What is Overlanding?

This article is a community-wide effort to best describe and define the terms and activities of “Vehicle-Dependent Expedition”, “Vehicle-Supported Overlanding” and “Backcountry Adventures”. The intent of this article and these definitions are not to judge if someone is actually achieving our definition of overland travel or vehicle-dependent expeditions, only to serve as a guide for more accurate use of the terms.

In a historical context, the term overlanding originated in Australia to describe the extreme distance covered during the cattle drives in the country. Overlanding can also be conducted on foot, by horse, by camel, etc. For the purpose of this article, the focus is on vehicle-dependent backcountry, overland and expedition travel.

Basic Definitions:

    Car Camping: Traveling in a vehicle to an established campground. If there is a picnic table there, it is probably car camping.
    Backcountry Adventure: A one-day, or multi-day off-highway trip in an adventure motorcycle or 4wd.
    Overland(ing): Vehicle-supported, self-reliant adventure travel, typically exploring remote locations and interacting with other cultures.
    Vehicle-Dependent Expedition: An organized, vehicle-dependent journey with a defined purpose, often geographic or scientific in nature.
    Expedition Vehicle: A 4wd or adventure motorcycle prepared for self-reliant travel over long distances, through unpredictable weather and over variable terrain.
    ExPo: An abbreviation of the website

Expedition Portal.


Difficulty of the terrain can be defined by the 1-5 scale:

Detailed Descriptions:


Backcountry Adventure:

A backcountry adventure has the goal of exploring the outdoors or traveling on technical terrain for shorter distances, often only one day. These trips are for the personal enjoyment of exploring, testing the vehicle or equipment. Backcountry adventures can be a day or more in length and include camping. All day-long trips would qualify as a backcountry adventure, and most 2-3 trips will as well.

  1. Primary purpose: Fun or vehicle/equipment testing and skills training.
  2. Duration: One day to several days.
  3. Logistics: Minimal planning is required, and the trip can often benefit from less planning (i.e spontaneity)
  4. Route Finding: Navigation is easy, typically on known routes that are well documented
  5. Camping: Remote or established campgrounds
  6. International Borders: Rarely includes crossing of international borders
  7. Risk: Low risk to personnel, moderate risk to equipment on more challenging tracks.
  8. Terrain: Backcountry travel often includes challenging trails as part of the adventure, with trails like the Dusy Ershim and longer routes in Moab, Utah being an example.


Exploring the Prescott National Forest


Overland Adventure:

Mozambique Road

Remote road in Mozambique

Note: Adapted from the Wikipedia entry, which was primarily authored by Graham Jackson (Director, Overland Training) and Jonathan Hanson (Executive Editor, Overland Journal).
Overlanding is the 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.

Technical terrain can be encountered throughout the journey, and the traveler may even seek out the most challenging route to a destination as part of their experience, but overland travel is not the same as recreational “fourwheeling”, where the primary objective is overcoming challenging obstacles. The critical point to the term overland travel is that the purpose is to seek out at least two or more of the following: 1. Remote locations, 2. Other cultures than your own, 3. Under-explored or under-documented regions, 4. Being self-reliant in unfamiliar territories for multiple days, weeks or months. That is to say, an overnight trip to the local mountains on a well documented route and staying in an established campground with full-hookups is not an overland adventure, it is a backcountry adventure or at the very least, car camping.

  1. Primary purpose: Exploration and adventure travel.
  2. Duration: Typically a week to many years. Can be only a few days if the route is particularly remote, challenging and infrequently traveled.
  3. Logistics: Detailed planning is required for environmental, geographic and geopolitical contingencies.
  4. Route Finding: Navigation can be easy or complicated, though many areas may have no mapping detail available, requiring extensive research.
  5. Camping: Remote camping. Some travelers may use a self-contained unit due to weather conditions, security concerns or duration of travel, though most will camp in a roof tent or high-quality ground tent. There also may be limited camping available (like in many parts of Asia), requiring use of local accommodations, hostels, etc.
  6. International Borders: Often includes crossing of international borders. Some overlanders may cross dozens of borders in a trip.
  7. Risk: Moderate risk to personnel and equipment due to security issues or the extreme remoteness and difficulty of the journey.
  8. Terrain: Terrain can vary depending on environmental and use conditions, but can be highly technical in the jungles and remote deserts. The vehicle and driver must be prepared for these unknowns.


Within the definition of overlanding, the method of travel can be broken down even further, into the following categories. Note: Detailed supporting articles will be contributed.


