Images courtesy of The Adventure Portal
Although it’s far from new, a revitalized generation of outdoor users and brands are embracing overlanding like never before.
Don’t call it car camping, and definitely don’t call it off-roading – overlanding represents the coming together of high-tech semi-nomads, well-off adventurers with BMW motorcycles and retrofitted Toyota Land Cruisers, and regular folks with vans, jeeps, and even bicycles looking to take their adventure lifestyles beyond the usual trailhead.
Today’s overlanders are using vehicle-assisted travel to experience places that many will never see except on Instagram. But despite the trendiness of both the experience and the buzzword, the truth is, overlanding isn’t really new at all.
Automobile camping predates the tow-behind camper (1920s-1950s), which led to the motor lodge (1950s-1960s), and then the RV phenomenon of the 1970s and 80s. As far back as 1919, according to an article in Atlas Obscura, a few “vagabond car campers,” including Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, embarked on a car camping expedition that required 50 cars, including one built just to keep their food refrigerated.
Thousands of auto camps, both privately owned and run by municipalities nationwide, drew “overlanders” out into the countryside, and Atlas Obscura cited an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 camps and more than 10 million people hitting the road for nature-based recreation — until the Great Depression put an end to most leisure-based travel and the camps descended into what Hoover warned were places “full of disease, thievery and murder.” Other sources date the overlanding phenomenon back to the early 1900s in Australia, as herders traveled long distances to market and utilized their overland vehicles in the process.
Brands such as Patagonia, Woolrich, NAU, Fjallraven and many more are leveraging the imagery and ideals of overlanding to help sell product. “It’s become a recognized element to the outdoor lifestyle of adventure,” said Brian McVickers, Chief Business Development Officer for Overland International, publishers of Overland Journal and Expedition Portal, which has grown from 2,000 registered members in 2006 to 150,000 members today, now clocking more than 1.2 million site views per month. Sprinter van sales have tripled in the U.S. over the last 10 years, and most Sprinter retrofitters around the country are on a months-long backlog.
“Whether you’re talking about Sprinter vans or overland vehicles, this vehicle-based adventure trend seems to be just warming up,” said Steve Barker, founder of Eagle Creek, former Outdoor Industry Association president and principal at Wild Places (a branch of the National Wildlife Federation). “I’m not advocating for the creation of any more roads. We have more than enough. But there are many great adventures to pristine places that start with a truck or van trip to roads’ end. As an outdoor gear guy I put as much thought into equipping my van as I do choosing my pack, skis or fly rod.”
And while McVickers acknowledges the idea of using vehicles for adventure or wilderness travel is a sensitive topic, he says the trend is more about self-reliant travel and the range of outdoor activities the vehicles open up: from rock climbing and peak bagging to surfing, paddling, camping and fly fishing, the vehicle is simply another tool to enhance the overall experience.
“Overlanding can be used to describe the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition from London to Singapore in 1955, known as the ‘First Overland,’ or it can be used to describe Yvon Chouinard’s expedition to climb Fitz Roy when he and his buddies drove from San Francisco to Argentina. I imagine that if you were to ask Yvon about his 1968 overlanding trip he would look at you funny and not know what you are talking about,” McVickers said. “The concept of overlanding allows you to go further, explore more, and support all of your comfort and equipment needed to elevate your desired experience. It includes any activity you want it to from investigating the cultures of the world, climbing a mountain, backpacking a remote trail, getting the perfect picture, mountain biking, kayaking, surfing or any other activity.”
The Overland Journal audience is admittedly an educated, affluent and mindful customer. Overlanding motorcyclists embrace the plethora of ultralight camping gear now commonly available, while van-lifers are gobbling up re-invigorated coolers, camping cots and sleeping bags from brands like Slumberjack, Camp Chef, and Yeti, exploring areas of the mountains beyond the trailhead parking lot. Overlanders gravitate toward high-quality, functional gear that they can trust their lives to and enhances their other activities.
