You don’t have to dig too deep to understand the allure of a life spent on the road, camping beneath the night sky. Not only does the idea of self-reliant vehicular nomadism clearly appeal to the deeply ingrained American cultural desire for pioneering the untamed West (Manifest Destiny and all), but it also comes with the shedding of modern adult responsibility. Goodbye corporate cubicle job. Au revoir utility and rent payments. Adios Target, Ikea and Crate & Barrel furniture. Van Life has all of the benefits of Fight Club with none of the downside of chemical burns or getting punched in the face.
Van Life may seem like it’s a recent phenomenon, but it’s just a hashtaggy name for what adventure travelers have always referred to as Overlanding. Right now, there are scores of semi-homeless, whimsical Millenials feeling the rough skin of my old, tattooed elbows jab into their rib cages. Make way, you free-spirited bohemians, because we aren’t just getting into this Van Life game as newbies - we’ve been enjoying its rugged glory for decades.
Long before high-roofed Sprinters became mobile domiciles, ubiquitous on the world’s highways, Australian outfitters like Quigley and Sportsmobile were modifying Ford Econoline vans with four-wheel drive and six-inch lift kits. But before vans were popular, light trucks were the norm. The precursors to today’s luxury mall crawler SUVs were mechanically simply light trucks used to ferry farmers, tradesmen and adventurers across the unpaved outback of Africa, Australia, South America and the American West.
Recently we took the SOFLETE Overland rig on a cross-country road trip that covered 5,387 miles, fifteen states, four national forests, three national parks and one night in the parking lot of a Flying J truckstop. Based on feedback from our informal social media travel journal, you want to know how and why we set up our rig the way we did. Read on for the answer to those questions plus a beginner’s guide to how you might want to set up yours.
I Love It When A Plan Comes Together
I’m just as smitten with Instagram feeds of Land Rover Defenders out and about in the wild as you are, but that doesn’t mean that an expensive British Jeep is the right rig for either one of us. Before picking a platform on which to base your adventure travels, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- What are your space needs? Make sure you have enough room to travel AND sleep comfortably for all of the adults, kids, friends and pets that join you.
- Is your rig a full-time camper? Is this vehicle dedicated to adventure travel, or does it need to serve as your commuter car when you’re living your Clark Kent life?
- What activates you? Driving is only part of the journey. What are you doing along the way and what equipment are you bringing with you? Bikes, hunting and/or fishing gear, surf and paddle boards? How much rack or internal space do you need?
- Are there roads where you’re going? What kind of off-road capability do you need? Are you sticking to maintained roads? Will you be driving high-clearance forest service roads? Or will you be going completely off-road through sand, mud or snow?
These questions are only the beginning, but they’re a good start. You’ll also want to consider if you’ll be traveling with other rigs or solo, whether your rig is too big or heavy to go where you want it to go and if you’re likely to be able to source parts if you need them.
Maybe this is confirmation bias, but I’m generally a huge fan of pickups as Overland platforms. As this Expedition Portal article points out, there are a plethora of pickups available in a variety of sizes that drive right off the dealer lot loaded with reliable, factory installed off-road capability. In addition, they also tend to offer some of the best payload and towing capacities.
We started our rig build with what we had on hand: a 2012 Ford F250 Crew Cab with a 6.7L Powerstroke diesel. This heavy-duty truck platform left the dealer lot with dual heavy duty batteries, a high-output alternator to charge those batteries, four easy to use in-cab auxiliary switches, skid plates, center and rear locking differentials, a 2,000-pound payload capacity and the ability to tow up to 14,000 pounds (or SEVEN TONS). We were cooking with Overlanding fire right out of the gate.
Scotty, We Need More Power!
Don’t underestimate your need for power. We’re talking wattage here, not horsepower. Keep your motor stock and reliable, but make sure you can power all your gizmos and gadgets for days. After all, if a tree falls in the woods but no one posts it to their IG story, did it ever really happen?
Our truck uses an IBS Dual Battery Manager to manage both usage and charging. It makes sure that at least one of our batteries always has enough juice to start the motor, so we’re never left stranded. In addition, the IBS system does a great job of making sure that the batteries don’t overcharge, especially when charging from a source other than the alternator or running motor.
In the bed of the truck, we have a 1500 watt power inverter, which is powerful enough for just about anything we would want to throw at it. We also have a hard-wired power connection for our ARB Fridge/Freezer.
Does the fridge sound like an unnecessary, foo foo item? Think again. More than one hardcore off-roader has told us that adding a fridge was the best modification made to their rig. Keeping food and beverages frosty and outside of the arctic lake of melted ice in a plastic cooler is mighty nice. Plus, it saves space, which is always at a premium when Overlanding.
When we’re out for a week in the same location, we might not be moving the truck much, which means the truck motor might not have a chance to charge the batteries. That’s why we carry a P3 Solar E-Z Out 200W Solar Panel System. It’s easy to set up and generates more than enough power to recharge the batteries even if there are not constantly clear skies. The panel connects via a Morningstar ProStar PS-30 PWM Solar Charge Controller which we have mounted right above the power inverter in the back of the bed.
