There’s nothing like getting completely off the grid, away from the worries of the big city, and far away from a buzzing cell phone and social media notifications. Overland travel gives you the means to slow down and relax while enjoying your favorite outdoor sports and activities away from the crowds.
While I’m a big proponent of winging it and exploring on the fly, any good trip starts with extensive planning and choosing trails that you want to explore. But how do you find these elusive overland trails?
That’s the million dollar question, right?
There are tons of ways to find trails and if you’re a grizzled old explorer like me, you’ve seen the progression over the years from word-of-mouth to paper to GPS to digital apps that get you exactly where you want to go.
What a time to be alive!
WORD OF MOUTH
Sometimes the best way to find a trail is to simply ask someone. I’m not talking about the random guy on the street of the small town that you happen to be in that day – though sometimes that guy has some great beta about a trail or a campsite you knew nothing about – so definitely talk to strangers.
I’m actually talking about reaching out to the local/regional U.S. National Forest or Bureau of Land Management office and talking to a ranger either in-person or over the phone. The stewards of our public lands have more information than most about whether or not your 1984 Toyota Tercel 4WD can make down a primitive two track. I always find it better to drop into an office in-person because once they see my rig, they know that I can handle most trails and they often give me advice about their favorite spots.
Most rangers are going to direct you to the U.S. Forest Service Off-Highway Vehicle Program printable and digital maps. These maps contain a treasure trove of information about the area you’re visiting and a fantastic starting point to any planning session. Grab your favorite adult beverage and head down the planning rabbit hole.
Paper maps will never go away! Imagine running out of batteries in your GPS unit or not having cell service to power your phone-based mapping software. How are you going to get back to civilization? Buy paper maps for every area you plan to travel and learn to use them. They are an important part of overlanding safely. Here are some of my favorite paper maps:
DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer
These amazingly detailed, large-format paper maps are perfect for sightseeing, exploring back roads, outdoor recreation and trip planning. While available information varies by state, DeLorme maps generally provide information essential for any outdoor enthusiast and includes info on points of interest, landmarks, state and national parks, campgrounds, boat launches, golf courses, historic sites, hunting zones, canoe trips and more. Topographic maps have elevation contours, major highways and roads, dirt roads, trails and land-use data. Indispensable!
Purple Lizard Maps
Shade relief topographic map with latitude / longitude and UTM grids, elevation and mileage data, roads, backroads and trails, road- and trail-use designations, parking access, and more Durable, two-sided waterproof construction folds easily to fit in your back pocket. A perfect size to carry with you on every trip.
The U.S. Department of Defense (USDOD) originally put Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites into orbit for military use, but these were made available for civilian use in the 1980s. GPS is a satellite-based navigation system made up of satellites that orbit the earth. GPS will work in all weather conditions, anywhere in the world. The system is completely free-to-use, but it does require the purchase of a GPS unit with software to access the system.
Here are a couple of units that I recommend:
Garmin inReach Explorer+
The Garmin inReach provides satellite-based communication off the grid and can share your location online with friends and family members. The SOS function SOS search and rescue in an emergency. The inReach provides GPS navigation with DeLorme TOPO maps and features onscreen routing. It has a built-in digital compass and barometric altimeter tools and it pairs directly with the Earthmate app on smartphones and tablets.
Pairing the inReach with a tablet is my preferred method of navigation. The inReach can be used on its own as a GPS for hiking or SUP when I’m not on the trail.
If you’re looking for one GPS unit that does it all, Overlander is the one to consider. The Garmin Overlander features turn-by-turn directions for North and South American roads, off-grid guidance with topography maps and compass, and an altimeter and barometer with integrated pitch and roll angles. The topographic maps include public land boundaries and 4×4 roads. You can download tracks, routes, and waypoints via Wi-Fi connectivity and store it in the 64GB memory storage which can hold satellite imagery and USCG quad sheets. The Garmin Overlander has a built-in rechargeable battery that lasts for days in your rig or on the hiking trail.
GPS units might soon be a thing of the past with the technological strides that smartphones are making. While phone makers need to address a few issues, there is a very real possibility that your phone (or a phone paired with a tablet) might be your next navigation setup.
Not all apps are created equal though, and you need to be sure they perform the functions that you need them to perform when you’re off-the-grid. Google Maps just isn’t gonna cut it here. You need an app that has all of the features of a GPS unit like topo maps, satellite imagery, and public land boundaries. onX Offroad and GaiaGPS are great apps that have been tested and recommended by overland travelers.
Apps give you the flexibility to plan on the go, but do require you to download maps and store them prior to hitting the point where you no longer have cell service. Don’t make the mistake of getting out the trail and thinking your app will work without mobile data!
READ MORE: GEAR COLLECTIONS: OVERLAND NAVIGATION TOOLS
These are the products and information that I use and rely on to plan my travels and the devices that I actually use when I am out on the trail. Redundancy is important when traveling in the backcountry, so bring (and use) all of these products in tandem to make sure you have something to fall back on if one of your devices were to fail.
Planning is one of the best parts of overlanding and with this information, you’re sure to be able to find the perfect overland trail that fits your needs and sense of adventure.
Happy planning and I’ll see you out on the trail.
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: Anthony Sicola