Choosing the best vehicle for overlanding is great fun, but can also be a daunting task. Many factors come into play in picking an SUV, truck, or van for overlanding and you have to balance your aspirations with your limitations.
You may dream of taking off six months to drive a pricey, tricked-out rig across South America. Meanwhile, your bank account and life circumstances may dictate a few nights in the back of an old truck in a nearby national forest.
If you are just starting out, we’d recommend you give overlanding a try with whatever vehicle you have before spending a lot of money and time on an exotic rig. Take some short trips that your vehicle can handle. Do some basic car camping. Eventually, you might want to get something more capable or comfortable, but give yourself some time to figure out what you need before you make too many assumptions.
It’s easy to become enamored with shiny objects, and when it comes to overlanding, those shiny objects can be quite expensive. The buyer’s remorse can be as epic as the trips you are imagining.
How to Choose an Overlanding Vehicle
This guide isn’t about selling you on a specific make and model of overlanding vehicle. While we’ll highlight some specific options, the goal is to give you a framework for choosing the best vehicle for your circumstances and budget. Below are several criteria to keep in mind as you size up the various options.
Can you trust the SUV or truck to hold up when you are off the beaten track? Some makes and models have stronger reliability ratings — Toyota trucks, for instance, are known for their reliability. Also, you want to make sure your overlanding vehicle has been well-maintained with regular service and is in good running condition. Some brands of cars are more expensive to service than others -Mercedes and Land Rover, we’re looking at you.
What kinds of road/off-road conditions can the vehicle handle? If you are planning to traverse rugged off-road terrain, you’ll need to make sure you have adequate clearance and traction. If you are carrying a heavy load, such as multiple people and lots of gear, you need to make sure the engine and suspension are up to the job. If you are planning to tow a trailer or carry a truck camper, make sure you are getting a vehicle that can handle the weight. On the flip side, don’t needlessly spend money on capabilities that you’ll never use. You probably don’t need locking differentials if you’ll stay on relatively mellow dirt roads. Maybe all-wheel-drive is fine and you don’t need a four-wheel drive.
Is the vehicle big enough and does it have the payload capacity to carry the people and equipment you need? One important factor to keep in mind when overlanding is that you’re in it for the long haul. Four people may be perfectly happy cramming in a 2-door Jeep for an afternoon of off-roading, but that same space will feel awfully tight five days into an overlanding trip. Make sure you’ll have enough room to carry everything in comfort. But don’t buy more vehicle than you need, as you’ll incur extra cost and fuel needs for no reason.
Not sure this is even a word, but it’s an important factor when considering longer overland trips. Wear-and-tear when driving offroad is to be expected, and chances are that something will break eventually. Some vehicles are easier to work on than others (the internet is full of debates on this subject). And some brands and models are more common throughout the world, and thus make it easier to find knowledgable mechanics and parts (again, Toyotas get high marks on this front). Do some research on what vehicles are easy to maintain where you’ll spend your time, especially if you are headed abroad.
Overlanding often involves covering long distances, both on and off-road. At first blush, it may seem like you’ll need the burliest off-road vehicle capable of scaling the roughest terrain. The male of the species seems particularly susceptible to this thinking. But overlanding more often is about taking the middle road, balancing off-road capability with passenger comfort and cargo space. It’s not only important to consider where you’ll be traveling, but also who you’ll be traveling with and how to make the experience comfortable enough that they enjoy themselves.
Versatility and After-Market Options
Some makes and models of vehicles have a wide range of aftermarket products and modifications available that allow you to adapt your vehicle to your circumstances. For instance, there is a vast aftermarket over off-road and overlanding products for Jeep Wranglers and Toyota Tacomas. And some vehicles, particularly trucks, are inherently versatile. Larger trucks are able to pull bigger overlanding trailers. Trucks with beds can carry roof-top-tents AND truck campers.
Without driving yourself crazy, it’s worth thinking ahead to what you might need or want in the future when making your vehicle choice. Then again, versatility could mean the ability to use your overlanding vehicle to commute to work during the week.
Below you’ll find a breakdown of the various types of overlanding vehicles, with a few examples of popular makes and models. It’s not a complete list by any means, but will hopefully will help point you in the right direction.
Types of Overlanding Vehicles
For many people, an all-wheel-drive SUV is the gateway vehicle to overlanding. It can also be all you ever need, as long as you stick to manageable terrain. SUVs can have some advantages over larger trucks and vans. These include better gas mileage (for smaller models), better on-road performance and comfort on long drives, easier access to roof racks, and lower prices.
If you already own an SUV and are just getting into overlanding, we recommend taking a few overland trips on routes appropriate to your vehicle. There are many dirt-road routes in the world that are doable in an SUV.
Popular All-wheel-drive SUVs:
Four-wheel drive SUVs offer more off-road capability than all-wheel-drive models, due to the traction advantages of four-wheel drive and more ground clearance. Some models also come with differential lockers that allow you to lock the axles for additional traction improvement.
If your planning to tackle rugged and unpredictable terrain, you may need a vehicle with true four-wheel drive. In contrast to trucks, SUVs typically offer more cabin space for passengers and gear, which has its advantages. That said, pickup trucks offer the opportunity to carry truck campers and other types of truck bed accessories.
Popular 4×4 SUVs:
Pickup trucks have become more popular for overlanding in recent years, as a growing range of aftermarket modifications for truck beds have come on the market. There is a wide range of truck campers and specialize bed racks for cargo and roof-top-tents now on the market.
Pickup manufacturers tend to offer four-wheel-drive models of their trucks and they are often highly capable off-road. The downsides include poor gas mileage, smaller passenger compartments, and the need to get out of the vehicle to access cargo stored in the bed.
Popular Trucks for Overlanding:
Cargo and Passenger Vans
The primary attraction of vans for overlanding is the large internal passenger and cargo space. A number of companies, such as Sportsmobile, Wayfair, and Alumness, offer van conversions and modifications specifically focused on the overlanding market, turning cargo and passenger vans into off-road capable RVs. Then there’s the whole van-life movement of people buying various kinds of vans and doing DYI conversions for travel, including folks focus on exploring remote regions. While vans offer lots of internal space, that has to be balanced against their limitations in off-road-capability. This can be offset by four-wheel-drive and other off-roading modifications such as big tires and suspension lifts, but a big van will never be as capable off-road as a Jeep Wrangler or TRD Tacoma.
Popular Vans for Overlanding: