What are the best overland vehicles? Your guess is probably just as good as ours. Despite years "invested" following the exploits of various overlanders, adventure travelers, and talented writers - we sit here weighing our myriad vehicle options. We know there are a ton of great vehicle options out there... but is there a "best" vehicle for overland travel?
We've heard the "it doesn't matter" mantra pretty often - and completely agree that the travel should always come first. Don't blow everything on building a vehicle and have your trip cut short because you had to have a winch, fancy lights, or leather seats. But, we're fortunate enough to have the option to choose both travel and vehicle. Sure every dollar sunk into a rig could be invested in making a memory while traveling here at home or abroad.
Many vehicle-based travelers in our shoes would default to the "obvious" choice - Toyota. While others would spice up the trip with something European... something that might create various adventures within your adventure. Maybe a vintage van or something more eclectic - like using a Land Rover to retrace the "First Overland" route. Some, stick to the rig they already own and skip the vehicle selection process altogether. After all, people have embarked on incredible journeys in pretty much any rig you can imagine.
Unfortunately, as far as we can tell, there is no "best" vehicle. Each and every one comes with its own unique set of features, flaws, and capabilities. To further complicate things; every traveler brings to the table a unique set of capabilities, flaws, and expectations.
The tricky part seems to be identifying which rig best dovetails with a traveler for a given trip; or travel style. And, that dovetailing process, one of near constant compromise, analysis, and reflection, is what we intend to document here. Our goal isn't to identify a best overland vehicle, or even list the top ten or so options, we want to share with you the process (and failures) of transitioning from overland enthusiast to long term traveler - and how vehicles play a crucial role in that transition.
First Some Key Constraints...
Everyone is different and must choose a vehicle that support their own travel goals. Some vehicle shoppers might plan to travel alone on weekends, while others might want to cruise around Russia as a married couple, and then there are some who might want to travel as a family exploring places across North America. Bottom line is that a Jeep Wrangler might work well one use case while a adventure bike could do the trick in another - in for others a traveler might need something larger to keep everyone happy..
Before we dig into more detailed topics it is probably smart to lay out some of the things that will play a part in our decision making process. From trip length, to passengers, to bucket list destinations there are some things we just can't change that will play a huge role in our decision making process. Here are some of the big ones...
|Timeline||At Least 6 Months, Ideally 12-48 Months, Max 10 Years|
|The Travellers||Two Adults, A Small Child, and a 25 Pound Dog|
|Initial Destinations||American West, Alaska, British Columbia, Texas, Baja|
|Medium Term Destinations||Eastern United States, Newfoundland / Labrador / Nova Scotia, Australia, Mainland Mexico|
|Longer Term Destinations||Africa, Europe, South America, Central America, South East Asia|
|Planned Departure||Fall 2018|
Defining Overland Travel... for Ourselves
Nowadays we're much less confident in our understanding of, and commitment to, the word overland. And, while we think we have a good list of potential "overland" vehicle options to consider we also know it is very easy to slip up and allow our own biases to influence our decision. So before we go out and drop tens of thousands of dollars on a rig we think checks all of the boxes we really need to ask... what do we mean by overlanding?
The term "Overlanding" is rapidly evolving and now encompasses a much broader meaning than it did 20 or so years ago. Some circles lovingly embrace the term's expanding definition and subsequently use it generously to describe myriad things; groups of people, food, gear, clothing, technical trails, trail rides, water crossings, dirt roads, and most obviously... vehicles. Others however, tend to gravitate toward using it to describe longer-term vehicle-dependant travel, cultural experiences, and the simple yet capable vehicles that support their immersive itineraries. We're not here to pick sides or debate whether a transitioning definition is good or bad. In fact, in person we probably use the "O word" fewer than a dozen times each year. But, we do think we should take a moment to clearly define how we intend to travel... at least in the near term.
|Note: If you're interested in exploring the more well established definitions there are some great "what is overlanding" articles online, content that covers the differences between off roading and overland travel, and some great explanations like Jonathan Hanson and Scott Brady's on Overland Journal.|
Speaking of experience... you might be asking yourself "what the hell do these armchair vehicle-dependent globetrotters know about anything?" To that we say - great question. Generally speaking we know a little more than some, but next to nothing compared to many. Our real-world overland travel street cred is really still in its infancy... or maybe it's terrible twos at best. We have traveled internationally, owned 4x4s since the mid 1990's, and spend as much free time as possible exploring the West's dirt roads. But, when it comes to border crossings, shipping vehicles, and long term vehicle based travel we're pretty inexperienced.
