How To Start Overlanding with Your Family

Introducing Guest Blogger Chris Emery from Ordealist

If you are into the outdoors, you’ve probably come across the idea of overlanding. Put simply, overlanding is a vehicle-based adventure where you venture into the backcountry for camping for one or more days. Think of it as car camping on steroids.

So how do you get started overlanding? And can you overland with kids? I have been taking my family, including my young son Kai, with me on overlanding trips for years, and below are a few tips that I’ve learned along the way.

HOW TO GET STARTED OVERLANDING?

There are no hard and fast rules as to what constitutes overlanding. My definition is that you travel for multiple days, camping at night and travel through backcountry areas, likely on unpaved roads.

If you haven’t camped with your family before, it’s a good idea to try camping in a developed campground first, so you learn what equipment and supplies you’ll need and some basic camping skills. If you’re a seasoned outdoors person, getting started overlanding is as simple as finding a place to go and packing up your camping gear — with a few caveats and possible additions to your gear kit.

I recommend starting your planning by finding an area near you to explore. One way to experience the rhythm of overlanding is to visit several destinations, car camping in developed campgrounds. This will teach you what it’s like to set up camp and pack it up again several times, and how things fit in your vehicle.

When you’re ready, you can graduate to more remote destinations. In the United States, a great place to start is the National Forests or, if you live in the western states, Bureau of Land Management lands, both of which have more rustic camping options such as primitive campgrounds and dispersed camping. 

Primitive campgrounds often have defined campsites that may include just a fire ring and a shared vault toilet. Even these limited facilities can make the experience a bit easier, and you may find it reassuring that other campers may be in the area. 

In contrast, dispersed camping means camping outside of a designated campground. This experience of camping in solitude is what attracts many people to overlanding in the first place. The National Forest Service and other state and federal agencies do have rules about dispersed camping — such as requiring wilderness permits and limits on where you can camp, so check the requirements before you head out.

WHERE CAN YOUR VEHICLE GO?

Another important factor to consider is where your vehicle is capable of traveling. Many unpaved roads managed by the National Forest Service and other agencies can be navigated by your average vehicle. But some roads will require more rugged vehicles with high clearance and more robust traction capabilities, such as all-wheel-drive or four-wheel drive. Do some research online about roads you’re thinking of using to see what other people say about them. Also, keep in mind that some roads can be much more difficult to navigate in winter or after storms, as they can get muddy, sandy or snowy. Call the local ranger office of whatever agency manages the area to inquire about road conditions and ask whether your vehicle will be capable of making it through.

WHAT GEAR DO YOU NEED?

Photo of an overlanding camping set up with the author's son playing

If you have a basic set of car camping gear, such as a tent, sleeping bags, and cooking gear, you can just use that to start overlanding. If you really get into it, you can later invest in gear that makes the experience more convenient and more comfortable, such as roof-top tents, portable refrigerators, etc. 

If you don’t have a tent yet, one thing I highly recommend is getting a bigger one than you think you’ll need, especially if you have kids. Tent manufacturers often list a tent’s capacity with backpackers in mind, which means they are as light and small as possible. But a family of four camping in a four-person tent is going to find it tight. A five or six-person tent will be more comfortable, and since you’re in your vehicle, weight is less of a concern.  

One thing to keep in mind with kids is that overlanding can involve quite a bit of driving. So as with any long car trip, make sure you bring things to keep them entertained in the car.

It’s also important to make sure you have some basic vehicle recovery gear, in case you get stuck. Bring a spare tire, ideally a full-sized one that can handle rougher roads, and a jack and tools so you can change your tire. It can also be helpful to have an air compressor so that you can let some air out of your tires before traveling on bumpy roads and then refill them when you get back to pavement. This will make your ride smoother — which will keep the family in a better mood. A small shovel can also come in handy in case you need to dig your wheel out of mud, sand or snow.

Another important item is a map. I use a GPS map system called Gaia on my phone when I’m off the grid, but I also bring a map and compass in case that system fails. One of the major causes of crises in backcountry adventure is people getting lost. Bringing a map and knowing how to use it will go a long way to avoiding this situation.

A good rule of thumb for overlanding is to think about what you would need to be safe and comfortable if you were backpacking — food, shelter, appropriate clothing — and make sure you bring that along. 

WHAT SAFETY GEAR DO YOU NEED?

Whenever you head into the backcountry, safety should be top of mind. You’ll be farther away from the medical and rescue services than normal, so some safety precautions are warranted. 

You’ll want a good first aid kit and the knowledge of how to use it. I highly recommend that anyone who plans to be in the backcountry on a regular basis take a basic first aid course or, even better, a wilderness first aid course. 

You should also let someone who won’t be going on the trip know where you are going and when you’ll be back. That way, if they don’t hear from you, they can let the authorities know that you haven’t returned. 

If you really get into overlanding, consider getting some kind of satellite messaging device for emergencies. I have a device from SPOT that allows me to send preset text messages to family members to let them know everything is okay. It also has an option to alert search and rescue that we need immediate help in the case of an emergency. The service requires a paid subscription, but to my mind is a cheap way to have some peace of mind. 

CONCLUSION

Overlanding is a terrific way to explore the backcountry with a family. Because you are using your vehicle, you’re not limited by the distance you can get a kid to hike in a day — which isn’t far in my experience. You can also bring more gear than, say, backpacking, so your family will be more comfortable. It doesn’t take much more than basic camping gear and a car to get started.

Please remember to leave no trace while you’re out there, and maybe even pick up a little, so that other families can have a terrific experience as well. Have fun!

ABOUT CHRIS

Chris Emery an avid outdoors enthusiast hooked on exploring the world beyond where the pavement ends. He is the publisher of Ordealist.com, where he shares his adventures with his family and hard-earned lessons from their overlanding adventures. 

For more information on getting started with overlanding, check out this helpful post on Ordealist.

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