Essential Overlanding Gear Guide 2020

One of the first steps to begin overlanding successfully is putting together a set of essential overlanding gear. It doesn’t have to be the latest high-tech, expensive gear. But you need to cover the overlanding essentials, which we’ll enumerate below. 

One nice thing about overlanding is that you have a vehicle to carry your gear, which means more comfort and conveniences than hiking or biking. The tricky thing about overlanding is you need gear for two distinct activities: off-road travel and backcountry camping. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the choices and the amount of equipment involved. We’re here to help.

Overlanding Gear List

We’ve broken the list below into categories of gear, including equipment specific to camping, first aid and other emergencies, and vehicle maintenance, function, and recovery. We don’t go into how to choose the best overlanding vehicle, a topic we’ll cover in another article.

Overland Camping Gear

A rooftop tent offers convenience and comfort away from the ground.

In truth, you can use basic car camping gear for overlanding camping, and that’s how most people start out. As you get more into it, you might decide to get some additional equipment that brings comfort and convenience to the backcountry and extends your ability to stay off the grid longer.

Shelter

You can sleep in your vehicle — many people do. If that’s not possible or not comfortable, the next step up is a tent. You can use a tent you already have, or get something a bit more spacious since you don’t have to carry it on your back. Roof-top tents have become very popular for overlanding. They get you off the ground and offer conveniences as they tend to set up quickly and don’t usually get as dirty as a ground tent. That said, roof-top tents do have some downsides. They tend to be pricey, they can present a storage challenge when not in use, and not everyone likes climbing up and down a ladder.

Beyond your sleeping shelter, it’s also nice to have a tarp or awning to protect you from the elements while cooking, eating, relaxing, and other daily activities. You can get a free-standing tarp or awning, or a model that integrates with your vehicle. The integrated tarps are convenient, as they open straight from your vehicle, but they lack the flexibility of a freestanding tarp, which can be put up anywhere.

Sleeping Gear

The primary thing to consider when choosing sleeping gear is whether it will keep you comfortable and safe. Sleeping bags are convenient and are precisely rated for different temperatures. Blankets can work too and can be cooler in hot climates, but make sure you have enough to keep you warm if you’re headed somewhere cold.

The other two pieces of essential sleeping gear are pillows and sleeping mats. On a long overlanding trip, you’ll be glad you brought the cushier pillow and mats. Roof-top tents typically come with pretty thick sleeping mats, but you might want to try it for a night to figure out if you want more padding (we did in our RTT). For tent camping, we like the foam-filled, self-inflating sleeping mats, as they offer more padding than thin foam mats, but are firmer than air mattresses. Pillows are pillows to some extent, but something that can be packed down will stow better in your vehicle.

As a side note, if you are planning to travel somewhere hot and buggy, it’s worth thinking about how you will stay cool at night while not getting eaten by bugs. This can be particularly challenging if you are sleeping in your vehicle. Finding screens that cover the open windows will let fresh air in and keep bugs out. Also, earplugs and eye covers can help you sleep when it’s noisy or bright outside.

Chairs and Tables

Excursions from camp are one of the pleasures of overlanding, but you’ll likely spend a good amount of time in camp. Camp chairs and tables for cooking, eating, and hanging out add a great deal of comfort and utility. You can pick up folding camping chairs and tables from any outdoor retailer. For more ideas on picking chairs, check out our guide to the best camping chairs for overlanding.

Lighting

It’s gonna get dark out there. You’ll want to bring lanterns, headlights, and flashlights, as well as the proper batteries to charge them. It’s worth considering getting a set of rechargeable batteries since you can charge them when your vehicle is running. If you’ll be in the backcountry for a long stretch, a small solar charging system can be helpful also, as you can charge your electronics while in camp (assuming you are someplace with ample sunlight). 

Overland Kitchen and Pantry

Overland kitchens range from simple cook stoves to elaborate built-ins like this one.

Basic camp kitchen gear is all you need to get started overlanding. One difference between overlanding and a weekend of car camping is that you have to plan for the long haul. You’ll need food, water, and consumable cooking supplies to last you for a while. As you build up your camping kitchen and pantry, you may want to up your game with portable refrigerators, vehicle-mounted camp kitchens, and other niceties to enhance your experience.

