The Americanization of Overlanding
Travel has always been popular, but ever since the 1920s and 1930s, world travel picked up as the thing to do, if you had the funds. Hollywood glamorized it as a way that sophisticated people could take in other interesting cultures in exotic locales. Whether by ship, by train or even by aircraft in the later years, travel and stories of travel and adventure held a fascination for people unable or unwilling to take on the very considerable challenges that world travel could sometimes impose. Modified cars and trucks tended to be used only for well-funded “expeditions”.
World travel tends to be very different today, because the world is very different. One has to look hard for areas that have not been heavily Westernized such that such that the original dress, diet and culture that were once so alluring have been largely erased. With business, political, and military interests driving colonialism and the forced installation of accommodating governments, conditional foreign aid payments or covert operations where direct force would appear a little too obvious, a sense of moral and even racial superiority, plus tourism itself, where the clientele expect Western accommodations, diet and conveniences after they’ve viewed what they came to see, and individual corporations striving to change the local culture enough to accommodate them – these have all taken their toll over the years. In the end, many of the culturally-based things that people go to see are now recreations maintained just for the sake of the local tourism industry. Once authentic, they are now museum performances. Any authentic vestiges of the culture are often only viewable by making the effort to get away from the areas of even moderate development.
World travel in the twentieth century has always been principally based on mass transportation. It still is today. You use it to get to a destination directly, then depart it, explore, and experience. What is today called overlanding is a branch of world travel that dispenses with mass transportation and substitutes getting yourself across the landscape to Point B by way of a personal vehicle. Classical overlanding is planned vehicle-based travel, typically including border crossing(s), making or providing one’s own shelter, and carrying enough food, water and fuel to be able to reach various supply points along the planned route. This not being a jaunt from motel and restaurant to motel and restaurant, self-reliance is required for both human and mechanical needs. And, this not being a cruise on I-40 from Flagstaff to Oklahoma City, classical overlanding implies a primary reliance on an assortment of roads and tracks which can be expected to pose difficulties along the way. It is practically taken for granted that a lack of preparation or proper choices may escalate the level of risk to dangerous levels. In classical overlanding, the joy is in the day-by-day journey itself, not in achieving the final destination. And the emphasis of classical overlanding is to finish each leg of the journey intact and healthy, as well as without damage or breakage to the vehicle itself. That comes largely from driving skill in (or upon) a reasonably well-maintained vehicle, not from manly four-wheeling, which is an entirely different pursuit. Hopefully, there will be some interface with the local culture, and also hopefully, you arrive a slightly different person than you were, having been shaped by the experiences along the way.
By the book, the most popular and authoritative definition for overlanding has always been that of Overland Journal’s:
“Overlanding describes self-reliant adventure travel to remote destinations where the journey is the primary goal. Typically, but not exclusively, accommodated by mechanized off-highway capable transport (from bicycles to trucks) where the principal form of lodging is camping; often lasting for extended lengths of time (months to years) and often spanning international boundaries. While expedition is defined as a journey with a purpose, overlanding sees the journey as the purpose.”
They then put overlanding in context by summarizing other activities that could be confused with it, plus their definition of a suitable vehicle at the end:
“Car Camping: Traveling in a vehicle to an established campground. If there is a picnic table there, it is probably car camping.
Back Country Adventure: A one-day or multi-day off-highway trip on an adventure motorcycle or in a 4WD vehicle.
Overland(ing): Vehicle-supported, self-reliant adventure travel, typically exploring remote locations and interacting with other cultures.
Vehicle-Dependent Expedition: An organized, vehicle-dependent journey with a defined purpose, often geographic or scientific in nature.
Expedition Vehicle: A 4WD vehicle or adventure motorcycle prepared for self-reliant travel over long distances, through unpredictable weather and over variable terrain.
“Technical terrain can be encountered throughout the journey, and the travelers may even seek out the most challenging route to a destination as part of their experience, but overland travel is not the same as recreational “fourwheeling”, where the primary objective is overcoming challenging obstacles. The critical point to the term overland travel is that the purpose is to include at least two or more of the following: 1. Remote locations, 2. Cultures other than your own, 3. Under-explored or under-documented regions, 4. Self-reliance in unfamiliar territories for multiple days, weeks or months. That is to say, an overnight trip to the local mountains on a well-documented route, staying in an established campground with full-hookups, is not an overland adventure, it is a backcountry trip or at the very least, car camping.”
