Everything You Need to Get Started Overlanding
Want to go on a vehicle-based adventure this summer? Here’s where to head, what vehicle to take, and how to stay safe and comfortable while you’re out there.
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All of a sudden, it seems like everyone wants to go overlanding. Curious about it yourself? Here’s everything you need to know about the gear you’ll need, where to go, and smart tips that’ll make your first trip successful.
We’ve previously defined it as “backpacking out of a vehicle.” That is to say: you’ll be going on an adventure through remote places and relying on the gear you carry with you. Only, with a truck, motorcycle, or car, you’ll be able to travel much farther, and it’ll be a lot easier to bring items like good food, quality booze, and a comfortable sleep system and shelter along.
What makes overlanding different from simply going off-road, or taking a car-camping trip, is the emphasis on travel over exploring the technical limits of your vehicle. An ideal overlanding trip should involve exploring new places.
Does the definition of overlanding seem a little vague and open-ended? That’s on purpose. What’s new and exciting for you will be different from what’s new and exciting, or even possible, for others. The key here is to get out of your comfort zone and test yourself within the realm of your other interests, your tolerance for risk or discomfort, your level of experience, and the capabilities of your vehicle and other gear.
What Vehicle Do I Need?
Scroll through Instagram and it’s easy to get the idea that you can’t go overlanding without a totally customized truck that has a bunch of tents, shovels, and fuel canisters bolted all over it. The opposite is actually true. You’ll probably have a better time—and save an awful lot of money—if you start out with whatever vehicle you currently drive.
I explored the features that give cars and trucks off-road capability in this article. Even if you drive a Toyota Prius or a Subaru Outback, there are plenty of remote places you can visit. Besides, cars like those will make the highway miles go by much easier than any 4×4 ever will. As long as you’re on good tires and the weather conditions aren’t extreme, exploring smoother Forest Service roads or paved ones through the middle of nowhere will still turn up plenty of awesome views and neat spots to camp.
That said, adding vehicular capability, either by purchasing a 4×4 or even making modifications to one, can open up significant new travel possibilities, add a margin for safety, and give you more confidence in variable weather. A simple dirt road that presents no obstacle whatsoever in dry conditions can become impassible to all but the most capable, expertly driven 4×4’s when heavy rain turns firm dirt into deep, slippery mud. And that can happen overnight, when you’re already miles from a paved roadway. Always keep an eye on the weather.
How can you find routes appropriate for your vehicle and experience level? I use an app called OnX Offroad, which allows you to filter trails by their level of difficulty. Routes it categorizes as Overland should be accessible to any carefully operated vehicle with good tires; those classified as High Clearance 4×4 trails should only be attempted with a true four-wheel-drive truck or SUV.
Where Should I Go?
Leaving well-trodden paths behind is the name of the game here. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to drive a Jeep up a vertical rock wall to find a spot to camp. Not only do our country’s 985 million acres of public lands offer ample travel routes, but rural roads through private land (and even foreign countries) combine to provide nearly limitless possibilities for the adventurous traveler.
In the Northeast: Maine
Just hours from the Northeast’s conurbation, Maine offers 210,000 acres of federally managed public land, 600,000 acres of state-managed public land, and, uniquely, 10,000 miles of dirt logging roads that mostly run through private property. The dramatic beauty of the Atlantic coast, the quaint, welcoming nature of the villages, and the seemingly endless stretches of forest make this state an obvious go-to for overlanders seeking a destination worth exploring in this region.
Know Before You Go: I strongly encourage you to check out Maine’s vast network of logging roads. Understand that you’ll be traveling through a confusing maze of both public lands (where you can camp) and private areas (where you can’t). A mapping app like OnX Offroad will make discerning the difference between the two a sure thing.
Gear You’ll Need: If there’s one thing you’re sure to find in Maine, it’s bugs. You already know you need to bring a deet-based bug spray and a Thermacell repellent but since you’re visiting in your car, there’s no reason you can’t bring a bug-proof shelter, too. Throw a Nemo Bugout Screen Room ($250) over your picnic table, and you’ll create a respite from mosquitos and black flies, as well as passing rain showers.
