Overlanding truck

What is Overlanding?

If you ask several people who overland, “what is overlanding,” you’ll get several different answers. That’s the beauty of it. The definition of overlanding depends on your approach, interests, equipment and sense of adventure.

On Ordealist, we consider overlanding to be vehicle-based adventure travel that involves self-supported backcountry exploration and camping at multiple locations over a span of days, weeks or months. When overlanding the journey is the destination.

This quick overview should get you oriented. To take a deeper drive, check out Overlanding 101: How to start overlanding for beginners

What is the difference between off-roading and overlanding?

“Off-roading” or “four-wheeling” often refer to driving on rugged backcountry roads and trails and overcoming difficult terrain or obstacles. Overlanding, in contrast, is less focused on the technical challenges of driving off-road and more about the journey, about living out of a vehicle while you explore the world. This could mean a weeklong journey through a mountain range a few hours away, or a year long adventure across another continent.

What is the difference between overlanding and camping?

Overlanding camping by lake

Overlanding and car-camping have a lot in common. Some people would say the distinction is that car camping is typically only for a few days, and overlanding trips are longer, on the order of weeks. This seems like splitting hairs. We’d say that any trip where you travel off-road and camp at two or more remote spots on different nights could technically be called an overlanding trip. If you drive to a developed campground and spend a weekend at the same site – that’s camping.

In recent years, as more people have started outfitting off-road capable vehicles for camping, many people have started to refer to overlanding as outfitting Jeeps, Land Rovers and other trucks with roof-top-tents, portable refrigerators, and other gear for “glamping” from a truck in the backcountry. This is a flavor of overlanding, somewhat distinct from cross-continent journeys that have typified overlanding in the past. Purists might say sleeping in the mountains in a roof-top tent isn’t overlanding, but we’re inclined to expand the definition instead.

What is the best vehicle for overlanding?

In truth, you can go overlanding via bicycle, motorcycle, SUVs, trucks, vans or even in specialized RVs. Perhaps the most popular vehicles for off-road intensive overlanding are SUVs and trucks, such as Subaru Outbacks, Jeeps, Toyota Tacomas, Ford Broncos and other pickup trucks. The #vanlife crowd also outfits various sorts of vans with sturdy suspensions and gnarly tires.

While having a vehicle that is off-road capable or offers amenities such as sleeping areas or a onboard kitchen can really open up the possibilities, you don’t need all of that to have a great adventure. The main thing is to find a place you’d like to explore, get the minimum gear you need to be safe and comfortable and hit the road.

We go into more detail in a separate article on choosing a vehicle for overlanding.

What do I need for overlanding?

Overlanding combines elements of adventure travel, off-roading, camping, and off-the-grid self-sufficiency, and thus can be daunting when first starting out. But while a long expedition can require a great deal of planning, preparation, and gear, you can start out with a simple collection of camping gear, basic safety and emergency equipment, and a reliable vehicle. Just take it slow, don’t overextending yourself and make sure you have a backup plan in case something goes wrong.

Is overlanding dangerous?

The short answer to this is: not particularly. In fact, the most dangerous part of overlanding is the activity that you probably do on a regular basis anyway – driving on paved roads. Of course, there are certain risks involved in most activities. For overlanding, they pretty much map to the activities involved driving a vehicle on and off-road, traveling to foreign countries (if that’s your jam), and traveling into remote wilderness areas. These risks can be largely mitigated by making sure you are prepared for your adventures with the right knowledge, skills and equipment.

A (Very) Brief History of Overlanding

If you go way back, you could say that overlanding started with ancient nomads that travelled from place to place, calling no fixed place home. By most accounts, the modern term “overlanding” comes from Australia and referred to driving cattle herds long distances through the country’s rugged outback.

Canning Stock Route
Canning Stock Route where it passes through Little Sandy Desert in Australia. Photo by Berichard

One such overland journal was the Canning Stock Route. These early routes, established in the late 1800s and early 1900s, later became avenues for others to explore the outback via vehicle simply for the sake of adventure.

While Australians coined the term, they weren’t the only ones seeking rugged adventure in remote regions. The first Jeeps were manufactured to transport soldiers across rough terrain during World War 2, setting the stage for civilian off-road adventure after the war. Maurice Wilks, the co-owner of the British Rover Company, owned a surplus Jeep after the war. Inspired by the Jeep’s rugged build and capabilities he came up with a British version of the Jeep. First produced in 1948, the first Land Rover was released, designed by Maurice Wilks, the owner of a surplus Jeep,arguably the first vehicle custom tailored to private overland travel.

With the advent of reliable off-road capable automobiles, Europeans began exploring far afield, with the Asia, Africa and Middle East becoming popular overlanding destinations. In a sign of overlanding coming of age, the Automobile Association of South Africa in 1949 published the first edition of the Trans-African Highways, A Route Book of the Main Trunk Roads in Africa. The book offered guidance on gear, routes, safety and the best overlanding vehicles.

A number of overlanding expeditions set off in the years after the Series 1 Land Rover was released. In 1948, Colonel Leblanc, left England with his Series 1 and drove all the way to what is now Ethiopia. In 1954, over summer holiday, a group of Cambridge and Oxford students travelled from the UK to Singapore in a pair of Land Rovers.

Oxford and Cambridge students travelled a pair of Land Rover Series 1 trucks from England to Singapore in 1955, in one of the first epic overland journeys.

In the following decades, intrepid adventurers establish a number of overlanding routes across the continents, including the Trans American Highway from Alaska to the tip of South America; the Trans Siberian Highway from Amsterdam to Tokyo; the Cape to Cape Route from Norway to South Africa; and the London to Sydney Route from the UK to Australia. 

Fast forward to the present, and overlanding has become ever more popular around the world. Overlanding has grown rapidly as a pastime in North America in recent years, as people explore the vast wilderness areas of the continent.

In some ways, this is a return to something that typified the US and Canada from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s as settlers moved into the western regions of the continent. Many parties traveled “overland” in live-aboard coverage wagons. Of course, these weren’t recreational trips, but the ethos of adventure and practice of living on the trail certainly connects the times.

Over the past 15 years, vehicle-based adventure has caught on as outdoorsy types realize that staying in campgrounds or backpacking deep into the mountains aren’t the only ways to enjoy the North American wilderness. This has manifested in the “van life” movement of people living out of converted vans so they can pursue their outdoor passions and in the more off-road-focused overland travel boom.

The US and Canada are newcomers in many ways to overlanding as a recreational activity, but the deep culture of camping, off-roading, and outdoors adventures primed us to put the pedal to the metal (not literally, of course; please drive responsibly.)

There are now even competitions that test many of the skills and gear typical of overlanding, such as the Land Rover G4 Challenge (the successor to the Camel Trophy event) and the Rebelle Rally. As a side note, it’s not overlanding, but we recommend having a look at King of the Hammers, an annual offroad racing event in California, to see what vehicles are capable of nowadays. The current spirit of American overlanding lives somewhere in the continuum between this aggressive offroading and old-fashion car camping.

So what does overlanding mean today? While epic trips across foreign continents are still the big leagues, many enthusiasts pursue shorter and more accessible routes near home. So can you.

Overlanding Resources

Overlanding Association — an international non-profit overlanding association.

Overland Expo — company that holds regular overlanding expos in the United States. Great places to learn new skills, check out oodles of gear and rigs, and meet other overlanding enthusiasts.

National Geographic Documentary on Land Rovers — This documentary recounts the origin story of Land Rover and some of the overlanding history the vehicles enabled.

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