What Is Overlanding?

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
What Is Overlanding?
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Overlanding: an interesting word made by turning the adjective/adverb overland into a verb in the present progressive tense by adding the letters –ing at the end. What does it mean? Overlanding is many things to many people, but most agree it is a form of travel that is more about enjoying the journey than arriving at any specific destination. RacingJunk is going to take a look at the origins of the word Overlanding and what it has come to mean to its practitioners today. After that, we’re going to take a look at what consensus agrees are the bare minimums of both knowledge and equipment that you’ll need to get started.

Before we go any further into this discussion, we need to clear the air about a common misconception: Overlanding and off-roading are not synonymous. They don’t refer to the same activity. Off-roading is a recreational activity using specialized vehicles to traverse un-paved trails and roads simply for the enjoyment and challenge of doing so.

What Is Overlanding?
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Most people who enjoy Overlanding use an off-road/4X4 vehicle. However, most Overlanding adventures have some time spent on paved highways and roads. Some even end up going straight through the heart of big cities. Your journey may take you on a route that has a rock face wall you’ll have to crawl up, but that rock face crawl isn’t the object of the journey, it’s just something that is part of the journey.

The origins of the word Overlanding appears to be the late 19th/early 20th centuries in Australia. Farmers in the Australian Outback used to have to drive their cattle long distances both to follow the feed and to get them to market when the time came. The term they gave these long-distance cattle drives is overlanding.

Later, the Australian government sent construction crews out into the Outback to build highways to open the Outback up and make far-reaching points more accessible by vehicle. These work crews called also began calling their journey(s) across the Outback building these highways Overlanding, and the word stuck.

There are still people Down Under who refer to driving across the highways those workers built as Overlanding; however, over the past few decades the popular meaning has changed to one that refers to a type of traveling “from here to there” using your vehicle as a traveling basecamp and enjoying the journey more than having a desire to get to any specific place.

What Is Overlanding?
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

When I was growing up, the thing for families to do was to pile into the car and drive to Disneyland/Disneyworld/grandma’s house/etc., staying the night along the way in motels close to the highway. There were also the times that we’d pile into the car and head somewhere like Yosemite or Big Ben and “rough it” (no telephone, sometimes no TV, usually no friends from home – just your sister! – maybe actually sleeping in a tent and sleeping bag on the ground.), calling it “camping.”

Now, combine those, with one proviso. You’re not going to sleep in motels along the way, most likely; you’ll stop where you can use what you packed/drove as your nightly shelter. You head out and when you get tired, you find a place that you can set up for the night – cooking and sleeping areas.

Oh. One more proviso: The planning for this outing doesn’t include the words, “We’re going here and this is the route we’ll take and these are the towns we’ll stop in along the way.” Instead you say, “We’ll start driving that way. When we get tired we’ll stop, maybe for the night and maybe for a day or two.” You may have a specific park, vista, or region that you want to explore, but most leave everything else flexible. You may or may not even have a specific day that you will want to be back home by.

Overlanding’s meaning to some is changing again. Now there are many who are making Overlanding their lifestyle. Instead of their journey being a week or a couple months long, they can be away for years. They may or may not have a physical home with an address. Journeys like these require you to either have an independent source of income or be able to retain your income while traveling, though.

Another misconception about Overlanding is that families with children can’t undertake these longer journeys. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, as long as the children’s needs are taken into account as you make your plans and make ready for your journey. The sights and sounds of the trip aren’t always going to entrance young ones; they’ll need books and games to keep them entertained, as well as snacks and drinks between meals.

What Is Overlanding?
Image courtesy Pacific Overlander

Caption: Pacific Overlander offers rental vehicles if you want to see if Overlanding is something you want to invest in.

Exactly what you’ll need to begin Overlanding depends on how deeply you want to immerse yourself in the lifestyle from the beginning. If you just want to “stick your toe in to test the waters,” you can get away with a two-wheel-drive (front or rear) car or truck big enough to hold everyone going on the journey and your equipment. You can stay where tent camping is allowed.

