Overlanding Camping Shelters Guide: Tents, Trailers, and Vans
The iconic image of an overlanding shelter is a roof-top tent perched on the top of a rugged off-road vehicle. Fact is, there is a wide range of shelter options for overland camping to fit a range of budgets and ambitions. These range from sleeping in your overlanding vehicle to roof-top tents to off-road RVs that cost many thousands of dollars.
Here, to give you an idea of your options–and maybe seed some aspirations–we’ll provide a high-level overview of some of the most common shelter types used in overlanding. We’ve focused here on options that work well for people planning to explore rugged backcountry roads and trails. If you plan on mostly sticking to the pavement and well-maintained dirt and gravel roads, traditional RVs and camper trailers are also an option.
Most people start camping in ground tents, and when they graduate to more ambitious vehicle-based adventures will stick to a classic tent for a while (or forever).
Ground tents are relatively cheap, functional, lightweight, and compact. They also come in a range of sizes, so it’s easy to pick up a tent to accommodate a larger party. Eventually, people who spend a lot of time overlanding may opt for something a bit more substantial than a thin-walled tent.
Other options, such as roof-top tents and trailers may offer more comfortable and convenient accommodations that are off the ground and provide a bit more protection from the elements.
- Compact and lightweight
- Don’t require navigating a ladder
- Generally cheaper than other options
- Come in a variety of sizes
- Flapping in wind can be noisy
- Can get wet and dirty
- Don’t provide much insulation
If you are just getting started overlanding, have a limited budget, and/or don’t want to climb in and out of a roof-top tent, a ground tent could be your best option. Also, if you will be backpacking as well as camping from a vehicle, a ground tent can be used in both situations. A ground tent can be a good option if you are navigating highly technical off-road trails, as they won’t destabilize or overweight your rig.
Sleeping In Your Vehicle
Many of the downsides of ground tents–including exposure to the elements and noise–can be avoided to some extent by sleeping in your vehicle. The basic requirement is that you have a car or truck that has a space that’s long and flat enough for you to lay down comfortably. Station wagons, large SUVs, and pickup trucks are prime candidates.
We’ve spent many a night in a Honda Element and a Japanese mini-van — both of which were surprisingly capable on rough dirt roads, mud, and snow. Sleeping in your rig can be a great way to stealth camp on a long trip, as you can stop almost anywhere and crash for the night, with no one is the wiser. The big question about sleeping in your vehicle while overlanding, assuming there is a comfortable space for sleeping, is what you will do with your gear at night. Also, there is typically space for only one or two people to sleep, unless you have a large van or camper, but that’s really a different category (see below).
It’s also worth exploring the pop-up modifications that are now available for some vehicles, including Jeep Wranglers, Honda Elements and Ford Transit Vans. Companies such as Ursa Minor will do the conversion, which adds a popup tent that is integrated into your vehicle and can be accessed from inside.
- Budget friendly
- Great for stealth camping
- Weather and noise protection
- Quick set up and takedown
- Some places prohibit sleeping in car
- Need to move/stow gear at night
- Can feel cramped
- Ventilation can be an issue
If you are new to overlanding, sleeping in your car is a good way to get started. If you have a small party, of only one or two people, this can be a convenient way to move quickly from campsite to campsite. For people who are willing to forego the amenities provided by other options, this can be a long-term solution for low-overhead (pun intended) exploration.
Roof-top tents are popular shelters among serious overlanders. They offer the advantage of being off the ground, away from critters and grime. They include a pre-installed sleeping pad made of thick foam for comfort, and in many of these tents you can keep bedding folded inside the tent to free up space in your vehicle. Once you have installed a roof rack on your car and mounted your tent, you have yourself an adventure vehicle.
While they are very appealing, there are some caveats to roof-top tents that are worth noting. For one, they are much more expensive than an equivalent-sized ground tent. They are also large and heavy, which means you’ll need two or three people to get it on and off a vehicle, as well as a place to store it when the tent isn’t in use. In our experience, they aren’t much easier to set up and stop than a ground tent, though some models are more convenient than others. Lastly, climbing up and down a ladder isn’t for everyone, and can make night-time bathroom breaks more of an ordeal.
- Easy to set up and takedown
- Frees space in truck or vehicle
- Can fit on most vehicles
- Keeps you away from, critters and critters and off the ground
- Cool views
- Can be time-consuming to deploy and stow
- Flapping in wind can be noisy
- Can get wet and dirty
- Don’t provide much insulation
Overall, rooftop tents’ primary benefit is getting you off the ground and offering a comfortable sleeping area. If you are a camper who fancy spontaneous weekend trips or long overland hauls with multiple stops, rooftop tents are a great option. Keep in mind that the tent will need to stay on your vehicle during trips. If that’s a deal-breaker, consider a ground tent, sleeping in your vehicle, or an overlanding trailer.
Overland Trailer With Pop-Up Tents
Overlanding trailers fitted with a roof-top tent or integrated pop-up tent are becoming popular and for good reasons. Not only do trailers offer excellent storage solutions for your overlanding gear, but they also are low-hassle sleeping areas when fitted with a tent. The tent tends to be closer to the ground than when on top of a vehicle, which avoids having to climb up so high.
Carrying your gear in a trailer gets the weight off your vehicle, which means you can carry more equipment than your vehicle’s payload limit will allow. This puts less wear and tear on your vehicle, and allows for more supplies and amenities, such as tricked-out overland kitchens. Another advantage is that these trailers are relatively compact and easy to pull over technical off-road terrain. Also, you can leave the trailer parked in camp while you go explore on day trips.