Pretty simple, is it not? But why does overlanding need to be defined so closely? Let’s face it, we Americans have a way of popularizing, systematically homogenizing, and redefining activities such that, in the end, everybody is able to claim that they are doing whatever activity is currently being pumped as glamorous. The fact that you’re not actually doing that activity or are making only a token effort is considered to be inconsequential. Contests of knowledge and skill, like youth sports, become mere platforms for handing out Participation Awards to everyone whose parents signed them up, so that everyone can feel good about themselves. Being largely imitative, we seek new ways to associate ourselves with anything that is presented as being admirable.
Take world travel, again. The new success meter among a certain fringe is how many airports throughout the world you’ve visited, preferably by the sole accumulation of travel reward points. An overnight in a local hotel or hostel is considered by some as a visit to that country. That supposedly makes you a world traveler. A few tourists get out of the cities and wander the countryside to experience the people and the culture, but I notice that it’s the non-American travelers that are more oriented that way. As for some Americans, it’s been reduced to yet another competitive event. There must be a “winner”, without having to get bogged down in experiencing the people, the place, or the tangible remnants of its history. There’s a big difference between counting countries and counting experiences, and absorbing the richness of those experiences. In this case, the new-style “winner”, having filled in the most checkboxes, is actually the biggest loser. It’s like a minimalist boasting about how few objects he owns. The technical success is washed away by the stark failure of missing the ultimate goal entirely: it’s not about stuff.
Overlanding is bit of a fad now, originally popularized for both altruistic reasons as well as personal growth ones – like travel itself and the experiences it offers. Now, there’s money in it, so it takes our craving for conformity to a new expression of rebellion against conformity. There are two basic issues with overlanding in the U.S.: Paved point-to-point roads are so numerous here that it’s a hell of a job even finding legitimate dirt tracks that tie together well enough to be used to make up any significant overlanding voyage. There are a very few, and they are guarded as secrets, lest the neo-overlanding hoard descend on them, tear them up, litter them, and force them to be closed. The second issue is that the supply conditions here are in such abundance that a classical overlanding rig would be overkill, while our “overlanding” rigs would run out of gas and run short of supplies on either the African or Australian continents. Fuel stops are so numerous here that the only way to run out of fuel is to ignore signage, travel without giving much thought to the problems that a route presents, have a preference for traveling by whimsy, or be just plain careless, all traits that do not a successful overlander make.
Because of the inherent difficulties of overlanding in the States, classical overlanding is in the process of being morphed into a romanticized version of a traditional camping vacation and/or a four-wheeling weekend. There has been a fringe effort over the last few years to blur distinctions and merge car camping, backcountry adventure, overlanding, expeditions and four-wheeling into one big ball called Overlanding. True overlanding is accused of being “elitist” because it demands equipment that will do the job of overlanding safely and effectively over long distances. This neo-overlanding “movement” sees itself as “inclusive”, its common denominator being the “craving for adventure” and the desire to “get out there”. Attitude, not activity. If you’ve got both of those attitudes, you can call yourself an “Overlander” who goes on “Expeditions”. Thus, weekend tent camping at the closest campground, and struggling from Alaska all the way through Central America are both explicitly held as being overlanding. Seriously.
Why? Because as one promotional corporation says, “adventure sells”. Camping doesn’t – it’s too old school. These days, we’re all supposed to see ourselves as “adventurers” driven by an undeniable, universal hunger for risk and adventure within our genetic makeup. It’s held as being universal, without exception. The way we refashion things, two people sitting at the campfire at the end of the day have a pecking order issue to work out. We’re preoccupied with how we’re perceived and where we rank on a scale. Winner. Loser. Adventurer. Camper. The fact that those two each did exactly the same things during that day doesn’t matter nearly as much as the label they apply to what they did. According to the new mantra, they each need to see themselves as living the Adventure Lifestyle, regardless of what they do in their day jobs. Their self-images and their rank among others depend on it.
