Is Overlanding Dangerous? It Depends.
The main danger of exploring remote places in a vehicle is that you can get very far from help very quickly. Let me explain.
Someone who is going on a backcountry hike might walk at 2-3 miles per hour, so getting deep into the wilderness takes time and, by the nature of the activity, you realize that if something goes wrong, you have to walk out or be rescued.
When you are exploring the backcountry in a vehicle, the risk is complacency. You might be able to drive on a remote desert road at 50 miles an hour, so that within two hours of driving you’re 200 miles from where you started. And even driving wilderness roads or trails, you may be able to move 10 or 15 miles an hour – much faster than a hiker.
And guess what? If your vehicle breaks down, suddenly you ARE a hiker. A hiker who’s very far from help.
I’m not trying to scare you. In the grand scheme of things, overlanding is not a particularly dangerous activity. Search and rescue teams respond to thousands of incidents each year – 3000 in Colorado alone – but few of those involve overlanding enthusiasts.
Still, why not reduce the risks if you can? When you are off-the-grid, overlanding is essentially wilderness exploration and so it’s good to treat it like that.
With that in mind, here are some things to consider when planning an overlanding trip into a backcountry area
Do Your Research
Planning is one of the most crucial steps in reducing the risks of overlanding. Doing research in advance, including route planning, weather forecasting, and notifying someone of your plans, is essential for ensuring a safe and enjoyable adventure.
Before embarking on your trip, thoroughly research the area including road and trail conditions, potential hazards, and sources of water and fuel. Plan a route that is both challenging and safe, and have a rough idea of where you will be camping.
Keep a close eye on the weather conditions and adjust your plans accordingly, making sure to pack the right gear and supplies to handle any kind of weather.
And, before you leave, let someone know of your plans and when you expect to return. Inform them of what to do in case they do not hear from you, especially if you plan to be in a remote area with no cell service. Overlanding is essentially wilderness exploration, so it’s important to treat it as such.
Supplies and Gear
It’s easy to go overboard buying gear for your rig — cha-ching! — but some gear and supplies really are essential. Food, water, fuel, shelter, cooking equipment, fire starter, and outdoor clothing are among the most important items to bring. It’s essential to bring enough food for the entire trip, including non-perishable items and any special dietary needs, as well as extra food in case of unexpected delays or emergencies.
Access to clean and safe drinking water can be limited in remote areas, so make sure to bring enough water and consider bringing a water filtration system or water purification tablets. Having the ability to cook your own food is important, so make sure to bring your overland kitchen setup, including a camp stove, fuel, and cookware.
Bring enough fuel to cover the entire trip, as well as a spare container in case of emergencies, and be aware of fuel availability in the area you are traveling to. Our fuel range calculators can come in handy for figuring this out.
In case of unexpected delays or emergencies, it’s important to have a means of shelter, such as a ground tent, tarp, bivy sack, or roof-top tent. Being able to start a fire for warmth, cooking, or signaling for help can be critical, so make sure to bring fire starter and matches or a fire starter kit.
The right clothing can make or break an overlanding trip, so make sure to pack quality outerwear, thermal layers, and boots for the climate and weather conditions. This includes waterproof and windproof gear, as well as clothing layers for warmth and protection.
Emergency Plan and Equipment
While you can do everything in your power to avoid an emergency situation while overlanding, sometimes things just happen. The key is being prepared for when they do.
Here are some key components of a wilderness emergency plan:
First Aid Kit and Training
A well-stocked first aid kit, and the knowledge to use it, is essential for any outdoor adventure. Make sure to include items such as bandages, gauze, pain relievers, and any personal medications. It’s also a good idea to have basic first aid training so you can properly care for yourself or others in case of an injury.
If you have any medical conditions or allergies, make sure to bring any necessary medications, such as an Epipen, with you on the trip. Also, consider bringing a backup supply in case of unexpected delays or emergencies.
Contacting Local Authorities
In case of an emergency, it’s important to know how to contact local authorities, such as search and rescue. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the protocols for contacting these agencies, including having emergency satellite communications devices like a Garmin inReach or Spot device. In some cases, you can (and may be required to)register with local agencies so they know to look for your safe return.
Map and Compass
In case of an emergency, having a map and compass (and ideally a GPS navigation devices) can be critical for navigating and finding help. Make sure to bring a detailed map of the area you will be traveling in, as well as a compass and basic navigation skills.
Multi-tool or Repair Kit
Having a multi-tool or repair kit can be crucial in case of a breakdown or other vehicle issues. Make sure to bring a kit with basic tools, such as pliers, screwdrivers, and a wrench, to handle minor repairs.
As I noted before, in case of an emergency, being able to signal for help can be critical. Consider bringing a whistle, mirror, or other signaling device to attract attention. I highly recommend you bring a satellite communications device to call search and rescue if needed.
To ensure your vehicle is ready for the challenges of overlanding, it’s important to take some important steps in preparation. First of all, make sure your vehicle is up to the task of off-road travel (if that’s what you anticipate), with overlanding tires, a sturdy suspension, and enough clearance.
It should be in good working order. Regular maintenance such as oil changes, tire rotations, and brake inspections should be performed to keep your vehicle in good working order.
Before your trip, inspect your vehicle thoroughly to check the tires, brakes, fluids, battery, and other key components. Special attention should be paid to the suspension and undercarriage, which are critical components that may be stressed during off-road driving.
