overland vehicles guide for overlanding rigs

An overlanding vehicle, at its core, is simply the mechanized means to your adventure.

And here’s a little secret: You DO NOT need an elaborate expedition rig to go overlanding! In fact, the best overlanding vehicle is usually the one you already have parked in your driveway – the one you can go on an adventure with right now!

But everyone needs to start with something, and if you’re in the market for an overland vehicle you may as well start off on the right foot.

In this post we’ll discuss the basics of overland vehicles, what to look for in an overlanding rig, and cover some pros & cons to various overland vehicle options to help you select the right vehicle for your overland adventures!

 

*(This post contains affiliate links. This means we may receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. See our full disclosure.)

 

Is Four-Wheel Drive Required for an Overland Vehicle?

Nope! The reality is that tens of thousands of people all over the world have taken their 2WD budget overlanding vehicles to places most wouldn’t even dream of taking their high-dollar fully kitted-out overlanding rigs.

And they likely had a much more enjoyable and authentic overlanding adventure too!

However, having a four wheel drive overland vehicle can give you more flexibility on your overland adventures by allowing you to experience the places you travel more deeply, more independently, and more safely – provided that you take the time to learn how to use your 4WD overland vehicle.

Becoming proficient at driving off-road takes a fair amount of practice and skill, and can entail some specialized safety and recovery gear. So if you’re new to overlanding and off-road driving, here’s what we’d recommend before making any overland vehicle decisions:

  • Read. While not as beneficial as direct experience, knowing the principles of off road driving and the various functions and capabilities of four-wheel drive vehicles will give you context while learning. One of our favorite books on the topic is Four-Wheel Drive: The Complete Guide* by Andrew St. Pierre White.

  • Practice. Once you have selected an overlanding vehicle (whether it’s 4WD or not), practice with it! Take time to learn its capabilities, its limitations, and its weaknesses – as well as your own. This will enable you to make more informed decisions when considering vehicle modifications and gear purchases, and will ultimately save you money.

  • Improve. Find an experienced friend or group to go out with, and to learn from. If you don’t know anyone with experience consider attending an overland expo or event. Often they’ll have classes and instruction included on a wide variety of overlanding and off-road driving topics. Plus, in an age of online shopping, they’re an incredible opportunity to meet directly with overlanding gear and equipment manufacturers, learn about their products, and experience them first-hand before spending your hard earned money.

New vs. Used Overland Vehicles

If you’re considering buying an overlanding vehicle, one of the biggest decisions is choosing between a newer overland vehicle with potentially better reliability or an older budget overland vehicle with more initial maintenance needs and potentially less reliability. Let’s look at the benefits and potential drawbacks of each option to help you figure out which may make for the best overlanding vehicle for your needs.

New Overlanding Vehicles

Vehicle manufacturers are constantly making improvements to their product lines to appeal to a larger customer base, and in recent years many have begun curtailing their offerings to the overlanding market by building in more and more off-road capability and functionality.

PROS

  • They’re built to higher safety standards than older vehicles

  • No initial maintenance needs, if purchased new. Plus there is the added security of a manufacturer’s warranty and scheduled maintenance plans

  • More comfortable suspension with a much more comfortable ride both on and off road when compared to older overlanding vehicles

  • Improvements in off-road capabilities & technology – things like selectable locking differentials, auxiliary lighting, built-in navigation, and even vehicle recovery equipment are often optioned directly by the manufacturers or dealerships, and vehicle-assisted driving technologies, like Toyota’s “Crawl Control,” have attempted to make off-road driving more accessible to beginners.

  • Aftermarket Parts & Equipment – newer vehicles see wider support from aftermarket vehicle parts and equipment manufacturers, making it easier to source parts when modifying them for overlanding.

CONS

  • Mechanical/Electrical Complexity – due to the complex computer, electronics, and emissions systems in modern overlanding vehicles you likely won’t have the skills, means, or equipment to work on it yourself – and in the event you have a mechanical issue in a remote location this could be a very serious disadvantage.

  • Parts & Repair Availability Abroad – Even if you are able to diagnose a mechanical issue while traveling (or find a shop that can) and have the ability to fix it, if the vehicle is new and/or isn’t sold or distributed in the country/region in which you’re traveling, the parts may simply not be available locally. This would result in exorbitant shipping costs and long delays waiting for your parts to arrive.

