Overlanding 101: Why Vehicle Selection Matters


We could go on and on about the gear you need for Overlanding, but, this time we will start with the basics, because you can’t go overlanding without a vehicle. Here we go over what overlanding is, what overlanding vehicles are, and what vehicle can work best for you and your family regardless of family size and budget.

What Is Overlanding?

Overlanding is the act of travel (over-land) from one destination to the other. Overlanding is being self-sufficient in your travels, where the journey itself between destinations is the focus of the adventure. Overlanding can be a short weekend trip across the state or a trip that lasts many months-long and take the overlander across international borders.

People are drawn to overlanding from a love of getting outside, unplugging from traditional entertainment and challenging themselves, their vehicle, and creating their own off-grid adventure. Overlanding is often compared to camping or off-roading, and in fact, it’s a combination of both activities. Overland trips can be taken by almost any person in almost any vehicle.

Overland travel is in our DNA and stems from our distant relatives before us who “over-landed” when headed to the American West in covered wagons. That same burning desire to get outside, explore, and challenge ourselves rings true to this very day.

What Is An Overlanding Vehicle?

An overland vehicle is a vehicle by which is used to transport the passengers and gear between destinations. All vehicles are capable of overlanding. As you get more into the overland journey, the desire for more capability increases, this leads to vehicle modifications and increased vehicle capability. Common overland vehicle upgrades include things like all-terrain tires, some increased ground clearance with lifts, navigation and communication upgrades along with food and gear storage. However, when starting, you don’t need anything but a vehicle and the desire to adventure into the unknown.

If you have a family and you are starting to get into Overlanding, it can seem a bit overwhelming. With 2020 finally over, and spending nearly a year in your house social distancing, it’s time to start looking forward to the 2021 outdoor season. Whether you are a camper, hiker, or just all-around explorer, having a good family vehicle for Overlanding is an important piece of this equation. 

Family Overland Vehicles

Personally, I’m a bit experienced in this area seeing as I have a family and we love to go explore in our “overlanding vehicle”. Over the years we have explored all types of vehicles like Toyota Tacomas, Toyota Tundras, Ram Trucks, heck, even RV’s (but don’t tell anyone that, the hardcores will tell you that RV’s don’t count).

That “Overlanding” word can be a touchy subject to some. Essentially, if you are out exploring in a vehicle and are self-sufficient (not relying on campgrounds and RV parks) then you are an Overlander! Oh, and before your spouse asks, check out our list of Best Camping Toilets (male spouse or female, I’m not assuming here).

What We Use For A Family Overlanding Vehicle

I have a 2013 Rock Warrior Edition Toyota Tundra. I have a camper shell on it and a Rooftop Tent. So far, so good. Room for all 5 of us and the dogs! CJ has it all! CJ has a large family and his garage is packed with goodies. His wife has a 4Runner, he has a Tundra and they also have an Escapod Off-road tear-drop trailer with a RTT mounted on top. You could say they are a source for all my Overlanding GOALS.

When selecting a vehicle for Overlanding, many people start to get a bit overwhelmed. Between the gear, the hefty price tags, and the endless advice from YouTube and Social Media, it makes many people go into analysis paralysis, and in-turn, they stop looking or just grab the first 4×4 ride they see. Let’s not do that.

Taking the family along (in my opinion) is the best part, however, there are a few considerations to take into account before pulling the trigger on a new Overlanding family vehicle. Let’s take a look at the best Overlanding vehicles for families and I’ll point out which are best for each type of scenario to assist along the way.

A Few Simple Ground Rules To Overland Vehicles

I must start our list picks with these two rules below, it needs to be said. Many people wont be a fan of this, but I believe it to be true. They aren’t mandatory but will greatly increase your odds of a smooth trip. I can already hear the keyboard warriors on Facebook and Reddit screaming about why they would pick something different. This isn’t a one-size fits all case type. Pick what you like and works for your budget and family size.