Our most recent addition to in-cab electronics was a WeBoost Drive 4G-X cell phone signal booster. This antenna and amplifier can’t work miracles and give you a signal where none exists, but it can take an iffy one bar signal and transform it into a solid three bars; enough to make the difference in not dropping a phone call or being able to access online data.
In some ways, planning your rig build is entirely a game of seeing how you can cram the most machine with the most carrying capacity into the smallest platform. You don’t have to be a SOFLETE scientician to understand that the bigger, longer and heavier your rig is, the more limited you’ll be on where it can go.
Giant Global Expedition Vehicles builds that are mounted on heavy commercial or military truck chassis are all the rage for those who can afford them (and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I want one too). But everything comes at a price and that price isn’t always in dollars. Some of those monsters can’t fit in tight forest service roads, are too heavy for small barge river crossings and won’t be tons of fun when you’re in the middle of nowhere changing a six-hundred-pound tire.
Another consideration is how easily parts will be available where you’re going. When you break down on your epic South American road trip, try and factor in how many months will it take to source parts for your 6x6 military rig versus finding those for your plain vanilla aging Toyota Land Cruiser.
On the upside, pulling a travel trailer behind your rig allows you to expand your sleeping, storage and kitchen capacity. But the trailer adds significant size and weight to your overall rig, while also making parking and turning around much more difficult. A three-point turn on a tight forest service road might be more than difficult. It might be downright impossible.
You probably don’t follow @Travel_Beasts on Instagram, but they recently completed a trip through South America in their tiny HZJ73 Toyota Land Cruiser. As they discuss in this post, having a small, relatively lightweight rig was the only reason they were able to traverse some marshy areas in a remote Patagonian river valley, where they were days from any possible help. One of the bigger platforms mentioned above would have surely had to find another route or turn around altogether.
Our F250 is a full-size rig and is considered to be on the bigger side. It tips the scales at just under 9,000 pounds wet before we add the family and any of our travel gear. I’m certain that we’re into five digits when we’re loaded up and ready to go. Aside from allowing us to run thirty-five-inch tires without rubbing on wheel wells, the increased weight of our rig is another reason that we’ve upgraded our suspension to an ICON Stage 2 Coilover setup.
We’ve chosen to prioritize space over compact flexibility. I have a wife and two young children, plus an adorable pit bull named Georgia. The roomy one-ton crew cab’s back seat has plenty of room for the kids, all of their road trip activities and the family dog. When you spend 8 hours in the rig together, being comfortable is important.
In order to ensure that we can carry all of our stuff with us, and to protect the electronics in the bed, we topped the truck bed with a Snugtop XTRA Vision Cap and installed a BedSlide Heavy Duty 2000 pull out slide. The bedslide makes it easy to access everything stored in the bed, saving a lot of time and energy, as well as helping to keep everything organized.
One of the downsides of our setup is that we can’t sleep in our truck. The way we have set up the bed eliminates a bed-based camper and I’m not sure that we would be able to fit in one comfortably anyway. Plus, we use this truck as a general utility vehicle most of the time, so I wouldn’t want to sacrifice the bed storage space for a camper and end up having to find another utility vehicle for hunting and taking the SOFLETE crew and all of our film gear on road trips.
For our sleeping solution, we recently upgraded from a giant tent to an off-road capable teardrop trailer. Theoretically, my wife and I sleep inside the trailer while our kids sleep in the Tepui Ruggedized Kukenam 4, a rooftop tent mounted to the top of the trailer (though the reality is that often one adult is paired up with one of the kids). The back of the trailer pops open to reveal a ton of food and gear storage, a portable fridge, small sink and propane stove. Additionally, the trailer carries twenty-four gallons of water and has an instant hot water heater and shower hose attachment. We like this trailer because of all the amenities it offers but is still small enough that we can’t hang out or sit inside of it, thus forcing us to spend all of our non-sleeping time outside. Plus, the 6.7L Powerstroke diesel motor has no problem pulling this 2300 pound (fully loaded) trailer anywhere the truck can go.
Recovery for Off-Road Addicts
Even if you never leave the pavement, you need to be prepared for vehicle-related problems - a flat tire, a dead battery or inclement weather. If you plan on being more adventurous, you need to plan for more problem situations. It’s simple math really. The more risk you take, multiplied by how often you roll those dice will determine your odds of getting stuck or breaking something on your rig.
The first and most important piece of a recovery kit is planning to not need to use your recovery kit. Thinking about where you’re going, who you’re going with and what you’re going to need to get there safely is critical. If you can avoid breakdowns or getting stuck, you’re winning the game.
Having a lot of flexibility for route planning is one of the reasons that we installed a Transfer Flow 50 Gallon Diesel Fuel Tank, to replace the stock 25 gallon tank. This gives us close to 700 miles of total range, and removes all anxiety or worry about missing a fuel stop as well as the need to carry Jerry cans. It’s definitely not a necessary item, but it’s a nice convenience that helps to reduce the number of worry items on the travel checklist.