- Can leave in camp on day trips
- More storage space
- Full overlanding kitchen possible
- Takes weight off the vehicle
- Tent a bit closer to the ground
- Can be towed by most vehicles
- Added challenge when maneuvering off-road trails
- Added weight increases fuel consumption
- Need to store the trailer when not in use
This type of tent and trailer setup is an investment for someone who plans to do quite a bit of overlanding or camping. Because the trailers tend to be light and maneuverable, this setup works relatively well for trips where you’ll travel on rugged off-road trails, particularly compared to larger tear-drop trailers, truck campers, and 4×4 vans and RVs. DIY builds are possible to save money.
A blast from the past, teardrop trailers are now being designed for off-road use by a number of companies. They are built with sturdier frames, larger tires, and beefier suspensions than teardrops of yore. They typically include a galley kitchen and enclosed sleeping area that provides more protection from weather and noise than a fabric-walled tent.
Quality teardrop trailers are usually insulated against weather elements and are lightweight. Modern trailers can accommodate two or more adults and come equipped with battery-powered lights and outlets for convenience. Compared to overland trailers with a roof-top tent, tear drops tend to be larger, which can make them a bit more difficult to maneuver on technical trails. Still, these are a great option for adventurous overlanders looking to tackle challenging trails. Their prime benefit is convenience (little set up and take down) and protection from the elements.
- Easy to set up camp
- Protection from the elements and sound
- Can be towed by smaller vehicles
- Convenient storage for camping gear
- Overland kitchen
- Limited interior space
- Kitchen is outside
- Need to store the trailer when it’s not in use
- More difficult to maneuver off-road than RTT trailer typically
For those who want to enjoy more amenities without investing in a full-on conversion van or truck camper, a teardrop trailer might be a perfect choice. They are less expensive than conversion vans and offer more flexibility for exploring with your vehicle on day trips. The more ruggedly built models are a good choice for people planning to tackle relatively challenging trails — though a lighter and smaller RTT trailer is more maneuverable.
A truck camper can be another excellent choice for overlanding–if you own a pickup truck that’s large enough. These campers rest on the bed of a pickup truck, allowing you to essentially bring a small RV into the backcountry using the sturdy suspension and engine of a four-wheel drive truck. Truck campers typically incorporate a sleeping area and galley kitchen, and larger models may even have a small bathroom.
Truck campers are another step up in comfort and convenience, as they are usually roomier and offer more amenities than smaller overland trailers. That said, some of the newer, larger trailers give truck campers a run for their money. A truck with a camper on it will be fairly heavy and large, which can limit the types of trails you can tackle. Still, an off-road capable truck with a camper can tackle more rugged terrain than your typical conversion van or RV.
- Good choice for tackling rugged terrain
- Are comfortable with lots of amenities
- Cheaper than a conversion van
- Easy to set up and takedown
- Protection from weather and noise
- Need large truck to haul
- High gas costs
- Need a place to store it when not in use
- Camper must go with you everywhere when on trips
Overall, a truck camper is a great choice for overlanding enthusiasts looking to get to out-of-the-way places that require 4-wheel drive to access but also want some of the convenience and amenities offered by an RV. These are a great choice for people who plan to spend a lot of time in the backcountry, and want to bring a touch of civilized living along.
Converted vans have boomed in popularity in recent years, and the #vanlife movement has motored its way into overlanding circles as well. An entire industry has sprung up around building small, nimble vehicles that have the essential amenities of a full-sized RV. A number of companies offer off-road capable builds of Sprinter vans, Ford Transit vans and other models that include beds, kitchen, bathrooms and other amenities. A DIY van conversion movement has also popped, as people without the budget to buy a turnkey solution take matters into their own hands, supported by a booming aftermarket of products for van conversions.
Some benefits of a converted van are obvious: conveniences of solar power, a bathroom (in some cases), refrigeration, kitchen, and comfortable beds make camping more enjoyable and convenient. For long trips, they save you the time of setting up camp at every stop, which is golden. On the flip side, a van can feel cramped after a while for more than a couple of people, though you can always bring a tent along to spread out a bit. They are typically extremely pricey, and the more off-road capable they are, the pricier they will be.
- Comfortable with lots of amenities
- Very little set up and take down needed
- Great protection from the elements and noise
- Stealth camping
- Stuck with a large vehicle wherever you travel
- Very pricey
- Need a place to park it when not in use
- Systems require maintenance and know-how to operate
- Some models have limited off-road capabilities
Converted vans are great for people who want the convenience of jumping in the van for a quick weekend trip or planning a long overlanding journey. A van is a serious financial commitment and should be a decision made after trying other, cheaper forms of overlanding and car camping first.
If you’ve got the dough, an overlanding van will seriously step up your game and open up many possibilities. People live in these for months or even years, traveling across continents.
Your shelter options as a camper or an overlander are not limited to rooftop tent- there are many alternatives you can opt for. From ground tents and truck campers to teardrop trailers and off-road RVs, there are plenty of options these days.
Think through your needs before choosing a shelter for your overland trips and try a few before you spend a lot of money. Sometimes the cheaper option will free up money to let you travel longer and further. Then again, having more creature comforts might encourage you to spend more time out of the house on adventures.