In the Northwest: British Columbia
The Canadian border has yet to reopen (reports indicate that it will remain closed until at least June 21), but when it does, you should absolutely travel through British Columbia. Ninety-two percent of the roads in this 365,000-square-mile province are unpaved. And that’s saying something, since Vancouver is home to a world-class city and other small towns, like Victoria, offer real culture.
Know Before You Go: Want to see whales, bears, and the northern lights? The easiest way is to travel by ferry. The boat from Port Hardy to Bella Coola follows as beautiful a route as any cruise ship, for a fraction of the price. Bring a sleeping pad and bed down on the deck for the full experience—it’s a 20-hour ride.
Gear You’ll Need: When you disembark that ferry, you’ll be in about as remote a spot in North America as you can find. I’d plot routes between gas stations carefully and bring enough tire-repair gear to be entirely self-sufficient.
In the Southeast: The Outer Banks
No, you’re not going to be doing a thousand miles of continuous off-roading on North Carolina’s eastern shore, but you can find remote beaches that are legal to drive out onto and camp on—and have to yourself. Catch some waves, cast into the surf, and relax. Best of all, you’re within a couple hours’ drive from cities like Virginia Beach, Virginia, or Charlotte, North Carolina.
Know Before You Go: Pretty much any vehicle can get out onto a sandy beach without getting stuck. The trick is to lower your tire pressure to 15 pounds per square inch (psi) or less. Doing so lengthens the contact patch of your tires, enabling them to float on top of the sand. Just make sure you air back up to safe street pressures (you’ll find those listed on a table inside the driver’s-side doorjamb of your car) before returning to pavement or you’ll experience a blowout.
Gear You’ll Need: Camping on a beach? Not only are you going to want shade, but you’ll need a shade structure that’s stable. Consult my deep dive into vehicle-mounted awnings for advice.
In the Southwest: Baja, Mexico
Do yourself a favor and skip Utah’s crowds in favor of Baja’s beaches. South of the border, you’ll find delicious, fresh food and a 900-mile-long peninsula full of shorelines where you can drive your truck right out to camp. I’ve detailed what it takes to visit this overland nirvana before.
Know Before You Go: Mexico hasn’t been as fortunate with its vaccine rollout as we have. But masks have not been politicized there. Be sure to respect the safety of locals: pack masks and plan to wear them in any and all public spaces.
Gear You’ll Need: I’ve explained my Baja loadout. Beyond that, bring a good attitude. This is a friendly place full of nice people. The vibes you put out will dictate the experience you take away.
Something More Specific: Backcountry Discovery Routes
You’ll note that none of the above suggestions include specific destinations or routes. I don’t leave those out to keep certain areas secret; I do it to encourage you to find your own adventure. Need something a little more specific? Check out Backcountry Discovery Routes.
Originally created for adventure motorcyclists, the free GPS tracks include information like bridge widths (important if you’re driving a big truck) and the location of gas stations, hotels, campsites, and other amenities. Load one of these into your favorite navigation app and you’ll be good to go. The turnkey nature of Backcountry Discovery maps makes using them almost absurdly easy. You’ll have access to photos, food recommendations, even video run-throughs. Just prepare appropriately for the terrain and forecasted weather conditions, and you’re assured a good trip.
What Should I Pack?
Depending on your level of experience, you may already have some or all of this gear, or none at all. That’s OK! Here’s a complete list of everything you’ll need.
- Here’s my up-to-date list of the best possible car-camping gear currently available.
- This is my own solar-powered fridge-freezer setup, which is capable of running constantly, even without turning your truck on. You don’t need this unless you are extremely serious about eating really nice food weeks away from civilization.
- This is my personal camp-kitchen setup. With it I’m able to cook in the wilderness as well as I do in my fancy kitchen at home.
