Overlanding for Beginners – Basic Gear, Knowledge and Skills

Mention of overlanding conjures images of guys in khakis driving Land Rover Defenders across the Australian outback or African deserts. And sure, khakis aside, an epic adventure like that sounds fun. But that historic archetype of far-flung global exploration gives a mistaken impression that overlanding requires exotic four-wheel-drive trucks, months of time off, and traveling to another continent. You can start overlanding with nothing but a reliable vehicle, some basic off-roading and camping gear, a few essential skills, and a penchant for adventure.

We define overlanding as vehicle-based adventure travel that involves self-supported backcountry exploration over days, weeks or months. When overlanding, the journey is the destination. While we focus on motorized vehicles here on Ordealist, overlanding is pursued with a range of vehicles, including bicycles, motorcycles, SUVs and trucks. We go into more detail on the definition and history of overlanding here: What is overlanding? 

Where can I go overlanding?

Overlanding woman reading a map.

Depending on where you live or where you’re willing to travel to, your overlanding route may include a mixture of paved roads, maintained dirt roads, off-road trails or even untracked wilderness terrain. In the United States, parks and wilderness lands managed by the states or the federal government offer some of the best options for exploring the backcountry by vehicle. Other countries similarly have parks and wilderness areas to be explored. You’ll need to do some research on what permits you may need to travel across certain areas, as well checking to make sure the area will be open when you plan to travel.

Local overlanding clubs and park service websites and visitor’s centers are good places to get ideas for routes to explore, as well as helpful information on how to plan. When you have more experience and are ready for a major adventure, there are many established and well-known overlanding routes around the world. These include the Mojave Road in California, the Trans-Siberian Highway across Russia, and the Pan-American Highway from Alaska to Argentina. Start small, with a short trip and a few nights of camping, and go from there.

Overlanding vehicles

You can start overlanding with whatever vehicle you have, with the caveat that it’s capabilities will dictate in large part where you can go. There are many adventures that mix pavement and dirt roads that the average car can handle, assuming the weather is good and the roads are in decent condition. An all-wheel-drive SUV will expand your route options, offering greater clearance and traction than more street-focused cars. Subaru wagons, Toyota RAV4s and Honda CR-Vs are popular. While they are no longer in production, a used Honda Element in good shape is a gem.  

If you decide to step it up a notch and take on more challenging off-road terrain or roads that could be in rough shape (sand, mud, potholes, etc.), you’ll want to consider upgrading to a true four-wheel-drive vehicle. Common trucks driven by overlanding enthusiasts include Land Rovers, Toyota Land Cruisers and Tacomas, Jeeps, Ford Broncos and various other 4×4 trucks. These rugged vehicles offer higher clearance, high-traction tires and specialized suspensions and drive trains with superior off-road capabilities. Popular motorcycles for overlanding include Suzuki’s V-Strom line, Yamaha’s Ténéré line, and BMW’s range of adventure bikes, just to name a few.

Another option to consider is off-road trailers. In recent years, a number of manufacturers have sprung up to create camper trailers rugged enough for backcountry roads and trails. A trailer offers more cargo space and can free up your main vehicle for side exploration trips from camp. The downside is cost, additional maintenance, and potentially added difficulty maneuvering in technical terrain.

Our guide to choosing the best overlanding vehicle for YOUR adventures goes into more detail.

Basic Overlanding Gear

You probably don’t need all this.

What else do you need for overlanding? Again, it depends on your plans. But, most trips require a few categories of overlanding gear that will be consistent no matter your plans.

Types of overlanding gear

Fuel storage: Fuel cans; vehicle mounting system for cans

Shelter: your vehicle or a tent for sleeping; awnings/tarps for shade and weather protection during waking hours

Clothing: under layers, outer layers, boots, hats, sunglasses

Sleeping gear: sleeping bags, mats, pillows.

Bathing: towels, shower, soap and other toiletries

Camp toilet: shovel; toilet paper; camping toilet; privacy tent  

Overlanding kitchen and pantry: Food and water; dishes and cutlery; cooking and cleaning gear

Lighting: flash lights, headlamps and lanterns

Navigation equipment: GPS, maps, compasses

Communications equipment: mobile phones; CB radio; emergency satellite messenger

Vehicle recovery equipment: spare tire; jacks; recovery straps; shackles; winch; snatch blocks; shovel; traction pads

Tools and vehicle spare parts: wrenches; screwdrivers; hammer; pliers; tire repair kit

First aid kit: bandages; antiseptic; anti-inflammatories; travelers’ special medicines (e.g. asthma inhalers).

Storage containers: cargo cases; duffle bags

This isn’t meant as a comprehensive list, nor do you necessarily need everything listed under each category. It’s intended to give you an idea of what types of overlanding equipment you might need. You may need more gear, you may need less, depending on the situation. To dive deeper into what gear you need for overlanding, visit our guide to essential overlanding gear.

Planning an overlanding trip

Once you have an overlanding vehicle, basic overlanding gear, and a general idea of where you’d like to go, it’s time to hash out some more of the details.

Things to consider when planning an overlanding trip

Who’s going?
The number of people in your party will dictate many of the other factors, such as how many vehicles you’ll need, how much camping gear is required and what kind of provisions you’ll need to keep everyone fed.

What is your exact route?
Your route will also dictate many factors in your planning, such as the length of your trip, how much food, water and fuel you’ll need, and what kind of emergency equipment you may need. 

What visas, permits or services are required?
If you are traveling abroad, make sure everyone in your party has a passport and required travel visas. Certain routes require getting special permits, paying fees or hiring guides. Do your research in advance so you don’t run into nasty and costly surprises along the way.

Where will you camp/overnight?
There’s nothing more frustrating than driving around late at night with nowhere to sleep for the night. Determine ahead of time where you will camp. If you aren’t staying in designated campsites, make sure dispersed camping is allowed and plan to set aside time each day to look for a good spot.

What kind of weather do you expect?
Weather plays a huge role in determining what kind of gear you’ll need. Some places get really hot, others get really cold. Some cycle between both in short order. A trip through steamy jungles will require different camping gear and clothing, for instance, than a trip across chilly tundra.

What is your backup plan?
It’s important when entering the backcountry to consider what could go wrong and how you’d fix it. What happens if a vehicle breaks down and you can’t fix it? What if someone gets seriously injured? Who will administer first aid and how will you get medical/rescue help?

What skills are needed?
Overland travel is by definition self-reliant travel. There are a range of skills that may be necessary or come in handy, including camping and cooking, off-road driving and recovery, navigation, first aid, automotive repair — campfire songs. List the skills needed and match them up with the people in your crew. What’s skills are missing and how could you augment them?

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