A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Overlanding

If you don’t already know, Tread is your place to learn.

Interested in traversing the unknown, traveling self-sustained or tricking out a 4×4 vehicle to tackle rough terrain? Overlanding might just be for you. It’s become more and more popular in recent years in many different forms on various social media platforms – if you’ve seen the viral #vanlife on TikTok, think of overlanding as its more rugged cousin. Comfort is not the goal of overlanders, and neither is reaching a set destination (sometimes, we even think getting lost is the best part).

Some Key Terms

Overlanding: self-sustained travel dependent on a vehicle on off-road terrain with the goal of experiencing nature and enjoying the journey

Rig: a popular term for the vehicles used for overlanding

Terrain: varies depending on where you live and what you have access to; can be anything from desert to snow. Overlanders intentionally seek out the wildest.

Backcountry: where most overlanding occurs. Don’t think ecotourism – think untamed nature at its most challenging.

Trail: a tool overlanders use to get to the good stuff; we tend to think all the best adventures happen once you leave it. Also, it can mean a connected series of popular locations for overlanding or a preplanned, more lengthy overland journey.

Where did it come from?

As popular as overlanding has become here in the U.S. in recent years, it’s actually a widespread international phenomenon. The roots of the word trace back to early Australian cattle drivers who traveled and lived “over land” with their livestock away from civilization for extended periods of time.

There are overlanders all over the world, including not only the U.S. and Australia but also Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. In the U.S., it’s most popular on the West Coast and in the Rockies, though there are plenty of areas on the East Coast as well. Utah, Idaho, Washington, Colorado and Montana are the top five states with the most interest in overlanding.

Know Before You Go

The limit to what you can do when overlanding is your imagination, but there are some rules. Being conservation-minded is among the most important of those, since the preservation of nature is necessary to the continued enjoyment of overlanding. If we don’t take actions to protect the beauty of nature while we’re adventuring, what’s the point?

Additionally, being prepared is a critical element of overlanding, since most overlanders want to travel as off-grid and independently as they can. Safety is important, but so is fun; a willingness to take risks is necessary to be part of the amazing and supportive overlanding community.

We believe that overlanding starts as a mindset, with an emphasis on self-reliance and getting your hands dirty.

You’ve got to research. Read a lot before you head out. Read about overlanding, make lists of everything you think you’ll need, study maps of the terrain you’re planning on tackling and read (yes, actually read) your vehicle’s user manual.

Planning takes time and effort, but if you’re going to be successful, you need to be ready to invest. What you see and experience as you explore the natural world around you will pay you back in ways you could never imagine.

The Bare Necessities of Overlanding: Vehicles

Almost every overlander has a different kit based on their personal preferences, but there are some things most would agree you definitely need before you hit the trail.

The number one thing you need is grit. That’s all – grit, that internally made force that drives us all to survive. Grit is a central tenet of overlanding philosophy, and everything builds upon it. The right attitude is everything when problems arise on the trail (and we promise, they will).

Beyond that, there are obviously some physical items you’ll need, too, for both your vehicle and yourself.

For your vehicle, the first thing you’ll need is to make sure it is in good working order and is equipped with all of the safety features you’ll need to keep you going throughout your journey. After that, you’ll need to be sure you have enough gas for your trip – plus extra.

Good recovery gear is an important tool for tackling off-road terrain, as are a vehicle repair kit and full-size spare tire. On top of that, you’ll want a compass, GPS, maps and other navigational tools.

More important than those things, though, is the knowledge of how to use them all. Having a car jack and a tire iron is great, but they’re no use if you don’t know how to change a tire.

Overlanding Personal Needs

Part of being self-sufficient is making sure you have everything you need for yourself as well as your vehicle. You’ll need all the basics of camping gear, including a tent, clothes, toiletries, food, water and places to store all of those. You’re going to need to stay warm or cool, depending on where you are geographically, so you need gear that will help you there. You’ll also want protection from the elements when it comes to rain, snow, and other precipitation as well.

That’s the basics: the bare necessities of survival on the road (or off, for that matter). Once you have everything you need to survive, it’s totally up to you to choose additions, modifications and extras to build the rig of your dreams.

Building Your Overlanding Vehicle

Having a rig you love makes overlanding all the more fun. Popular vehicles to start on here in the U.S. include Toyota 4Runners, Tacomas and Land Cruisers, and Jeeps, as well as GMC, Dodge and Ford trucks. The new Bronco models have been hitting the trail lately, too. We’ve also seen people overlanding in 3-wheeled vehicles and Porsches, though, so what you drive is your choice.

The key is that your vehicle needs to be reliable, consistent and able to handle the terrain you’re on. If you enjoy rock-crawling, then a Porsche might not work for you, but if you’re taking it easy and enjoying the journey, then a little luxury on the trail might be exactly what you want.

Since self-sustained vehicle-dependent travel of all kinds has become popular on social media, we’ve seen huge diversification in the world of overlanding. Vanlifers and bus living communities have popped up across the country. Modified CUVs are gradually starting to make an appearance as well. RVs and pop-up campers are always a staple in camping culture, too, though they might not be able to handle some of the tougher trails.

Where To Next?