Until now weekend backcountry touring and occasional week long camping trips comprised nearly all of our vehicle based recreational travel. Like most people our schedules, lifestyle, etc. simply didn't allow for lengthy trips. A trip to explore wilderness a state or two away was both infrequent and brief. We mostly enjoyed getting out in nature, hanging out with friends, playing with cool gear, and distancing ourselves from less adventurous campers. Overlanding, for us, looked a lot like the 4x4 touring style travel you might see in Australia.
|Our Typical Trip Looked Something like this...|
To a casual observer we probably looked the part, but really didn't put much thought into how gear, modifications, etc. would impact travel beyond what we encountered over the course of a few days in the wild. The vehicles we selected leaned more toward daily driver with weekend exploring 4x4 capabilities. We really just needed a rig that could carry some camping gear and would easily fit in our garage.
Full Time Travel in North America
As we prepare for long term travel we are beginning to realize that wild camping every single day might not be the most sustainable approach. We do want to explore remote 4x4 trails and spend plenty of nights camping in the wild. But, we also want to meet new people, explore cool cities, and enjoy local cuisine. We also need to
That means that our next "best overland vehicle" will be less of a off-road camping rig and more of a comfy vehicle that is at home on the highway and only somewhat off-road oriented. Therefore the information we'll refer to as we do our homework will be a bit more rooted in traditional overland travel than the weekend warrior style excursions we've enjoyed in the past. Your decision making process will certainly be different than ours. If you're
As we begin our search for the best vehicle we'll do our best to eliminate our both our biases and lack of experience.
That's why we intend to attribute most of the information you'll see here to much smarter people who possess relevant real world travel experience. And, then supplement that with specific questions and simple concepts to illustrate how "the big variable" (aka us) affects making the best vehicle choice. As we do the homework involved in choosing our next vehicle we really hope to provide you with some value by sharing some of the things we think might happen, stuff we've learned through trial and error, and the information we've absorbed from those around us.
Lessons from Others
#1 Keep it Simple
So here's the most common piece of wisdom we've encountered: many seasoned world travelers recommend spending as little as possible on a vehicle. That means choosing an affordable vehicle and sticking to minimal modifications. This allows you to direct valuable resources toward food, shelter, and the unexpected. Dan Grec is a great example: in his book "The Road Chose Me" he travels the entire length of the Pan american Highway a in a humble two door soft top Jeep TJ. When Sheena and Brad Van Orden made a similar trip they did so in a nearly 30 year old 1984 VW Vanagon. We like to think we'd make a similar choice if we were embarking on our journey in our 20's. But, now that we're older, softer, and responsible for a small human we're going to prioritize comfort, sanity, and dependability. That translates to a little more cash on the front end and a fewer cool breakdown stories to share when we return. But, we'll do our best to keep ourselves in check.
#2 Don't Let the Lack of the Perfect Overland Vehicle Stop You
A friend of ours mentioned that he somewhat regrets the amount of time he spent obsessing over vehicle options before setting out on his solo trip. He worried about parts availability, service centers, and globally available vehicles. A few months in he realized that a lot of other travelers were enjoying essentially the same trip in a wide range of vehicles. Pretty much anything you can think of from work vans, to street bikes, to sedans, and even bicycles. None of the other travelers seemed to deeply regret thier vehicle choice. This is a concept we've seen over and over in forums, books, and articles. Just focus on the trip... not the rig. Generally speaking, most people who are actually travelling the globe aren't as well equipped as those you'll see parked at Overland Expo. Looking for a vehicle can be a fun part of the adventure, but don't let the search for the perfect vehicle get in your way.
With all that said...we don't think you should completely eliminate the excitement and joy that a vehicle might bring to your journey. Especially if you're an automotive enthusiast. We love reading about the Bell Family's Defender 130, the Wescott's various "Turtle's" (the third of which - Turtle III - sparked Andrew's interest in overland travel back in the 90's), and of course Ted Simon's Triumph Tiger. There are tons of examples like these where a vehicle plays the part of a central character in an adventure - we don't plan to deprive ourselves of this connection. We're just going to avoid getting bogged down in finding something that checks every single box.