It’s also important to bring along any tools or consumables you may need to keep your vehicle running smoothly during the trip, such as extra oil, coolant, fuses, and other items.
Finally, bring a basic tool kit with tools like pliers, screwdrivers, and wrenches to handle any repairs or adjustments that may arise during your trip. The more challenging the terrain, the more tools (and replacement parts) you may want to bring!
It’s a good idea to assume that if you get stuck, you’ll need to get yourself unstuck. Bringing a vehicle receiver kit will be clutch, especially if you are headed into rough terrain:
Flat tires are always a risk when driving off-road, so make sure to bring a spare tire and off-road capable jack that are appropriate for your vehicle, as well as the tools needed to change the tire.
Traction boards can be extremely useful in providing added grip and stability when driving on loose or slippery terrain. They can be used for getting unstuck or changing a flat tire.
Recovery straps and ropes can be used to extract a stuck vehicle or tow a vehicle that has broken down. Make sure to bring straps and ropes that are appropriate for the weight of your vehicle.
Shackles are a critical component for connecting recovery straps and ropes to your vehicle. Make sure to bring shackles that are appropriate for the weight of your vehicle and are rated for towing.
In particularly rugged terrain, a winch can be a useful tool for getting unstuck or recovering a vehicle. Make sure to bring a winch that is appropriate for the weight of your vehicle and that you have the skills and knowledge to use it safely. Snatch blocks will improve the versatility and pulling power of your winch.
Make sure to bring along items that are appropriate for the terrain you’ll be traveling in, and be sure to practice using them before you head out on your trip.
Driving Carefully in the Backcountry
When driving in the backcountry, it’s important to remember to drive slowly and carefully. Not only does this help to conserve the environment, but it also keeps you and other drivers safe. The rule of thumb for backcountry driving is to drive as fast as necessary, but as slowly as possible.
Here are a few tips for driving safely in the backcountry:
Know your vehicle’s limits
Before heading out into the backcountry, make sure you are familiar with your vehicle’s capabilities and limitations. This will help you to avoid getting stuck or damaging your vehicle in rough terrain.
Watch for obstacles
Always be on the lookout for obstacles like rocks, potholes, and washed-out roads. Slow down when approaching these obstacles and be prepared to maneuver around them.
Respect other drivers
Remember that other drivers may be sharing the road with you. Always yield the right-of-way to other drivers and avoid driving aggressively or recklessly.
Avoid sudden movements
When driving in the backcountry, sudden movements can be dangerous. Try to avoid sudden acceleration, braking, or turning, as this can cause your vehicle to lose traction or become unstable.
Keep a safe following distance
Leave plenty of space between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you. This will give you more time to react if the other driver makes a sudden move.
Driving in the backcountry can be tiring, so make sure you take frequent breaks and stay well-rested. Avoid driving when you’re drowsy, as this can impair your reaction time and increase the risk of an accident.
For a more info, check out our guide to basic off-road driving.
Communications in the Backcountry
Communications are a critical aspect of overlanding, as they can help ensure that you and your group stay together, and can assist with safety and rescue efforts in case of an emergency. Here are some important things to consider when it comes to communications in the backcountry:
Communications play a crucial role in overlanding as they help to maintain group cohesion and provide assistance during emergency situations. To ensure effective communication in the backcountry, it’s important to stay together with your group and have a plan in case of separation.
Keeping everyone on the same page helps to maintain safety and facilitates rescue efforts if necessary. A plan for staying together should be in place, and it should be followed. In the unlikely event that separation occurs, having a designated meeting place and a reliable method of communicating with each other is essential.
Radios can be a valuable tool for communicating with your group and for staying in touch with local authorities in case of an emergency. Make sure to bring along a radio that is appropriate for the terrain you’ll be traveling in, and be sure to practice using it before you head out on your trip. I’m partial to GMRS radios.
In addition to radios, it’s also a good idea for every vehicle to have a map and compass, as well as a GPS device. These tools can help you navigate and stay on track, and can be especially useful if you become separated from your group.
It’s always a good idea to travel with more than two vehicles if possible. Many people overlanding in a single rig, but the redundancy of having two vehicles means you have a backup plan if one brakes down and can’t be fixed.
You know those people in “When Animals Attack” video? I don’t want to be those people. So when I’m exploring the backcountry, I try my best to respect wildlife and their habitats. Not only is this important for the conservation of the environment, but it’s also crucial for your own safety.
When it comes to wildlife encounters, it is important to be mindful of your actions and aware of your surroundings. Keeping a safe distance from animals helps to observe them without disturbing them and reduces the risk of dangerous encounters. It is also important to avoid feeding wildlife as it can lead to unnatural and dangerous behavior and spread disease.
Understanding the signs of an aggressive animal, such as growling, hissing, snarling, or baring its teeth, can help you stay safe when encountering wildlife. Chances are, that bear isn’t smiling at you when it shows it’s teeth…
In order to prevent attracting wildlife to your campsite, make sure to store food properly, such as using a bear canister or hanging it from a tree. Always pay attention to your surroundings and the behavior of the animals in the area, as unusual behavior may indicate that they are sensing danger.
That’s a lot of info, I know. But when you head out into the wilderness, safety should be job one so that you can survive to explore another day.
Here are some other great resources on wilderness safety and overlanding and off-roading safety.
US Forest Services Wilderness Safety Website
List of Wilderness First Aid Courses