Overlanding: What Is It, and Why Is It So Popular?

Overlanding might be a newer term for Americans, but it’s a well-known automotive adventure in most other parts of the world. Overlanding is taking a 4×4 vehicle on a completely self-reliant off-road adventure to (and or through) remote places. Overlanders aren’t looking toward a destination as much as the journey itself. It’s about self-reliance and exploration. This is the ethos of overland travel. 

2023 Hyundai Rebelle Rally Santa Cruz truck
2023 Rebelle Rally Hyundai Santa Cruz | Hyundai

What is Overlanding, and how do you do it? 

Overlanding, with the help of COVID-19 lockdowns, has boomed into a massively popular activity for Americans. It worked so well as a COVID activity because it brings participants into wild and remote places. Think of overlanding as a sort of automotive backpacking. 

To put overlanding into more definitive terms, overlanding is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “to travel long distances overland” or “to drive cattle a long distance overland.” 

However, Wikipedia defines overlanding in the terms that we more commonly use today as “self-reliant overland travel to remote destinations where the journey is the principal goal. Typically, but not exclusively, it is accomplished with mechanized off-road capable transport (from bicycles to trucks) where the principal form of lodging is camping, often lasting for extended lengths of time (months to years) and spanning international boundaries.”

While the original definition of overlanding came from Australian bushmen and cattle drivers, its current place in the world isn’t all that different. Those original overlanders did it as a means of not only survival but pay. It was occupational. For many modern-day overlanders, the echoes of that occupational side are still heard. 

What makes overlanding different from off-roading?

Spending a weekend camping and driving your Land Rover Defender over some obstacles is a monster fun time, but it’s not exactly overlanding. In fact, the echoes of overlanding’s occupational and survival origins are very much still a part of it today. 

In the words of the team at Overland Journal, “Overlanding is about exploration rather than conquering obstacles. While the roads and trails we travel might be rough or technically challenging, they are the means to an end, not the goal itself. The goal is to see and learn about our world, whether on a weekend trip 100 miles from home or a 10,000-mile expedition across another continent.” 

Meanwhile, off-roading, which is still plenty adventurous and thrilling, is more focused on conquering a certain set of obstacles. Off-roading is spending the weekend trying to climb boulders at Moab, while Overlanding might be taking a truck to see if you can find your own path across the desert that no one has driven before. 

Overland Journal gives us some terminology to help us understand the overlanding and off-road scenes a little better. 

CAR CAMPING: Traveling in a vehicle to an established campground. If there is a picnic table there, it is probably car camping.

BACK COUNTRY ADVENTURE OR 4X4 TOURING: A one-day or multi-day off-highway trip on an adventure motorcycle or in a 4WD vehicle.

OVERLAND(ING): Vehicle-supported, self-reliant adventure travel, typically exploring remote locations and interacting with other cultures.

VEHICLE-DEPENDENT EXPEDITION: An organized, vehicle-dependent journey with a defined purpose, often geographic or scientific in nature.

EXPEDITION VEHICLE: A 4WD vehicle or adventure motorcycle prepared for self-reliant travel over long distances, through unpredictable weather, and over variable terrain.

The main difference between overlanding and other off-road driving activities is the self-reliance and survival part. While you might need to do a repair to get your truck out of the woods off-roading, with Overlanding, the breaks will happen, and your survival often depends on your ability to fix them. Overlanding trips often take months or even years. Off-roading, bouldering, muddin’, and so forth happen in an afternoon. 

Overlanding isn’t for everyone

Despite the overwhelming number of examples of “off-road” and “overlanding” factory packages on new trucks and SUVs, overloading is not for the “I ordered my truck this way from the factory” crowd. There’s nothing wrong with ordering a truck with an off-road package by any means, but overland rigs require a purpose-built touch that the driver(s) know inside and out. Overlanding is dependent on commitment. Without commitment, it becomes extremely dangerous and fruitless. 

However, now that the activity has become popular, there are tons of builders, parts suppliers, and other informational resources, like Overland Journal, to help folks build a rig, plan a trip, and go for it.