- Don’t like sleeping on the ground? If you drive a crossover, a wagon, or an SUV, I recommend the Go Fast Campers SuperLite rooftop tent ($1,200). If you want something even more ridiculous, the Go Fast Campers Platform ($8,000) will transform any pickup into your personal camping cabana.
Repair Gear and Car Advice
- Driving a late-model or brand-new vehicle is the best option for people who don’t consider themselves amateur mechanics. An affordable new car is a better option for most than a fancier but older vehicle.
- Choose a vehicle that’s often found in the areas you plan to travel to. One of the reasons I drive a Ford Ranger is that I use it to visit Mexico, a country where that vehicle has been widely sold since 2011. Similarly, I modified my wife’s Toyota Land Cruiser to use more common suspension components from a Toyota Tundra, increasing our ability to find parts in remote areas.
- Consult a knowledgeable mechanic, owner’s forum, or similar resources, and create a list of parts mostly likely to fail on your rig. If those parts are not widely available, order spares and take them with you.
- Replace your vehicle’s fluids, filters, and other wear items before traveling.
- Buy a comprehensive mechanic’s tool kit, like those sold by Harbor Freight, and carry it with you.
- Zip ties, duct tape, and J-B Weld (or a similar liquid metal) can fix virtually anything—temporarily.
- Find and download a shop manual for your vehicle. Make sure it’s stored and accessible on your phone.
- Even if your skills are lacking, carrying the right parts, tools, or shop manual will enable a Good Samaritan or local mechanic to help you out.
- Bring more flashlights than anyone could ever possibly need.
- I showed you how to use tire-repair gear and an air compressor here. It’s a good idea to practice changing an old tire at home before traveling.
- A portable jump starter will allow you to restart a car with a dead battery, even in the absence of outside help.
- Absolutely everyone driving any sort of vehicle in a remote area should go armed with a set of Maxtrax.
- The same goes for a kinetic recovery strap and three-quarter-inch shackles. The ARB Weekender kit has all you need.
- If your car does not provide appropriate, strength-rated recovery points, you’ll either need to add some or carry enough gear to make a recovery safe. For most passenger cars, like Subarus, this means ordering an additional tow eyelet and a static strap so that a bridle can be created between the two eyelets on the front of your car. If your vehicle lacks an appropriate rear recovery point, you should visit U-Haul and have a two-inch hitch receiver fitted. Carry a receiver recovery point to use with that, in addition to all of the above.
- Carry a satellite communicator like the Garmin InReach Mini. If you get into trouble you cannot fix, stay with your vehicle and use your device to call for help.
- Purchase, learn how to use, and customize a real first aid kit to your own needs. Account for any allergies or other medical conditions.
- Invest in an automotive fire extinguisher.
- Bring still more flashlights.
- Plan to pack at least one gallon of water per person, per day. Account for delays.
- Carry cash—as much as you feel comfortable—divided between multiple hiding places in your vehicle.
- Always stash a spare key, either secured externally in a lockbox or carried on the person of another traveler at all times.
What Rules Do I Need to Follow?
The goal for anyone recreating outdoors should be to leave any place they visit better than how they found it. The simple set of guidelines is called Leave No Trace. I won’t detail all of that here, but it’s worth going over the information specific to vehicle-based travel.
- Drive only on established trails. Any action that creates new tire tracks incrementally harms the environment. Scale that across millions of people, and that quickly becomes less incremental. Any U-turns, pullouts, or camping spots should only be made on or across established tracks.
- Source firewood locally. Especially on the West Coast, invasive insects are wreaking havoc on tree health. Buy firewood at the last town before hitting dirt, and you won’t spread ’em.
- Pack it out. This goes for trash, toilet tissue, dog waste, and, in many places, even your own poop.
- Camp where others have camped before. The least impactful campsites are those that already exist. Look for established parking areas, tent sites, and fire rings, and use them.
- Camp at least a mile from any trailhead or campground, within 100 feet of a trail, and 200 feet away from any water.
