Big Rigs and Back Roads: Inside the World of Overlanding

A growing subculture of adventure travelers are taking epic off-road trips in extremely wild rides. We sent an actual vagabond into their midst.

Overland Expo West held outside Flagstaff Arizona has exploded in popularity since its inception in 2009. The 2023 event...

Overland Expo West, held outside Flagstaff, Arizona, has exploded in popularity since its inception in 2009. The 2023 event had 30,000 attendees.

On the eve of May’s new moon, I turn my Tacoma down the roughly paved road that leads into Fort Tuthill County Park, a 600-acre fairground south of Flagstaff, and find myself in a Mad Max-like convoy of drivers who all seem to be rocking Marmot or Patagonia. There are Jeep Wranglers and Rubicons, Land Rovers and Land Cruisers, Mercedes Sprinters and G Wagons, a good number of which are towing trailers, some towing trailers towing bikes. There are sleep shelters—canopied and hard-shelled and freestanding. An astounding number of rooftop tents, some approached by little ladders. Standing mesh tents—four-doors flanked by ground tents and freestanding awnings. There are side pull-out awnings, those double-sided wraparound awnings mounted directly onto rigs. I see hammocks. Folks in safari hats and cutting-edge outerwear sitting on fold-out seats sipping from eco-friendly vessels. A smattering of propane campfires—no real fires allowed. It’s check-in day at the 2023 Overland Expo West—Burning Man for dudes with trucks—and, after a week-long cross-country trek, I’ve arrived.

Originally an Australian term for herding livestock long distances on foot, overlanding has evolved into a highly mechanized mode of adventure travel—one that takes its adherents into remote destinations, typically by 4×4 or motorcycle, where camping is the main form of lodging and the journey is the principal goal. In recent years, it’s become an industry, a lifestyle, a sort of quasi-libertarian offshoot of the #vanlife movement. The modern phenomenon has its roots in the military; the first overlanding vehicles, domestically, were surplus Jeeps made for World War Two later made available to the public. Today it’s the domain of every Outdoor Bro you know with an off-road pickup brimming with gear.

Founded in 2009 as a small trade show and instructional gathering with 900 attendants, the Overland Expo West has exploded over the past decade. This year the expo attracted over 30,000 attendees, its largest turnout to date. Many of the biggest automakers had booths; Toyota unveiled its new 2024 Tacoma there. On Instagram, #vanlife still reigns supreme, with 15.3 million tagged posts, but overlanding is creeping up, with a combined 7.4 million posts tagged #overland or #overlanding.

The phenomenon saw a particular spike during the pandemic, a time of renewed interest in self-reliance. At least that’s one theory. A guy I meet the first night at a happy hour presented by Maxxis, the bike-tire makers, says the boom was simply because people couldn’t go out and blow their excess money on booze for an entire year. And so, fueled by YouTube algorithms, they funneled that spending into impulsive, aspirational online shopping. Regardless, the lockdown was around when the term came onto my radar.

I was on a bit of an overlanding quest myself, having driven from my home in New York City to the expo, largely on back roads, with plans to continue to L.A., where I would meet my sister’s newborn daughter. I’d done this trek countless times over the years; I was retracing past routes with updated intentions, an updated rig. Setting out from New York, I packed all kinds of provisions: a fold-out table, a fold-out chair, a sleeping bag, a tarp, a hatchet, a blanket, an umbrella, and a poncho. Boots, some sweatshirts, a headlamp. One of those disposable Styrofoam coolers. A single-burner camp stove, the kind you screw directly into a propane tank. Instant oatmeal, a huge water tank, water jugs, coffee, coffee filters, a pour over. Emergency canned goods.

All this fit into a handmade camper shell I found at the last-minute, on Craigslist. I cut a three-quarter-inch piece of plywood to size and lay it over the wheel wells as a makeshift sleeping platform. Like a coffin. As I drive I listen to the ultimate overlanding novel, As I Lay Dying, in which the progeny of a deceased matriarch build a coffin and, with her corpse inside, hitch it to a wagon, and venture overland to her desired burial ground. They get knocked into the river and the wagon capsizes, but they keep going.

I took the Old National Highway, the first transcontinental road, through the Midwest. Each day I drove till sundown, then started looking for a suitable place to camp, limiting my stops to State Parks and National Forests. It had been a minute since I’d lived on the road like this. In 2014, at age 23, I tried to walk across the country. I walked for a hundred days, from Philly to Colorado. I had a paper atlas—no smartphone. I’d walk till dark each day and set up a one-man bivy tent roadside. It took me 30 days just to get across Pennsylvania carrying a backpack. Over the last 70, I walked across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas, pushing a Schwinn bike trailer—my first overlanding rig, you might call it.