What You Will Need in a Family Overlanding Vehicle

Four-Wheel Drive

Now, some will say you don’t need this and they are technically correct, however, if you plan to head off the pavement, its really nice to have that peace of mind that you have 4 tires working for you in snow, mud, or rain instead of two. After all, you’re most likely on your own out there. At a minimum, you will need some Overlanding recovery gear.

Good Tires

While expensive 40 inch tires are not required at all, and in many cases will just limit you, there are a few things you can do that will increase your overland vehicles capabilities. The first, best, and most common upgrade is getting a good all-terrain tire. Companies like BFG AT-KO 2’s are very popular but even something half the price like a Falkon Wildpeak AT3 is great. A good All-terrain tire will give the single best improvement to your overland vehicle aside from making wise decisions about where your vehicle is able to go.

Off-Road Self-Recovery Gear

The next best investment you can make in your overlanding vehicle is off-road self recovery gear. Self recovery gear is vital to overlanding because you are your own tow truck. If you get stuck, you cant call AAA or your Roadside Assistance when you’re 50 miles from a paved road. Now, you may imaging winches and off-road bumpers when I say this, but in reality, thats not required.

A simple purchase of a collapsable shovel and a set traction boards from X-Bull or MaxTrax will give you incredible traction when your tires are slipping and the shovel will clear a path for your tire. If you don’t know where to start, check out our Guide to Affordable Overlanding Recovery Gear.

What You Won’t Need in a Family Overlanding Vehicle

A Lift Kit:

I don’t care who you speak to, you don’t NEED a lift to go Overlanding. Sure, does a little more ground clearance help on the less traveled Forest Service and BLM trails? Yep, but it’s definitely not needed. Picking a good line on the trail to follow will do a million times more for you than just a big lift kit. 

Recovery Winch

A recovery winch is an electric motor with a metal or synthetic cable wound up around it that is mounted to the frame of your vehicle. If you are stuck, you can unwind the cable and attach it to a fixed object such as a tree or boulder. Once the cable is secured, you can use the motors power to literally pull your vehicle from its stuck position. Winches are a nice upgrade and very capable, but definitely NOT needed. Also, not everywhere you go will have a tree or boulder nearby when you are overlanding (great plains, deserts, etc).

Overland Roof Rack

Overland roof racks (or factory roof racks for that matter) are rack systems built to attach to the top of your vehicle and carry extra gear. Often times on overland vehicles you will commonly see roof top tents, storage boxes or self-recovery gear loaded onto roof racks. Roof racks are completely not necessary, but another nice upgrade. If you don’t have a roof rack, just use your existing truck bed, car trunk, or other factory storage areas. Again, no need to overthink this.

Ipads and HAM Radios

You won’t need 7 stuck to your dashboard like in a YouTubers rig. Some phone apps are helpful, check out the Best Overlanding Apps for reference. However, none of that is actually needed. Getting a paper map or downloading off-line maps for your phone when data is gone is all you will need.

Most everything beyond good tires, and navigation (aside from food and gas) that is a personal preference. You can take this very far and get all the goodies, or keep it basic. Don’t get caught up in Jerry cans and roof racks, you get that because you want to, not because you have to. 

Mid-Size Overlanding Vehicle For a Family of 3 to 4

Disclaimer: While these are well-intended picks, It’s ultimately going to largely depend on your personal taste and your situation. So, with that said, let’s look at the best!

I chose mid-size for families of 3 to 4 because they tend to do the best on trails. You could be more comfortable, but smaller is better. Many of the trails you encounter when Overlanding are narrow and having a smaller footprint on the trail will let you go more places and have fewer tree branches and bush scratching on your doors. 

Toyota 4Runner

Toyota has made a name for itself thats starting to rival the Jeep Wrangler crowd. With that said, you will see Toyota’s a few times in this list as they are dependable, relatively affordable and very capable off-road vehicle’s.

