What is Overlanding? Well, it’s complicated… and seems to be getting more and more confusing.
Thirty plus years ago the term “overlanding” described a fairly obscure form of global travel — by vehicle. However, as Overlanding continues its march into the mainstream the concept seems to be losing a bit of its focus. We see ”overland” all over social media, in big box camping gear retailers, and sprinkled throughout the marketing materials of automotive manufactures latest four wheel drive. Personally, I think it’s great to see interest from outdoor enthusiasts, small business owners, and journalists. But, I also really think we’ve arrived at a point on the timeline where overland travel’s core identity is beginning to fade from existence. And, to be frank… I don’t like it.
And that’s exactly why, after almost eight years, I decided to hop on to this page and do a bit of remodeling. The old version of this page was (like many others) overly vague, easy to digest, and nearly devoid of hard to answer questions. If I’m being honest with myself this very page was a bit cookie cutter and quite boring. My hope with this revised version is to question my own beliefs, make you question yours, and hopefully add a somewhat unique perspective that might help travelers, overland enthusiasts, and small business owners find a bit of focus.
Before we continue… the things I cover below are not in any way meant to criticize, gate-keep, or trivialize what others do or say. If someone wants to call a trip to a state park overlanding it doesn’t bother me one bit. Same goes for those who see overlanding as a form of recreational off-roading. People are free to say or do whatever it is that makes them happy. But, I do want to reflect on some things I’ve struggled with and work through some points of confusion I’ve encountered over the years. The following is only one person’s opinion — and that person sincerely wants to see the new “overland scene” grow and transform with a firm understanding of the people, places, vehicles, and small businesses that laid the foundation for the overlanding boom we’re currently enjoying.
With all that said, I’ll do my best to provide my perspective to those new to the idea of overlanding, explain how I arrived at my current understanding, and perhaps spark conversation among seasoned overland enthusiasts. Whether you love what I’m about to say… or absolutely hate it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. And the best way to reach me is on my Instagram account — @ExpeditionWire.
Disclaimer: I’m often wrong and reserve the right to change my mind in the future.
- What is the difference between Overlanding and car camping?
- Where do you draw the line between Overlanding and Off-Roading?
- Is Overlanding just another word for a road trip?
- Do you need a lot of money or gear for overlanding?
- Is there anything wrong with an overly broad definition of Overlanding?
- Does crossing an international border automatically make it “Overlanding?” Do you even need to cross a border?
- What exactly are the differences between Overlanding, Touring, and an Expedition?
- Are popular YouTube and Instagram self proclaimed “experts” helpful or harmful
These are just some of the things that cross my mind whenever I’m mulling over what overland travel means to me. And to be completely transparent, even after giving each significant thought, I still have trouble coming to a clear and concise conclusion — especially when I think of the actual people on the other side of “argument.”
A few things everyone can agree upon
Whether you’re a seasoned global traveler, the proud owner of a serialized overland badge, or a small family dipping your toes into the world of overland travel from the comfort of a Honda Odyssey at your local state park there are plenty of things we probably have in common with one another. Here are a few that come to mind…
- A four wheel drive, while not necessary, is a good choice for an overland vehicle.
- Generally speaking… overlanders camp.
- Basic camping items, recovery gear, and other essentials are incredibly useful / important.
- Sorting out the differences between touring, camping, overlanding, and an expedition can be confusing and frustrating.
While there are a lot of things all self proclaimed overland enthusiasts share — there’s also a bit of overlap and observable differences we can see in other hobbies, lifestyles, genres, etc. Some examples that come to mind include camping, vanlife, motorcycle touring, 4×4 touring (as used in Australia), bike packing, grand touring, off-roading, road trips, and even full time RV-ing. They all have both common themes… and easily observable differences. One of the main ones is that each has their own publication(s). While many might struggle to nail down a solid definition of “overlanding” few can argue with the fact that magazines (and other books / periodicals) exist.