#3 Less is More (Enjoyable)
We're gear nerds. Courtney loves cooking gadgets and Andrew is a sucker for pretty much anything vehicle or outdoor recreation related. But, nearly every seasoned overlander will tell you to keep your vehicle as light as possible. Keep it simple is something we hear with a lot of frequency - it's a recurring theme in the pages of Overland Journal, a necessity for motorcycle travelers like Lois Pryce, and something we regret not doing on nearly every trip. People who love gear like we do often pay the price mid trip when they're unpacking a vehicle to find something crucial, schlepping a ton of luggage into a hotel, or wishing they had a bit more room for a great souvenir.
Too much stuff is something we'll certainly struggle with as we look for a new vehicle. How much space do we need for our We love gear and certain things really make us happy when we're on the road. But, striking a balance between wants and needs is definitely going to be a huge hurdle. But, we aren't going to beat ourselves up about it... we'll probably pack too much but we'll contunually
#4 Take it Easy
This takes many forms but from what we gather travelers know that intensity isn't the key to success when overlanding. Long days and driving after dark are something that pops up in nearly every book, forum, etc. It's dangerous for many reasons, but the solution offered by travelers is always the same; don't take on too much and plan for short driving days.
Another area in which a more relaxed approach frequently prevails is technical or difficult terrain. It seems like a lot of people think they're trip isn't worthwhile unless they overcome a significant offroad obstacle. Nearly every traveler we've encountered recommends taking it easy when exercising the capabilities of your 4x4. Lance Gilles recently put it nicely by saying something along the lines of - the best piece of recovery equipment is the reverse gear in your transmission.
So what does this have to do with choosing the best overland vehicle? To us hearing travelers bring these things up make us realize that the best overland vehicles often aren't the most capable. Light bars, huge tires, and a bunch of off-road modifications look great on social media and even serve a purpose for recreational off-roading. But they are rarely essential in an overland vehicle.
#5 Embrace the Space
Back when people smoked on airplanes and called home collect; spartan vehicles of questionable build quality and dependability were the norm for global vehicle based travel. At least that's the way some of our favorite books make it seem. To a casual observer early journeys seem more raw, more inspirational, and more seat of the pants in nature.
But, a good deal has changed since the days of setting out on an adventure without access to satellite imagery, military grade navigation tools, or vehicles that are accumulate 200,000 miles without much drama. Travelers like us tend to obsess over the details, comb online trip reports, and cruise around streets on Google Maps years before we see them in person. Nowadays it's common to seek out advice from strangers online before you commit to a place to eat breakfast, a birthday gift, or a big ticket item like a 4x4.
For example; internet users ask Google about the best overland vehicles more than 4,000 times each and every month. And, while several thousand searches aren’t huge numbers in the grand scheme of things, that is a substantial search volume within a historically small corner of the internet. In fact the term "overlanding" itself didn't really start a significant upward trend until Q1 of 2015. Since then it's grown at a pretty impressive clip - there are currently about 33,000 monthly searches. And, as overland travel continues its march into the mainstream thousands of people are searching for a bit of guidance on how to find the top vehicles for overland travel. The question we have is will they blindly trust top ten lists written by journalists who usually cover hybrids, cookie cutter crossovers, and and occasional body on frame dinosaur off-roader? Or will they take the more romantic approach: hit the road and sort things out along the way?
Well, it just so happens that we’re in the process of choosing the "perfect" overland vehicle for our small family. The path we intend to take is neither romantic nor reliant on blindly accepting the opinion of others. We aren't new to the concept of overlanding, but we are complete noobs to the world of firsthand long-term, vehicle-based, travel. Sure we've read some books, watched decades of YouTube videos, commented on a forum or two, and spent countless nights sleeping in the wild... but this will certainly be a completely different animal. Our days as interested observers, keyboard commandos, and occasional multi-week travellers are numbered. Before we know it we'll toss ourselves into the proverbial deep end and put what we think we know to the test.