The new routine for Adventuring is, in whatever time you can get off from work, you drive whatever you have from home to what you consider to be a suitable site for your brand of “adventure”. Then you pick a trail, drive some distance in, make camp, and enjoy. Next day, you hike around or do some activity that you like doing. But hey, that’s pretty much what I do, except for the job part. Sounds a lot like camping, doesn’t it? You don’t need a special vehicle or even a modified vehicle to do that. You don’t need extensive cargo capacity or systems redundancy to ensure safety. You don’t need fancy equipment, tools or spare parts. You don’t need to be able to plot a course on a topo map, or even to know what that is. You don’t need to store much in the way of accommodations, passports, fuel, food, water or clothing to do that. What you missed is probably available 10-30 minutes away, albeit at rip-off prices. If you have chosen a fashionable area, that rip-off store will be surrounded by a parade of hard-core campers and four-wheelers showing off all of the amped-up hardware that they seldom use or need. It’s frequently a call for attention and a broadcast that one is keeping up with the trends, observable even on neo-overlanding websites that tout inclusiveness and abhor elitism. It’s a quirk of our culture, another extension of consumerism or materialism. We can’t help it.
The oddity is, equipment is often chosen based on how it adds to the visual aura of the rig, and a lot of it compromises durability instead of improving it. This is a principle reason why so many rigs suffer disabling failures on the trail. Snapped drive shafts, dislocated ball joints, failed bearings, broken springs or shock mounts – we assume that they fail because of the challenges of the trail that we’re trying to horse the vehicle through. That’s the indirect cause. More closely related is that many modifications which increase rough trail capability also inherently increase stresses on other components within their system, such that something has to give, and the only question is when. Their tolerance of abuse is decreased and, poor factory engineering aside, a stock vehicle is more likely to survive a trail intact than a carelessly modified one, assuming that ground clearance problems aren’t forced upon it. It may not be able to physically reach the end of the trail by itself, but nothing will be ailing when it’s hauled out.
But why stick the overlanding label on common camping in the first place? Heck, people were doing this kind of car camping since well before the Civilian Conservation Corps were tasked with building recreational campsites for the general public during the Great Depression. You drive to the place you’d like to experience, sightsee a bit, set up camp, and do whatever activities you like while you’re there. It’s very enjoyable and has a great tradition, but it has no linkage to overlanding apart from A] a vehicle and B] a love of the great outdoors, and that’s okay. There’s no need for what you enjoy (camping, travel camping, car camping, tent camping, RVing, four-wheeling, etc.) to have to identify as a different activity that has more perceived glamour than yours – as hyped by promoters trying to cash in on the “movement”, or the “adventure lifestyle” that you need to join. You don’t need to be handed a Participation Award for Overlanding when you’re tent camping over the weekend, because that’s what you like to do. In modern parlance, that could be called “shame-based camping” because various activities are now being assigned hierarchical status values. Is there not enough glory in just plain camping out? If the guy in the next tent claims that he’s “overlanding” because he drove 100 miles to camp and hike over the holiday weekend, is your status lowered if you say you wanted to camp out here on your way to see your sister – and your trip is 200 miles? Who wins the pissing contest for being The Real Overlander? If this is a play for status, one has to consider that dispirited Oakies fleeing the Dust Bowl for California in the 1930s were much more overlanders than both of you put together.
When do simple definitions blur? When everyone has to buy in to the latest marketing hype, because one’s vision is limited to seeing only joiners and the excluded, winners and losers, pecking order and status – not people with different interests. Overlanding is not camping, rebranded. No one is excluded from overlanding, but to insist that camping is overlanding is like me announcing that I’m a mountaineer because I climbed a hill over my lunch hour, and without touching any guardrails. Thus I’m a mountaineer because I share a real mountaineer’s spirit of adventure, and that’s all that counts. All I lack is the study, training, practice, knowledge, skills, determination, effort and experience. The current tendency seems to be that if you for whatever reason do not or will not accomplish a field of study, then downgrade the extraordinary accomplishments of others in order to seemingly join their ranks. That’s no way to approach life.
Where do I fit in? Certainly not as a four-wheeler. Four-wheeling is not something that you do solo. With an emphasis on overcoming difficulties, it is reasonable to assume that you will at some point lose the match and need assistance to get out. Without that assistance or the means to get it, your personal contest now switches neatly over to survival skills and its priorities of shelter, suitable clothing, water, and eventually food. Anyone who has “wheeled” solo quickly alters course to either choose another vehicle-based hobby, or bulk up on recovery equipment and/or only go on group outings with more experienced people who are not out to prove something.