  • Cost – the newer the vehicle, the higher the cost – generally speaking. For instance: one of the most popular four-wheel drive overland vehicle platforms in the U.S. is the stock Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro Off-Road who’s current retail price is right around $38,000 USD. While a well maintained Toyota Pickup from the 1980s or 1990s [like ours] can be had for less than $8000 USD with arguably similar off-road capability

  • Overlanding Modifications May Void the Factory Warranty – many aftermarket vehicle modifications that would be beneficial to overlanding may not be supported by the manufacturer, thus negating a large benefit of buying a new overland vehicle in the first place.

Older / Used Overlanding Vehicles

Finding and using an older or used overland vehicle is not without it’s obvious disadvantages to when compared to using a brand new vehicle for overland travel. With that said, there are several reasons you may be better served with an older overland vehicle.

PROS

  • Mechanical Simplicity – older vehicles are inherently less complex than modern vehicles, especially those manufactured prior to the dawn of the electronic control unit (ECU) and electronic fuel injection. 

    Armed with a basic mechanical understanding* and a good service manual for the vehicle, you can diagnose and repair nearly anything on these older vehicles yourself.

  • Parts and Repair Availability Abroad – while using an older overlanding vehicle doesn’t guarantee global parts availability, it does improve the odds greatly and there are greater odds of finding used parts at salvage yards. It also increases the odds of finding a shop that’s capable of diagnosing and repairing any issue that’s beyond your mechanical ability.

  • Cost – the older the vehicle, the lower the cost – generally speaking. There are a plethora of used vehicles available that would make excellent overlanding vehicles, most of which can be had for less than $8000 USD.

    The exception to this being collectible vintage overlanding vehicles, like the early series Land Rovers or Land Cruisers, which have seen their prices skyrocket as the concept of overlanding has gained in popularity.

CONS

  • Lower Safety – older vehicles were not held to the same stringent safety standards as modern overlanding vehicles, so many of the now-standard safety features like airbags and anti-lock braking systems may not be present

  • Higher Maintenance Needs – any budget overlanding vehicle is going to need some degree of initial maintenance to get it to a state where it can be relied upon for long-term overland journeys. And it will always require a more vigilant pre-trip maintenance check, as well as more diligent maintenance schedules to ensure it continues to be reliable.

  • Ride Comfort – older vehicles, especially those with solid axle suspension, will lack the cushy comfortable ride of modern independent suspension systems

  • Aftermarket Parts Availability – if you’re hoping to add a specialty bumper or aftermarket off-road lighting there will likely be fewer options available that were designed specifically for your older overland vehicle, but with a little ingenuity or some fabrication skills this can be a fairly mild issue.

What to look for in an Overlanding Vehicle

There are a variety of factors to consider when selecting a vehicle for overlanding; let’s walk through the the eight most crucial considerations to help you narrow down your overland vehicle:

1. Global Parts Availability

Inevitably something will break on your overland vehicle, and when it does you want to make sure you can source the parts to fix it. Many vehicles are manufactured differently for specific geographic markets. And while some vehicle models use the same primary drivetrain components (i.e., engine, transmission, axles, etc.) and suspension components throughout the world, others do not.

So be sure to select an overland vehicle that has seen global distribution (or at least distribution in the region in which you intend to travel).

Our Recommendation: There’s a variety of reasons why Toyotas are such a popular choice for overlanding, and this is one of them.

2. Passenger Space vs Payload Capacity

While you can utilize any vehicle for overlanding, some vehicles – like trucks and SUVs – naturally lend themselves to the task better than others.

Trucks, with their open beds, provide ample amounts of storage space for gear and allow much more flexibility in customizing them into an overlanding rig with a camper or custom built sleeping platform. They also generally offer higher factory payload capacity (i.e., their suspension and braking systems are designed to allow for more weight to be carried safely) as compared to SUVs.

SUVs, on the other hand, usually offer more passenger space for families, slightly better fuel economy, and a shorter wheelbase which can improve their off-road performance while still offering a sufficient amount of storage capacity for gear and sleeping when combined with a roof-top tent or ground tent.

Additionally, most trucks and SUVs are optioned with 4WD and more off-road capable suspension systems from the factory.

Our Recommendation: Obviously, we’re a little biased toward trucks as an overlanding vehicle platform. And with the option of more and more off-road capable quad-cab pickup trucks on the market, the remaining few advantages of SUVs become less pronounced.

3. Suspension System

Though there are several variations of suspension systems, the two primary suspension systems used in most overland vehicles that are designed for off-road capability are Independent Front Suspension (IFS) and Leaf-Sprung [or less commonly Coil-Over] Solid Front Axle (SFA).

Diagram showing the difference between SFA and IFS suspension systems for overlanding vehicles

Leaf-Sprung SFA Suspension Systems are generally stronger and less complex than IFS systems, and typically offer better ground clearance. However the ride quality is usually rougher when compared to IFS.

