What to Consider Before Hitting the Road Less Traveled
By Will Marshal
Overlanding is not new. People have been doing it for a long time, and it has been called different names, most recently it has been “Car Camping”. But the glory is not lost however, as to truly have your spirit of exploration fall into the Overland category, you have to throw blind adventure into the mix. Anyone can go car camping to your state park’s manicured campground, but not everyone is ready to leave civilization behind and set off unto adventures unknown to set up camp where they damn well feel like it.
All this freedom to explore comes at a price. (Literally.) The other side of overlanding is it can become an expensive endeavor very, very quickly.
The guideline outlined below is to make sure you understand that you do not need to take out a second mortgage on your home to go out and explore. The point is the experience, and the vehicle you take to get there can be a tool, or an extension of you.
There is no right or wrong way to go about this, but there are smart ways. The mindset of most people is to build for the worst and hope for the best. While it is a good mindset to have for most scenarios, going overkill is an expensive endeavor that might not be necessary.
We are going to cover a few basic points when selecting a vehicle and outfitting it so that you get the best bang for your buck, and can fully enjoy the experience.
- Vehicle Choice
- Economy (fuel, maintenance and sanity)
- Tire choice (All-Terrain vs Mud-Terrain)
- Lift (do you really need to do that?)
- Lockers before Lights
Vehicle Choice: It All Starts Here
Vehicle based adventure travel is not limited to a car, a truck, a van or anything in-between. All you need is something with wheels and a reason to go. Note: That is a very broad brush to paint with, and because of the variety of options available it ultimately comes down to you to decide how you want to travel.
There are many people who are equally as happy with a dirt bike between their legs, as they are piloting a $3000 Jeep Cherokee Craigslist find, or a $100,000 American Expedition Vehicles HEMI V8 Jeep Wrangler. So the questions you need to ask yourself is what do you want to see, and how do you want to get there?
Once you’ve nailed those details down, decide what your budget is and the rest should follow suit. Some of the best budget 4WD vehicles are the Jeep Cherokee XJ, the 80 and 100 series Toyota Land Cruisers, and unsurprisingly, the Jeep Wrangler. All can be had for less than $10,000 with some thorough searching on the used market.
Economy: Know Before You Go
It is not a secret that this is in no way a cheap hobby or life decision. Even approaching it from a budget conscious mindset, you will drop a few thousand dollars in the end. So when selecting a vehicle and deciding if you want to modify it, consider the economics of your decision. Like Newton’s third law, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That wisdom is going to apply to every detail of your vehicle.
Example: You might live down the street from Zion National Park and gas mileage doesn’t really matter to you, or you could live 2,000 miles away and the fuel bill is what is keeping you from going. Ultimately, everything comes down to what you see yourself doing, and where you are going.
A light vehicle like a Subaru gets great fuel economy, can be modified, has a flat load surface in the back when the seats are folded down and is low on maintenance expenses. It was also built as a car first, so it is easy to drive on the road. Your energy investment in piloting it is low, and your sanity remains in tip-top condition.
Sounds like the perfect setup, right? Nothing too shiny, or too glorious but it gets the job done. Well, yes – but if you suddenly have the itch to hit advance/technical trails in Moab, its off-road limitations become more than just fine print.
Now, you can certainly lift a Subaru and fit larger tires to make it capable of hitting a more technical trail, but if that type of off-road adventure is on your radar, it might not be the most wise choice of a vehicle to start with.
It is important to recognize that all of your modifications have a lasting effect on your vehicle’s maintenance cycle. Large tires affect the strain on drivetrain components and increase wear and consequently maintenance. And things like light bars and roof-top tents affect your vehicle weight and aerodynamics which directly correlate to your fuel mileage.
Tire Choice: Put Your Boots On
This one once again comes down to being cognizant of what you are going to do with your vehicle. There are three major groups of tires: Street, All-Terrain and Mud Terrain.
- Street tires are your general run of the mill tires that most vehicles ship with. They’re lightweight, hard wearing, quiet and great in the rain. They were built to maximize the fuel economy of the vehicle, and make it as quiet as possible all while maintaining the design parameters set by the engineers designing the vehicle itself. These tires are built for the road, pure and simple. If you are not going to be traversing more than a dirt road and pounding pavement between destinations, these are for you. Good news; they are cheap, too.