Jeep Wrangler JKU (4-Door)

You cant think about outdoor excursions without thinking about a Jeep. The JKU model is the 4-door model and will provide a good amount of room while still having excellent off-road capability. Jeeps are famous for off-road travel but critics will say the Chrysler engine is not to be trusted. With all of the aftermarket parts, even a jeep that has an issue can be easily repaired (just not while on your overland trip).

Toyota Tacoma

Another common name in overlanding, the Toyota tacoma is the versatile overland vehicle that many people love. Due to its size and trusted brand coupled with truck bed storage, the Toyota Tacoma is a go-to for overlanders, it’s compact, capable, and trusted. 

Full-Size Overlanding Vehicle For a Family of 5 to 6

It’s time to navigate away from mid-size as we are now having more people than can safely be seated in a midsize (unless you have a 3rd Row 4Runner I suppose). 

Ford Excursion:

A big diesel beast that can hold your larger family, and has excellent 4×4 capability. While they are no longer made, many can be had on the marketplace for a good price. 

Full-Sized Truck (Take your personal fav):

I won’t go into Chevy vs Ford vs Toyota, etc, everyone seems to have their personal preference with brands. Just grab the 4×4 version, toss your gear in the back, and hit the road. Personally, I use a Tundra with a Camper shell that has a Roof Top Tent on the top, it works great. Mom and dad can sleep in the bed of the truck (inside the camper shell) and the kids can party in the RTT. 

Toyota Sequoia:

A Full-sized SUV from Toyota that is roomy and capable. The Toyota Sequoia has also recently released the “TRD Pro” version which makes you Overland better when you have blacked out badges and premium leather. I’m kidding, BUT it does have skid plates that are helpful should you pick a line that likes to scrape your oil pan. 

Overland Vehicle For a Large Family of 6+ (#VanLife)

Chevy E350 Van (4×4):

A classic van styling with big bow 4×4 capability. Bring the whole family and hit the road. Additionally, these have lots of options and add-ons you may want to get down the road. 

Hi-Roof Van (Ford, RAM or Mercedes):

These are getting hard to find a deal on, but they do the trick for large families. They are big, roomy, and more capable than people give credit to. The Ford has an AWD option and the Mercedes has a transfer case 4×4 which is more desirable than AWD as it delivers equal power to all 4 wheels rather than AWD which delivers power to all four tires, but usually in mixed power (example 65% front and 35% rear). The RAM has an FWD option that seems to do well, but for me, I like a 4×4 option. Check out the Reddit board r/vandwellers for some inspiration.

Budget Overlanding Vehicle For a Family Under $15,000

Used Toyota 4Runner:

With a tough built engine and a great reliability factor, well-taken care of 4Runner will do the trick. These can be found with under 75,000 miles for under $15,000 depending on your location and patience. 

Used Toyota Tacoma:

Same as above, reliable, small, capable and many aftermarket products

Used Jeep:

Be careful with these. Yes, a good deal can be had on a trusty and capable jeep, however, because they are such toys for people, many people buy them, tinker on them and then sell them. I would recommend finding a single owner who can show it was loved. Otherwise, you may be buying someone’s failed project. Look for JKU’s as they are the 4-door option.

Used Nissan Xterra:

Nissan Xterras are great little rigs and if you find a good used one, it will take you to many places without issue. The Nissan Xterra engine has been developing a “bulletproof” name for itself with off-roaders and repairs and parts are easy to come by.

Conclusion

All in all, it will come down to personal preference and your family’s individual needs. A family of 3 is going to have very different needs than a family of 7. So, look at your budget, your future plans, your family size, and just get what works for you. Hopefully, this was helpful and it puts you closer to finding that Overlanding vehicle for your family that works best. Don’t forget to check out our Guide to Affordable Self Recovery Gear and the Ultimate Guide to Truck bed Camping

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