Let's assume that you are reading this article because you are new to overland travel, don't have a capable vehicle for overland travel, or realized that your overland vehicle doesn't really fit your needs. In this article we are going to do some soul searching to determine what type of vehicle you should consider for your personal type of travel. There may be a thing considered to be a pinnacle overland truck, but that may not be the ideal overland vehicle for you. First, let's do some painfully honest soul searching and establish a baseline by answering four questions. The first two will reveal what TYPE of vehicle will most likely fit your needs, the last two will help narrow down the make, model, and year.
What are my travel comfort expectations? Just where do you fall on the comfort continuum- are you happy sleeping in the dirt under the stars with an MRE and a canteen; or do you need a tent you can stand up in with tables, chairs, porta-potty, shower, mattress/cot and a full field kitchen? What about vehicle comfort? Do you want wind-in-the-hair and topless fun with bugs and dirt in your teeth, or is climate controlled quiet cushiness more valuable? The difference is fractal. A motorcycle or open top Jeep will definitely provide amazing views and get you closer to nature in uncompromising ways, but long distance travel in these vehicles does require a lot of comfort compromises resulting in significant daily driver fatigue. A modern SUV on the other hand will be very comfortable for long distances, provide protection from extreme weather, and allow for carrying ample camping gear. There is also the caveat of if you even plan to camp at all- are hotel stays in your future?
Where do I usually travel, who is coming with me, and where do intend to go? Answering this question helps determine the technical capability and capacity of the vehicle you need. The continuum here is camping in established campgrounds out of the car and exploring on foot with the family to piercing deep into technical backcountry 4x4 trails unsupported for days or weeks with you and a partner (or alone). More people means more seats.
What is my current and near future mechanical skill level? Answering this honestly, as well as the following question will have the largest impacts on your vehicle choice. Simply put, the more mechanically inclined, skilled, and equipped you are, the less finances will rule the day in your choices and decisions. If you can't fabricate and confidently wrench on your own iron, then you had better have the cash to pay someone else to. Also, if you have limited field repair capability, looking at the newer "late model, low mileage" vehicles aught to be a priority.
What are my financial means? This may be the most painful thing to honestly come to grips with. Let's just rip off the band-aid and get it over with. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, have to credit charge parts and fuel in order to pay for vehicles or travel, or if you have problems at home- do the right thing and use your money and time where it is actually needed instead of trying to overland. There are lots and lots of folks trying to build modified off road vehicles that really can't afford to and winding up with cobbled together unsafe junk that breaks down on every outing and are generally unsafe to drive on public roads. But, if you have the budget to spend money on travel and purchase the right vehicle, gear, and take time off responsibly- then buy the best suited overland vehicle you can afford and get started.
What does your list of answers to the questions look like? Let's start out with answering the first two together:
I'm traveling solo, with one person, or a pet and don't expect luxury; I want to see things and go places most people never have to opportunity to. This is a common situation for young singles and couples. If you are a minimalist and want ultimate travel freedom, a dual sport motorcycle or a short wheelbase open top 4x4 might be the ticket for you. If you are a mechanical person, you could go for an older vehicle that needs work and build it up into exactly what you want. If you have the budget to burn instead, buy a kitted out dual sport or moderately modified 4x4 appropriate to carry your gear/adventure sports equipment.
I'm traveling solo, with one person, or a pet and want to be comfortable on long trips; I want to explore far off the beaten path for more than just a couple days. This is the "mainstream overlander". The most enjoyable and successful way to travel with this parameter is in a group of vehicles. If this describes you, an upgraded off road capable mid sized SUV or 4-door mid-sized pickup is your best bet as far as comfort, capability, and capacity are concerned. You can take enough camp gear to be comfortable, even mount a rooftop tent, and explore for a week or two unsupported with friends in the backcountry. There are a dearth of good SUVs and some pickups out there to fit the bill whether you want to build, buy, or both. Another option that might work for you in this category if you really want to explore technical trails is to drive a short wheelbase/two door 4x4 and utilize an overland trailer.
I want to travel with my family to see the country, and don't expect to go "off roading" except to travel forest roads to some unimproved campgrounds. Ahh, the family road trip! Some of the best childhood memories are forged on these kind of journeys. This is the most accessible way to get into overlanding with a family. Depending on the number of family members coming along, a mid size or full size stock to mildly modified SUV is the best bet. If the family is big, or you need to bring along a lot of gear, a simple cargo trailer with some full sized wheels and/or a roof rack can compensate. Or, if you are planning on car camping in a National Forest, or state park, a commonplace AWD crossover or wagon might be sufficient for you and be economical.
I want to take my family deep into the backcountry to experience nature and life in unequivocal ways as well as interact with different people and cultures around the continent. Wow, well, good for you. However, you are going to have to be creative, capable, and resourceful. There are very few full size SUVs out there that can be set up properly for technical overland travel. The main problem is balancing payload capacity with technical capability in a size that is reasonable to take into rough terrain. If you have a small family, and are willing to compromise, it can be doable with a midsize SUV and a well thought out overland trailer. The other option in one of the "global" platforms like an Earth Roamer, Sportsmobile, or other modified 4x4 medium duty trucks. Again, the downside to these amazing machines is cost. Plan to spend as much as on a luxury Class A motor home.
OK, so what about the last two questions? It was mentioned how they are intertwined. If you are a mechanically skilled person, or you have deep pockets, your choices for an overland vehicle increase tremendously. If you are the mechanical person, you can ease up on the vehicle budget by saving money doing the work yourself. This also gives you freedom in going for some older, higher mileage, and possibly classic 4x4s to use as your overland platform. A fat budget can do the same, but keep in mind that custom work and restoration projects add up 3 times as fast as you can imagine. This is the difference between buying an old Jeep Wrangler or a mint condition prepared Land Rover Defender.
We will look more closely at specific vehicle options in the next article.