“Camp” #1 – Old School Overland
To be completely honest I have a hard time isolating exactly what is considered “old school” overlanding from old school expeditions and publicity stunts. And, for the most part the distinctions don’t really matter much, but it can be a fun topic for discussion. Between the earliest years of the automobile and today there have been countless examples of people traveling abroad by vehicle. But, to me the biggest distinction for this genre is “abroad.” For decades travelers have packed a car and headed into the unknown. Some called it an expedition, some were doing it to garner publicity, others were overlanding, and most were engaged in some combination of at least two of those things.
Notable examples include the Cambridge / Oxford Expedition, the extensive travels of the Wescotts aka “The Turtle Expedition,” Barbara Toy, and Tom Sheppard. These, and many others, traveled the globe by 4×4 long before Instagram, YouTube, or even the birth of yours truly. While the words expedition and overlanding were, and are, used interchangeably I think the key thing to take away here is that these people were not camping for recreation… they were camping because there were limited alternatives in many of the areas they explored.
More recent examples with blogs, audio books, YouTube channels, and Instagram include travelers like Dan Grec, the Lost World Expedition, the Bell Family, the Giordano‘s, Overland the Americas, and the Hylands. All of which share a passion for global travel by 4×4 just like the travelers who came before them.
“Camp” #2 – Seeing the world on two wheels
In the early days of overlanding there were also a group of adventurers and travelers embarking on similar journeys, but on two wheels instead of 4 plus.
What is Overlanding? (To me)
In a nutshell; Overland travel is people exploring the world by vehicle — most often in 4x4s. At least thats how it was originally presented to me years ago. When I first read about overlanders and adventure motorcyclists the descriptions and photography ignited my curiosity and established a clear goal for how I’d spend my eventual retirement. At some point in my life I’d be lucky enough to drive through Africa in a Land Rover, cross the former Soviet Union in a truck camper, or bushwhack my way through various jungles in a Jeep or Land Cruiser. As I aged, information spread faster, and the internet helped connect myriad likeminded humans. Overlanding started to gain traction in North America and its growing popularity forced me to continually reinterpret what I considered to be the holy grail of international travel.
To this day I consider myself a fan of overlanding rather than an actual overlander. And prior to maybe 2005 to 2010 or so I had no interest, reason, or motivation to seek out a definition of Overlanding. I just knew it when I saw it. Until maybe 2015 to 2020 I never thought about what makes an Expedition different from a competition or publicity stunt. But, as I started to see more and more people show interest in overlanding I couldn’t help but ask myself — is there an argument that supports a more rigid definition?
For years my personal definition remained as follows:
- Overlanding is rooted in global travel
- Overlanding is not commercial or competitive
- 4x4s (and maybe 6×6’s to some degree) are the modes of transportation
- Overlanding requires a certain degree of self-reliance and routes need to be somewhat remote
- Cultural experiences and new landscapes (flora / fauna) are cornerstones of overland travel.
Looking back today — that might sound a bit elitist or like I was trying to be a gatekeeper. But, in all honesty that wasn’t the case. I grew up in the outdoors, camping in 4x4s, riding dirt bikes and ATVs… and never once conflated those activities with my own definition of overlanding. It was simply something different. Sure, there was clearly some overlap… but at the end of the day overlanding was its own thing.
Does this site… and the modern overland industry need a definition
No. Not really, broadly speaking, I think definitions can and should change with time. And context provides a lot of flexibility in many other commonly used terms. Sailing can mean a lot of different things but there are excellent ways we can use context to distinguish between the sailing of the US Navy and what you’ll find at a marina in the Bahamas. Even overlanding as I once viewed it is a narrow adaptation of a very broad term. At one point in history overland was just the word used to describe the alternative to over water.
However, with that said I strongly believe that both this site and the industry as a whole can benefit from a bit of focus, reflection, and direction. I’m a one man show, and most of the people in the modern overland industry as small businesses, so without direction there’s a chance that we can all take on too much. Without some sort of boundaries a publication could lose focus and start covering backpacking, a recognized overlanding event might feature side by sides, or the core idea that overlanding is travel-centric could be lost altogether.
