#Overlanding - Since When Did Car Camping Get So Complicated?
A Toyota truck, a dog, a carpet kit, and a sleeping bag. Works for me!!!
Who remembers when their Mom or Dad came home with a sweet family truckster to hit the road for weekend getaways, family trips, and even to make the weekend soccer game excursions a little bit better? Whatever happened to the simple truck campers with a carpet kit and a camper shell, slide-in truck campers, amped out conversion vans, or even the awesome mini vans that inspired the Swagger Wagon video (https://youtu.be/j8u2xMfERTU)? :
Nowadays, there's an entire market dedicated to the #OverlandExperience. Just look at SEMA and how many different events are popping up for the burgeoning #Overland market. In a way, I miss the days where Sportsmobile was the only game in town. Prices have skyrocketed. But, availability has blossomed. Whatever type of vehicle you can imagine is now available, even straight from the manufacturer. Who has seen all of the accessories available for vehicle-assisted adventures? I've noticed that there are even more ways to stay connected while mobile, than when I got my first dial-up connection for my apartment from Earthlink. So, what do you really need to make an OAV - #OverlandAdventureVehicle?
The Right Vehicle Is A Must
January 2009 - Blue has come a LONG way
First, you'll need a vehicle. An overland vehicle should be able to access adventures that lie off the beaten path. We've seen two-wheel drive vehicles that have been successful at around the world adventures. But, we like to navigate off the beaten path. Sometimes, that can mean four-wheel drive is mandatory, just to get out of the neighborhood. But, we're not looking for a dedicated rock crawler. So, a quality AWD/4x4 will work very well.
Anybody that has shopped for an AWD/4x4 vehicle knows the usual suspects - Ford, Chevy, GMC, Dodge, Toyota, Nissan, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Land Rover, and Subaru. There are a few other brands that are less common, but just as dependable. I have a basic breakdown of the things I consider when purchasing a new vehicle.
1) Cost - How much upfront and what is the true cost to own? This is usually where most people start when purchasing a new vehicle or modifying a vehicle that they already own. If there is no upfront cost, since the vehicle is already in the driveway, then that's always the best place to start. Most people will shop around looking for the best deal. A low purchase price may lead to escalating repair costs, higher insurance costs, difficulty with financing, or even trouble getting the vehicle registered with Smog certificates. Edmunds (https://www.edmunds.com) is usually a solid resource to see what the true cost to own might be for a specific vehicle. They'll also help guide you toward a fair purchase price. Kelley Blue Book (https://www.kbb.com) and NADA (https://www.nadaguides.com) are also excellent resources to prepare you before taking the big leap.
2) Fuel - Diesel, Gas, Hybrid, or Electric? Where do you want to go - domestic or international? Each of these destinations needs to be considered before committing to a specific fuel. Mexico is notorious for their lack of low sulfur diesel fuel. Most diesel vehicles after 2007 require ULSD (Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel) fuel for their diesel engines. Is there adequate infrastructure to support your idea of an electric vehicle assisted adventure? What if your desired range is at the limits for an electric vehicle? Will there be charging stations that are compatible? There are a number of considerations in regards to fuel. Each of these fuels may require different maintenance costs as well.
3) AWD vs. Four-Wheel Drive is another important decision. This decision really depends upon what type of terrain you expect to explore. More importantly, it means what type of conditions that you would feel comfortable traveling through, while possibly being unsupported in the event of a loss of traction. Can you handle a self-supported extraction? Will a stuck vehicle put an end to your adventure or greatly jeopardize your safety? Will your vehicle be able to navigate a "gatekeeper" type obstacle? If any of these questions posed a serious concern, then I would definitely recommend a four-wheel drive vehicle. What if you would just want a little bit of security navigating a snowy mountain pass? If you're looking for a less adventurous adventure, but traction is still a major concern, then I would find an AWD vehicle. Both drivetrains come in all types of vehicles. AWD also helps eliminate the option of forgetting to engage all four wheels. AWD can also be active during all types of weather. Four-wheel drive has to be engaged and disengaged as the conditions change. Make sure you pick the appropriate drivetrain suited for your adventures. As I said, even two-wheel drive vehicles are capable of certain adventures.
4) Fuel Economy - Good enough for a house, or forget which side the gas tank is on? In reality, I'm sure we would all love to get the most miles per dollar spent. But, that isn't a realistic expectation. Many extremely capable adventure vehicles are lucky to get double digit fuel economy. But, how many vehicles are capable of carrying you, your family, and everything you may need to survive for a long-term expedition type adventure? Choose wisely, since you may end up compromising the fuel economy even more by adding an extended range fuel tank or strapping on numerous jerry cans.