Portable solar has played a huge role in freeing ourselves from the office, and from the campground, just as it has for the marine/sailing world for decades. “Overlanding is an interesting niche for us – and a big one at that, especially in Australia. When it comes to portable power there seems to be an ever-increasing number of people finding the lifestyle who want the ‘done for you’ solution, which is where Goal Zero and other portable power companies comes into play,” said James Atkin, GZ Director of Marketing. “Rather than dealing with the red and black wires, inverters, charge controllers, and other requirements for the do-it-yourself installation, people want an easy, drop-in-and-go system that lets them get out and get going faster. Goal Zero Yeti Solar Generators paved the way for big, portable power.”
“Even if someone doesn’t identify as an ‘offroader,’ everybody uses a vehicle to get to the great outdoors,” said Lori McCullough, Executive Director of Tread Lightly!, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and enhancing recreation access with an emphasis on outdoor ethics, essentially the Leave No Trace of overlanding. “As overlanding grows in popularity, Tread Lightly! wants to tell all user groups from casual campers to four wheelers to use appropriate routes for their mode of transportation in order to protect the environment and future access to the trails that take them hunting, fishing and camping.”
They offer a series of responsible recreation tips and issue-specific public service announcements that address topics such as litter, staying on the trail, property damage and more at treadlightly.org. “As overlanding grows in popularity, Tread Lightly wants to tell all user groups from casual campers to four wheelers to use appropriate routes for their mode of transportation in order to protect the environment and future access to the trails that take them hunting, fishing and camping,” McCullough says. The group has also funded trail restoration projects and created a series of educational PSAs that promote its message, and it seems to be working as the overlanding trend is overlayed with a sense of ethos and responsibility akin to the hunting community. Overlanding is not about monster trucks, off-roading, “muddin’,” or even venturing off existing trails.
“I think overlanding, in its simple form, is just a refinement of the fine art of road tripping,” said Josh Aldridge, co-founder of the Overland Collective, a loosely organized group of writers, photographers and adventurers. “It’s been around forever and is only growing in popularity adjacent to the tiny house, homestead, and vanlife movements. Portability has become a huge part of our culture but we’ve also realized that the outdoor industry can provide creature comforts well-suited for a modern nomadic lifestyle. The gear that I see everybody relying on despite the size of their rig are simply portable solutions for the same problems we’ve had to solve since the dawn of man—food storage, warmth, power, and comfort.”
Andy Palmer, co-founder of The Adventure Portal, calls the trend “adventure car camping,” or, “vehicle assisted adventure.” Palmer was the co-founder of Animal Watches, which sold in 1999, worked at Dragon eyewear, and was most recently CEO at Crankbrothers. “I’m seeing the separate industries of outdoor and overlanding coming together. Vanlife culture has been around forever obviously, but I’m seeing it grow rapidly.”
Unlike the Baby Boomers who gobbled up big RVs, Gen Xers and Millennials want to feel like they’re on an adventure, not a vacation. “I still feel like I’m going into the backcountry, but I want to sleep on a mattress; I want to bring my family with me. And this is the type of thing that you can do with your family. This is piling all the kids into the truck and going somewhere. It’s got a sense of adventure to it, and it can be done in two to three days. It’s not as hard as putting a backpack on, but you still get that sense of adventure,” Palmer said. From stand up paddleboarding in Baja to fly fishing the San Juan’s, the vehicle is now part of the adventure, with an emphasis on using existing roads and good gear.
“The way people enjoy the outdoors is evolving. Our schedules are tighter so we don’t have the same amount of time to get outside and away from home. A vehicle allows us to go further, faster for more adventure in more secluded places in a weekend. The activities we’re doing are also changing. We want to ride bikes, climb, and SUP as well as hike and swim in mountain lakes. We also want to be more comfortable when we experience the outdoors…rectangular sleeping bags in a heated camper, gourmet cook setups, and coolers full of cold beer and food all enhance the outdoor experience,” said Slumberjack product line manager Nels Larson. “The experience is getting better because the vehicles are improving. Just like everything else in our lives, we want a custom outdoor experience, something that is uniquely ours. Camping shoulder to shoulder at the KOA doesn’t cut it anymore and having the right vehicle allows us to do things that are far more original.”
(Portions of this article first appeared during the Outdoor Retailer trade show in the Show Daily, published by SNEWS. Special thanks to Adventure Portal for the use of these images.)