Why is Overlanding in the U.S. so expensive?

Over the last few months, I’ve been following an interesting trend in the U.S. overlanding communities. Heavily overbuilt rigs with tens of thousands of dollars of equipment strapped to them, and I can’t help but think how unnecessary all that is.

I’m not saying that the heavy steel bumpers, big 35-inch tires and roof-top tents don’t serve their purposes, they do, but I’d argue whether they are necessary for overland travel in the United States.

That’s because, unlike countries where overland travel is common, the U.S. is incredibly well developed.

I recognize that many overlanders build their rigs for both overlanding and off-road excursions. The only problem with that is it creates the illusion that the lifestyle is prohibitively expensive when it doesn’t have to be.

Need vs. Luxury

There is this misconception that you need a heavily built off-road rig to go overland. The truth is you don’t. Photo credit: Hugo Villegas

I think some of the confusion comes from this expectation that with overland travel you have to be utterly self-reliant. In parts of Africa and the outback of Australia I’d say that’s probably true, but I think this is a pretty rare situation in the U.S.

Sure, there are parts of the U.S. that you may need to be completely self-sufficient, but I’d wager there are far more in which you don’t.

As someone just getting started in overlanding, I find the idea that I need to have big water tanks, bull bars and roof-top tents ridiculous. You don’t need any of these things, but they can make the experience more pleasant and make some routes safer or more accessible.

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Why stifle a love for backroads exploration by making overlanding something that is exclusive to the wealthy?

I think as long as the vehicle is equipped with adequate recovery points and gear, space for a reasonable amount of water, supplies and has enough ground clearance to overcome most obstacles, it will make a fine overlanding rig.

Notice I don’t mention four-wheel drive.That’s because there are plenty of overlanders out there rolling around in two wheel drive VW Beetles.

If you don’t have a four-wheel drive vehicle it doesn’t have to be a barrier. People have been overlanding in two-wheel drive VW Bugs for years. Photo credit: Evan Kirby.

Would I encourage someone to go overlanding in a Toyota Camry? Absolutely not. Would I recommend four-wheel drive? Of course I would. But, if all you’ve got is at two-wheel drive truck, SUV or van, there are plenty of trails in the U.S. open to you.

Overlanding in a stock 4×4 is possible

One of my favorite overlanders and Youtube personalities Andrew White made a point of how little you actually need to have a memorable overland experience in one of the least developed parts of the world, Africa. It’s a great series that underpins the fact that overlanding and off-roading demand very different approaches.

Striking a balance

I think it’s important to set a standard of comfort and convenience when deciding on what you need and don’t need.

We’ve gotten by with a ground tent for years, but there is no denying a rooftop tent would be more convenient and no doubt more comfortable.

On long trips, comfort can become an issue of moral. You can put up with a lot if you can get a good night’s sleep.

Built on experience

It doesn’t matter what you drive. Photo credit: Steven Striegel

If there is one piece of advice I’ve gotten that I can share with you, it’s that you should always build based on your experience.

The guys over on the Overland Round Table podcast are big proponents of this. They recommend getting out there for a weekend of overlanding and upgrading your rig based on those experience.

If you find yourself scraping your belly pan on rocks and putting dents in your skid plates all the time, maybe then it’s time for a lift and bigger tires.

Or, if you’re sick of sleeping on the cold, hard ground, maybe a roof top tent is in order.

It’s the same approach I take to camping and it’s a good way to learn what you actually need vs. what you think you need.

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Further Reading

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Let us know in the comments section:

  • What do you think of Overlanding in the United States?
  • What equipment or gear do you think are indispensable for any overlander?
  • Should we even call it overlanding in the United States?

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Photos via: Tim Trad, Hugo Villegas, Steven Striegel, Evan Kirby on Unsplash


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23 Comments Add yours

  1. Good article. Great points. I am glad that others are interested in making our hobbies available to all, not just the wealthy. The showcasing of inexpensive ways of overlanding allow folks, such as myself, who do not have a lot of funds, to go and try to use what we have and have fun.
    I probably wouldn’t take my 2007 Dodge Dakota out on a wild trail, but, I have went on backroads where ground clearance was definitely an issue.

    1. tobiasmann says:

      Thanks Dennis. A 2007 Dakota sounds perfectly serviceable as a overland rig. Especially if it has four wheel drive, but even if it doesn’t most routes in the United States are just dirt tracks.

      Having fun is really a key aspect of it all. The journey itself is the goal when it comes to overlanding so comfort becomes a priority. So I see where roof top tents and fridge freezers come in, but you don’t need them to get started. They can come later.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. I agree with your insights. Most people in the US could Overland with a simple rig, or even just a commuter car. Many of the hiking trail heads that I’ve witnessed here in the pacific northwest are full of Subaru’s, with a smattering of Toyota trucks. And the trails they traveled to get there were, for the most part, well kept National Forest roads. The backcountry trails out this way can be tackled with almost any vehicle, as long as they choose a good line and are cautious not to crack an oil pan.
    That said, I think when it comes to Overlanding in the US the propensity is to emulate the Australians by building a rig that can tackle extremely adverse conditions. It’s unlikely you will come across these types of conditions in the US unless you actively go looking for them.