To clarify; does overlanding need to be strictly defined? No, in my opinion I don’t think it would benefit from an overly rigid set of guidelines or rules. And, it’s a free market so people can certainly do what they want. But, as a realist and maintainer of this site — I definitely think overland travel (and the like) need a focus or direction. Without direction the industry will continue to consume other hobbies and activities. But perhaps even more troubling the history and pioneers who laid the groundwork to build this booming industry will fade into oblivion — replaced forever by clever marketing, Instagram models, and those only looking to make a quick buck.
Our Overland Focus
While my views on overlanding have changed a bit over time and I’m certainly more open to change than I have been in the past, I know that I need direction. So my focus moving forward, at least as it pertains to overlanding on this site, will be toward international travel by 4×4 (or similar). Now with that said… that doesn’t mean that I am going to exclude anyone or anything that doesn’t fit my exact definition. But, I will do my best to use that as a focal point to keep this site on topic.
I think that should work quite well. I don’t want to exclude those of us (myself included) who aren’t yet able to travel internationally, but enjoy buying gear proven in harsh environments or a bit of overland LARPing on the weekends. But, I’m not going to blindly promote junk just because it says overland either. I make next to zero dollars on this site and thats okay with me. I’m also not going to put out self appointed experts whose sole claim to fame is that they’re good at self promotion, social media, or making YouTube Videos. To be honest, I’m just going to do my best to provide anyone interested with a valuable resource or point of view in a rapidly changing industry.
Where I feel focus is lacking
I don’t want this to come off as overly critical, but I do want to share some thoughts on where I think there’s a bit of confusion, unnecessary overlap, or cases that could benefit from a more focused approach. From influencers, to manufacturers, to people new to “overlanding”… I truly believe there is a huge gap in the application of the term. I often see or hear people use “overlanding” as a verb to describe the act of driving on dirt, rocks, or mud. That alone leads me to believe that there is a bit of confusion or lack of alternative options, and I’ll get to that shortly. The same goes for “overland” used as an adjective. Manufactures and influencers often modify a noun. For example “overland table” or “overland tires” or “overland vehicle.” And while there is certainly a need for this application the lack of focus or understanding… “overland” is simply used in place of words like “camping” in order to attract attention or
It’s just camping…
First up… the camping argument. I personally feel like camping has become too much of a focus in the overland industry. Tents, camping appliances, and chairs often take center stage on websites and at overland events. The way I see it is that yes, overlanders camp — but not all campers are overlanding. I’ve seen this problem rear its ugly little head myriad times in the comment sections. “I remember when we just called it camping,” is a common snarky reply. And just for transparency I’m a huge camping gear nerd. But, taking the focus off of travel in favor of a ridiculous and elaborate camp setup completely misses the mark.
If you’re on a camping (or on a hunting trip) a lavish camp can be fun in many ways, from shopping to sharing a drink with friends and family around the fire. If you move more towards “touring” as the Australians call it… packing up and setting up as you move every day becomes a bit of a nuisance. And, for those who are traveling overland abroad camping gear needs to be unobtrusive, robust, and reliable. The latter requires camping gear to provide shelter, food, and a bit of comfort while traveling. The former however is an opportunity to focus on the gear and use it to enhance the experience in the wild. Those are just my thoughts and I reserve the right to be completely wrong.
So how can the industry… or at least my little website promote change? I plan to start by highlighting only quality camping gear that is simple, quick to set up, and easy to put away. I also want to focus on practicality and be clear when things are a luxury instead of a necessity. For example a titanium fork and spoon are completely unnecessary, but can be a really nice and practical gift or upgrade. However to be honest a fork from the kitchen is probably pretty common in the kit carried by myriad German travelers. But thats just a matter of preference and price. What I strongly disagree with is the pushing of silly “overland camp” stuff that is cheaply made and has zero purpose outside of recreational camping. Examples might be two person camp chairs, flimsy collapsible camp kitchens, or janky / heavy tables.