Food and water

How much food and water you carry with you depends on the size of your party, how long you will be traveling and when and if you can resupply along your route. If your route will pass through towns where you can resupply, you can stock your overlanding pantry to get you to your resupply point. If you’ll be in the wilderness for your entire trip, with no opportunities for resupply, you’ll need to pack and store everything from the beginning.

If you bring a water purifier, you may be able to resupply from a natural water source along the way. However, don’t bet your survival on the off chance that water resupply will be available. Running out of water can get very dangerous very quickly.

Food and water storage

Dried goods, such as pasta and rice, can be stored in simple plastic containers or even grocery bags. For foods that need to be refrigerated, you can get away with your standard cooler and bags of ice on short trips. For longer trips, you’ll want to consider investing in a Yeti or other thick-walled cooler that keeps ice from melting for longer or you may want to really step it up and buy a refrigerator that wires into your vehicle’s battery(s). The latter option gets expensive and may require installation, but can really expand your range.

On a long trip, you’ll need to bring a great deal of water or be able to resupply along the way. Either way, you’ll need large water containers to do so. There are many different water storage systems on the market. We used plastic Jerrycans intended specifically for water storage, as we can carry them on the same mounts as our fuel cans. Which containers you decide to use depends on your situation and preference, but the main thing is that your water is secure and ample for your trip.

Food Preparation

While you can cook over a campfire, it’s a lot more efficient and reliable to invest in a camp stove for overlanding. There are many on the market, but we like double burner propane stoves, which you can buy in outdoor and sporting goods shops or even your local big box store. An important consideration is what fuel will be available in the region where you are traveling. While propane and butane fuel canisters are available in many developed countries, you may need to bring a multifuel stove for other regions that can burn white gas, diesel fuel, kerosene, or even plain old gasoline. Don’t forget to brings matches and a lighter (bring both in case your lighter doesn’t work). 

If you’re looking to save money, you can use cookware from your home kitchen. Purpose made camp cook sets tend to be lighter and stow to a smaller size, and a quality set will last you many years. Don’t forget things like knives, spatulas, ladles, and tongs for food prep. You’ll also need dishware (plates and bowls) as cutlery (knives, forks, spoons) for serving food.

Cleaning up after cooking and eating requires its own gear. In addition to soap and dish towels, it’s nice to have some kind of sink to wash dishes in. Camping stores sell various kinds of collapsible vinyl sinks, but a large plastic tupperware can serve the purpose and hold your cleaning supplies when you’re not using them.

Camping Toilets, Showers, and Toiletries

A quality portable toilet can be heavenly.

One of the nice things about staying at a campground is access to shower and toilet facilities. Luxury! When you go overlanding, those luxuries are necessities you’ll need to bring along. 

Camp Showers

Unless you go for a swim, a shower is your primary option for bathing while overlanding. The simplest shower is a jug of water that you dump over your head. Low-tech, but it works. A step up are gravity-fed plastic showers with spray head and on-off valves that you can hang from your vehicle or a tree. At the high-end are systems that use compressed air to sprays pressurized water when you’re bathing. Some systems are made of black materials that can be placed in the sun to heat the water. 

While you can wear a bathing suit while showering or go in the nude in some situations, a portable shower tent can make a nice addition to your setup. They provide privacy while showering and, if you have a portable camp toilet you can put inside (see below) while going potty.

Camping Toilets

Camping toilets are not the most exciting topic. But being well prepared on this front is clutch. Broadly speaking, you have two options: dig a cathole or latrine or bring a toilet. Following tread lightly principles, it’s best to bring a toilet system that lets you bring your waste with you when possible. If your situation won’t allow for waste removal, National Outdoor Leadership School has a great guide on doing your business in the wilderness. You’ll need a spade or shovel to dig a hole, and can use your off-road recovery shovel for this purpose. 

