What is overlanding?

A common-sense definition of overlanding, without all the fluff

Keywords: Overlanding, what is overlanding, overlanding definition, what is an overlander

The term "overlanding" can be confusing to those who are new to it. Some prominent overlanding groups promote a very broad definition of overlanding ("Overlanding is whatever you want it to be!") to be generous and welcoming...or perhaps with an eye toward expanding the market for their products or services. Some others regrettably stick to a very narrow definition to demonstrate how they are the "real overlanders" while others are not.

This article has no particular agenda either way. I'm just trying to help you better understand what the term "overlanding" means in general usage.

Overlanding has long been popular in Australia, South Africa, and other places. Americans have always loved travel, but the U.S. is actually a late bloomer when it comes to overlanding in particular, with interest not really picking up significantly until late 2015. (There were certainly overlanders prior to then, but that's when the public really started to take notice.)

Here's my definition (borrowing elements from others):

Overlanding is self-reliant, vehicle-dependent adventure travel.

Let's break that down:

  • Self-reliant: A core element of overlanding is that you generally bring what you need with you. Unlike a road trip where you might be relying on restaurants and motels, overlanding typically involves planning and carrying your own provisions and accommodations. (This is why overlanding is so closely associated with camping.) This aspect of overlanding can be very liberating, because you can change course at a moment's notice and make your home wherever you end up.
  • Vehicle-dependent: Your vehicle is a central part of your overlanding journey. You'll often find yourself in the middle of nowhere, far from cell phone reception, and you have to trust your vehicle to get you out of there. You'll need something dependable and rugged enough to handle the terrain you're exploring. Having 4x4 capabilities is typically recommended. Common overlanding vehicles include Jeeps, 4Runners, Tacomas, Land Cruisers, Land Rovers, and Subarus.
  • Adventure travel: Overlanding implies you'll be spending most of your travel time away from smooth pavement, instead exploring primitive roads and trails that most people never experience. You'll be driving on dirt, dust, sand, and rock. There'll be nobody to clear fallen trees from your path or salt the roads before the upcoming snow. You'll be roughing it in non-designated campsites. The payoff, though, is that you'll witness parts of creation that go unnoticed by the vast majority of people, and you'll learn some significant things about yourself in the process.

This explanation may or may not be technically "right" as far as classical definitions of overlanding go—I'm sure there's a dusty old Australian out there who's been roaming the outback for the last 17 years rolling his eyes at me right now—but the definition of overlanding described above is typically what people are talking about when you hear that word.

To help you understand where overlanding fits in the grand scheme of things, here's a quick breakdown of how it's different from some other major travel styles:

  • Hiking: Uses your feet, where overlanding is vehicle-dependent.
  • Road trips: Typically rely on outside support systems (hotels, restaurants, and so on) while overlanding is generally self-sufficient.
  • Four-wheeling: Typically involves using small all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) to explore a limited area, whereas overlanding typically involves a more extensive journey.
  • Off-roading: Often involves the same kinds of vehicles and terrain as overlanding, but usually a shorter journey (often a day trip) with less emphasis on self-reliance.
  • Rock-crawling: Focused on using highly-modified vehicles to overcome extreme obstacles, which might come up occasionally in overlanding but is typically not considered part of it (unless you go out of your way to make it so).
  • Camping: A typical camping trip involves driving on paved roads to a designated camping area, while overlanding is typically focused more on the adventurous and usually off-road journey (although there's often still camping at the end of the day).

A good rule of thumb is to do what you enjoy doing instead of worrying about what exactly it's called. It's the doing part that matters most in the end.

James from Journey West

James from Journey West

James grew up in a family prone to extended camping and epic cross-country road trips. He's now enjoying exploring and documenting the Arizona backcountry in a 2008 V8 4Runner. He's currently planning and pre-running the Heart of Arizona overland loop. You can reach him at journeywestco@gmail.com