When I started exploring U.S. Forest Service backroads back in the late-80s/ early 90s (I know, I’m old) the idea of having a vehicle that became your basecamp was just a fleeting dream. My first purpose-built rig was a 1991 Toyota Xtra Cab pickup.
I had a camper shell with a carpet kit in the bed. My storage was in plastic milk crates under the mattress. My suspension system was a two-inch lift with Rancho Suspension shocks and 33-inch tires. I didn’t worry about bumpers, winches, or much else for that matter. I threw a tent and camping gear in the back along with an ice chest and I was golden. I don’t even have many photos of that rig because it was more about the experiences than showing off for the ‘Gram.
Long gone are those carefree days … and I have to say I sometimes miss them.
Modern vehicle builds designed for exploration have everything imaginable bolted onto them — including the kitchen sink! I currently have a drawer system, fridge/freezer, cooking gear, a rooftop tent, and an awning on my 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser. You know, to make things more comfortable in the backcountry. I fretted over choosing the right bumpers, winch, onboard air, and dual battery system to protect my investment and to make sure I can explore further while being safe … all of those components cost money, not to mention the time to install or the cost of upkeep.
But do you need all of that expensive equipment to travel overland? The answer is a resounding “No.”
You do, however, need to plan your purchases and mods and stick to a travel budget so you can make the most of your time away from home.
I’ll take a look at some of the big-ticket items below.
READ MORE: WHAT DOES OVERLANDING MEAN?
Building out an overland vehicle is admittedly the most expensive part of overlanding. It doesn’t have to cost a small fortune. You can get a ‘90s-’00s era truck or SUV like a Toyota Land Cruiser for $5,000 to $6,000.
Depending on your vehicle choice, you can most likely leave your build stock for a bit. Throw a ground tent and cooler in the back and take it out on some easy trails and determine your needs from there. There’s no need to outfit your vehicle with armor, bumpers, and winches if your plan is simply to get out onto some graded dirt roads for some backcountry camping. Save that money for a new mountain bike, fly fishing gear, or a standup paddleboard.
When you’re ready to begin outfitting your vehicle, choose the modifications that make sense for your style of travel first.
Don’t have enough ground clearance on the trails you frequent? A suspension system and tires will get you a long way for a small investment.
Do you find yourself getting stuck and needing to wait for others to rescue you? Invest in a winch and winch bumper.
Do your aching bones in the morning cause you to hate your ground tent? Look into a rooftop tent with a nice, padded mattress.
Are you sick of waterlogged food or tired of looking for ice for your cooler? You might consider a 12v fridge/freezer.
What I’m trying to say is you should build out your vehicle at your own pace. Everything doesn’t have to be completed at the same time. Thoughtful mods that reflect how you use your vehicle are way more useful than haphazard choices that end up costing you more money in the long run.
READ MORE: HOW TO OVERLAND WITHOUT A REFRIGERATOR
The other half of budgeting for overlanding is your daily travel expenses. Whether you’re going out for three days or three years, food, communications (Internet/ mobile service) fuel, accommodation, fees (permits/ park fees/ entertainment) and vehicle maintenance and repairs are the main budgeting categories you should consider.
While my preferred campsite is a free dispersed spot in a quiet part of a national forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, that isn’t always available. Sometimes you need to be closer to civilization and stay in an organized campground, a hotel/ motel, or a hostel.
If you’re trying to save money, the hotel/ motel route will eat up a huge chunk of your budget really quickly. I’ve had luck renting a camp space on a hostel grounds or in a vineyard in Mexico. Sometimes the least expensive choice is simply to ask the management if you can stay for a small fee.
Buying your own groceries at a local market and making your own food is the least expensive way to eat while you’re on the road. Street food in other countries is a viable (and delicious) alternative and is often quite inexpensive. But if you’re plunking down $25 or more at each brewery you pass for a burger and couple of beers, that is going to add up fast.
A mobile network plan with enough data to allow you to work on the road is going to run you at least $150.00 a month. Adding an international plan will allow you to make calls, but doesn’t usually cover your data. So, be aware of that when planning your budget. Using Wi-Fi in a restaurant, organized campground or RV park, or from a hotel might be your only choice in some matters — especially in the rural U.S. or Latin America.
What is the point of travel if you don’t have fun along the way? Be sure to budget for pricey items like national park entrance fees, museums, movies, tours, and special events. Don’t have money for that kind of thing? We once got into a lucha libre match in Oaxaca for free by helping the crew set up the ring during the day. There’s always a way to barter!
FUEL, MAINTENANCE, AND REPAIRS:
Fuel will be the single largest budget item of your trip. The faster you move, the more prone you are to needing maintenance and repairs. Slowing your pace is often the easiest way to save money in this category when you’re on the road. Knowing general maintenance like how to do your own oil changes, tire rotation, and checking fluid levels will save you a ton of money too.
My (often broken) rule for longer trips is to not drive for more than three or four hours per day. This puts you at your next destination in plenty of time to find a low- or no-cost campsite, to cook your own meal, and to check your vehicle for maintenance needs.
Traveling slowly will help your bottom line in the long run. Slowing down allows you to be a traveler and not simply a tourist.
READ MORE: TRIPS & TRAILS: VALLEY OF THE GODS LOOP
Overlanding is accessible to everyone, not just those who have the cash to outfit their vehicles. Save your money by only modifying your vehicle if you really need it. Use your saved money so you can see and do more when you’re on the road.
Remember the old adage; less is more … even if you don’t follow it.
AUTHOR: ANTHONY SICOLA
Anthony is the Director of Sales for Overland Expo and travels extensively with his wife Astrid and his dog Sir Digby in his 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser, nicknamed Hank the Tank. Follow his adventures on Instagram @overlandnomads
Header photo: Bryon Dorr | Exploring Elements