- Be aware of local fire regulations, and if you are able to have a fire, make sure it’s completely out both before going to sleep or leaving camp.
- Know your land. Use a mapping app like OnX to ensure you’re legally camping on appropriate public land. Or that you have written permission from the right landowner.
How Do I Stay Safe?
Overlanding lets you travel farther than most other kinds of backcountry recreation. That’s incredible, but it also means you’ll potentially find yourself far from help should something go wrong.
The foundation to safely recreating outdoors, in any activity, is to carefully evaluate any risks, then take steps either to avoid them or reduce the odds of those risks occurring as much as possible—while also preparing for that stuff happening. Let’s extrapolate that beyond camping and into off-road or remote-road travel.
First, learn the limits of your vehicle and the equipment it uses. This is the most important, but also most difficult, step. Automaker marketing suggests that virtually any vehicle on sale today is able to tackle challenging off-road trails. We should all understand that marketing claims do not represent reality. All-wheel-drive crossovers should not be driven on anything more challenging than a simple dirt road in good weather. And even then, the economy tires they come with should first be replaced with a set of quality all-terrains. And even that simple dirt road can involve obstacles that a crossover may be unable to handle.
If you plan to take a non-purpose-built vehicle on a trip through a remote area, first take the time to visit a low-consequence area to learn what the car is and isn’t comfortable on. Make sure that area is close to home and covered by cell reception, and consider taking a friend in another vehicle along, just in case you get stuck. Anyone who has never used recovery straps, Maxtrax, and other recovery gear should also practice with that equipment ahead of time.
That’s not to say that equipping yourself with a real 4×4 is going to make your experience easy. Four-wheel-drive vehicles—especially modified ones—often feature capabilities and systems that can prove dangerous in inexperienced hands. Anyone who hopes to make full use of a four-wheel-drive truck or SUV should seek out professional training before attempting to exploit those capabilities.
Without exception, every single road-legal vehicle ever sold includes a gross-vehicle-weight-rating number that you’ll find in the owner’s manual or inside the driver’s doorjamb. GVWR is the maximum weight a vehicle can support, including its own weight, plus that of humans, cargo, fuel, and anything else in or on it. Exceeding that number doesn’t just squish the suspension, it will also overtax essential stuff like the cooling system and transmission, potentially causing a crash, rollover, or breakdown. Your vehicle’s GVWR is probably a lot lower than you think. Take that number into account when performing modifications. And even if you’re just loading up your wagon to go camping, take the time to visit a vehicle scale and get a real number for how much weight you’re carrying before you actually head out. Exceeding the GVWR could also expose you to legal liability should you be involved in a crash.
Can I Book a Guide?
If any of this sounds intimidating, or if you simply want to speed your entry into the overlanding world, booking a guided trip might be for you. Local clubs may also prove to be a less intimidating way of learning skills and finding new destinations.
The Curated Experience: Wilderness Collective
Short on time and high on expectations? The California-based Wilderness Collective organizes high-end motorcycle, UTV, and snowmobile trips to bucket-list destinations, complete with restaurant-quality food and drink and professional filmmakers. From about $3,000, the trips aren’t cheap, but they include absolutely everything you need. Just show up and have fun.
BIPOC-Led Adventures: Camp Yoshi
Ron and Rashad Frazier grew up camping and want to bring that experience to more people. The idea with their trips isn’t only to provide a welcoming environment but also to educate guests on the skills it takes to venture out on their own afterward. Starting at $2,500, the food’s good, the company is better, and the gear and vehicles are top-notch—because I helped them make sure they’re the best available.
Straightforward Training: Barlow Adventures
Want to focus on advancing your off-road skills while also enjoying an epic experience? From $300 per day, Barlow Adventures will rent you a Jeep and show you how to get the most out of it in epic destinations ranging from Moab, Utah, to the Rubicon Trail in California. Nena Barlow and her guides are the best four-wheel-drive trainers in the business.
Before you jump in your car, download Gaia GPS to put the leading maps for overlanding on your vehicle’s dashboard screen.