    1. tobiasmann says:

      Thanks for the comment. I agree entirely. It’s fun to build a vehicle. Add a bull bar, rock sliders and more. It’s even cooler if you use them. If you find places where you need them all the better, but need and want are two different things. What you need depends largely on where you are going and how you are getting there.

      Overlanders in Australia know they are going through some pretty desolate places where animal strikes are inevitable and food, water and fuel are not givens. In the United States there are places that are remote, but not 300 miles from the next gas stop remote.

      I also don’t think there is anything wrong with these pleasantries. If you can afford the roof top tent great, but if you can’t and all you have is your truck bed or a ground tent, it doesn’t make you any less of an overlander.

  3. Great truth. One must asses what the purpose of the vehicle and how it’s going to be used. One size fits all doesn’t work.

    1. tobiasmann says:

      You’re absolutely right. One size doesn’t fit all. I imagine in your travels you’ve found ways to improve your vehicle or at least thought of things that would make it a better or safer experience.

      1. So true. We have modified different things inside to fit it to our needs. The great part is there are so many aftermarket products to choose from. Probably a result of others having the same idea. It is great you are able to do the work on your vehicles too.

        1. tobiasmann says:

          Working on my vehicles is a pleasure really. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it so much, but It really is a great deal of fun. I’d love to see a post about any modifications (big or small) that you have done to make your travels a little easier.

          1. It is a pleasure working on our vehicles isn’t it. We can relate to what you are saying. When you do it yourself there is a sense of ownership and pride. Plus in doing our own work we know that when on that deserted roadway with no cell signal that our mechanical ability may be able to get us back to civilization. Our recent renovations were using those webbing straps to allow us to put our camera equipment in a place that is easier to access. Space in our little van is premium so we’re always looking for how to maximize it.

  4. America seems to be a land of excess. I like your points. I just do some mainstream camping but you can see the same things in that arena.

    1. tobiasmann says:

      Mary, It seems like everything today is invaded by these pretenses that if you’re not using x-brand’s product you’re not a real hiker/camper/overlander/rock climber/everything else.

      I’m glad you don’t let it stop you from getting out there. name brand or not I’m guessing your tent keeps you dry at night. Thanks for the comment!

    1. tobiasmann says:

      Thank you. Your Mustang build is an inspiration. Niecie has always loved Mustangs and Fords in general. I really enjoyed reading about the tools you carry with you. You give me some ideas of what to throw in our kit. We wrote about the tools we carry not to long ago. You might check it out. https://adventurebent.com/lets-talk-about-tools-the-bush-mechanics-essentials/

  5. Thelgord says:

    *well written. Sorry, I am also eating dinner.

    1. tobiasmann says:

      Thanks! It was funny that I found your post so soon after publishing this one.

  6. Good article! Very pragmatic. This is a good reminder that “getting out there” is more important than getting out there “perfectly.”

    1. tobiasmann says:

      Absolutely. Just getting out there is the real challenge. If you can overcome that you are golden.

  7. I love the article. Maybe we should just call it “road tripping” as always! I am impressed by those who just take their normal sedans and go! There have been a few places in the US where we couldn’t traverse in our big van due to our low clearance. At that moment I wish we had 4WD and a big ol’ lift! But I agree that it doesn’t need to be expensive. Patience, flexibility, courage, and planning can make up for a small budget.

    1. tobiasmann says:

      Thanks for the comment. “Road tripping” is exactly what we’re doing right now. As I write this I am trying get comfortable in the 100 percent humidity of Lefleur’s Bluff State Park. We’re camping on our way down to The Big Easy, this week and we’re doing it in Niecie’s little red Jeep.

  8. This is a great posting and I love the idea of just simply driving around the US. Oh, that is what I’m doing! Lol!

    I have taken to the road with my Toyota 2-wheel drive 4-Runner averaging 19.1 miles per-gallon and I have yet to drive the barren midwest.

    I’m may upgrade to the 4×4 but I will never put all of the accessories seen in a lot of the overland expedition Youtube Videos.
    I believe you need is a roof top cargo carrier, refrigerator under $200.00, a single burner propane stove, a Coleman instant-tent with a cot, collapsable roll top table, camp chair, sleeping bag and anyone should be able to overland the US for less than $1000.00 in any type of vehicle. Oh, my I just identified all of the items I use.

    Again, this is a great blog posting as you have identified the growing trend that has many people spending thousands of $$$ for something that is simply traveling and camping out of a vehicle. 🙂

    1. tobiasmann says:

      It’s hard to believe that people spend that much money on a vehicle when most of it won’t ever go to use. I get recovery gear like winches and traction mats if your travels take you into places where you may not be able to get help from a tow truck but other than comfort and recovery there is not much that you really need. I look forward to reading about your travels.

  9. You’re quite right. and it’s a phenomenon we see in South Africa as well. It might be because campers confuse the two concepts of off roading (4×4) with over landing. When you do serious 4×4 you need all the recovery and protective gear, for over landing your driving skills are your biggest asset. True, in our neck of the woods we get to visit places where you need to be self sufficient but it’s a different set-up that your 4×4 rig needs.

    1. tobiasmann says:

      “in our neck of the woods we get to visit places where you need to be self sufficient but it’s a different set-up that your 4×4 rig needs.” I think you nail it on the head with this. If you build your 4×4 for your needs, not percieved needs, but experienced needs, you will find that overlanding is much more accessible. Thanks for the feedback Linda!

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