Moving to a higher-tech solution, portable camping toilets range from simple buckets with bags in them to flushing toilets with sewage storage tanks. When choosing, look at factors such as cost, size, water and chemicals needed, ease of dumping/cleaning, and durability. Don’t forget toilet paper, unless you’re okay using plants, sticks, and other bits of nature, as suggested by NOLs. Pack out your used TP in plastic bags if at all possible. A trash container for the outside of your vehicle, such as a Trasharoo, will come in handy for transporting used TP and other garbage you’d rather not bring in the vehicle.

For a complete overview of the various toilets used for overlanding, as well as suggestions for quality options, check out our guide to the Best Camping Toilets for Overlanding and Off-Roading.

Overland Navigation Equipment

Off-road navigation
Map and compass are an important fall back if you’re GPS navigation stops working.

One of the most dangerous things that can happen while overlanding is getting seriously lost, particularly in the backcountry. Navigation equipment ranges from things used for thousands of years — a map and compass — to modern technologies reliant upon GPS technology. You should at least have a paper map and compass, and seriously consider bringing a modern electronic GPS enabled navigation device (a GPS-enabled smartphone is a good start).

Paper Maps

For vehicle-based adventure, two types of maps are needed: large-scale road maps and finer-scale topographic maps for backcountry travel. The tricky part can be getting up-to-date paper maps for the area where you’ll be overlanding. For trips in the United States, DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer Paper Maps offer topographic guides to backcountry adventure for all 50 states. Finer scale backcountry maps, which can be very helpful in technical and/or confusing sections of trail, can be bought from outdoor retailers. The U.S. Forest Service makes terrific maps for U.S. national forests.

GPS Mapping Devices and Software

Several companies are now offering apps with off-road and overland specific route maps, including Gaia GPS and onX, that can run on your GPS enabled smartphone, tablet, or laptop. Garmin makes a dedicated off-road navigation device called the Overlander that’s built to military standards to withstand rugged conditions. Probably the best thing about digital mapping systems is that you can carry tons of maps without taking up much space.

Guide Books 

Guidebooks on travel, off-road routes, and hiking trails can come in really handy, whether they are in print or digital format. FunTreks publishes a number of offroading guide books for destinations in the United States. Lonely Planet guides, which cover most of the world, typically have maps in them and also offer loads of other information that can be helpful wherever you are headed. Search Google or Amazon to find out what guides are available for your destination. Finding a good guide will go a long way to maximizing your adventure.

Off-road and Recovery Gear

Off-road gear

Any serious overlanding adventure comes with the fun of going off-road and the risk of getting stuck. We go into detail on this topic in our Essential Off-road Equipment Guide. But for a quick overview, here’s a rundown of items of off-roading gear.

Essential Off-Road Gear

Spare Tire and Jack – To raise the vehicle to change a tire or get a vehicle unstuck.

Recovery Straps/Ropes – To connect vehicles together or to stationary objects such as trees during recovery. For more info, visit our guide to off-road recovery straps.

Shackles -To connect recovery straps to vehicles or trees and other anchors.

Snatch block – To create a pulley system with ropes or winches during recovery, either to redirect force or get better leverage during pulling.

Shovel – To dig your vehicle out of snow, mud, or sand or building support/traction area under wheels. For more detail, visit our guide to the best off-road shovels.

Portable air compressor – To reinflate tires after tire repair or after airing down for a smoother ride and better traction. For more detail, visit our guide to off-road air compressors.

Tools and spare parts – To repair your vehicle in case of a breakdown or damage.

Winch (optional) – To pull your vehicle or someone else’s free after getting stuck.

Traction Mats (optional) – To put under wheels to increase traction on challenging surfaces such as sand, snow and mud.

Emergency Equipment and First-Aid Kit 

The first thing to note about emergencies and first aid in the backcountry is that your gear won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to use it. We highly recommend taking at least a basic first aid course, if not a course dedicated to wilderness first aid. It’s also important to think through possible worst-case scenarios and consider how you would respond if you were far from help. 

First-Aid Kit

When going into the backcountry, you should always bring a first aid kit. We like the ones made by Adventure Medical Kits and Chinook Medical Gear. Also, make sure that everyone brings the necessary medications that will last the entire trip. If people have allergies, asthma, or other conditions that might flare up, bring inhalers, EpiPens, or other meds needed to head off a tragedy.