But, first we need to choose a vehicle whose sole purpose in life will be to support our family's unique travel objectives. Through our current search we intend to document our attempt to answer the “best overland rig” question... for ourselves and travellers like you. We know enough to ignore most of the "best of" lists, but also know that we're certified dumbs when it comes to the practical application of most things in the real world. So since we're mostly risk averse, we're going to have to break things down into manageable bits and make the best decision we can with the available information.
But first some dumb questions
So is the "which vehicle is best" question mostly dumb in and of itself? Probably. What does best even mean when you're on the hunt for that perfect vehicle? One shopper might be looking for the most capable 4x4 to transport them to the most remote campsites regardless of the body damage incurred along the way. While another is searching for a dependable new 4x4 that won't depreciate so fast that even a new Maserati owner would question her financial acumen. Then there are people looking for the most comfort, others searching for "I've made it" luxury, and some might be scouring the web for an miserable vehicle that looks the part. Bottom line "best" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Don't accept lists as gospel unless there's a lot of context, prior failures, and hard earned experience packed into each bullet pointed recommendation. So rather than beat ourselves up for asking the clearly dumb "what is the best overland rig" question... lets ask ourselves a few questions that might actually move our decision process along in the right direction.
How much time do we have?
It's stupid simple, but glossing over that question leads to making basically the same mistake over and over. We rarely consider how often will we use something or how much time we're willing to devote to its use. Do we really need the "best" stand mixer to support a baking hobbie that resurfaces for just an afternoon every 12-24 months? Or is a top of the line boutique mountain bike really necessary when you only have about 4 hours a week to ride? How many mornings will I get up early enough to mount that $2,500 exercise machine in a half assed attempt to avoid a life limited to the stretchy elastic confines of yoga pants, gym shorts, and hoodies. More often that not the answer we don't want to hear is easily avoided by skipping the stupidly simplistic question we should have asked ourselves right off the bat. How much of my finite time on this planet will I dedicate to this widget?
To avoid getting in over our heads on this upcoming adventure we will impose a somewhat arbitrary timeline. We're setting our sights on 12 months on the road... at least initially. We'll also include a raley discussed 6 month floor that will require nothing short of the loss of life, limb, or sanity to warrant bailing before half of a year elapses. If all goes well we'll keep going after a full calendar year, but for the purpose of decision making, budgeting, etc. we're going to use twelve months. It's a timeline that's long enough to warrant a significant purchase, but it's short enough that if we hate this lifestyle the vehicle we choose should have some utility once we retreat to our comfy cookie cutter American life. For us this question keeps us from getting too crazy with our vehicle choice - for example it prevents Andrew from Unimog shopping and keeps Courtney from easily talking us into a lightly used EarthRoamer.
For you it might be as simple as how many days are available to enjoy your rig each month, week, or year. The fewer days you have... the more expensive each mile, night, etc. becomes.
We’ve lived long enough to realize that we're more or less idiots when it comes to most subjects that comprise the world around us. We make irrational decisions based
And, the topic of overland travel is no exception. We've been following the topic to some extent since the 90's but as is the case with nearly everything there's an enormous difference between theoretical and practical knowledge. So what should we do?
If we were to make the decision based solely on the what we currently understand we might succeed
Where will this 4x4 take us?
Our Thought Process…
- What is our current situation?
- What is “the mission” or “goal” for this trip and what are the objectives?
- What equipment, gear, etc. do we need (and want) to bring?
- What kind of terrain do we expect to encounter?
- What is our timeline?
- What capabilities do we need in our vehicle
- When we created that outline the intent was to cover each point, in detail, on a single page. However, when we hit six thousand words we decided to break things up into more manageable sections. This page, the one you’re currently reading, will briefly cover why we think each point is important; subsequent pages will expand on each bullet point.
Assessing Our Current Situation
Whether you’re stuck in deep sand, lost in a forest, or getting ready to buy a new car it’s nearly always a good idea to step back and asses things before you proceed. We’ve heard various versions of that advice recited in the military, first aid training, and outdoor-focused programs and articles. Tunnel vision is rarely a good thing and it’s something we humans tend to experience whenever we become excited, stressed, or disoriented. In the case of preparing for a vehicle based adventure we definitely tend to get excited and spend more time (initially) focused on day dreams than actual consideration, planning, and preparation.
