I am going to break the news to you right off the bat: I am not going to use this page to proclaim the best overlanding vehicle.
That’s because there isn’t just one. It is impossible to name just one overlanding rig. It really comes down to personal taste, budget, and intended use. Though, I wish I could just pick one — this would be a much quicker piece to write.
However, after detailing what elements make for an excellent overland rig, I can recommend some great vehicles that will fit the bill nicely. So, without further ado, here is what makes the best overlanding rig and some top contenders.
I realized the other day that the vehicle shopping advice I give to most people (commuters, etc.) is nearly the opposite of what I recommend for overlanders.
Tom and Ray Magliozzi of NPR’s “Car Talk” used to recommend people buy a vehicle to suit their daily needs, not their annual ski trip. They smartly posited that you don’t need a 4×4 to drive to the store every day. For the three days a year that you need a 4×4, you can go rent one. The rest of the time, you might as well drive a small, comfortable, and fuel-efficient car.
They were right, and I crib this wisdom when leading friends and family toward their next vehicle purchase. However, I throw that right out the window when it comes to overlanding rigs. That’s because overland rigs need to be everything all the time. Not least of which because you can’t wisely rent a vehicle and use it for an overland journey. Sure, you can, but I don’t recommend it for a whole host of reasons.
You need your overland rig, which will likely also be your daily driver, to be great on the highway for your commute as well as for your overland journeys (you won’t be off-road 100% of the time, sorry) as well as capable on the trail.
I lay all of this out because I don’t want anyone to conflate overland rig must-haves with any other vehicle shopping. It simply doesn’t apply. That said, let’s go nuts.
Payload capacity, for my money, is the preeminent spec you need to consider when shopping for an overlanding rig. You might not always need a ton of payload, but there will be times that you will. And in those instances you’ll be glad you have as much as you can get.
It might surprise you, but payload capacity can vary widely in a vehicle class, size, and even model range. For example, the mid-size 2021 Ford Ranger has a payload capacity range from 1,609 to 1,905 pounds. A full-size 2021 Nissan Titan’s payload capacity is mere 1,333 to 1,699 lbs. However, the 2021 Land Rover Defender 110 mid-size SUV, with unibody construction, has a payload capacity of 1,670 to 1,942 lbs.
I compare these to remind you that just because a vehicle is big or a ladder-frame pickup doesn’t mean it’s naturally brawnier than something smaller or more luxurious. Don’t take for granted vehicle payload. Do your research and make sure what you’re getting suits your purposes.
Fuel economy & power output
Historically, in order to have efficiency or power, you need to sacrifice the other. There are exceptions to this rule, however. Take my 1992 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ80 — it’s neither powerful nor efficient. Nevertheless, it still might be one of the G.O.A.T. overland rigs.
On the flipside, there’s the 2021 Ford Ranger. It’s quick and fuel efficient. The Ranger returned 21 miles per gallon for me on a recent overlanding test trip. And it has an enviable payload capacity, too.
I point this out because, if you’re truly going on long-term and remote overland adventures, being able to go as far as you can on the fuel you have on board is essential. I don’t mean it’s just essential for your fun; it’s also essential for your safety. You never know what you’ll encounter, and you’ll want fuel reserves — at least enough to get you back to safety.
Even if the rig you’re getting isn’t miserly with fuel, consider its range on a single tank. The new 2022 Toyota Tundra has an average fuel economy rating of 20 MPG and can be equipped with a 33-gallon fuel tank. It might not be the most efficient, but it’ll certainly go pretty far on a single tank — maybe even far enough to allow its owners to leave the jerry cans in their garage.
To that end, let’s say you pick something with a smaller tank and lower fuel economy. Are there ways to bring along extra fuel? Can you strap some to the roof rack, rear bumper, or in the bed? Consider all options that will enable you to extend your fuel range.
Size and footprint
Some people are overly obsessed with vehicle width — at least from where I sit.
Most of my buddies here in the Pacific Northwest are convinced — convinced — a full-size truck couldn’t handle most of the narrow tracks we traverse. I plainly disagree.
My 2020 Jeep Gladiator with aftermarket wheels with a wider offset had a track width of 82 inches. Even the full-size half-ton RAM 2500 has a 79.5-inch body width and a 68.7-inch track width. If my Gladiator could fit, the RAM would fit.
At the same time, my Jeep was wide, but the body wasn’t. That meant my passengers and I were crammed into a smaller space. Meanwhile, I had to thread the needle with my rig due to its wide fenders and tires.
All of this is to encourage you not to be too afraid of size. A lot of overlanders are transitioning from mid- to full-size trucks. There are tons of reasons why. But take their lead as an example that, if you drive smart, you don’t need to feel hamstrung by your rig’s overall size.
