From the pages of I RVing: Spring 2023


Overlanding, RVs, and the joy of defying definition. We seldom see stars at their shiniest. We are too tightly tied to the grid, which gives—light, power, water, food. And takes away—our night skies, our self-reliance, and our freedom to roam. The grid is entirely indifferent to us, neither benevolent nor unkind—but still a stern ruler. For some of us, though, there’s a world where nights grow darker, and stars glow their brightest. Streets are dustier if they exist at all. And the world is less tainted. Unspoiled, even. This is the world of overlanding. But it is also the world of RVs. The dividing line between them—once distinct—has since blurred in the chaos of colliding outdoor worlds and converging communities. But despite all collisions and commonalities, are the two truly the same? Or do they vary in what they do and why they do it? We went looking for that answer. But we found many.

The Great Overlanding Debate

For even its most ardent admirers and adherents, it’s tough to pin down exactly what overlanding is. Is it just car camping with a truck? Can you be an overlander on a 4-wheeler? Do you have to even have wheels? It’s fair to ask: Where does RVing stop and overlanding begin? The question became increasingly complicated as a flood of newcomers headed outdoors in the wake of the COVID years. The mainstream crowd veered toward RVing and camping, but a more extreme fringe went toward expeditions, off-roading, and adventurism. Overlanders have always been a part of that fringe. But when an overlander gets in an RV, which world do they belong to? In RV circles, many campers are proud to be self-proclaimed overlanders. But what has not been settled is how to define overlanding. Or even whether we should define it. The search for a rigid definition is problematic. There’s certainly no consensus in sight. Even experienced overlanders dance around the finer points of the term. Nate Kennedy, one of I Heart RVing’s own, is a man who’s lived on the precarious line between the two worlds. He’s been overlanding since before it was cool. He got his hands on his first manual transmission Land Rover Discovery I in 2004. In 2005, he joined the Minnesota Land Rover Club.

In 2006, his descent into full-blown obsession was cemented with a 1,300-mile trip from Duluth to Duluth around Lake Superior. “I was hooked,” he confesses. Eventually, he turned overlanding into a profession, moving to Puerto Rico to help run a luxury camping tour business. But even Nate treads carefully into this topic. “Technically RVing is overlanding,” he says after a pause, “Because as an RVer, you have to be self-sufficient to some degree. You’re planning on going out there, and not going to a hotel, not stopping for fast food. One of the big things with overlanding is that the journey itself is what you’re out there for.” He continues, “The important distinction of overlanding is an emphasis on journey versus the destination.” Nate even contrasts the term with an expedition, “You’re on an expedition to complete a project. It’s something where you have a quest. You’re going out to measure soil levels or photograph a species. Overlanding, you’re going to be doing the same stuff, but the goal is the journey, not the destination.”

The important distinction of overlanding is an emphasis on the journey versus the destination.

o•ver•land•ing, (‘ō-vər- lan-diŋ) n.
1. crossing land in a vehicle for the journey itself.

Even so, Nate admits that there are complications with almost every definition. Some folks say there’s an internationality to it. Which makes sense, because overlanding originated in the Outback. But if border crossing is a criterion (as some claim), the landlocked originators in Australia are out of luck. No matter where you turn, few answers sound the same. Even among
the experts.

Where the Experts Argue

Few would contest that Christian Pelletier is an overlander. The French-Canadian adventurer has driven a limousine across West Africa. He’s ferried his Land Cruiser across a river, its wheels resting on some precipitously placed planks on top of three canoes roped together. He’s been the first tourist in places that haven’t seen one in a while. He’s an overlanding OG, who today is the technical brains behind ExpeditionPortal. com and a partner-contributor to the Overland Journal, one of the most important industry print publications. So if there’s an expert on the topic, he’s it. When asked what overlanding is, Pelletier laughs and steers us in a different direction. “That’s a question that everyone struggles with these days. To me, originally, Overlanding involved some dangerous crossing. There should be some element of the unknown. Some element that you’re discovering. Not just driving a 4×4, but discovering a new culture, and a new language. Something that’s not part of your typical environment. If you just hook up a trailer and go camping in your backyard, that wouldn’t qualify. But if you drive the trailer across Baja, learn a bit of Spanish, and discover a new region that you don’t know, and you come back transformed, or with some new perspective, that would qualify as overlanding. It has to have some kind of cultural element.”

o•ver•land•ing, (‘ō-vər- lan-diŋ) n.
2. vehicle travel as a catalyst for personal exploration—on multiple levels, cultural as well as geographical.

So to get the overlanding experience, you have to get out of your comfort zone. Must you also get off of the well-paved path? “People who want to dress up their trucks to go to the Rubicon Trail, that’s proper off-roading,” says Pelletier. “That’s something that’s demanding on the vehicle.” But he clarifies: Real overlanders rarely put their vehicles in truly demanding situations. When you’re overlanding, he says, “Your vehicle is your house.

So you don’t really want to destroy it, or break axles, or flood the inside. Because you have to sleep in it for the next six months.” According to Pelletier, not only do you not need to be off-road, the vehicle you’re traveling in is almost immaterial. “This guy [I spoke with recently] has been driving a Chevy Bolt across the United States, and now he’s down in Colombia [South America] with this electric vehicle. He’s been plugging it into hotels at night, and gas stations, and to me that qualifies as overlanding. Because it’s a hell of an adventure. So you don’t have to have a 1965 Land Rover to do [overlanding]. The vehicle is, at least to me, not that important. It’s the overall adventure.”

o•ver•land•ing, (‘ō-vər- lan-diŋ) n.
3. adventure travel by vehicle; is possible without leaving the pavement, impossible without leaving one’s comfort zone.