Just the word “overland” tends to conjure mental images that build upon photos we’ve seen from the Camel Trophy, Dakar Rally, various safaris, and full page spreads found in countless issues of National Geographic. At least that’s the case for us… when you say “best overland vehicle” our minds immediately drift off toward dust covered Land Cruisers, Defenders, and small trucks traversing remote landscapes filled with interesting people and exotic animals. But the thing is… spending over $100,000 on an imported and restored 25+ year old Defender 110 to carry the family across Oregon, Idaho, and Montana probably isn’t the wisest decision for our family.
We have our own unique budget, travel experiences, and tolerance for discomfort. You do as well, and nobody knows that better than you do. But, we all need to realize that there are myriad variables that go into choosing the best overland vehicle for you. Sometimes we just need a gentle reminder to step back and consider the big picture. It’s something we’ve struggled with for most of our adult lives - and writing things down should help.
From a vehicle selection standpoint this step should help us get a rough budget in mind, an idea of how we’ll actually live with the 4x4, and avoid our individual biases throughout the selection process. Assessing our current situation is a good way to get our bearings before we proceed with this decision… at least that’s the theory.
A mission (or goal) will keep us all pointed in one direction as we shop for a vehicle, carefully select its modifications, and travel from one destination to the next. Generally speaking it serves as a point of reference we will use to keep everything else in check. If a vehicle doesn’t help us move toward “completing our mission,” it’s probably not the best overland rig for our family. Objectives are the places we want to experience and things we want to see as we move toward accomplishing our goal (or mission). Not only do they serve as a checklist… but they help establish the scope of what we’re about to attempt.
Developing Our Mission, Scope, and Defining Travel Objectives
Our initial Goal / Mission is geared toward “getting our feet wet” without overextending ourselves. Sure plenty of people hop on a motorcycle, buy a van, drive a jeep, etc and have a great adventure. That’s not for us… we have a small child, a dog, and each other to consider. Testing the waters should help ensure success and keep us from changing our mind thousands of miles from home.
We’ll dig into our objectives later… but generally speaking they focus on exploring the US, Canada, and Baja. There’s a lot we want to see and do close to home, but we expect that these objectives will prepare us for long term travel abroad while we enjoy much of North America.
Gear, Personal Items, and Equipment
This is one of our favorite topics… gear and equipment. On one hand we definitely understand how crucial it is to pack light. But, on the other hand we really love to try new gadgets and gizmos. Laying out a packing list helps us get an idea about space and weight requirements of the items that accompany us on our travels. But, it also makes sure that we’re minimizing the moments where we find ourselves in need of this or that to either save our butts or make our backside a little more comfortable.
Based on past experiences, doing our homework, and referring to our travel objectives we can establish a pretty solid gear list. We’ll cover this section in greater detail later… but a general set of things we’re going to consider looks something like this.
- Recovery Gear
- Safety Equipment
- Tools and Spares
- Personal Items
- Camp Kitchen
- Shelter, Camp Furniture, etc.
We really want to strike a balance between preparedness, comfort, and simplicity. Considering our affinity for all kinds of gadgets and gear — this might be a challenge.
The internet and its myriad reviews, unboxings, and forums make "researching" a purchase fairly easy these days. For the most part this is a good advancement in the world of consumerism. But, we suspect choosing a home on wheels requires a little more on our end than say... figuring out which toaster oven is the "best" or
In many instances access to more opinions is a worthwhile bit of evolution in consumer . We can consult a few online "experts" order that $150 toaster oven that The Wirecutter assures us is the world's best and move on to bigger and better things. But,
But, we suspect that choosing the best overland vehicle isn't as straightforward as narrowing down our choices among the years' best reviewed toaster ovens. This will be a huge purchase and we want to do our best to choose mostly right on the first vehicle purchase attempt. So while there seem to be a couple great "best overland vehicle" articles out there, we want to consider our needs and ask ourselves some really basic questions. These questions might seem dumb, or elementary, on the surface but we suspect that they'll prove helpful in the long run.
Consider us more devoted students of overland travel than seasoned veterans who can gesture in a general direction and say "here they are, but choose wisely - only one is the best overland vehicle for you." At the end of the day you're going to need to do some homework. We can't point you to a specific vehicle nor can most of the people trying to answer this question.