Of course, drive to your ability. Know your rig, etc. I am just saying that you shouldn’t be afraid to get the rig you want, even if it’s a big boy.
Like I touched on in the preamble, an overland rig has to be nice to drive more than just on the trail. It’s got to be a joy to drive on the pavement, too. Sometimes you’re going to log 12 hours on tarmac between trails. So, you better not want to pull your hair out when you’re on the freeway.
As a good rule of thumb, vehicles with independent front suspension (IFS) will be more compliant on the highway than a vehicle with a live (or solid) front axle. On the flipside, the live solid front axle may be more stout and offer better articulation on the trail. But take the axle and suspension style into consideration when you’re shopping for an overlanding rig.
The same goes for mud-terrain (M/T) tires versus all-terrain (A/T). All-terrain will drive more smoothly and be less noisy on the highway. In some cases, A/Ts may be better in snow than M/Ts, too. I once had a friend say “I’ve never had M/Ts and wish I had A/Ts. But I’ve had A/Ts and wished I had M/Ts.”
I sure have, though — on the highway. Especially if you step up to 35s and above, M/Ts will wander and howl at 70 MPH so much you might regret getting into overlanding at all.
Don’t get caught up in buying something like tires simply for their ultimate capability. Let the actual, realistic capability you need be the driving factor in your purchase decision. Base vehicle, planned mods, terrain you’re most likely going to encounter, and your personal resilience for non-compliant road manners and noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) play into your shopping considerations first and foremost.
Did I intentionally put driveability ahead of capability? You bet. You can modify a vehicle into and out of both categories while trying to achieve the other. Moreover, some of the items I touched on in drivability lead into capability.
That’s because you may well sacrifice some capability for driveability (I recommend it). However, you can make up for it in other ways.
A brand-new IFS mid-size pickup will likely never be as capable as a built Land Cruiser 80 Series. But 99% of the time, that modern pickup will be way nicer to live with.
Does that ultimately matter? Maybe not. Get a winch, some traction boards, know how to use your rig’s traction control system, drive slow and smart, and you will likely be fine.
Most of the time, precision driving will overcome mechanical capabilities. For prime example, watch Graham Jackson pilot Overland Expo’s 2021 Ultimate Overland Build up Colorado’s Red Cone trail. He makes it look easy.
Yes, the rig is highly modified and capable from the factory. But I’ve seen tougher, fancier rigs absolutely fail on that Red Cone. Meanwhile, Graham’s calm demeanor and expert driving lines make the infamous trail look easy.
Graham’s Red Cone performance should underscore for you that driving skill outweighs vehicle capabilities. Rather than throw tens of thousands of dollars modifying the hell out of your vehicle in the aims of improving its capabilities, spend some time and money at an Overland Expo learning overlanding skills — heck, maybe even from Graham himself.
Not for nothing, but reliability is important. So too is parts accessibility.
Sure, Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) vans are sweet to look at. But even before the pandemic supply chain constraints, replacement parts (that you don’t have on hand) are two or more weeks away. And that’s if you’re near a city. In the backcountry, you better hope you know how to whittle a water pump for a 1992 diesel Mitsubishi.
Follow my drift? Just because something is ostensibly reliable, like a Mitsubishi, means that it’s a dependable vehicle in the real world.
Generally, American trucks will have abundant and inexpensive parts available virtually throughout North America. Parts for American-assembled Japanese vehicles will have good parts availability, too, but they’ll be more expensive. Land Rover parts are hit or miss. First-generation Defender parts are quickly and inexpensively flown in from England. However, Discovery 1 parts are hard to come by.
Just because you’re getting a Tacoma doesn’t mean it’s reliable. The most failure-prone vehicle I’ve seen on my overlanding trips were on my friends’ Tacomas. Maybe those were due to driver error and not design failures. I can’t say for sure.
Like with every category on this list, don’t rely on assumptions. Anecdotal evidence — even the one I just shared here about break-y Tacos — shouldn’t sway you. Look at historical and empirical data, like that from Consumer Reports, for your informed buying decisions.
No matter what you buy, you should know how to turn a wrench. That’s because even the most reliable and durable vehicles will require some trailside repairs now and again.
Last but not least, we have your budgetary concerns. Hopefully, the amount you can afford to spend will shape this entire process — before and during — your shopping process. But I had to throw it in there just in case.
Make sure you can afford not just the rig’s purchase price but the necessary modifications you’ll make before you begin overlanding as well as the repair costs (there will be some, no matter what you get) and the fuel.
You can overland in a wide variety of rigs and vehicle types and generations. For novice overlanders, we won’t recommend anything older than 15 years. Safety technology, build quality, and parts availability has changed a lot since 2006. So, you’re well served to aim for rigs 2006 and newer.
Beyond that, let the sky be the limit. That is, so long as you know what you’re getting into.