Two-wheeled Vehicles:

Bicycle: Other than traveling on foot (see Goliath Expedition), traveling by expedition bicycle is the most elemental and engaging form of vehicle-dependent travel. Distances covered are much shorter than by motorized methods, which makes the overland cyclist more dependent on local resources and more likely to interact with the local population. The bicycle is the most prolific form of human transportation, which makes an overland bicyclists less intimidating and more approachable to others. Detailed description of expedition bicycling to be contributed soon.

Chris Scott provided some additional considerations regarding overlanding by bicycle: “their versatility in as much that you can both sling them in a jeep/train/boat/plane when you get tired/bored/sick/stuck – but also you can carry a bike and gear over rock falls, up mule tracks, over ravines (as we did in Pakistan last year) that will stop most other things with wheels. The only problem is of course the limited payload, especially water in arid areas.”

Adventure Motorcycle: Adventure Motorcycling is a term originally coined by Chris Scott, author of the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook. Adventure motorcycling typically utilizes an adventure class of motorcycle, like a BMW GS Adventure, KTM Adventure or Kawasaki KLR650. Of course, most any motorcycle and a set of luggage will work, but the larger bikes are more durable and perform better when carrying a load. Adventure motorcycling is much like bicycling, as the rider is more dependent on local resources for supplies and support, which can also enhance the experience. Detailed description coming soon.

Four-wheeled Vehicles:

Light and Fast:

Light and fast puts the emphasis on simplicity, with minimal equipment, and limited (or no) electronics. Essentially, the equipment used mirrors that in mountaineering, adventure motorcycling, etc. Complexity of the vehicle is also minimized to improve performance and reliability, and vehicles are operated at well below GVW. The greatest advantage of light and fast travel is the reduced distraction a heavily modified vehicle and complex camp presents. There is no laptop mounted in the cab, no complex camping set-up, etc., which affords more time to exploration and interact with the cultures you are visiting. This type of travel is most common with solo travelers.

  1. Better vehicle performance in technical terrain, improved durability.
  2. Reduced distraction from complex equipment and electronics.
  3. Reduced cost and less liability in the event of theft, etc.


  1. Depending on how simplistic the set-up, there can be a compromise in sleeping and general camp comforts.
  2. Lighter weight equipment can require additional set-up time and increase repair intervals.



The traditional method of preparing an expedition vehicle is to start with a robust platform, like a Land Cruiser, and fit strong, reliable components like heavy bumpers, winches, roof racks, roof tents, excess capacity fuel and water, comprehensive kitchen kits and elaborate storage solutions. There is a reason this is the most common form of overland configuration, because it presents the least amount of compromise between camp comforts and rugged track performance. Traveling months or even years with these configurations in not uncommon. This is by far the most common method of vehicle-based.

  1. Typically fitted with roof tents, camp set-up is easy and fast. The tent is highly durable and can last decades of use, and remains clean due to lack of contact with the ground.
  2. Camp kitchens can be elaborate, as well hygiene systems (toilet, hot water shower with enclosure, etc), which can be an advantage in groups traveling together or when camping in populated, but rural areas.
  3. Roof racks and trailers are also typically used, which increases capacity for additional equipment and other toys like kayaks, mountain bikes, etc.


  1. Trucks are typically pushing GVW, making them less efficient, and more difficult to manage in technical terrain, sand dunes and deep mud.
  2. The extensive camp kit requires longer set-up and tear-down times and more distraction servicing and repairing the complex electronics and water systems.
  3. Additional expense and complexity.
  4. This will further be defined with a detailed article from Graham and Connie Jackson


Self-Contained Camper:

The self-contained camper serves the full-time overlander, or couples who travel for extended distances or durations. The camper allows for security and comforts impossible with traditional SUVs and trucks, however, all self-contained campers are a compromise in technical terrain, and when attempting to travel through villages and cities outside of the US.

  1. You have your home with you, which includes a shower, heater, built-in kitchen and a large, comfortable bed.
  2. The most suitable to extreme weather and prolonged periods of rain and cold.
  3. Excellent security, especially with a pass-through.
  4. Chris Scott added the following: “Another pro: folding/inflatable kayaks, mountain bikes and motos can be securely stored and also trucks are built tough; it’s hard to exceed the GVWR or mash the suspension (at least with the ones I’m thinking of). I think the high windows are also a significant security aspect of this type of vehicle. It’s the problem with a regular 5-door SUV like the TLC above. A pass-through is much more a convenience that a security feature IMO, though many people think about it in those terms in the planning stage.”