Although I occasionally ask the Mighty Furd to get me to campsites seldom frequented by others, I try to limit distances and the stress level to the machinery. The reasons for this are numerous. First, I am wholly dependent upon my vehicle for each of the essentials, so losing its ability to transport those essentials and myself to a resupply place would impose risks that I don’t want. The e-bike that I carry is a partial remedy to this, but it has its limits, just as I do. The gist is that I have no survival skills and no means of carrying essentials on foot. Knowingly taking needless risks with no recovery equipment but a shovel and a snatch strap is a bad idea. Second, in many areas, aid is not just a phone call away, and that aid is inordinately expensive. Do something stupid, and the payback can be swift and sure. Third, as a 3/4-ton construction site truck, the Mighty Furd may have four-wheel drive, but it is not by any stretch a four-wheeling vehicle in a trail sense. As a complete camping rig, it’s closer to a small 4WD motorhome in size and weight than it is to a Jeep or small pickup truck. When you reach an impasse with it, you must back it up using the side mirrors all the way to wherever its substantial size and turning circle will allow a three-point turn. So it pays to be able to get a sense of any trail early, make a note of turnaround points encountered, and give up by decision earlier than the trail forces you to. Fourth, I’m cheap. Stranding it means an expensive extrication and tow, and in the boonies, breaking it means paying for repairs someplace that’s probably unfamiliar with its many design and servicing quirks. Then if I’m lucky, I can make it to a fully qualified facility in order to do it again, only correctly. Break once, repair twice. Adventure? I’m trying to get my quiet version of it while minimizing risk. This is not four-wheeling, because I’m not trying to conquer a trail, and it’s not overlanding even though the emphasis is on enjoying a safe and inspiring journey.
Set aside the Glam factor of overlanding. What I do, is camping. Heck, I don’t even really “camp”, because except for a shower and an ancient lawn chair, everything I need is inside/on my rig and stays there. Yup, I love to look over the equipment that makes travel and camping safer or easier, and yup, I study trail driving techniques that will help me to make better judgement calls, or to keep control of the rig on trails like the one I camped on near Prescott, Arizona. Overlanders care about that kind of stuff. And yes, every great now and then I take dirt roads that actually lead somewhere. But am I an overlander? Nyahhh. Maybe I’m “Campsploring”, exploring for secluded camps. While on tour, I prefer to take state highways for their scenic value, but will take a dirt road if it impresses me with some kind of historical karma. Since the Furd is my one and only ever, I try to avoid the long way around or extra trips, so sometimes the Interstate pops up under it – especially so for the commute back and forth to Illinois, though that’s not absolute. Even doing that, state highways are more interesting, and sometimes shorter. Like four-wheeling, overlanding is best (safest) done with accompaniment, so I’m not anticipating a steady diet of dirt road connectors over a long distance for myself. I enjoy driving, I enjoy pleasant or inspiring scenery, and I enjoy camping in peaceful silence and solitude. And the exploration of a BLM or National Forest trail to unearth such a campsite is a hard temptation to resist. That’s Campsploring, the search process for a campsite away from it all, and away from them all: generators, gaggles of ATVs, barking dogs, barking arguments, tipsy parties, drunken hooting, blaring music, litter. Just the sound of birds, maybe the sound of moving air, and the sound of coyotes, owls, and sometimes wild turkeys. Mix in some places or events you’ve never seen before (or mix in some old favorites) and you’ve got the technique down. It’s camping, folks, and there’s no shame in that – at least there shouldn’t be, unless you have a problem calling things what they are.
Obviously, you don’t have to have four-wheel drive or an SUV to Campsplore, you just need a vehicle capable of safely getting you to the quiet, secluded kinds of places that you like to camp at. You don’t need to join a faux-tribe or agree with a Paleo ideology to Campsplore, either. You just need an uncontrollable urge to see where that trail goes, not so you can conquer it, but to let it entice you in its own way, to stay for awhile as its guest. Now, quiet and secluded places may not appeal to you as much as hookups and meeting new people. Though that’s not Campsploring, it’s okay too. Whatever floats your boat. Maybe you like to explore in your towed vehicle, on your bike, or on foot. See the stuff that’s new to you. Whatever kind of camping you do, do it without shame or confusion. There’s no real need to categorize the type of camping that you do, actually, and certainly no need to misrepresent it. There are many variations of camping styles, many of which overlap, but they all fall under the loose header of Vehicle-Based Camping, not Overlanding, which is a specific journeying discipline. If there is insufficient glamour in camping, then shoring up faltering egos by hyping it as something else (which is in itself overhyped) is little but marketing you a new form of Participation Award for something you’re not actually involved in. Redefine nothing. Camping has a fine and lengthy heritage. Challenge yourself, and seek new experiences in new places. Take some roads, and drive some trails. Wander out to camp, and camp proudly.