5) Transmission - Automatic versus manual is another tricky decision. Ideally, it comes down to personal preference. But, there definitely is a performance consideration to be made as well. If you're expecting lots of city driving, then a manual transmission will give the legs a crazy workout. If the vehicle has a lot of torque, then the manual transmission can help modulate that torque over slippery conditions. I love a manual transmission. But, I do get a bit envious when slowly climbing over obstacles. I watch my friends effortlessly apply the brake and throttle. Yet, my feet look like I'm on Dancing With The Stars. Some of the newer automatic transmissions have almost persuaded me to ditch the manual. But, then I realize what fun would that be. Driving should be a pleasurable experience and the driver should be connected to the vehicle and the road. The manual transmission provides a more rewarding experience behind the wheel.
6) Reliability - Are parts available and how often will you need repairs? Can repairs be performed easily in the field? Will your vehicle spend more time in the shop than out on adventures? These are extremely important factors to consider, especially if your adventures take you abroad. I'm still searching for the perfect vehicle that doesn't have exorbitant maintenance costs. But, I've definitely discovered some vehicles that are much more reliable than others.
7) Payload - Will you be forced to travel light or be able to bring everything, including the kitchen sink? As an overlander, expect to push this limit. Nobody I know is truly underweight. Everybody tries to push this limit, whether it's with armor, gear, accessories, or even people. There are only so many upgrades that you can perform to maximize payload. Eventually, it'll be time to step up before the overweight issue compromises safety. Nobody wants to deal with a broken frame or brakes that aren't up to the task on an overladen vehicle.
Tires Get You To Where You Want To Go
Cooper Discoverer ST/Maxx
Unfortunately, I learned the hard way just how important tires are for any adventure. Let's just say it cost me dearly in more ways than one. I've learned to find the right tire for the worst possible condition that you'll be presented with. Yes, it's great to have amazing mileage, fuel economy, tread life, and a quiet ride. But, if that tire fails to deliver traction when you need it most then you'll be SOL.
For an overland vehicle, you basically need to decide if you want a mud terrain or an all terrain. Each of these tires has their benefits with traction. And, that's where an overland vehicle needs assistance the most. A dedicated highway tire is great for on-road adventures. But, they do little to provide a durable footprint off the beaten path. Don't skimp and take my advice to help you find which tire may work best for you. Our tires need to handle ice, snow, rain, sun, sand, rocks, mud, and all sorts of surfaces. We also don't want to replace them every other year.
These are listed in no particular order, other than the order that I added them to our vehicle. A few of the tires that I've found to be great for most adventures are as follows:
1) Firestone Winterforce - This tire ws an amazing tire. I've had it with and without the studs. Navigating the Sierra Nevada in the winter is always a precarious situation. I was able to get 30k+ for mileage. It did slightly affect my fuel economy. And, it wasn't a quiet highway tire. But, I used this thing to make it through some of the deepest snow I've ever experienced. This tire came with the mountain snowflake certification. And, it never failed to provide the most grip on the snow. I even ran it on a few rocky trails and fire roads. I'd say I was extremely happy with this tire. But, I was always a bit scared getting on gnarlier trails.
2) Mastercraft Courser AXT - In all honesty, I couldn't find the sweet spot with these tires. These tires cost me quite a bit.. But, they also put me on the path to building out my ultimate 4x4 adventure rig. That came at a definite cost. I lost grip while making a slow corner and ended up in a snowbank at the end of my street. But, I also noticed that these tires would spin out if there was any sand or loose material on the pavement. Their saving grace was that they were quiet, got pretty good mileage, and handled most other situations with ease. After this tire, I knew that I needed better traction on the snow and ice. After all, I live in the Sierra Nevada and spend a great deal of time in winter weather.
3) Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac - Wow, what a difference. This tire blends an all-terrain with many benefits of a mud terrain. They also offer the mountain snowflake for added security in ice and snow. I loved these tires...until they lost their balance and couldn't get back to round. I understand that these are a very heavy tire. And, I'm diligent about rotating my tires. So, I'm not really sure what happened. But, as the tires got older, I had no choice but to retire them, even though there was still plenty of tread life still left.
4) Cooper Discoverer AT/W - I was definitely leery when my local shop, Ken's Tires (https://www.facebook.com/KensTireCenter/), recommended this tire. The tread pattern was very similar to the Mastercraft Courser AXT, and I was still a bit jaded about that experience. But, I was assured that this tread compound was better suited for our Tahoe weather. Well, they were right. I loved these tires. And, I even had a high speed 4x4 adventure through Death Valley, while pulling our teardrop. I was definitely a bit scared of sidewall cuts or punctures. But, nothing happened. These tires would be welcome again almost any day.
