Planning an overland adventure is a lot of fun, but it can also be overwhelming. I’ve found that often, but by the time I’m ready to leave for a trip, I’m mentally exhausted from dealing with all the logistics.
The trick, I’ve discovered, is to have a system in place to help keep track of everything and help remove some of the mental strain of managing so many details. Below, I’ll share my process so that you won’t have to recreate the wheel for planning your own overland trips.
Step 1: Decide where you will go and for how long
The first thing you need to do is define the rough outlines of your trip. Determine the purpose of your expedition, the destinations you want to visit, who will go with you, and the duration of your trip. Also, consider your budget, which may constrain where you can go, what you can do, and for how long.
This will help you plan the route and gather the necessary information. You can always revise this penciled-in outline of your trip as you go through the steps below, but having a general idea of your plan is a great place to start.
For example, I was planning a week-long overlanding trip to Utah with my wife and son recently. I had some general places in mind to explore and had started planning meals and gathering supplies. But as the time for the trip approached the weather looked colder than I thought, which would make for a rugged trip that probably isn’t the best for a family outing. Instead, we headed to Death Valley, where temps were warmer. My prep of food and supplies still wet to use, just in a different place.
Step 2: Go deeper on researching your destination
Now that you have a basic understanding of where you’ll go, when you’ll travel and who will join you, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and dive into serious research on your expedition. Study the geography, climate, local customs, and potential hazards of the areas you plan to visit. Are certain seasons better than others? Are the routes you hope to travel open when you’ll be there?
Research fuel availability, medical facilities, and road conditions to help you plan your route. Familiarize yourself with the local laws, especially regarding off-road driving and backcountry camping. Look into seasonality and whether there might be inclement weather, crowding (for instance if you plan to visit popular national parks) or wildlife conservation closures.
In addition to these logistical matters, this is a good time to identify some things you want to do along the way. When planning a vehicle-based trip, it’s easy to get so caught up in planning routes and looking for places to stay overnight, to forget that there’s more to do than just driving and camping. If you are headed into the backcountry, there will likely be recreational opportunities such as hiking, biking, off-roading, water sports, fishing, and so on. What natural points of interest would you like to see? Are there interesting cultural or historical landmarks you’d like to visit?
Step 3: Plan your route
Planning the precise route for your overlanding trip will stem from your choice of destination and the other factors you researched in the previous step. While I lean towards baking flexibility into a trip, in planning I like to plan my exact route and a day by day schedule of travel. This allows me to better identify places to camp and other lodging and to identify the roads and trails so that I can make sure they will be passable.
In this step, you should develop a detailed itinerary, including stops for fuel, food, and accommodations. Identify potential campsites, points of interest, and backup routes in case of unforeseen circumstances. Use maps, GPS, and guidebooks to help you plan your route, and consider how you will access this information later when you are off the grid.
Think about how you want to spend your days. Do you want to stop a lot and spend time at each waypoint along the journey? Or do you want to cover a lot of ground, driving long distances and camping in different spots each night.
I’m personally inclined to err on the side of spending time in one spot and exploring the area. I find searching for campsites and setting up and breaking camp too often stressful. I’d rather stay in one place for a couple of days or longer and take the time to wind down and enjoy myself. That said, a more frenetic pace may be warranted if you are on an ambitious expedition to reach a far point in a certain amount of time.
Your type of camping setup may influence this as well. I’m currently running a rooftop tent on an overland trailer, requiring more time and effort to deploy and stow than a camper van or other vehicle where you don’t need to set up a tent and unload gear.
Step 4: Choose your vehicle
If you only have one vehicle available, this step may be a moot point. But…your vehicle may also present you with limitations that require you to modify your plans accordingly. Every vehicle has the following key characteristics:
Cargo and passenger capacity
The cargo capacity is the amount of space the vehicle has inside and on external racks for carrying people, gear, and supplies. This can be augmented by a trailer.
The payload capacity is the limit on how much weight a vehicle can carry. I’ve written a detailed guide to understanding payload capacity, so won’t go into detail here. Again, a trailer can extend your payload capacity – though it my limit your off-road capability (see below).
Fuel type and range
Whether your rig has an internal combustion engine, an electric engine, or some hybrid combo, you will need to consider how far you can travel between refills/recharges. Also, you’ll need to plan for places on your route to refuel/recharge.
If you will be traveling off the pavement, you’ll want to make sure your vehicle can handle the roads or trails. If you aren’t familiar with the characteristics of an off-road capable vehicle, this article will help.
Here’s a guide to fuel planning for overland trips, which provides guidance on determining your range between refueling stops and how much extra fuel to bring. It focuses on internal combustion engines, but many of the principles apply to electric engines also. This fuel range calculator can do some of the math for you.
Livability refers to whether you can sleep and shelter in your vehicle. If you are driving a two-door Jeep Wrangler, your sleeping arrangements are obviously going to be very different from someone in a camper van. The type of shelter you will be sleeping in will play a role in choosing camping spots and even your destination.
On the Death Valley trip I mentioned above, we experienced one of the livability limitations of a roof-top tent. We tried to camp in a very exposed portion on one of the alluvial fans on the valley floor, but it was extremely windy.
Sleeping in a tent and spending time outside would have been miserable, so we ended up packing up camp and moving elsewhere. As we left, we passed a couple of Sprinter vans that were staying put, as the occupants were well protected from the wind.
It’s also important to make sure your vehicle is correctly outfitted and in good running condition before you leave on your adventure. Prepare your vehicle for the expedition by installing necessary modifications, such as off-road tires, suspension upgrades, and extra fuel tanks. Perform a thorough maintenance check, including fluid levels, tire pressure, and electrical systems.
