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The USA is Overlanding Nirvana

The USA is Overlanding Nirvana

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Words and Images by Graeme Bell

We are a South African family who have driven our Land Rover Defender to over 50 countries on four continents over 150 000 miles. We have crossed the equator four times and our children have grown up to be multicultural. We have been to Casablanca, Dar es Salaam, New York, Buenos Aires, London, Istanbul and Dakar. And we believe that, of all the countries we have visited, The United States of America offers one of the most rewarding overland experiences. 

Here are a few reason why:

Variety of Terrain

Jungle, desert, mountains, beaches, glaciers and the wide open plains. Whichever terrain you seek to explore the USA has it. And the country only does spectacular. Zion National Park is perfect, every peak and tree and grain of sand is perfect. Utah is a red paradise (and Salt Lake City once hosted the Winter Olympics), Alaska is the final frontier where salmon and bears and glaciers compete for your attention, Florida has beaches jungles and swamps and all kinds of crazy. The South is greener than England. The entire West Coast is an overlander wet dream (it is worth noting that we did not spend nearly enough time exploring the East Coast, but we plan to rectify that mistake one day).

Overlanding in the USA
The Alvord Desert Oregon

Great People

Americans man! On our very first day in the USA we stood in a Brownsville, Texas supermarket parking lot and unloaded a cart of BBQ ribs, cold beer and bags of fresh fruit and vegetables into the Land Rover. A lady approached us to chat and we told her how we had driven up from Argentina. “It’s ok”, she said, “you are home now”.

In California and Washington State and Pittsburgh and a dozen other cities and towns we were welcomed into homes and communities, we learned to say things like “you’re good”, and “that’s funny” and “say what now”. The generosity and friendship we experienced was heartwarming and humbling.

Gas Prices

In Europe we paid $2.00 a litre for diesel and in West Africa a litre will cost $1.00. We paid less than half that per gallon on average in the USA which essentially meant that we could drive four times further than we could in most other countries. This is a very good thing simply because of the size of the country – you can drive all day and still be in California. Crossing Texas alone can take the better part of a week (especially if you are driving a Land Rover Defender 130).

Cheap fuel also means you have more money for experiences, for a good campsite and a decent meal. If you do all your shopping at QFC and similar point awarding retailers you can save even more money on fuel with the accrued loyalty points. (Yes, I am a penny pincher, but savings pennies opens a lot of doors eventually.)

Alaska Bound

Epic Roads

If you are an overlander you have to love driving, the two go together like brats and burgers, dust and diesel, NFL and ad breaks. America has excellent paved and unpaved roads connecting north to south, east to west. It is the roads which have dictated the American style – V8 and Harley Davidson. What can be better than cruising down Route 66 listening to Elvis and sipping on an ice cold drink?

Affordable Vehicles

Yes, you could spend $100 000 on an overland vehicle, but you can also spend $1000 on a decent old Ford pick up, throw some camping gear in the back and hit the road. Older vans and campers can also be bought for a bargain and O O O O’Reillys Auto Parts will usually have all the spare or replacement parts you need. We have heard of people buying a camper in Alaska and driving all the way to Argentina and selling the vehicle for more than they paid for it. That is a win.

Campsites

We love Kampsites Of America. Yes, they can sometimes be a bit gaudy and corporate but we could spend a week at the KOA in Flagstaff Arizona, relaxing after another hard work Overland Expo, washing clothing, enjoying hot showers, bacon and eggs for breakfast, toasted sandwiches for lunch, a steak on the grill for dinner (there is a large supermarket a short walk away).

The US has some amazing campsites, in general, if you can escape the fifth wheel and RV concrete campsites. Air conditioned bathrooms and recreation areas, swimming pools and games rooms, vending machines, washing machines and high speed internet are all available or you can sit under the stars surrounded by naked hippies in the Saline Valley, the choice is yours. And investing in loyalty cards can almost half the cost of an affiliated campsite.

Overlanding in the USA
Walmart Camping in New Mexico

Bureau of Land Management

BLM land can be an overlanders best friend or his worst enemy, it all depends on who pulls up to camp next to your idyllic, secluded campsite. The BLM office is usually staffed by a well trained and informed elderly gentleman with hikers legs and khaki shorts who can advise on trail condition, camp availability and points of interest. Some of the best camps we experienced were on BLM land, Moab is a great example – you can pay 40 bucks to be surrounded by walls of RV or you can drive up out of the town and head out onto the BLM where you can watch the sun set, alone with your love by your side.

The USA has Great Neighbors

The country has a bad reputation but Mexico is much more than just a border crisis and cartels. Driving from San Diego into Tijuana is like stepping through a portal into another dimension and Baja, California offers all the experiences and attractions which international overlanders crave. It is the best of both worlds and you will find many American PanAm vets hanging out on the beach or in the mountains, stretching the dollar as far as it can while eating a fish taco and sipping an ice cold Tecate. Canada is an outdoor mans paradise and where overlanding ends river navigation begins.

