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Overlanding: A Road to Resilience for Veterans

veteran overland

This syndicated article is published in collaboration with our partners at GearJunkie and Columbia Sportswear.

War leaves scars, that’s obvious. What’s less obvious—and an often unspoken truth among the veteran community—is that the military can be hard to leave.

To many, the draw of service is strong. It’s not just the camaraderie, gear, or adventure; it’s also the feeling of being a part of something bigger and with a clearer mission than everyday life usually allows. To many veterans, service equates to a sense of purpose.

When a service member gets an order, they have a lot of support at their back: their squad, battalion, tanks, helicopters, food, water, and a reliable paycheck deposited like clockwork every 2 weeks. Civilian life isn’t like that.

Reentry into civilian life takes hard work. There isn’t a manual or guide to follow, and the change is immediate.

“None of that feeling of support exists once you leave,” said Jeff McPike, Founder of Veteran Overland (V/O), a veteran community-building nonprofit. “You’re on your own to find a job, food, shelter. And while we can’t provide stability, V/O helps vets know that they’re not alone.”

veteran overland

What Is Overlanding?

Overlanding is a type of off-road travel that involves self-reliant exploration of remote areas. It is a popular activity among veterans, as it offers a number of benefits that can be helpful in finding a new sense of community and purpose after leaving the military.

As an organization, Veteran Overland is a 501(c)(3) that focuses on increasing resilience within the veteran community through the healing power of connection, the positive mental perspective of the outdoors, and the need for post-service skill-building through overlanding.

In a more abstract sense, V/O brings vets together to talk, bond, and once again share a common purpose. ⁠

The Seeds of Veteran Overland

During his time serving in Iraq, McPike ran convoy security throughout the country. But with a theater of war spanning hundreds of miles, these missions often morphed into dangerous multiday excursions where route finding, self-sufficiency, and battle were part of the job.

These convoy missions were the seeds that would eventually sprout into Veteran Overland as it exists today. “Gear, adventure, community, preparation, a mission,” McPike said of the typical V/O multi-day route. “We ask those attending to be prepared. Self-reliant. Educated in the disciplines of multiday trips to the most remote places in the U.S.”

That said, V/O’s trips are no walk (or drive) in the park. Long days, rough terrain, and countless unexpected challenges can be mentally and physically grinding—but rewarding to overcome as a team.

veteran overland

Healing Through Community

Every night, after a full day of backroad navigation, the group holds a “Veteran Fire”—a place where stories can be shared, jokes told, and friends can open up and be vulnerable.

“We know that veterans do not reach out to each other — or others for that matter,” said McPike. “Because veterans don’t reach out, they spend a lot of time alone or with people who don’t understand them or what they went through. We can’t tell you the amount of times we hear, ‘I didn’t know there were groups like this where I can be myself and talk to like-minded people.’”

The results of having that community are immediate, or as McPike put it, “Real-time. Every damn time.” Seeing their cohorts make progress — sometimes bringing someone back from the brink—often gets V/O’s leadership team emotional. And for good reason: U.S. veterans are at high risk. Vets are 57% more likely to commit suicide than someone who has not served, and the nation has lost over 6,000 veterans a year since 2001.

veteran overland

Veteran Overland Traverses the Idaho BDR

In an average year, Veteran Overland does at least four events, culminating with one long, 9-day trip to cap the year’s exploits. In early September, V/O tackled its latest extended mission—the Idaho BDR (Backcountry Discovery Route).

In planning these routes, V/O constantly seeks the most remote roads and routes available. In that vein, the Idaho Backcountry Discovery Route was the perfect challenge to cap off 2023.

The route is about as remote as it gets, with challenging terrain and gas stations few and far between (and a few unexpectedly closed). That means a lot of planning and prep: V/O participants bring their own fuel, food, water, and everything else, just in case supplies run low.

The Idaho BDR starts at the Idaho/Nevada border and ends at the Idaho/Canada border. This year, wildfires shut down parts of the planned route, but the V/O team managed to navigate around the hazard and enjoy solitude and new frontiers at every turn.

“The Magruder Corridor, for example, is 101 miles of one of the most remote roads in the lower 48,” McPike detailed. “Fifteen of us shared long days of travel, beachside campsites, and a whole lot of bonding. It will be a trip we will remember forever.”

veterans in overlanding

Columbia Teams With V/O to Test the Landroamer Footwear and Apparel

Not all veterans can afford to go on a Veteran Overland trip. That’s why the organization offers the Vet Connect program: a scholarship for combat and disabled veterans and their families. Every trip offered by Veteran Overland is in high demand — as such, the Vet Connect program has a competitive application process that seeks high-risk individuals.

Once accepted, Vet Connect recipients can curate their own experience, whether it be with family, a big group, or a 1:1 experience with a member of V/O’s leadership.

On this year’s Idaho BDR, three Vet Connects recipients were outfitted by Columbia Sportswear for the trip. With long traditions of supporting the veteran community, Columbia is passionate about outfitting our nation’s service members — both active and retired — with durable, reliable gear that’ll stand the test of time.

Columbia’s participation in the Idaho BDR coincides with the release of the brand’s Landroamer gear — an apparel and footwear collection built specifically for overlanding vehicle-based travel. Every Vet Connect recipient on the Idaho BDR was outfitted in a full Landroamer kit — testing the line in some of the most remote areas of the lower 48.

As a brand that’s keen to push new designs to their limits, Columbia knew there was no one better to test the Landroamer product than the team at Veteran Overland.

veterans in overlanding

Finding Resilience—And Hunting the Good Stuff

In veteran communities, there is a concept known as resilience. The military teaches courses on the subject, but in a nutshell, it can be viewed as a way to appreciate the positive aspects of one’s life.

After leaving the service, the concept of resilience came back to McPike in a big way. As a guiding force in his life, it’s helped him achieve professionally and personally and set him on the path to help other veterans who need a hand.

Resilience has now become the way McPike lives — a continuing practice — every single day. “No matter how bad your week or month is, there’s always something good that took place,” he explained. “If you train your mind to focus on those good moments more than the bad, you’ll have built resilience in yourself.”

“The more you practice,” he continued, “the better your mood, relationships, and mental health become, and the farther away you’ll be from depression… or worse. This has become our motto at V/O: “Hunt the Good Stuff.’”

For more information on Veteran Overland or to get involved, visit their website.

Watch more: The Healing Power of Nature :: Video of the Week

Sam Morse is an editor at gearjunkie.com.