Step 5: Obtain necessary permits, documentation and permissions
We don’t need no stinking badges! Well, maybe we do. Acquiring permits, passports, visas, and other documentation is tedious – and probably my least favorite part of prepping for a trip. But it’s important. Nothing puts a cramp in your style faster than receiving a ticket for illegal camping or being refused entry at an international border because you don’t have the right visa. (The reason we were camping in the exposed Death Valley campsite that I mentioned above was a snafu with getting a backcountry permit from the park service.)
Ensure that you have the required permits and documentation for border crossings, national parks, and private property access. Carry copies of your passport, driver’s license, vehicle registration, and insurance information. If you will be traveling on or near private land in the United States, I recommend the mapping app onX for determining whether you will enter private property. If that’s the case, you may need to contact the owner for permission.
Step 6: Ensure you have needed skills and knowledge
Travel in the backcountry and in foreign countries can require a specific set of skills. For instance, if you are heading into a remote area, it’s advisable to know the basics of first aid, navigation, and automotive repair. If you’ll be traveling on challenging trails you’ll want to know how to drive off-road and how to recover your vehicle if it gets stuck. For a more detailed dive, check out our guide to overlanding skills.
When traveling in other countries, where you don’t know how to speak the language, it helps to at least know some basic phrases and to bring books or devices to help you communicate. It’s also important to know the customs and mores of the culture so you can function in society without insulting or angering people.
Step 7: Develop emergency plans
This step could be the first on this list…it’s that important. Any adventure requires balancing risk and adventure. The more you can manage risk, the more adventurous you can be. Whenever you travel in a remote or unfamiliar area, it’s important to have a way (or even better, multiple ways) to respond to emergencies.
At the most basic, this means bringing a first-aid kit and knowing how to use it. For serious situations, you need to have serious plans. When I’m headed into the backcountry, I always tell one or two people where I am going and when I plan to return. They know that if they don’t hear from me, they should try to contact me and if they can’t reach me, contact the authorities.
I also bring a satellite messenger device that tells these contacts where I am every few minutes by sending GPS coordinates. It also allows me to call for help if something serious arises. This is a very basic system for dealing with emergencies.
If you are headed into very remote areas or other countries, you need to do your research to find out what support you can and can’t rely on in case of an emergency, and plan accordingly. For instance, you might want to look into travel insurance plans that would help cover the costs if you need to be airlifted back to your home country.
Step 8: Gather necessary equipment and supplies
Now that you know more about your destination and route, you can figure out what gear you’ll need and what supplies to pack. Make a list of the essential gear you’ll need for your trip, such as camping equipment, cooking supplies, recovery gear, navigation tools, and communication devices. Pack spare parts and tools for vehicle repairs, as well as first-aid kits and emergency supplies. Make sure that you bring important medications – my son has a nut allergy, so I’m fanatical about packing the Epipen.
In addition to “hard goods,” the equipment you’ll use, you’ll also need to bring consumables such as water, food and fuel. Plan your food and water supplies carefully, considering the availability of resources along your route.
Learn how to ration, purify water and store water, cook on a portable stove, and maintain proper food storage. You’ll need some way to keep perishable foods cool, either using an overland cooler or overland fridge.
As I mentioned above, whether you are driving an electric vehicle or an internal combustion engine vehicle, you’ll need to plan for recharging or refueling. In the case of electric vehicles, you may be able to charge your vehicle in the backcountry from a solar-powered battery system, but such systems are still rare.
If you will be burning fuel, you will need to plan how far you can travel between stops and how much excess fuel you can carry to extend your range. If you need to bring extra fuel, you’ll need some kind of gas can.
Step 9: Practice and test your gear
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a new piece of gear, brought it into the backcountry, and realized it’s not working or I don’t know how to use it. Don’t be like me.
Before embarking on your expedition, take your vehicle and equipment on a shorter trip to test their performance and reliability. Set your tent up in your driveway. Try cooking dinner at home on your new camp stove. See if you can talk with a family member from different rooms in your house on those new radios. Practicing like this will help you identify any issues that need to be addressed before the longer journey.
Step 10: Double check everything
This is probably obvious, but the last thing you should do is double check that you’ve done everything. The way hospitals and airlines have dramatically reduced dangerous errors is by using checklists to make sure everything is done and done right. This procedural approach will help ensure you haven’t forgotten something important that could cause you hassle or danger down the road.
I like to go through my gear and supply lists as well as the steps above before the trip. I’m usually sick of all the preparation by that time, which is why using a list is that much more important. When you are tired or checked out, a list will do the heavy mental lifting for you.
One trick I use is to check things off the list as I assemble them in a spot in my garage. Then, as I load them into my vehicle and trailer, I check them off again. Just before I leave, I do one last scan through the list to make sure I’m not leaving something crucial behind.
In conclusion, planning an overlanding trip requires careful attention to detail and a systematic approach to avoid feeling overwhelmed. By following the steps outlined in this guide, you can make the planning process more manageable and enjoyable.
One last thing I’ll mention is that I typically use Google Sheets to keep my evergreen checklists used to plan trips. I’ve recently started using the project management software Notion also to create checklists and collect research. For route planning, I use Google Maps and onX and Gaia GPS, and I download offline maps for the areas I’ll be traveling, in case I don’t have mobile reception (which is common).
Because technology can always fail – I print critical information so that I have a hard copy. This includes route details, GPS waypoints, permits, contact information, and anything else other information I need if I’m unable to connect to satellites or cellphone towers. Basically, I pretend is the 1990s and I when I’m off-grid, I’m on my own.
These tools help a lot with planning and preparation, I can head out on overlanding adventures with confidence and enjoy the journey to the fullest.