I upgraded in 2015, when I bought and intermittently lived out of a 1993 Chevy G30 Hi-Cube, one of those classic ’90s vans your favorite indie band toured in. I took it back and forth across the country a handful of times. But on my last trip, temperatures rose over 100-degrees and the van was beset with all kinds of mechanical issues. It felt like a death trap, so I sold it and bought the Tacoma. In the two years since I’ve owned it, I haven’t once used its off-road capabilities, aside from navigating some of the more treacherous potholes on Manhattan’s West Side Highway. I’ve come West to test it on a true expedition, and to understand how this kind of travel has become a way of life.

The first morning at the expo, I’m nursing a coffee in my fold-out chair, partially obscured by the tree fortress I backed my truck into, when a neighbor comes by and asks if I’m hungry. Chris is an ex-Marine from Hot Springs, Arkansas—a big sturdy guy with a shaved head, a graying goatee, and a skull tattoo on his forearm. It turns out he’s already a week into an overlanding expedition with his wife, Christine. Atop his slightly raised, late second-generation Tacoma there’s a Centori rooftop tent and a solar panel. On either side of the hood are two huge antennae with lights at the base of each, like an insect.

Inside his tent he has a standup shower and changing room for privacy—he’s even laid a mat down, like at a real outdoor basecamp. He whips me up a breakfast burrito with all the fixings on a propane-powered wok called a “scottle.” I’ll see more of them throughout the weekend.

Chris is actually leaving first thing the following morning—he camps for the quiet and the solitude, and the expo has too many people and too much noise for his PTSD. His thing is finding other vets dealing with trauma in the Hot Springs area and taking them on overlanding expeditions. He gives them a free tent on one condition: They come on a trip with him. “It’s about community,” he says. “About family. Getting folks that are really hurting out there back on track—this saves lives,” he says, downing the handful of pills his wife hands him. “Saved my life, anyway.”

Early in the expo I also meet Mark, a retired NBA referee in his fifties who drove here from Phoenix in his custom-painted steel gray Jeep Rubicon towing his Expedition 2.0 Off-Grid Trailer. He’s dripped out head to toe in RealTree, his headlamp perched over the snakeskin “A” on his Arizona Diamondbacks hat. When I come upon him, he’s posted up solo in a camping chair, sipping a Coors Light, staring into a propane-powered fire.

Mark, a former NBA referee, goes on weeks-long expeditions in his Jeep Rubicon to photograph wildlife.

For Mark, overlanding is about solitude. His thing is taking his Jeep out for weeks on end, alone, to stalk and hunt wildlife—but for photography. “The process is almost identical to hunting,” he says. “Get up early, stake out a spot, and wait. Same outfit, knee pads, everything.” He’s got a stoic manner. The thing he keeps ranting about is the noise. The chatter. The phones. His belief, he reiterates over our second Coors, is that by getting out here alone, with only yourself to rely on, you’re tapping into what’s real.

There’s an undeniably libertarian, borderline prepper quality to some of these characters, whose extreme readiness can feel like a vehicular manifestation of the Second Amendment. On Saturday, I get a full tour of an outrageous new off-road trailer made by Mammoth Overland, the Seattle-based former aircraft manufacturer, called the Extinction-Level Event camper. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a camper equipped to withstand total annihilation.

Mammoth Overland’s Extinction-Level Event camper includes a drone launchpad and a system that automatically shoots bear spray.

John Hennessey, the CEO of Mammoth Overland, and his Extinction-Level Event camper, a vehicle designed to withstand the apocalypse.

Mammoth’s CEO, John Hennessey, breaks down its functions: In the event of an apocalypse, you need air, water, defense, shelter. Sealed like an airplane, it’s apparently impervious to secondhand wildfire smoke, and has a medical-grade air purification system. It carries 22 gallons of water, and has, I’m told, a filtration system that could purify a mud puddle. It has all-steel four-pin submarine doors, with a rooftop escape hatch. There is weapon storage inside—both handguns and rifles. With the press of a button you can shoot bear spray up to 25 feet. There are night-vision cameras on gimbals. You can launch a drone from inside it.

A common critique of overlanding is that it’s just a marketing term for camping. As Chris from Hot Springs puts it, “It’s a lotta guys with rooftop tents and insane amounts of gear they never take out of their garage. A lot of it looks a little too pristine.”

It’s not long before whatever pristine gear folks brought gets thoroughly tested. I’m moving through rows of tents and trucks on a clear, 80-degree morning when lightning cracks and the temp seemingly plummets twenty-degrees in seconds. We’re hit with a full-on Lear-like gale. Wind, hail. Folks run for cover beneath the display awnings. I crack my umbrella, which fails to open, then reach into my pack for my hoodie. I haven’t got it.

I keep moving, taking cover beneath a tree. Across from me, the entrance to the barracks is full to the gills, attendees peering out nervously, looking like prisoners on a POW train. Back at my camp, I’m drenched. This is no longer a game—things have gotten real. I open the back of my camper shell and notice water is dripping in over the windows, which, after all, are just plexiglass rectangles slotted into two plywood sheets. Digging through my tool box, I find some yellow electrical tape. Draped in my poncho, I pop open the umbrella, towel down the edges of the windows, and lay the tape down. Not ideal, but it’ll have to do. Sitting in my driver’s seat, I watch people fleeing: four cars exiting for every car entering. The scene is suddenly hilarious: Dudes in safari hats easing their Four-Runners and Wranglers outta the site, their custom headlights flashing in the rain.

