The occupants of the other car were in a flurry of activity. A rooftop tent was erected, and solar panels were deployed. The driver set up an elaborate kitchen while the passenger mapped the perimeter with overhead lighting. A deep subwoofer thump shattered the soothing sound of waves crawling up and down the beach.
“Hey man, do you think that is a good idea? We are camping!” I yelled between beats.
“No, we are overlanding,” was the response.
I didn’t know it then, but the word “overlanding” soon grated on me. Fast forward about a decade to today, and “overlanding” has exploded in popularity with a seemingly ever-ascending price tag. And it has potentially fostered a stigma against “car camping.”
What, because you have a vehicle and wallet that can support a rooftop tent (RTT), you’re overlanding, and I’m not? Am I not overlanding if I don’t have a platform roof rack? If I just pull up to the USFS campground in my unmodified Honda Accord and get my Walmart pup tent out of the trunk, am I not overlanding? Are you looking down on me from your lifted truck?
Be careful, you fell off your RTT ladder last night (I do hope your ankle is better). I will say your face is healing nicely. Please don’t burn it with your million-lumen rack lights — that would feel terrible.
What Is Overlanding?
I admit that it’s hard to give a hard description of the term “overlanding.” The lines are fuzzy, and clear delineations don’t exist. I’m not a linguistics expert, so I drew from overlanding sources with street cred.
“Self-reliant adventure travel to remote destinations where the journey is the primary goal. Typically, but not exclusively, accommodated by mechanized off-highway 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 often spanning international boundaries. While expedition is defined as a journey with a purpose, overlanding sees the journey as the purpose” is, or at least was, an accepted definition parlayed by Overland Journal.
I was granted generous interview time with Brian McVickers, one of the head honchos at Overland Journal. He agreed wholeheartedly that although overlanding does have a foundational definition, the many ways that people are finding to participate in overlanding are evolving that definition to accommodate the time and opportunity available.
McVickers repeatedly expressed his desire to avoid elitism and exclusion. “I don’t want to tell the enthusiastic family that camped at the local state park, using their minivan, that they weren’t overlanding if it was an inspiring adventure for them, that is what matters. If they are encouraged by their local adventure they could go on to explore the world for all we know,” McVickers said.
“Overlanding is vehicle-based adventure, but I believe the vehicle must be capable of transporting the participants and necessary gear to the desired location.”
I asked Reed Frick, former product director for Dometic and current consultant in the same field. Dometic invests heavily in the overlanding market, selling everything from powered coolers to storage boxes. Reed stated, “Car camping is about the destination. You camp to ride, fish, hike, ski, etc.”
“Defining overlanding is a hard thing to do, it means different things to different people these days,” said Mercedes Lilienthal, an automotive journalist and contributor to GearJunkie. “In the past, it meant prolonged self-reliant travel across many countries in sometimes harsh environments where safety and experience can get one through various tough situations. In today’s world, however, ‘overlanding’ can mean something as short as a weekend camping trip to a local state park off the beaten path with a family that’s never let their all-wheel-drive seven-seater leave the pavement before. The term overlanding has become somewhat of a heavy-hitting buzzword for adventurous car camping, in my opinion.”
Whichever way you lean on the definition, there is no denying that overlanding links to vehicles and that the market has grown tremendously, especially during the peak COVID times. There isn’t solid data citing the total revenue in the overland industry, but its consumer tradeshow has grown substantially.
The Overland Expo started in 2009 as a small gathering of less than a few hundred people. The 2022 Overland Expo attracted 77,000 attendees across four events, compared to 34,500+ in 2019 across two events. This represents 123% growth from pre-COVID times.
But Isn’t That Just Car Camping?
Set aside the focus on the destination or activity. Car camping is, well, camping, and getting to the campsite by car. Imagine a family in a campsite, tent within sight of the car. A park-supplied picnic table and grill, set up under a shade structure. It’s sort of the classic, almost pastoral, scene of working-class Americans enjoying the outdoors.
But it’s not too far an extension, if at all, that this family is overlanding. Maybe the family had to engage 4WD in their SUV to get to this park — likely not —and maybe they’ve been on the road the entire summer without a solid plan. Now they fit in the “accepted” definition. Are they overlanders?
If so, again, by logical extension, overlanding is car camping.
Larry Jarriel, former community manager/tech rep/content manager at Dometic, had this to say: “Car camping is overlanding and vice versa. Both enthusiasts are looking for community — they just get to that end goal in a different way.”
McVickers further surprised me with this curve ball:
“Car camping requires one to camp. Overlanding doesn’t necessarily mean camping. Plenty of epic overlanding trips have been done without ever spending a night out camping. Sometimes these adventures link hotels or other places to stay. Remember that part of the adventure is experiencing culture, food, activities, and historical sites.
