Rugged roads. Remote locations. Vibrant night skies. The sounds of the wilderness. Not another soul in sight for miles.
Does that setting sound like something you’d enjoy? Then you might want to try overlanding. This adventure sector of the camping industry began overseas but has exploded onto the US camping scene in recent years. Last month, I got a chance to attend the overland world’s premiere stateside event called Overland Expo. Their outdoors convention happens three times a year in Arizona, Colorado and Virginia. I set out to Expo West in Flagstaff to understand more about overland campers and this burgeoning camping trend.
What is overlanding?
If dogs are any indication of their owners’ personalities, then it was clear from the start of Expo weekend the type that overlanding draws. The crowd that mulled about the often tactical-themed branding of outdoors exhibitors was peppered with attendees leading along adventure breeds of all sorts: Australian Shepherds, cattle dogs, German shorthair pointers, the like. These are people whose choice even in pets caters to their spirit of adventure. That desire to explore and discover is what draws them to overlanding.
So what is overlanding? Overland Journal defines it as “self-reliant adventure travel to remote destinations where the journey is the primary goal.” The defining characteristics include off-road travel over sometimes challenging terrain, extended off-grid camping and self-sufficiency. It finds its roots in cattle-herding in the Australian Outback and safari expeditions in Africa. Overlanding was popular on other continents before it found its way to the US, but it has skyrocketed in popularity here over the last decade. This boom was fueled even more by the isolation the COVID-19 pandemic encouraged.
Not just a hobby
These days, the term “overlanding” has evolved not just to encompass the activity itself, but the lifestyle around it. For overlanders, it’s less about getting to a destination than it is about experiencing and exploring the roads along the way. It’s a decidedly simplistic way of life, focused on discovering new places and immersing yourself in the outdoors in the purest way possible. This is not the kind of trip where you stay at a Jellystone or KOA, or even a state park campsite with full hookups. Overlanding is synonymous with being off-grid. It’s closest to what many RVers would call boondocking.
Your vehicle (or overland trailer) is the means of transportation, lodging and adventure. This separates it from ATV and UTV off-roading since with these activities, the trails are a destination activity rather than part of the journey itself. Some overlanders partake in other outdoors hobbies as well, loading up their rigs with mountain bikes, backcountry skis or hunting gear. Even when other activities are involved though, the journey remains the focal point.
And yes, there are many people who live the overlanding lifestyle full-time. Overlanders who document their experiences on social media such as Ernesto and Taisa of Overland the Americas and Richard & Ashley of Desk to Glory show it’s entirely possible and even aspirational. They spend their days exploring the backcountry of the US and beyond, documenting the minimalistic and self-sufficient lifestyle overlanding entails.
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Finding an overland camper
Intrigued by this way of life? There are many rigs you can use to participate. Vehicles like Land Rovers, Land Cruisers and 4Runners are common overlanding vehicles. They’re often equipped with things like rooftop tents, off-road tires and upgraded suspensions to up the ante for remote and rugged roads. Some even travel on “adventure bikes,” or motorcycles loaded up for camping. However, RV manufacturers are taking notice too: there is a growing community of van and trailer campers joining the overlanding ranks. As this sector of the camping industry continues to boom, 4WD and compact camping have become a focal point for RV innovation.
While some overlanding purists may feel an overland RV has too many luxuries to fall into the overlanding genre, they’re still a popular choice. It allows overlanders to partake in an unadulterated connection with nature while still having certain amenities such as kitchen and sometimes bathroom facilities. You may think of RVUSA as a resource for more traditional RV camping, but there are an abundance of overland RVs and overland trailers listed RVUSA.com.
Storyteller Overland’s camper vans are some of the most iconic overland RVs on the market. These specialty outfitted conversion vans are built out from either Ford Transit or Mercedes Sprinter vans to include everything you’d need for overlanding. All of their MODE vans are either AWD or 4×4 and sport all-terrain tires for tackling the toughest obstacles. The highest trim packages even include off-road ride improvement features to give a smoother ride. These vans look sporty on the outside and have convenient living essentials inside including showers and kitchen sinks.
TAXA’s entire mission as a company is to inspire adventure in a sustainable way, which is very much in line with the spirit of overlanding. They call their overland trailers “habitats” and design them with self-sufficient, long-term camping in mind The founder and CEO designed for NASA before translating what he learned about minimalism and efficiency there into the designs for his camping quarters. This year, TAXA took things a step further and introduced overland editions of their habitats. These overland trailers have off-road friendly upgrades such as a Lock n’ Roll hitch, an axle-less suspension and a suspension lift. In other words, your TAXA can go wherever your vehicle can. The classic Mantis and smaller TigerMoth were both on display in Flagstaff, showing off their rooftop tents and kitchens that are perfect for the backcountry.
Everyone knows the name Winnebago, but in recent years this RV giant has made a real push towards the adventure travel side of camping. Their brand-new Winnebago Ekko is an AWD camper van meets Class C hybrid that keeps camping compact yet provides the comfort of a larger RV. This overland camper is also equipped with solar and a 50-gallon freshwater tank which come in handy for going off-grid. The Winnebago Revel Class B is also an appropriate overland RV since it features 4WD and a turbo diesel engine. Both of these vehicles were featured at Overland Expo West as Winnebago leads the way among traditional RV manufacturers in the adventure travel space.
Custom Conversion Vans
Almost any rig can be customized into an overlanding vehicle if you really set your mind to it. Not every conversion van on RVUSA is appropriate for overlanding, but there are some. Because they are often converted by individual owners, you can find overlanding enthusiasts selling their overland campers. The key is knowing what to look for, such as AWD or 4WD, solar panels and lithium batteries. With a little searching, you may find a one-of-a-kind overland camper to take you where few have gone before.
The intersection of the overland world and the RV world
While overlanding and RVing are two decidedly different forms of camping, ultimately, both genres share a passion for the outdoors. They just go about the journey to get there in different ways. If creature comforts and planned events and activities are important to you, then traditional RVing is probably your avenue. But if a spirit of adventure and a longing to wander off the beaten path tugs at your heartstrings – and a little solitude doesn’t scare you – then you just may want to dive in head first into the world of overlanding. You never know what may be out there waiting to be discovered with an overland camper.