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What's The Difference Between Overlanding and Camping?

Overlanding and camping are a pair of terms that are often lumped together when discussing adventure-type hobbies and activities. While there is certainly overlap between these two worlds, there are also important differences that separate overlanders from campers.

Subaru Crosstrek on Nomad Grapplers with overlanding gear

Being familiar with one doesn't necessarily prepare you for the other, and being prepared is the most important thing when heading into the great outdoors. Here's how overlanding and camping compare to each other.

Exploration Is The Focus

One of the key differences separating overlanding from camping is its emphasis on active exploration. Rather than simply making one's way to the campsite, setting up, and then enjoying the weekend, overlanding centers itself around the journey and makes transportation to and from the wilderness a key component of the overall experience.

Group of overlanding trucks and SUVs

Photo Courtesy Pelican Products, Inc.

How does that focus express itself from a practical perspective? It's helpful in some ways to compare overlanding to hiking rather than camping. Both overlanding and hiking are activities where the fun is focused on moving through new landscapes, obstacles, and weather conditions, pushing into fresh territory and savoring the experiences that come with it. Camping can be a part of hiking, but it's not the driving force for hitting the trail.

Subaru Crosstreks on trail

To put it more succinctly, camping is an activity where the destination is what's most important, whether that's a quiet spot by a lake or a commercial campground packed with a pool, a softball diamond, and a hundred other families. Overlanding redirects the energy into the expedition itself.

Choosing The Right Vehicle

In order to explore, you need a vehicle that can do more than just get you to a campsite at your local KOA. While theoretically, camping can be accomplished in almost any completely stock automobile ranging from a small hatchback on up to a minivan, overlanding is an activity that relies on more rugged fare such as a truck or SUV that has been prepared specifically to tackle the challenge.

Overland Nissan Titan on Nitto Ridge Grapplers

That being said, there's a misconception that overlanding requires an ultra-rugged 4x4 to do 'properly.' The truth is, as long as the vehicle in question can handle the terrain you plan to traverse and has the capacity to haul the gear you need for a successful trip, there's no need to focus on all-out all-terrain competence.

Subaru Crosstrek on Nomad Grapplers

In fact, a big part of why overlanding has grown in popularity in recent years has to do with the explosion in popularity of crossover utility vehicles. Featuring respectable cargo storage, decent ground clearance, and traction-adding all-wheel drive, crossovers are more than capable of dealing with the grassy lanes, fire roads, and gravel paths that make up a big chunk of where overlanders find themselves exploring.

Water in bed of pickup

Since overlanding is about the journey, it's key to pack the kind of equipment that can deal with the unexpected out on the trail. Depending on where you are heading, this can mean traction aids, a full-size spare tire and off-road jack, and an air compressor, but it also means making room for extra food, water, and supplies should you get stuck somewhere longer than you had planned.

Overland camping from pickup truck tent

An overlanding rig also needs to haul a full sleep setup to get you through the weekend (usually inside the vehicle, but sometimes a small trailer or a roof or cargo bed tent), enough batteries and power to keep your devices going, and a cooking setup so you can eat well. It goes without saying that a first aid kit and adequate communications gear to use in case of an emergency are also baked into any overlanding rig.

Planning The Journey

The final major difference between overlanding and camping has to do with planning. When camping, it's enough to know the destination and the most expedient way to get to it. Overlanding, on the other hand, means choosing a path that is equal parts challenging and fun, and taking advantage of an area's geography to maximize the beauty and interest of the journey itself.

Overlanding in a Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 on Ridge Grappler tires

Just as overlanding isn't about getting from A to B as quickly as possibly, planning out a trip also requires taking into account any restrictions imposed by the vehicles that are being driven (ground clearance, availability of low-range four-wheel drive, fuel range), distance from resources (fuel stops, emergency medical care), and the amount of gear that can be hauled in (food and water supplies, etc).

Overlanding full-size SUV

Then there's the fact that overlanding expeditions tend to involve not just one campsite but several, or rely on finding a hospitable place to stop and spend the night while en-route. Similar to hiking, the latter requires a familiarity with the trail in order to know when to press on and when it's time to retire for the night. Overlanding trips can last for days, weeks, or even months at a time, with logistics that go well beyond selecting a campsite and paying a park access fee.

Overland Toyota Tacoma on Nitto Trail Grappler

No Wrong Answer

Overlanding and camping both exist in the same continuum of people enjoying the great outdoors. Which one is right for you is entirely a matter of personal preference, as there's no 'correct' answer when choosing whether you prefer the stability of traditional camping or the onward-bound energy of an overland journey. Each adventure has different requirements when it comes to gear, planning, and vehicle choice, but the end result is the same: enjoying the millions of square miles of beautiful public land available to Americans in parks and preserves across the entire country.

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