Overlanding is a relaxed blend of camping and road tripping. Here’s how to get started.

It's like a roadtrip and a camping trip all rolled into one.
vehicle with open back doors overlanding outdoors with person laying on the back of the vehicle
Maybe not as luxurious, but definitely prettier than any hotel room out there. onX Offroad / Unsplash

If you love road trips and the outdoors, it might be time to try overlanding. This method of slow travel where you carry everything you need to survive in your vehicle seeks a more enriching experience by focusing on enjoying the journey instead of just moving to reach a destination.

Overlanding is elevating a humble road trip to a new level of adventure, so it’s easy to make the leap from one to the other.

Overlanding is about the trip, not the destination

“At its core, overlanding is simply self-sufficient, vehicle-dependent travel,” explains Sonya Staples, co-founder, along with her husband Necota, of Staples InTents, a company designed to educate newcomers, and especially people of color, on how to get into overlanding and camping. 

The couple, who have gone overlanding on multiple continents, explains that this kind of trip is more of a mindset than a specific activity. In practice, it’s a deliberate and un-rushed amble from place to place, where you learn as much as you can about new places and their customs. 

[Related: The best way to pack your car for any road trip]

Overlanding often requires you to carry everything you’ll need to survive in your vehicle, as it typically involves more camping than hotels and more cooking over a camp stove than restaurants. But the goal is an enriching journey, so there’s nothing against stopping along the way to have a drink with locals, eat new dishes, and explore national parks. Don’t forget culture is a key element of overlanding, so make sure to visit museums, and learn about local customs and values, and the people you meet along the way.

The term “overlanding” may conjure visions of technical gear and over-built vehicles, but it certainly doesn’t have to. In fact, all you need to get started is a mode of transportation.

Vehicles are required

Though overlanding tends to be more of a travel philosophy than a specific activity, you’ll need one thing: a vehicle. For the Staples, that’s a Toyota Land Cruiser named DOT, for Sonya’s grandmother, but also an acronym for Deep Overland Transport. But just about any vehicle will do, Necota says—it could be a 4-wheel drive SUV, a motorcycle, or even a bicycle. Anything that takes you from place to place and carries whatever items you need to sustain you.

“The vehicle is an end to a means,” Necota says. 

Unlike off-roading, you don’t need a highly specialized vehicle to go overlanding:  just a set of wheels that functions as your accommodations, kitchen, and base of operations so you can enjoy yourself in the outdoors.

Overlanding gear

Since overlanding often means avoiding hotels in exchange for campsites, often without power, water, or Wi-Fi, you’re going to need a few things to support yourself, stay safe, and make your trip comfortable. That said, your setup can be as simple or as complex as you like. 

“Overlanding gets a bad rap because people think you need a whole bunch of specialized gear,” Sonya says. But in reality, other than the basics, the focus should be on what makes you comfortable, she explains. 

If you already own camping gear, then you likely have all you need to start overlanding. The basics, according to Necota and Sonya, include a shelter, a sleep system, a kitchen setup, and a bathroom kit. But what each of those entails, is up to you.

A shelter could be a traditional tent, rooftop tent, or hammock. It could even be a platform in the back of your van with a mattress thrown on top. Meanwhile, your sleep system should include a sleeping pad or mattress, a sleeping bag, and a pillow. But if you have a mattress, you might opt for sheets instead.

A kitchen should consist of basic necessities like a compact camp stove, a pot, a pan or two, durable dinnerware, and a bucket for washing up. If you want to go big, some vehicle build-outs may even have a kitchen block that pulls out of the hatchback like a drawer.

As for a bathroom, you can DIY a toilet out of a bucket, toilet seat, and trash bag, get an expensive composting toilet, or even use a sealable plastic jug for, ahem, liquid waste. Wag bags designed for camping are another low-cost option. There are also heated portable showers available for staying clean on the road, or you can just use wet wipes. Whatever you do, just make sure to follow Leave No Trace principles.

Safety first

When overlanding, make sure you always have essential safety items on board, including a well-stocked first aid kit. Carry recovery gear, too—pack traction boards and a snatch rope, and learn how to use them in case your vehicle gets stuck in the mud, snow, or ice when driving down backroads or off main thoroughfares.

Don’t forget refillable jugs for those days you won’t have access to running water, and a cooler to keep perishables cold. Plenty of food to sustain you as you camp far from civilization for days on end is also a must. 

If you have laptops, cell phones, cameras, or GPS devices, you’ll need to keep them charged along the way or at camp. A power station and portable solar panels can come in handy, so as not to accidentally drain your vehicle’s battery.

Find your campsite and a way to get there

Once you’re packed and on the road, it’s time to find a place to pitch your tent for the night. Fortunately, apps like iOverlander (for iOS and Android) and Campendium (for iOS and Android) can help you find dispersed campsites (many on public land), and even developed campgrounds if you’re desperate. Just type in where you’re headed and the apps will provide GPS coordinates, directions, photos, and reviews.

[Related: Smart tips for travelers looking for a sustainable getaway]

As for route-finding, you can use apps like Google Maps (for iOS and Android) and Gaia (for iOS and Android) to plot your trip, find backroads, and get directions. Both offer the option to download maps for offline use, which comes in handy when you’re headed off-grid. But these are no replacement for a good ol’ paper map, which you should always bring with you in case technology fails you. 

Get educated

The Staples’ top tip for getting into overlanding: Get connected and educated since you’re likely going to be exploring off-grid and out of service where preparedness and the ability to support yourself is key. You can do this by attending an overlanding event or expo, joining a local group of like-minded individuals on Meetup or Facebook, and taking classes on map reading, self-recovery, or even bushcraft. 

Then all that’s left is to hit the road with an open mind, a sense of adventure, and an appetite for meaningful cultural exchanges.