As soon as Colorado’s stay at home order lifted last spring, Pat Drake and his family — including wife, Isabel, and kids Olivia, Cruz and Catalina — fired up their Toyota TRD Pro 4×4 and set off for a secret spot in Colorado National Monument to get away from it all. Following weeks of self-isolating, this isolation — clean air, campfires, stargazing and chasing lizards — was far more soulful and a much-needed reprieve from quarantining with the kids.
The Drakes are part of the burgeoning craze of “overlanding” — a pastime long popular in Australia and South Africa that’s now catching on stateside. In short, it’s car camping in style with all the creature comforts in a trustworthy rig that can get you off the beaten track and, more importantly, back home. Since routes are often bumpy, and in the boondocks, overlanders are completely self-sufficient, exploring the country’s back roads 1 mile at a time.
“It offers that feeling of freedom and a way to get away from it all,” says Drake, who owns rental company Colorado Overlander, which outfits trips for people heading across the western U.S. “For us, it’s just a great way to escape — my family loves it.”
Indeed, with the craziness of the coronavirus and many people forsaking flying in favor of staying closer to home, the sport has seen a surge across the country, opening the car doors to a style of camping as perfect for families as it is friends.
According to Arizona’s Overlandjournal.com, overlanding is defined as “self-reliant overland travel to remote destinations where the journey is the principal goal.” It’s most often accomplished by mechanized off-highway transport — including trucks, campers and SUVs — where the principal form of lodging is camping in your rig. Or, as with the new craze of roof-top tents (RTTs for those in the know), on your rig, like Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel. Lengths can vary from days to weeks, months and even years. The common denominator: the journey itself is the purpose, with the dirt roads traveled are both the means and the end.
“It’s today’s nearest equivalent of embarking on the Santa Fe or Oregon Trail,” says Drake. “Your wagon is your vehicle and the horses are under the hood. The hazards and goals might not equal those iconic migrations of the 1800s, but the sense of accomplishment and lessons learned do.”
World-class overland routes exist of all shapes and sizes across the country. With the nation’s diverse array of terrain and roads, its topography lends itself perfectly to the pursuit, from the rolling hills of the Appalachians to the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains and lush forests of the Northwest. Routes for these self-reliant journeys exist for everyone from novices to seasoned experts, from cross-country mega journeys like the 2,500-mile Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada and 5,000-mile Trans America Trail from Virginia to Oregon to simple overnighters close to home.
And here’s their real beauty: Without the stress of a daily goal, overlanding lets you take in history, wildlife, culture, scenery and anything else that catches your attention along the way. As well as camping, you can hike, mountain bike, fish, photograph, paddle, birdwatch and more, whenever and wherever you want. And with souped-up vehicles suited to the task, overlanding bridges the gap between RVs — which let you camp but restrict you to paved sites — and regular cars, which make camping a chore.
Combine all this with the social distancing parameters of COVID-19 and overlanding has fast become a burgeoning poster child of the camping market. Overland Journal, published five times per year, has 175,000 newsletter subscribers and more than 200,000 Instagram followers. And even though its fans are getting off the beaten path, they’re happy to share what they know with other like-minded overlanders — from vernacular like RTTs and tire tread width to GPS coordinates of places they’ve explored.
“Overlanding is getting super popular, especially during the pandemic,” maintains Shannon Stowell, CEO of Washington’s Adventure Travel Trade Association, whose membership includes many overland companies. “Even when tourism comes back, people are still going to want to be self-reliant and get away from the crowds. There’s going to be a whole new segment that falls in love with it.”
Business is booming, Stowell adds, for rental companies and those who help organize self-drive trips, handling everything from itineraries and gear to camping reservations. In the past few years, a convoy of such companies have cropped up around the country, making the pastime easier for weekend warriors. There are also websites, Facebook groups, blogs, chatrooms and more all dedicated to the overland obsession, many sharing first-person accounts, waypoints and gear reviews.
“Overlanding’s been a hot trend for several years but the pandemic has definitely turned the needle up,” says Travis Titus, founder of rental company Titus Adventure Company, describing it as a blend of RVing and backpacking.
Companies like Titus and Drake make it easier for those testing the waters by renting complete rigs, usually 4x4s, fitted with rooftop tents, outdoor camping equipment and more. Otherwise, it’s easy to spend as much as $100,000 on a fully outfitted rig.
The husband-and-wife team of Eric and Camila Collier became overland aficionados in 2017 after a trip to Utah. “We love its flexibility,” says Eric. “It allows you to be spontaneous. Today’s pace of life is so fast; overlanding lets you break out of your day-to-day routine and explore without much planning — when you have a vehicle and everything you need to camp you can just focus on the experience.”
This also makes it easy to rally, he adds. With traditional camping, you have to pack, plan and make a checklist of everything you need. With overlanding, your vehicle is already equipped with everything from tent to stove. “All you have to do is decide where to go and what to do — the fun stuff,” he says.
You’ll also be instantly tied into a great community of like-minded people — such as Tennessee natives and Lifestyle Overland bloggers Kevin and Sarah McCuiston. With their daughter Caroline in tow, the couple fell in love with life on the road in 2018, piling into a tricked-out Toyota Trail Edition 4Runner dubbed The Beast, complete with a Gobi Sport Utility roof rack with built-in tent. Hauling a Turtleback Trailer filled with gear behind them, the two have documented their exploits on YouTube, with their adventures taking them from the Gulf Coast to the Arctic Coast and a bevy of bumpy roads in between.
“We’ve always loved spending time outdoors, so it was natural to go from road trips and car camping to overlanding,” says Kevin, who helped pioneer an 800-mile overland route from New Mexico through Colorado. “We were already living the pastime; we just didn’t know there was a word for it.”
Eugene Buchanan, has written about the outdoors for more than 25 years, with freelance articles published in the New York Times, Men’s Journal, Sports Afield, Outside, National Geographic Adventure and other publications.