International Overlanding Advisory: Parachutes & Passports

The tips and tricks of creating an international fly-in-and-drive adventure.

Several decades ago, my doctor informed me I would have six weeks off work before going under the knife for knee surgery. During the drive home I thought about the long list of house projects I could tackle, but my mind kept gravitating to the world map that hung in my office. Australia was on my bucket list, but how would I get there, how would I get around, how much would it cost? I spent the evening surfing this new thing called the Internet, finding sites such as Travelocity, various airlines, and doing general searches on the Land Down Under. Within 48 hours I had purchased a ticket to Sidney and hired (rented) a four-wheel drive Toyota Hilux camper. It was game-on! In this edition of Backcountry Skills, we are grabbing our passports and exploring the nuances of parachuting in for an international overlanding adventure.

This 80 Series Toyota Land Cruiser was sourced in Ouarzazate, Morocco, to explore the Atlas Mountains and Western Sahara.

Where to Go

The Internet is a powerful tool for researching vehicle options, flights, cool things to do, and up-to-date travel requirements.

The world is a big place, and some international destinations are more conducive to self-drive overlanding than others. Southern Africa, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand are easy targets, but places like Morocco and many South and Central American countries offer excellent, albeit more challenging, opportunities. My number one piece of advice is this, don’t try to do everything in one shot. Pick a country, or region therein, determine how much time you have, and experience that area well. I’ve now been to Australia a dozen times, often for a month, and still have more to explore. If you try to see it all, you won’t see anything.

TIP: Choose a destination and pace that fits your comfort level.

Research

For my first international “overlanding” trip (Europe with a backpack), I made arrangements sitting at the desk of a travel agent, but in today’s world the Internet is your huckleberry. A Google search for ‘4×4 vehicle hire South America’ generates more than 40 million results, but narrowing that down will require due diligence. Read reviews from others that have used a particular company, consider the age of the vehicles, how they are equipped, where can you collect them, the cost of a one-way hire versus a loop route, is insurance an add-on, are there restrictions on where you can go, what season is best for the area?

For many decades, the Land Rover Defender was the quintessential rig for bush trekking in Africa.

Facebook groups such as PanAmerican Travelers Association, Overland to Asia, and Overlanding Africa are excellent resources for up-to-date information from real people with boots-on-the-ground experience. Lonely Planet guides, now in e-book versions, are also an excellent source for general information and ideas.

TIP: Read reviews from others before selecting a vehicle hire company.

The Rig

Known for their reliability, Toyotas have become ubiquitous overlanding hire vehicles internationally, but you can also find Mitsubishis and the occasional Land Rover. I suggest dealing directly with the hire company rather than a third-party contractor—the last thing you want is to burn vacation days sorting out discrepancies when you arrive.

In regions such as Southern Africa and Australia, many vehicles are equipped with most items needed for long-term camping. The punch list should include a tent (roof top or ground), sleeping bags, fridge-freezer, water jug, mess kit, stove, camp chairs and table, and some might have a heat-exchanger shower and awning. Do they provide a BBQ grill, axe, and shovel? I’m a big fan of roof top tents, which you will appreciate if bush camping in the Kalahari where anything on the ground becomes part of the food chain.

I’m a big fan of roof top tents, which you will appreciate if bush camping in the Kalahari where anything on the ground becomes part of the food chain.

How about jumper cables, air gauge and compressor, spare tires(s), tire repair kit, and Hi-Lift jack? A kinetic recovery strap is mandatory, traction boards a bonus, but few offer a winch. With great distances to cover, fuel tank size and fuel economy should be considered. Most bush rigs will hold 160 liters or more (40 gal.), and some may have additional jerry cans out back.

In South Africa you can hire a double-cab Toyota Hilux fitted with dual roof top tents—perfect for two couples or a family.

Ask if there is an inverter for charging electronics, and make sure you have the right adaptor.

Lastly, how many service locations do they have in the case of a mechanical failure (been there, done that), are you allowed to cross into neighboring countries, do they provide the Carnet de passage (vehicle passport and guarantee)? If crossing borders, permission must be granted in the contract, either as an affidavit and/or carnet.

TIP: Select a hire company with newer, well-provisioned vehicles.

How Much?

