to safely camp in the rain, a shovel will be incredibly useful on your overlanding trip.
  • LED Headlamp: Applying first aid or repairing a tire is difficult enough in broad daylight, let alone the dark. Bring an LED headlamp so you can work hands-free at all hours of the night.
  • Navigation System: Before you can head out there, you need to know where you’re going. Bring a GPS device that will give you driving directions even when you’re off-road (the Garmin Overlander is great for this). Technology can be fickle, so don’t forget to bring a physical map and a compass.
  • Radios: When cell service is unavailable, two-way radios can help you communicate with another vehicle or with someone in your overlanding group. Be sure to find a radio that can also receive weather information from NOAA, which will help you stay safe in case the weather takes an unexpected turn.

Knowledge Is Power

overlanding trip case

Knowledge is power, especially on an overlanding trip. Before you head out on a week-long expedition, spend a few weekends honing your skills. Take a CPR class, brush up on your mechanical skills and know how to survive in the backcountry.

Take the time to read overlanding blogs and watch their videos. Consider joining a local overlanding group to grow your knowledge and get helpful tips.

And most importantly, always tell someone when and where you are going before a trip. See you out there!

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