In this guide to overlanding for beginners, we give you the basic information that you need to get started overlanding. First, we’ll dispel a common myth.
Mention of overlanding conjures images of guys in khakis driving Land Rover Defenders across the Australian outback or African deserts. 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.
In fact, 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?
In addition to this guide, we offer a free Overlanding 101 course that you can sign up for at the bottom of the page.
Where can I go overlanding?
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.
A good place to start looking is nearby national forests and public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (if you live in the western United States). There are a number of established overanding routes in the United States that have been mapped out by past explorers.
The National Forest Foundation offers a Find a Forest page that is a great way to find national forests by state. These lands often have forest roads and trails that serve nice routes for overland adventures, as well as allowing dispersed camping or providing primitive campsites.
Here on Ordealist, we are building a library of overlanding guides to US states and other regions that will give you some ideas for adventures.
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 as 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 and shelter
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. Also, check out our overview of overlanding camping shelters, a closely related topic since some vehicles can also serve as sleeping and kitchen areas.
Basic overlanding gear
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
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
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. For more information, check out our guide to finding overlanding campsites.
How will you carry and resupply food and water?
Once you know how many people are going on the trip and how long the trip will be, you’ll have an idea of how much food and water you’ll need. Will you be able to replenish your stocks en route, or will the trip need to be fully self-supported? Who’s in charge of planning means and cooking?
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?
How will you communicate?
If you will be traveling with two or more vehicles — always a good idea — you’ll want a way to communicate between vehicles. Mobile phones will often lose reception in the backcountry, so you’ll want two-way radios to stay connected.
The thrill of adventure and exploration is a big part of the appeal of overlanding, but it’s important to take steps to reduce the risks and ensure a safe and enjoyable trip. Much of the planning we’ve already covered goes into making a trip safe, such as researching your route and the terrain you’ll be traversing, as well as the weather conditions you may encounter.
You also need to ensure your rig is equipped and ready for the fun. This may involve upgrades, maintenance, and ensuring you have the necessary supplies and gear. An emergency plan and equipment, such as a first aid kit and knowledge are critical in case something unforeseen happens. Additionally, having reliable communication systems and recovery gear can provide peace of mind in the backcountry.
Finally, it’s important to be aware of wildlife safety, particularly if you’ll be traveling in areas with large or dangerous animals. For a more detailed dive into this subject, take a look at our full guide to overland safety.
Overlanding is about exploring, and we hope this guide has put you on good footing to start your adventures. The amount of things to learn about overlanding is seemingly endless, but don’t let that stop you from getting off the road. Speaking of the road…our guide to basic off-road driving tips is a good next waypoint in your journey.