As with most purchases, prices are better when you buy in bulk. More days, less money. Low season rates offer savings over the high season, but make sure you are not planning your trip to Cambodia during the monsoon. Insurance, what does it cover—tires, windshield, a stray kangaroo through the grill? What is the deductible? What if you sink it in a river? Is there a mileage fee, or can you drive to your heart’s content? Some companies package the aforementioned gear/amenities in the contract, others offer a pay-per-day menu of gear.

It is also important to know if areas are off-limits. For example, on New Zealand’s South Island there were five tracks we were not allowed to travel (we did a few by accident). Feeling sneaky? Think again. The Daintree ferry operator in Queensland, Australia, at one time received a kickback from hire companies for reporting unauthorized vehicles heading to Cape York. Calculate estimated mileage and add 20 percent. Look up the current cost of fuel (www.globalpetrolprices.com) and do the math. I’ve paid as much as $12 per gallon in Zambia and as little as $0.05 in Venezuela. If you are not doing a loop route, how much is the one-way fee?

An app like XE Currency & Exchange will keep you apprised of current exchange rates.

At the end of the day, you can expect to spend about $200-$300 USD per day depending on country and vehicle specifics on your international overlanding adventure. If considering the cost of nightly hotel stays and a rental car, it’s a pretty good deal. But here is the $64,000 tip. Query every hire company in the region to see if they need a vehicle transported from A to B—often the result of previous one-way client. I once hired a fully equipped Toyota Troopy for a three-week drive from Cairns to Darwin for only the cost of insurance. Yep, it is true. Do your homework, ask around.

TIP: Ask hire companies if they need a vehicle transported from A to B and book your trip around those dates.

Cash, Cards, and Deodorant

Back in the day, international trips of any kind required U.S. dollars and traveler cheques exchanged for local currency along your overlanding adventure. While cash is still king, ATMs have eliminated the latter. My risk management plan utilizes a special ‘travel’ checking account with a limited balance, enough for a few weeks at a time. If your ATM card is stolen or falls prey to an electronic scam, you don’t lose the whole tamale.

Credit cards work in more populated areas, but in many places it is cash only. My rule is to always have enough greenbacks on me to get home or to a U.S. embassy. Stash it in various places such as a zippered money belt or pocket, a wadded-up trash bag under the seat, etc. I also stow cash in a used deodorant container. Why? Because nobody steals deodorant. Those hang-on-your-neck documents holders make good decoys, containing worthless papers and a few bucks (small bills). I also carry two wallets, the decoy in my back pocket holding nothing of value; expired credit cards and a few dollars. Many regions of the world will only accept clean Uncle Sam’s twenties, so make sure they are new bills without ink marks or tears. Look up exchange rates and bring a calculator to convert/translate—languages vary but numbers are numbers.

TIP: Carry enough U.S. cash to get you home if all is lost.

Security

Security is always a concern when traveling international, especially overlanding, but if you listen to the U.S. State Department paranoia you will never leave home. The key is to always be aware of your surroundings and avoid the same situations you would avoid at home. Petty theft happens, violent crime not so much. Places like New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Australia are a breeze, while Bolivia and El Salvador fall into the sketchy category. Although most Americans take alarm at the sight of an AK-47, in many countries they are standard issue to police and one must get used to armed roadside checkpoints.

Although you may normally carry firearms into the backcountry, they are highly regulated in many parts of the world.

Even in a place as tame as Rome, Italy, I ran into a dude blazing around a street corner waving a handgun, two other armed dudes in chase. It is important to always be aware of your surroundings. But at the end of the day, most people you meet will be wonderful, curious about your travels, and treat you as a guest in their country. Pick a place that matches your comfort level. Self-drive tag-along tours can be great, and most trip leaders are experts in their region.

TIP: Always maintain situational awareness.

Passports, Visas, and Insurance

Some places are more streamlined than others when it comes to documentation. With the exception of Bolivia and Mexico, tourist visas are not required in the Americas. Some countries allow it to be issued through your airline, others such as Russia and India require it prior to arrival. This means applying in person at their Embassy (by appointment) or by mail. If the latter, you will be without your passport for up to 90 days, which can be a problem. Visa services will expedite the process for a fee, but I’ve always done it in person. The U.S. State Department travel pages have up-to-date information. Check before you go.

