Overland Skills – What You Need Know to Master Overlanding

Overlanding combines a number of activities, each of which requires a somewhat distinct skill set. On a typical overland trip you will plan, pack, prep your vehicle, drive, camp, cook, explore, drive some more. You’ll be faced with the risk of getting lost, stuck, maybe even injured in rare situations. Your vehicle can break down, mud may bog you down, you might get a nasty case of poison ivy or scurvy (okay, probably not scurvy, but you get the idea).

I’ll start this article by saying that the most important skill in overlanding knowing how not to get in over your head. It may not sound like it, but that’s meant to be reassuring.

Proceeding with reasonable caution and being aware of what skills you do and don’t have will help ensure you have a safe and enjoyable expedition into the wild.

A Brief Survey of Overlanding Skills

With that in mind, this article provides a survey of the various skillsets involved in overland adventure, so you know what you need to know and where you need to acquire more know-how. We won’t go into too much detail on each topic but will provide a quick overview of each so you know it’s a thing and a place to dig in further, either on other articles and videos on Ordealist or somewhere else.

Without further ado, let’s run through it.

Overlanding Topics in this Article:

Wilderness Medicine

We’re starting with wilderness medicine because it’s incredibly important and often overshadowed by more exciting topics like what roof-top tent to buy or searching for an exciting destination. Fact is, when you go off-grid, away from quick access to medical care, basic first-aid skills are a must. If someone gets sick or injured, you will need to provide first-aid until help arrives or you can get to a medical facility. You don’t need to be a medical professional, but taking a first-aid course is well worth the time and money. We’ve started a list of wilderness first-aid courses where you might find that training.

Logistics and Planning

Logistics, planning and risk management is another hugely important part of planning an overlanding expedition. Careful planning makes the difference between a successful, fun, and safe adventure, and one where you end up eating granola bars for days on end or spending a few days in a foreign prison because you failed to get the right visa (extreme example, but it has happened). Learning to plan an expedition is equal parts trip planning, project management, risk management and requires organizing gear, skills, supplies, people, schedules, permits, and information into a cohesive whole.

Trip planning and leadership is a deep topic. You might consider taking an educational trip with a quality organization like the National Outdoor Leadership School to see how they run wilderness trips. Local overlanding and off-roading clubs often organize trips where you can learn from others. More generally, there are plenty of basic project management and risk management courses online that can teach you various concepts and tools. Also, online forums like Expedition Portal and overlanding groups on Facebook and Reddit can be great resources.

Navigation Skills Compass
Compass skills are important even if you own a backcountry GPS system.

Overlanding trips at their essence are about navigation. You’re going places–hopefully the places you wanted to go. Knowing how to use a map and compass is a good place to start building your navigation skills. Once you’ve mastered that, you can move on to learning to use modern technologies such as satellite navigation systems that can make wayfinding much easier if you know how to use them. Outdoors retailers and clubs are a good place to get training in wilderness navigation. Orienteering a hobby in its own right, and places like OrienteeringUSA.org offer courses. If you really get into it, there are regular competitions.

Off-road Driving and Recovery

Learning basic off-road driving skills will help you avoid sticky situations. When you do get stuck, basic vehicle recovery skills will you get out. Our article on basic tips on driving off-road should be helpful if you are just starting out.

The best place to get training on offroad driving and recovery is at your local off-roading club. We also recommend the Four-Wheeler’s Bible as a good place to learn the basic concepts.

If you are looking for an online course, Alaskan off-road instructor, Kevin Holthaus, has a course on off-road driving on Udemy that’s affordable and covers the basic concepts.

Vehicle Maintainance and Repair

Vehicle maintenance overlanding
Working on your rig is a great way to learn how it works.

Taking care of your overlanding vehicle is critical to making sure your trips are safe and fun. Breaking down in the middle of nowhere can be a real bummer, especially if you have no idea how to fix the problem.

Ideally, you want to learn about your vehicle’s engine, suspension, and other parts at your leisure, when you aren’t in the field and under pressure. We’re big fans of doing your own routine maintenance so you know the ends and outs of your ride. If you don’t know much about motor vehicles, taking basic auto mechanics course is a worthwhile way to spend some time and money as well. (As a side note, never travel far into the wilderness with only one vehicle unless you are prepared to hike back out.)

Vehicle Overland Systems

Beyond the core vehicle systems — engine, drive train, suspension, etc. — overlanders often make modifications and additions such as solar panels, add-one batteries, refrigerators, water systems, winches, lights, and so on. Knowing how to use, maintain and repair these helps to keep everything running smoothly when you are in the backcountry. At a minimum, practice with them at home or on smaller trips before trusting a piece of equipment and yourself on an extended trip. We’d also recommend reading all the manuals, but that would be hypocritical…

Camping Skills

In some ways, overlanding is just car camping taken to extremes. The essential skills you need for camping and other outdoor adventures — understanding shelter, clothing, cooking, latrines, etc. — will also be put to work during your overlanding trips. Outdoor retailers like REI (if you are in the US) offer a range of courses, as do outdoor education organizations like NOLS and Outward Bound. There are some video courses on online learning platforms like Udemy and lots of videos and articles online (though it’s important to make sure you are getting your information from a reliable source.)

It’s also important when headed into the backcountry to follow conservation practices that protect the places you are visiting. Organizations such as Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly offer guidance on the ethos and principles of outdoor recreation that seek to avoid damaging the natural environment.

Conclusion

Like we said before, this article was meant to give you an overview of the core skills needed while overlanding. Don’t get overwhelmed. If you take it slow and steady, you’ll absorb many of these things over time. Learning from other people who are further along in their overlanding journey is a great way to level up your skills. The main thing is to be safe and have fun. The rest will fall into place.

Also, consider signing up for our free email overlanding course, and we’ll send you bite-sized lessons that will help you get up to speed and build your skills and knowledge.