The Gucci fallacy
I’ve heard the complaint that “overland gear is too expensive” at events and online. But the truth of the matter is that overlanders (traveling abroad) are frugal to a near fault. They might splurge on a piece of critical gear or something that they’ll use daily for the next three years — but wasting money is not a core trait of an “overlander.” Those traveling, or emulating those traveling, realize that some items provide value independent of prince and others are expensive just because. But, blaming (or promoting) expensive junk does little to help people reach the goal of global travel. Nor does it help build a sustainable business in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Some things cost more than expected for a good reason… while others are like fast fashion luxury brands that only exist because they’re expensive. At the end of the day expensive is subjective… but if you’re pushing the narrative that something is “Gucci” for no reason you’re missing the point.
Influencers and “Experts”
Oh influencers… the profession everyone loves to hate. Often for no reason, but frequently with good reason. The problem I have with them as it pertains to overlanding is that many self proclaimed experts have little to no experience traveling by vehicle. And to make things worse many “overland” experts aren’t very well versed in camping, 4×4’s, or the things they’re being paid to promote. Some of the “biggest names” in gear and content creation are leading people astray and pushing complete junk on them all in the name of making a few bucks. I personally think it’s pretty horrible and hope that most are doing it with good intentions but little real world experience or understanding. Sorry… that subject sort of hits a nerve with me.
I’ll come back to this later… i need to have a beer after that section about influencers and huge RV companies creeping into the “overland space.”
The opportunity side of this growth is absolutely incredible. Accessibility and popularity allow regular outdoor enthusiasts like us to get a taste of a lifestyle that’s existed for decades, but was always a bit out of reach. Today, we don’t have to quit our jobs and ship a 4×4 to the Amazon to get a taste of the overland lifestyle. And thanks to a booming industry we’re spoiled for choice whether we’re looking for tires, tents, or tools. But, from my own observation, both opportunity and confusion seem to run rampant these days as definitions morph and sub niches develop. And while I’m no expert I can definitely recognize a bit of flawed logic making its way to center stage.
Overall the growth of an industry, lifestyle, or hobby is a net positive for nearly all involved. However, there are almost always growing pains associated with popularity or growth. New conflicts arise between various groups, scammers move in to seize opportunity, and veterans can feel like they’re being marginalized. The positive that I see in this particular situation, is that overland travel has a strong foundation, tons of inspirational figures, and an impressive history that serves as an excellent point of reference to keep us moving in the right direction as the industry continues to expand here in North America. And for a website with very limited resources… it’s probably a good idea to have some sort of goal and defined objectives to work toward.
Without getting too bogged down in details what exactly am I trying to accomplish here as it pertains to overlanding? First, I need to establish some guardrails to make sure the time I invest building this site isn’t a fools errand — constantly chasing trends and making desperate attempts to pass myself off as an all knowing expert to build an audience. To be honest, I can get a little distracted at times and laying this out will allow me to revisit it from time to time. And second, there are a ton of voices pushing gear over travel and while that’s good for business… it hurts those who may someday want do travel abroad by 4×4. Gear and gadgets are fun and many are quite useful, but when you’re on your deathbed the time spent traveling abroad in a 4×4 will be far more valuable than a garage full of gear. I hope that to some extent this site will help you think critically of what really matters. Not because I know all the answers, but because I’ve made these mistakes over and over. Finally my revised intent with ExpeditionWire.com is to provide relevant information consumers, manufacturers, and those reporting on the overlanding industry can use as a point of reference.
Overlanding Guides, Skills, and Resources.
- Overland Essentials – Our picks for the skills and gear you must have to get started.
- Basic Gear – Things you’ll want and need beyond the items that will keep you safe and out of trouble.
- Camp and Kitchen – Gear to improve meal prep, sleep, and time spent in the overland campsite.
- Choosing a Vehicle – Information on popular adventure vehicles