  1. You have a house attached to your truck. (i.e. cabinetry, appliances, complex systems, etc.)
  2. Limited accessibility to remote areas and challenging terrain. Many towns in developing countries are not accessible to these vehicles. (this can be solved with an attached motorcycle).
  3. High cost to purchase and operate. This will be further defined with a detailed article from Douglas and Stephanie Hackney
    Note: Smaller self-contained units: There are smaller units that are less of a compromise in technical terrain and in small villages. These include the Sportsmobile, EarthRoamer XV-JP, Fourwheel Camper, etc.


Vehicle-Dependent Expedition:

Sahara Empty Quarter

The Sahara Empty Quarter, traveled by Chris Scott

A vehicle-dependent expedition has a purpose beyond the journey itself. Given the fact that little of the world is unexplored, expeditions have become more fractal (See fractal exploration, Overland Journal, Fall 2008), and the expectations for what constitutes an expedition have relaxed from the days of Shackleton and Hillary. However, there are several criteria that can aid in defining an undertaking as an expedition, and make use of the term more credible. This is easily accomplished by defining a few goals along the trip that serve a greater purpose beyond our own enjoyment of the adventure. Traveling El Camino Del Diablo for a long weekend may feel like an expedition (it did to me the first time I crossed it), but it is really just a very remote overland route. However, cross the El Camino del Diablo with a group of biologists, and assist them in counting antelope in June, for a month – that is an expedition!

  1. Primary purpose: Exploration in support of geographic, scientific or humanitarian endeavors.
  2. Duration: Typically several weeks to many years.
  3. Logistics: Detailed planning is required for environmental, geographic and geopolitical contingencies.
  4. Route Finding: Navigation can be highly complicated, and many areas may have no mapping detail available, requiring extensive research and/or support from the local population.
  5. Camping: Accommodations will range from remote camping to hostels due to weather conditions, security concerns or duration of travel. There also may be limited camping available, requiring use of local accommodations, hostels, military and church grounds, etc.
  6. International Borders: Often includes crossing of multiple international borders.
  7. Risk: Moderate to severe risk to personnel and equipment due to security issues or the extreme remoteness and difficulty of the journey.

Jonathan Hanson (Executive Editor, Overland Journal. Elected Fellow, Explorers Club) has contributed addition criteria. An expedition should comprise one of the following, two or more preferred.

  1. A journey with a higher purpose—undertaken, for example, to increase scientific knowledge, promote conservation, or render humanitarian aid.
  2. A journey that includes a significant risk factor, whether due to remoteness, environmental factors, or terrorist/military/criminal activity, for example.
  3. A journey of exploration to an unknown or little-known area. Essentially a higher purpose as in number one.
  4. A journey by difficult means—bicycling rather than driving; sea kayaking rather than sailing, for example. Not to be confused with stunts, although there may be gray area in many cases. Using a particular means of transportation simply because it’s more difficult taints the effort. The choice of more primitive transport needs to enhance the journey in some way. Traveling by bicycle, for example, is quieter and uses far less fossil fuel. Recreating a historical journey with a reproduction of the original transport would be honorable, certainly, as Pete Goss just did with a replica 1850s sailboat.


    Sahara Empty Quarter – Exploring undocumented areas of the Sahara, aiding with the collection of dust samples for scientific research.
    Quest Connect – Don and Kim Greene have traveled the world, documenting its wonders for school children in a series of lesson plans.
    Ends of the Earth- Expeditions West travels to the furthest vehicle accessible points of six continents.
    Vermont Expedition Society – While they did not cross international borders, or even , the society researched and explored an ancient road system of backcountry right-of-ways through Vermont. This effort documented one of the few available backcountry exploration routes in the NE. Their adventure had a purpose, and gave to future generations of NE explorers.
    Forgotten Continent Expedition– Doug and Stephanie Hackney explore and document South America for over a year, and provide detailed reviews and documentation of locations visited. In addition, Doug uses his skills with a camera to provide families with some of the only printed portraits they will ever have.

Scott is the publisher and co-founder of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal. His travels by 4WD and adventure motorcycle span all seven continents and include three circumnavigations of the globe. His polar travels include two vehicle crossings of Antarctica and the first long-axis crossing of Greenland. He lives in Prescott, Arizona IG: @scott.a.brady Twitter: @scott_brady