That’s one end of the spectrum. The other is the family with the big six-wheel-drive leviathan with solar panels, water purification/desalination, full bathroom and room for a family of four to eat and sleep comfortably.

What Is Overlanding?
Image credit Enilda Aguilar

Most people get by with a van or SUV with roof and backdoor storage. Although four-wheel and all-wheel-drive vehicles are favored they aren’t absolutely necessary unless you plan on going places that will require both front and rear axles driving at the same time.

If you plan on cooking your own meals along the way, you need to decide if you want to use a camping stove or use campfires (IF they’re allowed. Check with authorities before leaving.). Will you be buying or hunting/fishing? Do you want to really “rough it” and mostly sleep under the stars or do you want a tent and/or lean-to, including your vehicle?

What about hygiene? Are facilities always going to be available where you’re planning (at least for now) on going or will you have to bring your own shower and toilet and thus water? Most sites and groups catering to the Overlanding lifestyle agree that there’s no hard and set list of must-haves. You just need a free spirit.

What Is Overlanding?
Image credit Mike Aguilar

Let’s put together a hypothetical list of stuff a family of four (8 year old boy and 12 year old girl) need on a three month journey through the Western half of the US that includes the occasional foray into “civilization” to stock back up on needed supplies.

  • Vehicle: All-wheel drive with a minimum of 24 inches ground clearance and 8-12 inches of suspension travel so it can go almost anywhere. We’ll include a trailer (more on this later) with an articulating hitch to accommodate the roughest/steepest trails.
  • Shelter: We can shelter in the vehicle if absolutely necessary. When the weather allows sleeping outside we’ll have a pavilion-style tent with an awning that can be connected to the trailer and vehicle for more covered space.
  • Bedding: A large thick tarp for ground cover. Atop that we’ll have an insulating pad for extra cold nights. We’ll have sleeping bags that will keep us comfortable as low as 0ºF plus inflatable camping pillows.
  • Cooking and hygiene needs: The trailer will be outfitted like an eight-ten foot long travel trailer minus the sleeping facilities. It’ll have a collapsible shower and a chemical toilet. It’ll also have a sink, stove, small cooler/reefer and a prep area, plus storage for the cooking and eating utensils. For stability in rough driving conditions it will collapse down to three to four feet max in height for travel.
  • Tools: Tool set including jack, stands, wrenches, sockets, etc. Extra fuel will be carried in two Titan fuel tanks that combine with our spare tire holders. In case we run into real traction issues we’ll bring along two sets of MaxTrax JaxBase traction enhancers/jack/stand bases.
  • Creature comforts: We may be driving up to 12 hours some days, so the kids will need stuff to keep them busy. Tablets with games, some educational, and books don’t take much space and can be charged with a USB adapter. The trailer will be equipped with a few deep cycle batteries and an inverter for the cooler, water heater, lighting and to keep laptops charged. The batteries will be kept charged while driving with two high-output alternators powered by the trailer’s axle and by roof-top solar panels while camped.
What Is Overlanding?
Image courtesy PIXNIO

For those who need something softer to sleep on, air mattresses are excellent options that don’t take up much space when not in use. The trailer is a nice option; cooking and bathing can be more minimal. Camping lanterns can be used for lighting at night, if desired. It’s also a good idea to see what is and isn’t allowed where you’re going. Some places allow campfires and some don’t.

External storage racks are one area that you shouldn’t scrimp on. Everything that doesn’t fit inside the vehicle will be attached to these racks, so they need to be able to handle the weight under even the worst trail conditions. Thule and Curt make some of the best racks and containers, with fitment for just about every vehicle possible.

Overlanding is different for different people. It can be as simple as tossing some food and camping supplies in the car and going from campsite to campsite for a week or the summer. It can also be as involved as crossing national borders and continents alone or in groups of 50 or more vehicles of all shapes and sizes. It is what you make of it.

About Mike Aguilar 388 Articles
Mike's love of cars began in the early 1970's when his father started taking him to his Chevron service station. He's done pretty much everything in the automotive aftermarket from gas station island attendant, parts counter, mechanic, and new and used sales. Mike also has experience in the amateur ranks of many of racing's sanctioning bodies.

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