How-to: Overland in a Full-Size Truck

Photo By: Nick Jaynes

Are you thinking about building out a full-size truck for overland travel? Let me go on the record by saying that I think that’s a great idea. 

I recently had my first experience piloting a full-size truck with our 2022 Ultimate Overland Vehicle, a GMC Sierra 1500 AT4X and I have to admit that even though I was a bit overwhelmed with the size and power of the truck at first, I was a quick convert after I got a few miles under my belt both on- and off-road.  

For years, most overlanders (myself included) would only consider a mid-sized truck for backcountry travel. To be fair, most of that choice had to do with gas mileage and capability. However, new full-size trucks are far more capable than their predecessors and most of them boast even better gas mileage and payload than their mid-sized counterparts – especially loaded down with all of the overlanding accoutrements like a rooftop tent, camping gear, and/or slide-in campers.

Why Consider a Full-Size Overland Rig?

For those that are unfamiliar, OEMs put the most research and development budget into their full-size lines and the product they’re presenting is the best-of-the-best. Full-size trucks are often more comfortable – key for longer trips, they have greater towing capacity, they boast larger payloads, and they are super-capable in the dirt. You can buy a full-size truck in a staggering amount of trim packages, so you’re sure to find something that fits your needs, budget, and style. Plus, they retain their value when you go to resell.

Let’s go over some of the reasons to consider a full size truck for overlanding – to help you decide which way to go when purchasing your next overland rig.

Overlanding in a Full-Size Truck

Comfort:

Interior of the GMC Sierra 1500 AT4X.
Photo by GMC

Comfort might be the most important factor in making the choice to go for a full-size truck, and it is incredible how comfortable they are nowadays. There’s no more kidney-rattling, lumbar-compressing rides found in some earlier full-size trucks, now replaced by the plush, supportive seating with integrated heat, massage, and even air-conditioning. Yes, air-conditioned seats. I scoffed, too, but let me tell you how nice it was to travel through 100-plus degree terrain and not stick to the seat.

While seating is important, much of the overall comfort of a full-size truck is credited to an expansive cockpit that puts all of the controls and heads-up displays within easy reach. On our trip in the AT4X, my wife Astrid and I remarked at how spacious the truck cabin felt. We each had enough room to stretch out and enjoy the drive.

Read More: Tales from the Trail: McGrew Trail

We can’t forget the suspension choice either in relation to overall comfort. In the more expensive trim levels of most full size trucks, you’ll be treated to the smoothness of high-end suspension – like the Multimatic DSSV suspension system on the AT4X. For lower trim levels, you may want to consider a full suspension replacement to provide the highest level of comfort for your new rig.

Power:

Overland Expo's 2022 Ultimate Overland Vehicle Build on the course at the NW Overland Rally.
Photo by Bryon Dorr

If you’re looking for raw power, look no further than a full-size truck. But here’s where you’ll need to make another choice: Do you want a gas or diesel engine? 

A diesel engine will offer more torque for off-road driving and towing – the higher miles-per-gallon doesn’t hurt either. While a gas-powered engine will provide higher horsepower and quicker acceleration. This is an important distinction because, as overlanders, you’re putting in massive highway miles to get to your favorite off-road destination. However, you need your truck to be capable in the backcountry, too. 

Diesel engines weigh more than a gas engine. With all of that extra weight over the front axle, you’ll notice a difference when crawling over obstacles, traversing through sand, or driving through mud. A gas-powered engine will need to work a bit harder on the highway, but will often crawl through terrain easier. 

Whether you go gas or diesel, it takes a little bit of getting used to having this much power both on- and off-road. On the highway, you should see plenty of power cruising up hills and through turns. Off-road, you’ll be amazed that the throttle needs barely a feather touch to get enough power to tackle any terrain. With just a little time spent crawling over trail obstacles, it should be easy to learn the light touch necessary to pilot the full-size beast effectively.

Payload:

A full-size truck will almost always have an increased payload capacity over a mid-size truck. More payload will allow you to carry more things with you in the bed, or enable you to add a slide in camper for a more comfortable camping experience. But just because you can basically bolt anything that you want on a full-size truck, should you? You’ll need to take into account braking, handling, and aerodynamics to make sure your drive remains comfortable and safe.

If towing a large off-road trailer or a flatbed trailer is your game, full-size trucks can pull an impressive amount of weight, so dragging along an all-terrain trailer shouldn’t be an issue. It should be said that ¾-ton and one-ton trucks have a far greater towing capacity, but the stiff suspensions required to pull heavy loads are not the same type of suspensions necessary for off-road travel. It is important to plan your build accordingly.

