If you’re interested in overlanding (or just upping your car camping game), you’ll want a reliable adventure vehicle to get started.
Where you go from there with the modifications — well, it’s a slippery slope to all sorts of vehicle-assisted backcountry fun. These 4x4s will make a great basecamp for all your overlanding adventures whether you plan to go for a full build-out or simply toss your sleeping pad in the back for a weekend away.
Related Read: White Rim Road: An Overland Adventure in Canyonlands, Utah
The Basics: What to Look For in an Overlanding Vehicle
Your budget is going to determine what type of adventure vehicle you can afford. And while it’s fun to drool over expensive off-road builds and sweet #vanlife finish-outs, often a reliable used vehicle with a few key features can serve your overlanding needs just as well. Here are a few things to be on the lookout for:
Need to Have
4WD, also known as 4×4: Perhaps this one should go without saying, but you will want a 4-wheel-drive (not all-wheel-drive) vehicle for overlanding — and preferably a 4×4 with a high and low range. Long story short, 4-wheel-drive is made for tackling tricky terrain, rocks, mud, sand, and other off-road obstacles you may encounter off the pavement.
Moderate to High Ground Clearance: How much ground clearance you need will depend on where you want to go overlanding. The more rocky, rutted, or technical the terrain, the more you are going to appreciate some added ground clearance. Look for clearance in the range of 8+ inches. However, if you primarily plan to tackle mild, washboard on dirt forest service roads, a vehicle with 6 to 8-inches of ground clearance can be driven (with a little finesse) to reach your destination.
Reliable: Obviously, reliability is desirable for any vehicle, but it becomes even more important when you are taking your overlanding rig to remote locations. When overlanding, your primary means of getting in and out of the area is your vehicle. Also, in the event that you do break something on the trip (it happens), you want a vehicle with parts that are easy to find at any local automotive store.
Cargo Space: Whether you’re looking at a trunk or a truck bed, you’ll want enough space to carry all your necessary overlanding gear — plus some additional luxuries.
All-Terrain Tires: If there’s one upgrade to look for (or spring for when buying your overland rig), get a solid set of all-terrain (or mud-terrain) tires. Rugged all-terrain tires will give you the grip you need to confidently tackle the trails.
Nice to Have
Additional Off-Road Features: Nowadays, you can get many trucks and SUVs decked out with specific off-road features with everything from electronic off-road modes and underbody protection to long-travel suspensions and locking differentials. If you’re buying used, ask what extra off-road goodies the previous owner might have installed.
Aftermarket Support: Here’s where overlanding gets even more fun (and expensive). Check out what aftermarket support is offered for decking out your rig with fun extras like rooftop tents, drawer systems, awnings, fridges, and other awesome overlanding accessories.
Currently on its fifth generation, the Toyota 4Runner has long been a go-to mid-size SUV for adventurers around the world. Since it debuted in 1984, the 4Runner has been positioned as a capable 4×4 that still offers seating for four — which is good news if you also need your adventure rig to function as a daily driver to take the kids to school.
And thanks to Toyota’s reputation for reliability, with the proper maintenance, the 4Runner is known to keep on cruising. Even if you can’t afford a brand new model, a used 4Runner should still get you plenty of mileage. Thanks to their popularity, you can find plenty of aftermarket upgrades — from roof racks to bumpers and much more — to fully deck them out.
Toyota Land Cruiser
If you’re looking for a step up from the 4Runner, the fan-favorite Toyota Land Cruiser takes the best aspects of the 4Runner and bumps them up a notch. Depending on which generation of the Land Cruiser you are shopping for, you’ll generally get a bigger, more powerful motor, more interior space (seating for eight in the newer models), and some high-end touches on the interior.
But perhaps what sets the Land Cruiser a step above the 4Runner is its long and storied history of overlanding — well before overlanding became popular as a trendy weekend activity. This off-road capable vehicle has roots that date back to the military trucks of the early 1950s. And since then, it’s been driven around the world on some truly spectacular adventures. With Toyota discontinuing the Land Cruiser in 2021 for the U.S. market, you can bet used Land Cruisers are going to become even more of a prime commodity in the overlanding world.
You might not think of Lexus when you think of off-road adventure. But the luxury division of the Toyota Motor Corporation offers a 4×4 SUV that is equally as capable as its better-known cousins bearing the Toyota badge. Much like the Land Cruiser, the GX460 has a spacious interior with third-row seating when you need it — and lots of gear-hauling space when you don’t.