While Coil-Over SFA Suspension Systems improve this greatly, they are more complex, more costly, and far less common – typically relegated to use in extreme off-road vehicles, such as rock crawling or some desert racing applications.

IFS Suspension Systems will provide a significantly smoother ride, at the cost of generally weaker components and less ground clearance. This is because there are more components that go into an IFS system that allow each wheel to move up and down independently of the rest of the vehicle – as shown in the above diagram.

Most Trucks and SUVs will utilize a combination of either SFA or IFS , with a Solid Rear Axle. Though there are some trucks and SUVs with rear independent suspension as well.

Our Recommendation: We prefer solid front and rear axle vehicles for their strength, ease of maintenance, and ground clearance advantages. Though, as we get older our backs start to look longingly at those nice cushy IFS systems.

4. Type of Four Wheel Drive System (4WD vs AWD)

While we’ve already discussed that four wheel drive is not a necessity in an overlanding vehicle, we would highly recommend it. And there are a few important differences in four wheel drive systems to consider when making an overland vehicle choice:

Four-Wheel Drive (4WD)

The most common type of 4WD or 4×4 consumer vehicle system is part-time 4WD. Under normal driving conditions with part-time 4WD, the vehicle operates in a standard 2WD fashion with the engine’s power only being sent to the two rear wheels through the rear driveshaft.

When more traction is needed, the driver can manually engage 4WD either through electronic or mechanical selection inside the vehicle that then engages a transfer case which sends power to the front wheels through the front driveshaft.

This transfer case will enable a lower gearing selection for the driver while in 4WD (e.g. 4Hi & 4Lo) providing more control over the vehicle’s speed in difficult terrain.

A traditional part-time four wheel drive system is simpler (mechanically) and provides the driver with the most control over their overland vehicle.

All-Wheel Drive (AWD)

There are two common types of AWD systems: Part-time and Full-time. Both systems supply traction to all four wheels automatically.

In a Part-time AWD system the vehicle operates in 2WD, with power directed to either the front or rear wheels under normal driving conditions. Then the vehicle’s sensors will automatically determine when to distribute the engine’s power to all four wheels if additional traction seems to be needed.

In a Full-time AWD system the vehicle provides continuous power to all four wheels through both the front and rear axles.

These all wheel drive systems are much more complex and provide the driver with less control over their overland vehicle in difficult terrain.

Our Recommendation – While AWD is nice for difficult road conditions on less challenging terrain, such as snow and rain on paved or mild gravel roads. We much prefer the strength, versatility, simplicity, and control of a traditional Part-time 4WD system in an overland vehicle for more rigorous off-road driving and challenging terrain.

5. The Overland Vehicle’s Gross Vehicle Weight, Clearances, Angles, and Center-of-Gravity

The gross vehicle weight (GVW), ground clearance, break-over angle, approach angle, and departure angle of an overland vehicle all play a factor in determining their capabilities and limitations off-road.

Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) – One of the most key factors that you should know about an overland vehicle is it’s Gross Vehicle Weight (or GVW). You can easily determine your vehicle’s GVW by taking it to a Certified CAT Scale and having it weighed.

Furthermore, every overland vehicle has a stated Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) that should not be exceeded to stay within the safety constraints of the vehicle manufacturer’s design.

 

ground clearance measurement diagram for overlanding vehicles

 

Ground Clearance – this is the measurement from the lowest point on your vehicle to the ground. This helps you know how large of an obstacle you can pass over without making contact, or how deep of a rut you can drive in without high-centering your vehicle.

how to determine break-over angle, approach angle, and departure angle of overlanding vehicles

Break-Over Angle – is the maximum angle of an obstacle (such as a the apex of a hill, a rock, a tree, etc.) your overland vehicle can traverse without the lowest point of a vehicle’s undercarriage in the middle of the wheel base coming into contact with the obstacle.

Approach Angle – is the angle from the frontmost part of your vehicle (typically the front bumper) to the point that the front tires contact the ground. This helps to gauge how steep of an incline you can ascend without contacting the ground.

Departure Angle – is the angle from the rearmost part of your vehicle (typically the rear bumper) to the point at which the rear tires contact the ground. This helps you gauge how steep of an incline you can descend without contacting the ground.

Center-of-Gravity (CG) – is the average point at which your vehicle carries its mass, and it’s important because this is the point that all of the vehicle’s acceleration, braking, and cornering act through.

Though you can calculate the exact axial location of an overland vehicle’s center of gravity, it takes a good deal of mathematics, vehicle scales, and a vehicle lift to get the various weight measurements needed to calculate it with accuracy.