When the worst of the storm has passed, I venture over to the tent of The Overland Journal, a magazine that chronicles this scene. There I meet a guy also named Chris, a cyclist who once won the Tour Divide, a race that traverses the length of the Rockies, from Canada to the U.S.-Mexico border. This, too, was a form of overlanding. A lot of contestants ended up getting snowed out, he tells me, but he was prepared. “People try to go the lightest they can go,” he says. “Try to keep going when they’re all rained out and wet. Then they get miserable, lose morale. People don’t realize you gotta stop to take care of yourself.”

It turns out a huge part of the expo is storytelling, a kind of mythologizing of our adventures. On Sunday I attend a drone videography class in which the instructor, a fox-like man in a safari hat, keeps emphasizing that his drone—this exact model, a Mavik 6, he tells us, is “being used all over Ukraine”—is simply a storytelling tool. You do a shot of nature on its own, no one cares. But if you have a little Jeep, or, I don’t know—he looks around the room knowingly—a Toyota [laughter], then boom! We want to see you!

There’s a van company here literally called Storyteller. “Live A Story You Won’t Have to Exaggerate,” reads an ad for BFGoodrich Tires in the Overland Sourcebook, which depicts a smiling lady climbing down a ladder from her Jeep’s rooftop tent, a fire going nearby, mountains in the distance. What’s being sold is the narrativizing of one’s life, the monetization of your journey of course being the ultimate goal.

Colorado-based EarthRoamer makes the ultimate luxury campers. Their two models, the LTi and the HD, start at $490,000 and $1.7 million, respectively.

Back at the campground I chat up Johnny, the owner of a vehicle air-conditioning company he’s here to promote. In a trucker hat and overalls, he cracks jokes with friends and employees as he cooks T-bone steaks out front of his brand-new EarthRoamer (which starts at $490,000—before add-ons). “Literally picked it up on the way here, bro,” he tells me. He’s got no interest in heading into the actual expo, it seems; he’s mostly just here to get content for his YouTube Channel.

Nearby is Nate, a thirtysomething Latino dude from Houston. He gunned it out here with his two uncles and two kids in his 1993 Toyota 4Runner. They’ve just touched down, and he’s got the hood up, a rag on his shoulder. Thought he maxed out the engine heading up those Flagstaff hills, so he was just “burping” the air out of his radiator. Tells me he’s just here to get a couple shots for the ’Gram. He started posting during the pandemic, shots of himself and his uncles camping in spots like Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns. His family are around the corner, unbothered by my questions, enjoying themselves by a campfire.

Johnny, the owner of a vehicle air-conditioning company, on the steps of his EarthRoamer camper.

Nate, an influencer from Houston, often takes his 1993 Toyota 4Runner on camping trips in Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns.

Once his views started going up, he got approached by some coffee brands, plus Yeti coolers. Now he makes his money through Instagram ads. Something about his energy seems pure, and I can see why people like watching his videos. “I’ve been camping with my uncles since I was a boy,” he tells me. “I’m just doing what I’ve always done.”

On the last night of the expo, I’m headed for another happy hour when I meet Henry, the CEO of a Memphis-based awning company called Moonshade. He’s out here with a crew of guys interviewing campers they find using their product. Really, though, they’re shooting a documentary about the overlanding community.

I point out that folks here seem like they’re halfway between hippies and doomsday preppers. Henry agrees, but points out that those are two sides of the same coin: The more prepared you are, the more freedom you have. The flip side of that is also true: Without some spontaneity, no amount of preparation, and no amount of gear, can deliver a meaningful journey.

At camp that night, Henry and I are joined by one of his neighbors, Jay, who lugs over a huge propane tank, sparks up the fire pit, and cranks up the Bluetooth. He’s soon joined by his wife, Jenny. Both, I learn, are ex-military. They met in basic training in Washington State, then were stationed together in Korea. Jay turns out to be a certified pyro guy—he runs his hometown’s firework show, the biggest in the state, he tells me. The main purpose of their Sprinter van, which has a bathroom and shower, is for Jay to follow Jenny as she competes in ultramarathons. She just completed one, in fact: a 225-mile race that ended in Flagstaff.

Sitting in their company, admiring their van, I’m overcome by a familiar feeling. Maybe overlanding is just camping. If you’ve got more money, you can get better gear. You can be more prepared. But you can never be fully prepared. Nature always wins. That, above all, is the value of camping. To humble yourself. There’s no such thing as complete self-reliance. You go on these adventures to loosen your grip, to let go of whatever you’ve been holding onto too tightly.

Sean Thor Conroe is the author of the novel Fuccboi.

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