Opinion: Overlanding or Car Camping and Does it Matter?

As is so often the case, I didn’t see it coming––the agonizing discussion of pigeonholing trips under the headings of expedition, overlanding, car camping, and road tripping. It happened at a local watering hole when one of my friends said to another, “20,000 miles through the Americas in a VW van is not overlanding, that’s road tripping.” The return volley was then lobbed into the fray, “So, your weekend in Utah driving 100 miles of gravel is overlanding?” Knowing full well where this conversation was headed, I told these two chaps my mom was calling and beat a quick path to the nearest exit. Like a snake eating its own tail, these discussions are always interminable.

Why any of this matters is not nearly as confounding as the process by which trips get filed into their tidy little boxes. How my road trip becomes someone else’s expedition is confusing at best. I find I could use the help of a flow chart to better understand how this all works, but doubt even that would help. Am I an overlander or a car camper? I have no idea.

As a convoluted example, I’ve made the drive to and from Alaska many times; one such trip was a nail-biting epic in a 2WD Mazda truck in early March. I’ve been told that was a road trip, despite it being one of the most daunting journeys I have ever undertaken. Had I completed that drive in the warm months of June in a highly modified Land Cruiser or JK, it would have been overlanding. Fold in a Unimog, and stretch the trip out over a month, and I might be inching closer towards the hallowed ground of a full-blown expedition. Then again, had I driven my wimpy Mazda to Ulaanbataar, it would once again be an expedition. Tricky business, this.

We also tend to categorize travels by something as simple as the camping accouterments used. Too much comfort and a trip flirts with being dismissed as not just car camping, but “glamping.” I’m still unsure if that’s a bad thing, or what level of comfort tips the scales, but should your camp libations be served in anything bearing the Snow Peak logo, you’re probably glamping. If you eat your beanies and weenies straight out of the can, somehow that makes your adventure more authentic unless you’re in a Honda Civic on pavement, then the whole thing starts to look downright depressing, or so I’m told.

It’s at this point, this all starts to sound like an annoying Andy Rooney commentary and perhaps that’s the greatest takeaway. The next time you challenge someone with one of these qualifying conversations, realize you might sound like Andy Rooney. That should kill the discussion full stop. The one thing we can all agree on is this: How you label your trips matters not. It’s all about the adventure, big or small. 

Christophe Noel is a journalist from Prescott, Arizona. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.

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