Vehicle Width and Wheelbase:

Overland Expo's 2022 Ultimate Overland Vehicle Build on the McGrew Trail.
Photo by Nick Jaynes

Being aware of the overall width and length of a full-size truck takes some getting used to as well.  Tight trails with encroaching vegetation (like the kind found where I live in the PNW) are probably the most difficult to navigate without creating some natural pin-striping. Will it stop you from enjoying an overgrown trail? Probably not, but you will need to get out that buffing wheel if you’re one of those folks that need to have a shiny truck. 

Read More: Tales from the Trail: Oregon Back Country Discovery Route 5, Section 2

Interestingly, mid-sized trucks have grown over the years and aren’t really that much narrower than a full-size truck now. If you take a look at any of the newest generation mid-size trucks, you’ll see widths in the 74-inch to 75-inch range. The GMC Sierra AT4X is only six-inches wider. A full-size truck won’t fit down every trail, but it will fit down most of them. Obviously, I’m not taking a full-size truck over Black Bear Pass anytime soon – or ever.

Another consideration is that full-size trucks have a large wheelbase. The added interior comforts (like legroom) of the crew cab are the very thing that makes driving a long wheelbase truck off-road a challenge. Longer wheelbases decrease your break-over angle, so crawling over boulders or through cross axle obstacles are a little tougher than vehicles with smaller wheelbases. This is not to say it is impossible, but you do need to pick your lines very carefully (or have a great spotter).

Parts and Repairs:

Rear view of the GMC Sierra 1500 AT4X
Photo by GMC

No matter how much you maintain your vehicle, at some point in your journeys, you’re going to have a mechanical issue that needs attention. If you live in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico, this isn’t a problem. That’s because most OEMs have a vast North American dealer network and service and spare parts are readily available. 

If you have a long multi-country overland journey planned or you’re the type to container your vehicle and send it off to distant lands, you might have an issue with service and repairs because the majority of full-size trucks aren’t built on global platforms. Because of that, repair shops in other countries might not have the background to fix your rig.

That said, since Ford, GM, Toyota, and Stellantis (RAM’s parent company) are global firms, most markets should be able to be get parts — albeit slowly.

Fuel Economy:

Overland Expo's 2022 Ultimate Overland Vehicle Build on the Oregon Back Country Discovery Route.
Photo by Andrew Jackson

Full-size trucks have a reputation for being gas-guzzlers. While that might have been the case a decade ago, that couldn’t be farther from the truth these days as most full-size trucks are within a gallon or two of their mid-sized counterparts. 

On the highway, a typical gas-powered full size truck should net you anywhere from 20-24 MPG. This increases significantly with diesel powertrains, which should see between 25-30 MPG. If you put in big miles on your overland journeys, you might want to consider a diesel engine for efficiency.

Remember that there are several factors that play into fuel economy. And with the typical overlander’s penchant to bolt ALL THE THINGS  to their trucks, weight might be the single biggest factor in how much gas mileage you get in a full-size truck. Other causes of decreased fuel economy include larger wheels and tires, what you tow with the vehicle, and how often you’re running in four wheel drive.

Price:

The prices of full-size trucks are not insignificant. Starting prices of fairly stock full-size truck range anywhere from $39,000 to $45,000. When you add in upgraded trim packages that get you more comfortable seating, Improved suspension, factory lockers, and more, you’re looking at a price tag of $60,000 to $75,000 – or more.

Buying a full-size truck is already an investment, so make sure you have a plan for your build well before starting your order. If you plan to lift it, replace the stock suspension, add bumpers and armor and buy bigger tires, do you really need all the bells and whistles? Maybe a stock truck with some aftermarket options is a better use of your money?

Overall:

Overland Expo's 2022 Ultimate Overland Vehicle Build at camp on the Magruder Corridor
Photo by Anthony Sicola

There are so many things to consider when you’re thinking about building a full-size truck for overlanding. While I tried to outline the seven most important factors that I think you need to take into account before beginning your build, you may have other elements that you need to consider to make your vehicle your own. 

That’s the joy of deciding on an overland vehicle to buy. It has to meet your needs for the type of travel that you do. I hope this was a good starting point for you to get the ball rolling.

Personally, I enjoyed my first journey in a full-size truck. So much so, that I’m actually planning my own build. I hope to see you out on the trails in your full-size overland rig.

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