Overlanding in the USA
Leaving Death Valley

The National Parks

Well organized, many and massive the twenty nine national parks are reason alone to visit America. The West Coast in particular boasts an amazing array of protected land and Alaska, though difficult and expensive to visit, is worth the journey. The parks are almost all open most of the year though some, ie Crater Lake and Rock Mountain NP, do close through the darkest, coldest winter months. It is best to avoid the parks over the holidays as camping can be impossible without booking and the trails and through roads resemble LA gridlock. A parks card will save a lot on entrance and camping fees and are worth the initial investment.

The Food

Oh man, the food. From haute cuisine to junk food, the US is second to none for the variety and quality of food. Southern BBQ is legendary for a reason and a meat man’s fantasy, the fruit and vegetables are delicious and cherry season on the west coast is the best season on the west coast. Every state has it’s own burger joint but our favorite by far is In n Out Burger – triple triple animal style fries with chocolate shake – the first thing we eat when we arrive in California and the last thing we eat when we leave. San Francisco is foodie paradise and you have not lived until you have had a local take you to his favorite restaurants. The best beer is not Bud Light, hell no, not even close. With thousands of micro breweries you are spoilt for choice with every flavor and type of beer imaginable available. I enjoyed the IPA’s but, to be honest, the beer I enjoyed most often was the simple yet refreshing Yuengling lager from the oldest brewery in the States.

Overlanding in the USA
Art in Desert

Culture

Sure, the US does not have the history of Europe but what she lacks in ancient architecture she makes up with the modern history of a people who created the the most powerful country on the planet in a relatively short space of time. And these people achieved this feat through innovation, perseverance and hard work. America has the space and resources which allow impossible dreams to become a reality and American innovators overflow with curiosity and creativity. The wealthier cities teem with art and culture while the country is dotted with islands of self expression. From Hollywood to Nashville, Miami to New York, the planets greatest minds gravitate to the USA where they contribute to the culture which leads the world. If you are a history buff you can explore the country looking for evidence of the Civil War, the gold rush or the American Revolutionary War. 

As foreigners we certainly felt at home in the USA and we plan to drive back to the land of the free, home of the brave after a loop around Africa and via Russia. 

Overlanding in the USA
Hollywood

Final Thoughts

As foreigners we certainly felt at home in the USA and we plan to drive back to the land of the free, home of the brave after a loop around Africa and via Russia. 

Corrie Co-Founder, Marketing and Editor @ Overland Bound. Often found behind the camera, keyboard or steering wheel. (But not all at once.)

Comment(10)

  1. Absolutely right. Having been to Europe and Crete, I must say it’s beautiful, but nothing compares to the US for beauty and ease of travel as well as finding alone time when you want it. I believe we have everything every other country has. Also the people are friendly and helpful. Also, our infrastructure is familiar everywhere. Am I biased ? Hell yes

  2. Thank you very much for this article. Being former military, I have also done my share of traveling the world. My wife was born in England, was raised in South Africa (), and has traveled across Europe, as well. We both agree with everything you have written. Now, as an American, I’ve always thought my country had the best, most diverse, variety of people and places to explore and enjoy. However, I have been reluctant to actually express my adoration outside my group of friends and family in order to not come across as conceited. I’m glad to see my enthusiasm is shared by others who have seen this country from a different perspective.

  3. Love this article! Great way to start my Thursday. As my fiance and I start our careers we look forward to expanding our Overlanding dreams to other countries someday. If you come back to the west coast of the USA and want to see some Oregon high-desert you are welcome to make camp at our ranch and we can show you some truly magnificent country.

  4. Hi Graeme and Family, great article and yes USA is on my top priority list, looking forward to your next book (you may remember me the UK Saffa who thanks to your great books is now why I have my Defender 110 which is slowly turning into my ideal overlander, keep safe in Africa I am enjoying your YouTube updates – PHIL

  5. I know Graeme and family met them at a overland show in Germany the other year fantastic family i’m just reading his last book now, great read well worth it thanks andy

  6. “As foreigners we certainly felt at home in the USA…” There are no foreigners here, only extended family.
    Thanks for the kind words regarding our homeland and people!

  7. Great piece on why North America is such a wonderful, and diverse, place to explore.

    I was born in the American west but grew up in Europe. All my earliest memories are of wandering Europe with a tent strapped to the top of a Chevy wagon. When folks ask now why I choose to explore this country the way I do instead of elsewhere, I reply with many of the same examples provided in this article. North America is incredibly rich in culture and diverse in environments.

    Cool, casual, style, too, this piece…very much enjoyed reading it.

  8. A great article. Thank you very much for your praise of our country. I have done some traveling over the years but I’m always look forward to coming home. It’s very difficult for me to leave during the wonderful summer months in the Pacific Northwest. Because I feel like I miss the most Beautiful time of the year. If you ever go back up to Alaska you might take the Alaskan ferry system from Bellingham Washington up to Skagway and then drive the Alaskan highway. Beautiful drive beautiful for a ride. Really great people.

  9. Great article, thank you. My wife and I just finished a 10,000 mile tour of the American west. Once across the Mississippi river we got off the interstates and traveled back and secondary roads. The small towns of Nebraska were a vey pleasant surprise as well as the Nebraska National forest. From there it just got better and better.

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