The Lexus GX460 (and the older generation GX470) is essentially a fancified version of the Land Cruiser. Sure, the added luxury adds to the price tag, but in general, you will still get the same reliable, off-road-ready SUV — with the added benefit of a smooth ride and quiet interior for any highway driving you might do as well.
Land Rover Range Rover
Since its introduction in 1970, the Range Rover has gone through several iterations. Now on its fifth generation, the expensive, high-end Range Rovers of today might not look much like the utilitarian Range Rovers of the past. But regardless of finish out, these SUVs were all engineered to tackle rough terrain. If you have the budget to buy a new or used Range Rover from recent years, you’ll be getting all the luxury touches and the latest tech.
But where the overlanding goodies really lie are in the Range Rover’s driving modes. You can fine-tune the Range Rover’s performance for everything from gravel and sand to mud, snow, or even rock crawling. Of course, if you end up with an older model, you won’t have all the electronic wizardry to assist you, but you’ll still get a spacious and capable SUV that, with a little driver skill, can easily keep up with its 21st-century counterparts. Be warned that Range Rovers, unlike Toyotas, are not known for their reliability — and parts are quite costly when something goes wrong.
Land Rover Defender 110/90
Long-held as a benchmark for rugged and versatile 4x4s, the original Defender 110, and the shorter wheelbase Defender 90, became off-road icons, perhaps in part to their use as safari vehicles. And while the old Defenders certainly have a “cool” factor, especially when fully outfitted with all the overlanding gear, if you’re looking for improved safety, reliability, and comfort in a capable off-roader, the latest Land Rover Defender delivers.
Available as both a four-door (110) and two-door (90), the latest iteration of the Defender takes the best of the old model and reinvents it with the aid of 21st-century technology. The roomy SUV is luxurious and spacious on the inside, but with plenty of durability and off-road capability for when you get off the pavement. And thanks to the fold-down second row, you can carry either passengers or gear no matter where you are headed.
The original Ford Bronco lived on for five generations from 1966 to 1996, and though you can still find used models, sometimes on the cheap, the Bronco’s latest reincarnation ticks a lot of overlanding checkboxes. And the sixth-gen Ford Bronco is relatively affordable when compared to other SUV competitors on the market. If you’re a believer in there’s no school like the old school, the boxy, two-door original Broncos certainly have plenty going for them.
When you’re optioning out a brand new Bronco, you have six trim levels to choose from — packages specifically designed for everything from “adventure off-roading” to “extreme off-roading.” From there, you can add on things like heavy-duty bumpers and brush guards to the full off-road package which gets you things like high-clearance suspension, beadlock rims, and electronic locking front and rear axles.
Whether you opt for an old or new Jeep Wrangler, this iconic off-roader has plenty of capability to get you where you want to go, especially if the going gets rough. And even though the Wrangler has a storied history from its launch in 1987, it’s not just its capable off-road handling that makes it a great overlanding option.
The Wrangler is extremely utilitarian with everything from its stripped-down interior and to its removable panels. You won’t be paying for bells and whistles that you don’t use or want. Plus, Jeep is well-supported in terms of aftermarket parts and accessories so you can easily build out the exact kind of overland machine you’ve always wanted. And, new for 2021, the Wrangler comes with a hybrid option — the 4XE. So pick up a set of solar panels and make way for the future of overlanding.
The Toyota Tacoma is a mid-size pickup that has proven to be popular among off-road and overland enthusiasts. Thanks to its compact size, the Tacoma retains many of the perks of a full-size truck (like the spacious bed and utilitarian interior) while also being more maneuverable for narrow trails, rough terrain, and tight campsites. And being a Toyota, the Tacoma is also known for its reliable and benefits from having plenty of aftermarket parts to choose from.
Overland Tacoma builds range from mild to wild. Older models (the first generation hit the market in 1995) tend to hold their value, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a cheap, low-mileage option. Buying new is always an option worth considering with a Tacoma, depending on your budget and the current used market. If you can swing for it, the TRD off-road package gets you all the goodies to make your off-pavement adventures a breeze.
In the world of overlanding, 4×4 trucks are a great option, and the Ford F150 is a capable option that has been around since 1975. This full-size, light-duty pickup has plenty of space — and power — to make it a capable off-road adventurer. Add to that a spacious bed and a towing capacity in the range of 3,000-10,000 pounds (depending on model year and transmission option), the Ford F150 can haul plenty of gear wherever you are going.