- All-Terrain are a mild mix of street capability and off-road traction. These were designed for the off-road enthusiast that daily drives their vehicle and does not try to get lost on purpose. They are built with a tougher sidewall and tire face than compared to a street tire, and have more aggressive patterns designed for romping through the wilds. These are fairly quiet, light and economical – the weekend roamer should get ATs. These tires are exceptional at light snow travel as well. Even the king of the off-road world, the Jeep Rubicon, now ships from the factory with B.F. Goodrich’s legendary K02 All-Terrain tire.
- Mud Terrain are top dog for traction off-road. With huge lug voids, heavy construction and a badass look – they are the go-anywhere, do-anything tire. There are dozens upon dozens of versions of MT tires and they range from tires that are exceptional in the mud, to those built for rocks. This extreme performance comes at a cost on the street however. Mud Terrains are loud, vibrate, heavy, expensive and do not handle light snow well.
Terrains you plan to encounter, and the duration it will take to get there will help inform tire selection.
In addition to the tread type, note that super-wide floatation tires are not always the best selection either. For decades, “pizza-cutter” type tires that are very narrow, have been the choice of overlander’s worldwide for their reliable on-road handling, reduced weight (fuel economy and wear and tear). They also have the ability to dig through problematic terrain to a solid footing below. While this narrow tread pattern does not help reduce footprint of the vehicle, other traction aids like traction boards and winches are on hand to supplant the uncommon need for wide floatation tires.
Lift: And While We’re Talking Tires...
Of any modifications made to a vehicle, suspension should always be the one you invest the most money into. Optimizing handling and performance of the suspension not only reduces fatigue on the operator and passengers, but it increases safety and reliability for the rest of the vehicle as well.
The wellbeing of the vehicle and its occupants are at the mercy of the suspension it rides on. Do not skimp on this one. Make a list of where you want to go and how you want the vehicle to perform and pick a suspension based on that.
Remember the amount of time that went into designing these suspensions. Thousands of hours by people with a string of acronyms after their names designed and built this product for optimal performance. Another factor to consider is that the lift decision ties in directly to the tire conversation. Messing with those parameters and going willy-nilly to fit a tire size is a recipe for disaster.
Craigslist: Persistence Pays Off
Craigslist and other online marketplaces are your best friend for scoring awesome deals on pre-loved equipment or staying within a budget. Craigslist can be scoured for everything, from the vehicle you are considering to lights, accessories and even camping equipment. If you can think of it, it is probably on Craigslist and there is a deal to be had.
A great example of the wonders of the online marketplace is the Warn M8000 winch. Widely regarded as the best budget and entry level winch available on the market, the M8000 is the go-to champ for light to midsize vehicles. They are on the market for about $600 bucks brand new, but if you are savvy and patient, you can find used ones ranging from free to $350.
If you can score a used M8000, great! If it works, even better! But if it does not, Warn offers master rebuild kits for all their winches for a low fee and you can crack the case open on that winch and rebuild it to brand new condition and still be miles ahead. Search Craigslist, let it be your friend.
Lockers Before Lights: A Lesson in Priorities
Outside of a headlight upgrade and maybe a set of aftermarket fog lights, you really do not need anything more; a seasoned off-roader knows the merits of the driveline of their vehicle over their lighting. If you are pushing your vehicle to the brink of its stock design, then you might think of investing into a front or rear (or both) locking or limited-slip differential before that light bar.
For a full breakdown on the function of a locker, you need to understand how a differential works first.
The differential is what is allowing you to go around a corner. A locker locks both sides of the differential together so that the left and right axles are getting an equal split of power with no slippage. Once you know how the science behind a differential works, it is easy to understand how powerful a tool a locking differential is to get through very technical terrain.
And here’s some good news: Most new vehicles are shipping with rear lockers from the factory, and some specialized trims like the Chevy Colorado ZR2, or the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon ship with front and rear lockers straight from the factory. Talk about traction!
And at the End of the Day...
Taking the vehicle out and finding its limitations is the first step to determine what modifications you need to make. At the end of the day it’s up to you to choose your own adventure and start down the path to exploration.
If you would like to know more about any of these topics, join the Overland Bound forums and ask around! There are plenty of resources, lots of helpful people and it’s free. The most important thing to do is research and ask questions before you open your wallet and spend. You’ll have more resources for gas to get you where you want to go.