Nate Kennedy led Overlanding tours. And Christian Pelletier blazed across international boundaries. But Bill Burke is a unique kind of expert. He originally learned to drive military vehicles in the Army as a recovery specialist. Today, as the owner of Bill Burke’s 4-Wheeling America out of Grand Junction, Colorado, he’s a professional 4-wheel-drive educator. He’s taught newbies, hobbyists, enthusiasts, and even government professionals that he isn’t allowed to talk much about.

Burke says that in his opinion overlanding requires you to accomplish something. “In the 1950s, Barbara Toy took a Land Rover and drove around the world in it. That’s overlanding. She was like the ground version of Amelia Earhart.”

o•ver•land•ing, (‘ō-vər- lan-diŋ) n.
4. challenge of covering a set distance over a specified time in a vehicle.

On a patch of sand in the Anza Borrego desert outside of San Diego, Bill says, “I’m looking here outside my window, and there’s a nice couple with their daughter. They have a Tacoma pickup truck, and they’re pulling a little teardrop trailer—one of those that has a kitchen in the back and a clean bed in the front. And it’s got Washington State plates. I truly believe that they think they’re overlanding. They have [fancy tires] on the trucks, and they’ve got a Hi-Lift jack and all the right stuff.

But they’re sitting out there in their lawn chairs, and I guarantee you they’re having the time of their lives exploring the Southern California desert from Washington State. To them, that’s overlanding. But some others might call it car camping. And that’s what it is. “To me, a two- to three-week trip is overlanding,” Burke continues. “And you don’t have to go across the world to get that kind of authentic overlanding. I’ve guided trips in the U.S. that have been six or seven days. Fifteen extra gallons of gas, that kind of stuff.”

Where the RV World Collides

Fueled by the promise of the thrilling lifestyle found in Overland Journal and inspired by stories of adventurers like Pelletier and Burke, there’s been an explosion of interest in overlanding. The impact is huge, “[Marketing] also changed how people perceived themselves,” says Burke, referencing the way the Overland Journal helped shape public interest. Suddenly, overlanding swung into the orbit of a much larger world with a much larger market: the world of RVs. And the impact has been significant on RV features and design. It’s even opened doors for an Australian trailer company to enter the U.S. market. Daryn Hooper, at MDC USA, says the company’s Australian roots in the Outback make the important things simple. “The design concepts really are the biggest part of that,” he says, “It’s gotta be quality. Gotta be tough to stand the test of time.”

There’s a focus too on simplifying things, even making them more manual, to enable owners to do their own repairs on the fly. “Everything needs to have that mechanical aspect to it. [But the trailers] still give you that luxury of home.” For MDC USA, stabilizer legs are manual. The trailers forgo an enclosed underbelly to provide easier access to the necessities underneath. Frames are made as one-piece steel chassis for durability. The fewer moving parts, the better. That way, anyone with mechanical knowledge can do a repair. All of which brings things back full circle to Nate’s favorite topic: self-sufficiency.

o•ver•land•ing, (‘ō-vər- lan-diŋ) n.
5. road trip that pushes limits and tests self-sufficiency; involves sweat.

Nate Kennedy thinks true overlanding raises the stakes more than just regular camping. “It’s not like boondocking in an RV, where you’re going to a safe place,” he says. “The challenges of overlanding are [simpler, but also more profound, like] finding the right spot to camp, staying dry, and navigating the elements. If your whole camp kitchen is in the back of your truck, and in order to eat you’ve got to set up an awning, pull your table out, get your pots and pans where they need to be, and the ground is wet, it’s a game changer. But if you’re in a big RV, you can just go inside.” So, this is not a hobby for the weak of the heart.

Defining Your Own Adventure

Back in 8th grade, a younger, less-traveled Nate wrote a journal entry talking about what he wanted to do with his life. “It says that I wanted to: 1) write; 2) take photos; 3) speak Spanish; and 4) drive a Land Rover.” In that light, Overlanding defines a well-lived life, on his terms. It also does that for increasing numbers of RVers and overlanders around the globe like him. Not everyone is built with that pull—that adventure-shaped gear in their heart that only this peculiar journey can fill. Perhaps there’s an overlanding gene. But even if that’s the case, one thing is clear—overlanding, like genetics, is fundamentally individual. Sure, you could borrow young Nate’s list and turn it into a mini-manifesto of what overlanding is. Or you could attempt to mash all the definitions together. Something like: Overlanding is a personal journey that breaks the confines of your comfort zone, drives you into a cultural sphere unknown to you, and challenges your self sufficiency in a moving landscape over time. (Whew! Now take a breath) But maybe, just maybe, Overlanding—like RVing—is a world that’s grown too large for some pat definition.

o•ver•land•ing, (‘ō-vər- lan-diŋ) n.
6. breaking the power grid’s mighty grip in order to experience growth in the wild—even if just for a season.

Whatever the case, it’s certainly an inhabited world. After all, very rarely do you hear great overlanding stories that describe lonesome nights. It’s a hobby, and a lifestyle, best shared with others who value the common goal of breaking loose from the grid that binds life so tightly. The grid demands that we stay tethered within its reach, where a true night’s sky, untainted by obstructions or creeping light, is unreachable. Still, leaving the grid requires a departure. And it has a cost— giving up part of who you were in exchange for the adventurer you want to be. But no matter which RV you climb into, what that looks like and where you go is entirely up to you.


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