And with the newer models, you can opt for luxury trim packages or go all out on the off-road mods with the F-150 Raptor which adds things like a long-travel suspension and Fox Racing Shox along with off-road, baja, and rock crawl drive modes. It’s going to be a good time wherever you are going. And while the F150 might not be as popular as the Tacoma for overlanding builds, this just means you might be able to find a lightly used one to customize exactly how you want.
Though Chevy has long been known for their full-size pickups, the mid-sized Colorado hits the sweet spot between truck utility and overlanding functionality. And though the Colorado has been around since 2004, if you can spring for a new model, you’ll see the benefits of some off-road-ready additions.
The latest Chevy Colorado can be optioned with the Trail Boss package which adds on things like skid plates and a 1-inch front suspension leveling kit. Or go all-in with the ZR2 package for rock sliders and a factory-installed lift. And should you need some more overland inspiration, check out Chevy’s collaboration with American Expedition Vehicles (AEV) that produced the ultimate off-road Colorado ZR2 Bison.
Jeep’s latest iteration of its midsize pickup, perhaps unsurprisingly, is geared toward drivers seeking off-the-pavement adventures. The original pickups bearing the Gladiator badge were certainly rugged, with applications ranging from military trucks to ambulances. And while you probably won’t be as interested in an old Jeep Gladiator model from the ’60s and ’70s, the new Jeep Gladiator might catch your eye.
The latest Jeep Gladiator, even in the base trim, comes ready to take on the trails. Plus with the bed of a pickup, towing capability, and the feel of a Wrangler, the Gladiator serves up a compelling package from which to build out your overland adventure rig.
Okay, so you might have to get on the waitlist for this all-electric truck from Rivian, but it’s got enough overlanding potential that it might be worth the wait. Rivian, in an interesting marketing move, has aimed the RT1 squarely at adventurous overlanders. From the “gear tunnel” to the optional camp kitchen designed with Snow Peak, the RT1 can be optioned with some unique overland-specific gear right from the factory.
It remains to be seen if Rivian can deliver on their promise of building a supporting Rivian Adventure Network which would include 600 charging sites. But it looks promising that these self-billed “electric adventure vehicles” could be the next big thing in the world of overlanding. The RT1 does come with a big price tag, but if your budget allows, this EV might just be the first wave of a coming battery-driven overlanding evolution.
Overlanding Vans and RVs
Sportsmobile Classic 4×4 Van
For a “soft-top” option in the realm of built-out vans, check out the Sportsmobile Classic 4×4 with its penthouse pop top. And unlike some other adventure van builds, the Classic 4×4 build doesn’t just get an interior upgrade. The heavy-duty van, which is built around the body of a Ford Cutaway, also gets suspension upgrades like an Advance Adapter Atlas II transfer case, beefed up front and rear axles, Fox shocks, a Warn winch, added ground clearance, and more.
You get your choice between an open, limited-slip, or locking differentials. All of this comes together to make the Sportsmobile one of the more off-road-ready overlanding vans on the market, a great option if you want to get to the more remote reaches. Notably, the van also boasts a 10,000-pound towing capacity, great if you ever need to take an additional camper or toy hauler along.
The creme-de-la-creme of the modern #vanlife world might just be the Winnebago Revel. Built on the Mercedes-Benz sprinter van chassis, this relatively new van was designed with getting off the pavement in mind. Equipped with a 3L turbo diesel and on-demand 4WD, it’s more than capable of getting off the beaten track.
If you’ve got the cash to spend on a fully built-out sprinter van option, the Revel has a sleek finish out with life on the road in mind. The floorplan is designed around a power lift bed with a gear garage and the all-in-one bath also doubles as a gear closet so you can bring all your toys along. With a full galley kitchen and 3.0 cubic foot refrigerator, meal planning and prep while overlanding is simplified too.
If you’re looking for a fully loaded, luxury overlanding behemoth, and money is no issue, Earthroamer offers what could be considered the Four Seasons of overland vehicles. The XV HD comes kitted out with everything you need — from 250 gallons of water, 2,100 watts of solar power, and a 115-gallon diesel tank — to all the downright luxuries, from radiant floor heating and, yes, a washer and dryer so you can look as fresh as a daisy no matter where your travels take you.
On the downside, the XV-HD won’t fit on narrower backcountry roads or tight switchbacks due to its width and long wheelbase. And the price tag is also massive. But then again it’s a remarkably capable vehicle for being the equivalent of an overlanding mansion. For those who can’t afford one, you can always appreciate flipping through the photos for some design inspiration. It never hurts to dream.
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