“An overlanding trip often brings adventurers into small villages, towns or even larger city centers and the remote backcountry. You can’t have all those experiences if you are trying to camp isolated in the mountains every night. The perfect adventure will have a mix of all of it.”
But things continued to get confusing. Again, Lilienthal: “We feel that all overlanding with a vehicle is car camping but not all car camping is overlanding … sometimes.”
She continued, “However, if you’re taking your 1985 Toyota Corolla to the local KOH for an ‘overlanding’ adventure, you may as well leave your MAXTRAX recovery boards and satellite phone at home — it’s not that kind of jaunt. But, if you find yourself stuck in the soft sands of the Sahara, get yourself recovered and carry on to explore six other countries; that’s more of our definition of overlanding.”
So, with all these tangled definitions, I wonder: Who cares? Does the definition matter? We all got here in a car, traveled to a cool spot, and we’re camping — or not — and it’s fun.
But I think some do care. I asked for quotes from overlanding insiders for this article, and half of them refused for fear of backlash from certain portions of the outdoor industry. Let me explain.
Overlanding: It’s All About the Gear
I believe overlanding is at least partially about creating a category and selling gear to that category. Overlanding seems to entail expensive gear (that may already exist in “camping” form), while car camping doesn’t require specialized equipment. Car campers may not pay more for a toiletry bag branded as “overlanding,” but I bet an overlander will.
An internet search on the word “overlanding” produces endless pages mostly focused on preparing the vehicle, necessitating content on products ranging from the actual base vehicle down to the phone mount. From RTTs to kitchen utensils, the overlanding interwebs are filled with an endless supply of premium goods to attach to the car, fill the car, or use at the destination.
By contrast, I had to scroll down to the 16th entry in a “car camping” search before the linked page was primarily about gear. The listings focus on “how to’s,” and some did mention products, of course, but for the sake of explaining methods. And many of these aim at doing it on a tight budget.
Jarriel added that overlanding is “more aligned with preparing the rigs for the adventures” and that the participants “talk a lot about what they’ve done to their vehicles.”
So, the internet emphasis on the vehicles and gear isn’t surprising. But wait, wasn’t it supposed to be about the journey?
Very active forums describe exotic and impressive builds, and pundits argue the merits of one onboard air compressor compared to others and debate over the best mounting location and wiring schematic. I dare say that overlanding is a lifestyle that requires one to festoon what was a perfectly capable vehicle with every conceivable doodad. I’ve seen admittedly impressive builds more than double the vehicle’s base value.
These modifications, often done with a firehose of money, can leave a vehicle less capable in the handling department and woefully short on fuel economy.
Bryon Dorr, our Motors Editor, had this to say: “Overloading is the new overlanding. But don’t be that person. The laws of physics can’t be overcome. Weight in your vehicle reduces performance and fuel economy/range and wears parts out quicker — meaning more money and time spent on maintenance/repair. Adding weight up high on your vehicle, like big heavy rooftop tents, multiplies many of these issues. Enjoy the comforts vehicle-based travel provides, but don’t fall into the overland gear trap.”
Why Do I Care?
Why did I write this? Why do I care about the semantics of overlanding and car camping?
I’ve seen the outdoor industry spawn a new overlanding category, filling it with products that often resemble something already sold to front country campers. Chairs, sinks, tables, you name it. But tag it as “overlanding,” and the price can skyrocket, as can the attitude.
I distinctly feel that overlanders look down on “car campers.”
I asked Kelly Lund, a Toyota-sponsored overlander, if overlanders look down on car campers.
“Yes and no,” he replied. “I understand why overlanding as a culture gets that reputation. When it comes to individuals, though, I think most are just looking to have a good time and want a vehicle to tinker on whether they use it for camping 52 weekends a year or once a summer.”
Lilienthal added, “Online ‘overlanders’ and keyboard warriors may look down on car campers but authentic worldwide travelers that we know don’t.”
People can spend their money in any way and identify with whatever group they desire. But I feel that these formerly unnecessary divisions among campers can create exclusion based on income. And I don’t like or appreciate that kind of elitism, outdoors or not.
In the end, we could all just go car camping, or overlanding, and not give one iota about what the activity is called. We could ignore the branding and just use what works.
“Who cares about the label if you do what you enjoy?” Jarriel asked me rhetorically. “There is no right or wrong way to adventure. It doesn’t matter how you identify, as long as you welcome others into the outdoors.”
Lilienthal concurred, “Everybody does it differently and as long as we all get out there and have fun, and respect Mother Nature and each other while doing so, we can all enjoy our time outdoors together!”
Distill it all down, strip away the fluff, and tune out the chatter, and you may end up where I did. Overlanding is car camping and vice versa. We’ve been doing it all along.