While a U.S. driver’s license is widely accepted, it is not a bad idea to get an International Driving Permit (do this at AAA or your DMV) if you’re planning on piloting your own overlanding vehicle. Check the CDC website for suggested immunizations, then see your travel doctor where you will receive an immunization card. Don’t lose it. Check with your medical insurance provider on what they cover abroad. I buy an annual evac policy with Ripcord/Red Point, who will airlift you off Mt. Everest if needed—I was impressed with their service when my appendix ruptured in the Argentine Andes. Make duplicates of all documents, as well as scan them for upload to the Cloud. Lastly, share your itinerary and local contacts with someone at home who can take action if things go pear shaped.

TIP: Research visa and immunization requirements before you go.

Navigation and Comms

These two genres are light years ahead of where they were a few decades ago. Cellular coverage, especially in the developing world, has increased exponentially and companies like AT&T have partnerships with most service providers. In remote areas a satellite phone (rent one for about $50 a week) or Garmin’s inReach are reliable voice and/or text comms options. My inReach links to my iPhone for easy texting anywhere. However, with Starlink coming online and the next generation of phones boasting satellite connectivity, I foresee the next smart phones handling all of our international and overlanding communication needs. If traveling with a group, bring a few handheld GMRS radios.

A Garmin InReach, GPS-capable phone, paper maps, and a compass are standard issue in my travel kit.
Apps such as Gaia and iOverland are great for navigation and finding a campsite, but don’t forget your paper maps.

There are a number of reliable navigation apps with detailed satellite maps, various overlays, and routing tools. I’ve used Maps.Me, OnX Off-road, and Gaia, but use the latter for international work. In Southern Africa, Tracks for Africa (tracks4afica.co.za) is my go-to source for off-piste routes and conditions. I loathed iOverland when it was introduced, fearing some knucklehead would reveal my secret camp spots. But I’ve come to use (and appreciate) it when hunting for a stealth camp on the road. Lastly, don’t forget good’ol paper maps and a whiskey compass. Yes, when all else fails a good map and the ability to navigate with it will get you out of a pickle. ITMB is a good source (www.itmb.com) but they are often available in-country at a gas station or bookstore. HEMA Maps has an extensive selection for Australia.

TIP: Select a nav app and download digital maps in advance.

Pack it Up

A few of my must-have items are a Leatherman tool, CRKT jack knife, LED Lenser headlamp, LifeStraw water bottle, first aid kit, leather gloves, valve stem tool, and air gauge. I also pack zip ties, ratchet straps and bungee cords, as well as a small amount of duct tape, bailing wire, and electrical tape wrapped around a tongue depressor.

Rather lost in the Botswanan Kalahari one night, we ran into two locals stuck in the sand. After pulling them out and offering a cold beverage, our new friends were more than happy to help us locate a camp.

When it comes to clothes my wife says, “Pack like a Collard, not like a Kardashian.” You don’t need 14 outfits for a two-week trip. Take three changes of clothes, two for the trip (alternate washing in sink or river) and one stored in Ziploc bags for the flight home—your seat mates will love you for this. Other personal items are handy wipes, extra prescription glasses and meds, and Imodium AD. Ask your doctor for a small amount of Vicodin or other pain killer, as well as Cipro for extreme diarrhea. When you get it all together, this stuff will take every ounce of your check bag allowance (usually two 50-pounders).

TIP: Pack like a Collard, not a Kardashian.

The Other Stuff

Learning a few phrases in the local language conveys respect for their country. The Google Translate app is great for this. Remember it is their country with different laws, customs, and cultural norms. If something is legal or illegal in your country, it may or may not be in theirs. In other words, leave your doobage, vapes, and firearms at home. Example: Australia prohibits pocketknives that can be opened with one hand, and you are not allowed to carry any knife in public places. Really, what about Crocodile Dundee? Embarrassing, right!

TIP: Learn a few phrases in the local language.

The Wrap-up

Sourcing a vehicle and traveling through another country will render experiences unknown in the U.S. My college roommate Dr. Allen Andrews and I spent several weeks dodging elephants in Botswana and Zambia in a borrowed Hummer H3.

Since that first trip to Australia, I’ve taken international overlanding trips where I’ve hired or borrowed vehicles all over the world. It is always exciting, always something new, and not all that difficult. While we could fill this entire issue with tips and tricks on the subject, now that you have the basics down it’s time to pick a bucket list destination, do some homework, grab your passport and pack your parachute, step out of your comfort zone, and pull the ripcord.

Happy travels.


Editor’s Note: A version of this story previously appeared in the March/April 2023 print issue of Tread Magazine.

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