A huge part of the fun of overlanding for many is the gear. We love that while it’s easy to pour tons of funding into your overlanding vehicle, it’s by no means necessary. At their core, most overlanders are DIYers. We’re willing to put plenty of sweat, elbow grease and time into building a vehicle that’s perfect for adventuring.

Keeping that in mind, the sky’s the limit. For most, the first addition is wheels: a bump up in size, tread and durability can quite literally be a lifesaver off-road. In that same vein, new shocks or even a lift, depending on the vehicle, are also popular modifications.

Working with what you’ve already got on your vehicle is a great way to stay under budget; on the other hand, aftermarket upgrades are a fun way to maintain your vehicle’s integrity without hurting your bank account too badly. Many overlanders start by leveling up their vehicles’ lighting or navigation systems to improve performance.

Roof top tents (RTTs) are all the rage right now. They’re easy to set up and break down, and, since they’re stored on the roof, they don’t take up as much storage elsewhere in or on a vehicle.

You can also add LED light bars, snorkels, fridges, running water, awnings – anything that increases not only your vehicle’s utility but also your enjoyment of it is fair game.

Hitting the Dirt

Once you’ve got your overlanding vehicle and gear all ready to go, all you’ve got to do is decide where to go first. All of the trails we suggest below are well-traveled and suitable for stock 4×4 vehicles (with smart drivers, of course). What we really reccommend, though, is using those smarts to get off the trail and explore something new. As long as you’re staying safe and having fun, pushing the boundaries is the best thing you can do while you’re getting the hang of overlanding.

Here are some of the most popular (and our favorite) overlanding locations for beginners here in the U.S. by region:

Out West:

Easier: Moab, Utah

Arches National Park, one of the two National Parks accessible from Moab. From discovermoab.com.

Riding through Moab National Park, you’ll see some of the most beautiful scenery the U.S. has to offer. While there is plenty of more advanced terrain to be found, it’s easy to ride around the park and get off the blacktop without needing a ton of technical skill. A base camp in Moab gives you access to two national parks: Arches and Canyonlands.

Tougher: Mojave Road, California

View looking north on Barber Peak Loop Trail
Mojave National Preserve desert trail views. From nps.gov.

You’ll absolutely encounter some obstacles on the Mojave Road, but it’s a great place to learn how to handle them. The Mojave Road is one of the country’s most well-traveled overlanding destinations, so you’ll definitely be in good company if you need advice.

Down South:

Easier: South Core Banks, North Carolina

South Core Banks -- beach camping area
Tire tracks on the South Core Banks beach. From recreation.gov.

South Core Banks is a destination for photographers –  you’re going to love the stunning and unobstructed beach views. You won’t find any obstacles but sand and water on the banks; there, you can get your feet wet (literally and metaphorically) as an overlander and try out your vehicle on softer terrain.

Tougher: Forest Service Road 333, Georgia

Frank Gross Recreation Area Stream
North Georgia water crossing. From n-georgia.com.

Depending on the time of year and recent weather, this northern Georgia mountain terrain can be difficult for a beginner trail. You’ll definitely face at least one water crossing and most likely lots of mud, but it’s nothing a stock 4×4 can’t handle as long as it’s got some ground clearance to it.

In the Northeast:

Easier: Trans-New Hampshire Overland Adventure Route, New Hampshire to New York

Trans New Hampshire Expedition - Self Guided - ExploringNH
Trails get deep and muddy on the Trans-New Hampshire Overland Adventure Trail. From explorenh.com

This Trans-New Hampshire overland trail is a great first step into covering a lot of ground self-sufficiently. It’s fairly remote, but the route brings you close to gas stations and grocery stores when you need them. You’ll spend part of the journey on paved roads, then get onto some off-road terrain later in the journey.

Tougher: Rock Run Recreation Area, Pennsylvania

UTVs, ATVs and motorcross vehicles wait to hit the trail at Rock Run. By Brittney Lybarger from rockrunrecreation.com

Rock Run is open to overlanders with all kinds of vehicles: cars, trucks and atvs included. According to AllTrails, the route usually takes about 15 hours to complete, so it’s ideal for weekend trips. Their website is incredibly helpful for planning ahead. It’s packed with tons of information and everything you need to know before you head out.

Through the Midwest: 

Easier: Trans-Wisconsin Adventure Trail, Wisconsin

No photo description available.
The natural beauty of the Trans-Wisconsin Adventure Trail shines through in this photo by Ben Wicklund.

This adventure trail boasts over 600 miles of off-roading terrain and primitive camping areas. If you’re wanting to test out overlanding on some easy trails or tackle traveling long-distance for the first time, the scenic route through Wisconsin is for you. The trails are mostly gravel, though some are pavement. Deep sand is likely one of the only obstacles you’ll face.

Tougher: Engineer Pass Road, Colorado

Engineer Pass sign, Colorado
The elevation of Engineer Pass Road is cleary marked on this sign. Photo by Larry Lamsa for uncovercolorado.com

The elevation of Engineer Pass Road makes it both beautiful and dangerous. Snow can block the trails to the summit as early as October, but the views from 12,800 feet are spectacular during the warmer months. The paths are often rocky and can be narrow. We recommend a slightly higher ground clearance if you’re going to tackle this intermediate Colorado terrain.

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