5) Cooper Discoverer ST/Maxx - After the last experience with Cooper Tires, I had no problem adding another American made set of Coopers to my vehicle. I was still a bit nervous about possible sidewall punctures, so I stepped up to a more aggressive and durable tire. I also wanted more of a pizza cutter type. These tires worked flawlessly. I'm 40k miles in and still have amazing traction on all types of conditions. I even took a few chunks out with some aggressive four wheeling. They still manage to work like the first day that I bought them. And, there's still quite a bit of tread left. I'm guessing another 20-30k is possible. But, if I need newer tires in winter, then I most likely won't test their limits.
Light Your Way Or Get Lost In The Dark
The Family Truckster could light up the darkest night
Anybody who has ever explored off the beaten path knows just how dark those backroads can be. Even my own neighborhood can be difficult to navigate, while out walking the dog during a new moon. So what's the best thing for a vehicle to deal with difficulty seeing,,,lights. I don't mean for a vehicle to be outfitted like a Mad Max apocalyptic rig. But, a good set of lights that light the way, as well as making it easy to find camp at night is essential.
1) Fog Lights are valuable in the rain, snow, or even just to add a little accent lighting on a dark highway. There are a couple schools of thought that differ between white lights and amber. In my opinion, a quality factory fog light is a great start. Better yet would be an aftermarket amber lens. Amber works well in almost whiteout conditions, fog, and during torrential downpours. However, if you're having difficulty reading road signs with your bright lights blazing, then a fog light may provide enough illumination without being overpowering.
2) Light Bars aren't necessarily essential. But, these are designed to turn night into day. I've had rooftop light bars and light bars across the bumper. Each location has their benefits. But, if you only have one option, then add them to the front bumper. There will be little light pollution. And, the light output will be targeted more efficiently.
3) Ditch Lights are not going to be designed for high speed endeavors. Yet, when you're looking for a turnout or on a search and rescue mission, a pair of ditch lights will help you see what lies just off to the side of the road. These are another less essential set of lights. But, you'll love them when you really need them.
4) Backup Lights may be the least appreciated set of lights on the vehicle. My old Chinook had some blazing backup lights that would blast light to the rear of the Chinook. These lights came in handy when people wouldn't get off my tail. But, they were really useful when backing into camp in the dead of night. These were a LOT better than sending my navigator out with a flashlight to help direct me to avoid rocks, ditches, and even picnic tables.
Sleep Under The Stars
Dome house, dome tent, and an emergency blanket are a few options for sleeping
Anybody that has ever wanted to get away has probably also thought about sleeping under the stars. Falling asleep with a million stars flickering overhead is a magical experience. Plus, every step of the lunar cycle offers something special to cap off a night.
I do love our AT Overland Habitat, as well as our Eureka and Sierra Designs tents. But, I would much rather have my quality sleeping bag than a roof over my head. In a pinch, you can always improvise a survival shelter. Or, you can use your vehicle in the event of inclement weather. But, a quality sleeping bag is worth it's weight in primaloft gold.
I splurged and invested in a quality sleeping bag for the kiddos. They were lucky and got the North Face Aleutian series for Christmas one year. The men's (https://www.thenorthface.com/shop/equipment-sleeping-bags-5f-25f/aleutian-20-7-nf0a2sbp?variationId=T7K) provides a quality synthetic bag that insulates down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. They also make a women's specific model that has a contoured shape and a little extra warmth in all the right places for the ladies (https://www.thenorthface.com/shop/equipment-sleeping-bags-5f-25f/womens-aleutian-20-7-nf0a2sc3?variationId=SCT). Both of these bags have saved us from many terrible experiences surviving cold, crisp, nights. As for the little lady and I, we prefer a double sleeping bag. That bag is ready to go and gives us a little room to breathe, while still maintaining a comfortable temperature.
Don't Break The Bank Buying Every Latest And Greatest Gadget
Room for the dogs, me, and a few necessities
If you're looking to get outdoors and enjoy some time away, then the items above will get you out there. Although you may want the latest and greatest rooftop tent, it's not mandatory for a good time. Also, a simple cooler or camp stove will suffice. Or, you could even go the MRE route and eliminate much of the camp kitchen kit altogether.
Overlanding's popularity is partly because it's big business right now. There is a company out there that will provide you with every accessory whether you need it or not. But, if you're new to the adventures, then you might want to see what is actually a necessity or a luxury before you invest big bucks. We keep a quality roadside repair kit in our vehicle. When we're going more off the beaten path, we start adding more and more recovery gear. But, most of the stuff that works for your day to day commute will also work for protecting you from a few of the mishaps overlanding.
Don't get me wrong. I love all of the latest and greatest gear. Years ago, we had to make due with whatever we could source from the RV store, truck stop, surplus store, and outdoor adventure store. Now, many items are truly vehicle-assisted travel specific. The different recovery tools, camp gear, and electronics are almost overwhelming these days. But, they also open up a lot more opportunities.
Goal Zero lights add some color for Aggy to guard the back