How to estimate the center of gravity of overland vehicles

But you can estimate the Center of Gravity Height (CGH) of an overland vehicle by measuring the distance from the centerline of the engine’s camshaft to the ground (as shown in the above diagram).

The takeaway is that the lower your overland vehicle’s CGH, the more stable the vehicle will be when cornering, and the lower the roll-over angle (tipping point) will be while driving on unlevel or off-angle surfaces off-road.

Most overland vehicles designed for off-road use have a relatively high CGH, but compensate for this with a wider wheel track (the distance between the driver-side and passenger-side wheels) and/or a longer wheelbase (the distance between the center of the front and rear wheels), as well as improvements in suspension components and anti-sway bars.

Make sure that any vehicle mounted gear or modifications have kept weight as low as possible, and know that any changes in suspension or ride height with lift-kits or taller tires all have an effect on an overland vehicle’s center of gravity.

And continue to keep this in mind as you outfit your vehicle for overlanding.

6. Engine Type: Diesel vs. Gas (Petrol) vs. Electric 

While engine choice should be predicated by “Global Parts Availability,” it’s important to know the benefits and caveats of the various overland vehicle engine options.

Diesel Powered Overland Vehicles 

Diesel engines (similarly to gasoline engines) use combustion to provide your overland vehicle with power. The fuel is injected into the engine’s cylinders, mixed with air, and the piston compresses this air/fuel mixture to the point at which it combusts under the extreme pressure – forcing the piston back down. That force is then transferred through the crankshaft to the transmission, and from there it’s distributed to the wheels via the drive-shaft(s) and axles.

Diesel fuel has a higher energy density than gasoline, making diesel powered vehicles more fuel efficient. Diesel engines are also generally less complex mechanically as compared to gasoline engines. They generally have less maintenance issues, and a longer service life as well.

However, diesel engine powered vehicles are nearly always more expensive than their gasoline counterparts, both to purchase and to repair when needed. And any savings from fuel economy and lower maintenance may take years (or even decades) to off-set their higher up-front cost.

Diesel engines are also more affected by cold weather conditions, and depending on where you’ll be overlanding, diesel fuel availability may be an issue as well.

Gasoline (Petrol) Powered Overland Vehicles

With gasoline (a.k.a. petrol) engines the fuel is injected into the engine’s cylinders, mixed with air, and the piston compresses this air/fuel mixture. However, unlike a diesel engine, the air/fuel mixture combusts when it is then ignited by an electrical spark from the spark plug – forcing the piston back down. That force is then transferred through the crankshaft to the transmission, and from there it’s distributed to the wheels.

While gasoline is less fuel efficient, it is more readily available throughout the world. And gasoline powered vehicles are generally less expensive to purchase and repair as needed, though they will likely require more frequent repair and have a shorter longevity than their diesel counterparts.

Electric Overland Vehicles

With fully electric truck models by manufacturers like Tesla, Rivian, GM, and others soon to be released, the dawn of the electric overland vehicle is at hand.

Though from a practicality stand-point, it will likely be decades before this would be a legitimate option for broader overland travel due to the electric vehicle charging and repair infrastructure still being in its infancy.

With individual electric motors that drive each wheel completely independently allowing for untold traction control, simply insane amounts of power & torque, and the obvious benefits to the environment there’s no doubt they will one day make very capable overland vehicles. And we’re very excited to watch the market for electric overland vehicles unfold.

7. Tire Quality

Though easily replaceable, a set of good all-terrain or off-road tires aren’t cheap. So don’t forget to factor in the cost of a new set (including a full-size spare) into your budget if needed.

Our Recommendation: We’ve used BFGoodrich KO Series All-terrain or KM Series Mud-terrain tires for almost 2 decades, and have never had them let us down [knock on wood]. They have strong sidewalls and air-down well.

8. General Reliability

While to a degree this is somewhat subjective, you want to make sure that the vehicle you select for overlanding has a reputation for reliability.

This mostly boils down to due diligence: consult consumer reports, speak with actual owners (or their mechanics), and read reviews online to see if there are mechanical failure trends or some obvious mechanical weaknesses that you can circumvent or avoid.

Though it’s not guaranteed, thorough vetting of your chosen overland vehicle’s weaknesses will likely save you a great deal of heartache down the road.

Literally.

A good overland vehicle should simply be the means for your adventure, nothing more, but also nothing less. It’s our hope that this guide can help you to find the best overland vehicle for your own unique adventure and journey.

We’ll continue to unpack the topic of overland vehicles as well as all things overland travel related in much greater detail – so be sure to SUBSCRIBE for future blog updates.

And thanks for reading!

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