Emergency Signaling Equipment

Sometimes, self-sufficiency reaches its limits. When it does, you’ll need a way to call for help. If you really want peace of mind, invest in a personal location beacon (e.g. ACR Electronics) or emergency satellite communicator such as those made by Spot. These devices can send SOS messages to rescue crews when you are in deep trouble. The satellite messengers offer additional functionality over PLBs, such as outgoing messaging and navigation uses, but they require a paid service subscription.

It’s also worth bringing more rudimentary signaling devices such as rescue flares, whistles, and a mirror (though you can also use your vehicle mirrors for this.) Your mobile phone can also come in handy, but only if you have cell service.

Clothing

When you pack your clothing, imagine that your vehicle is stuck and you need to abandon it and hike for help. Suddenly, you are a hiker and you need the same clothing as any backcountry hiker in a pinch. What you need precisely depends on the climate and weather of the place you’re traveling, but you should bring some variation on the following:

Waterproof Outer Layer

Rain, snow, and wind can sap your energy and warmth, putting you at risk for hypothermia. A waterproof poncho or jacket with a hood and waterproof pants can be a lifesaver. If you can afford a set of waterproof breathable jackets and pants, it’s worth splurging on, as a breathable fabric will release moisture from perspiration, helping to keep you dry. 

Sun Protection Outer Layer

If you’ll be exposed to strong sun and heat, light-colored clothing can help reflect the sun and keep you cooler. The more you can keep the sun off your skin the better. Fabrics that breathe well, such as those made of cotton, help dissipate the heat. 

Thermal Layers

Under layers made of wool or a synthetic such as polyester will keep you warm and wick sweat away from your skin. It’s better to have multiple layers that you can take on and off instead of one thick layer. This allows you to adapt to changing conditions, peeling off layers when you get warm and adding them back when it’s cold.

Hiking boots

When you are packing up for a car trip, hiking boots may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But like we said, in a worst-case scenario, you are a hiker, not a driver. A pair of comfortable and sturdy hiking boots will be a godsend in such a situation. Waterproof boots are even better. Don’t forget to bring tall socks made of a wicking fabric like wool or polyester.

Hats

Depending on where you are, you might want a winter hat to keep you warm, or a sun hat to keep the sun off your face and neck. Don’t underestimate the difference a good hat can make in your comfort and safety.

Sunglasses

Bright sunlight and wind can be brutal on your peepers. Bring a good pair of sunglasses, preferably polarized to provide more sun protection. If you’re going to be somewhere really windy, cold, or with lots of sand or snow blowing, a pair of ski goggles offers more eye protection.

Depending on where you are, you might want a winter hat to keep you warm, or a sun hat to keep the sun off your face and neck. Don’t underestimate the difference a good hat can make in your comfort and safety.

Things to keep in mind when choosing overlanding gear

Multipurpose Gear

Some overlanding gear can serve several purposes. The same shovel you use for vehicle recovery can, for instance, be used to dig a latrine. Don’t pack two tools when one can do the job.

Size, weight & packability

Think like a backpacker – albeit one with a very strong back. Always keep in mind how to lighten your load. If your payload is too heavy, it can impair your vehicle’s performance. Too bulky, and it’s hard to stow and access. A general rule of thumb is to bring only what is necessary to make your trip safe, comfortable, and successful.

Coordinate with companions

As you plan an expedition, compare gear lists with your fellow travelers and consolidate to share what you can. You may not need to buy a new piece of gear if your friend already owns it. Don’t bring duplicate gear items if you don’t need to. Teamwork makes the dream work!

Other Resources

Before we wrap up our overlanding gear guide, we want to share a few other resources that might come in handy as you launch your adventures.

Our article Overlanding 101: How to Start Overlanding for Beginners gives a high-level overview of the skills, knowledge, planning, and gear that you need when first starting out.

If you’re in the market for a new ride, our guide to choosing the best overlanding vehicle for your needs is a great resource.

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