It’s important to begin with the broad basics. I make sure to have both paper and electronic maps of where we are, as well as up to date weather forecasts. A lot of this information can often be found at Ranger Stations or online. I am particularly fond of the Avenza Maps app, which I keep on an iPad mini on my dashboard. This allows me to download detailed maps so they’re available even when we are away from cell service. Make sure you download maps BEFORE you get to your destination.
Aside from my paranoia that I will die in my sleep while camping in a remote spot with one of the kids, leaving them to fend for themselves and ultimately be eaten by a bear, a catastrophic injury or rig breakdown is one of the reasons I carry a Garmin InReach Explorer+ when we are traveling. It’s the ultimate backup and I regularly test the kids to make sure they know how to use it, as well as how serious the implications are for pushing the SOS button.
Once you have your maps, take some time to look at where you’re going and the risks associated with your route. Our mechanic often travels with three or four new axle shafts in the back of his rig, because he knows he is going to push it to the limit by always choosing the most difficult terrain. Aside from knowing how to quickly swap an axle, he is also always traveling with multiple other trucks with a huge amount of hands and tools spread among them. If he breaks his rig to a point that’s beyond repair, he can hop into the cab of a buddy’s truck.
In contrast to that, we are often traveling alone, sometimes with just one adult and one of the kids. I am always looking for the most simple, least risky route when driving offroad. Snapping an axle when traveling alone with my seven-year-old son would really, really suck. It would mean a potentially long hike, which could be dangerous in adverse weather conditions.
Even with the best-made plans, things happen and rigs get stuck. The second part of a good recovery plan is carrying good recovery gear AND the knowledge on how to use it. Clicking away on Amazon is easy, but it’s important to take the time to learn how to properly use your recovery gear because you will not want to be figuring it out on the fly when your rig is stuck. Local 4WD shops might offer some classes and the East and West Coast Overland Expos are great places to learn as well.
Our rig is outfitted with front and rear Fusion Bumpers, made from 3/16” steel plate. The front bumper houses a Superwinch Talon 18,000lb winch with synthetic rope, which has both a wireless remote and a hardwired in-cab control panel. We’re big fans of synthetic winch ropes and synthetic rope shackles since they are stronger, lighter, and safer than their steel counterparts. For additional lighting, the front bumper sports a 15,000-lumen Rigid Industries LED light bar and smaller LED fog lights. Our rear bumper also houses Rigid Industries LED backup lights, which are many times brighter than the stock lights. Both bumpers have strong shackle attachments points, as well as stainless steel air hose quick connect fittings.
In the bed of the truck, our recovery kit is stored in two neatly organized bags and consists of the following:
- A variety of synthetic rope shackles
- 2 pair of Mechanix gloves
- A 17,500-pound snatch strap
- A 26,500-pound tree trunk protector
- A 9,900-pound winch extension strap
- Two snatch blocks
- A recovery damper for the winch cable
- A thirty-foot tow strap
- A drag chain
- A tire repair kit
- Jumper cables
- ARB E-Z Deflator
- Tire Pressure Guage
- Two coiled air hoses
- A variety of Hi-Lift Jack attachments
On the roof of our rig, we use the two Front Runner Outfitters roof racks mounted to the truck cab and bed cap mainly for easy access recovery gear storage. It’s there that we keep a hi-lift jack, a Krazy Beaver Super Shovel and MaxTrax MKII traction boards. We also use the rack for Stand Up Paddleboard transport and as a mounting point for our Rhino Rack Batwing Awning which provides critical shade for long days exposed to the sun.
Permanently mounted in the front corners of the bed and inside the truck frame rails are three Viair 485C air compressors and two Viair 2.5 Gallon 200 psi air tanks. These provide the ability to inflate our tires back to highway pressure after we’ve deflated them for use on trails or driving out on the beach. This isn’t totally necessary, but it allows us to avoid long gas station air hose lines and having to drive with underinflated tires at highway speeds.
The final piece of our recovery kit is a stocked toolbag. We err on the side of carrying a pretty lean toolkit. Tools add a lot of weight really quickly, and my main goal with them is to be able to make quick temporary fixes. For anything that requires major mechanic work, we’ll need to be able to limp to a service station or just call a tow truck.
We travel with a half-inch ratchet and a full set of SAE and Metric socket heads, a half-inch breaker bar, a handheld driver with a variety of screwdriver, torx and star bits, a few sets of pliers, vice grips, spare fuses, a voltmeter, electric tape, wire strippers/cutters, adjustable wrenches, a Leatherman utility tool, and a wide variety of zip ties. Our air compressor setup would allow us to carry a number of air tools but unless we plan on changing tires in pit row, I doubt we will ever regret not carrying them.
On The Road
If you’ve even gotten this far, your head might be spinning. Do you need everything listed above? Definitely not. That’s our setup and the reasons it works for us. We’re HUGE fans of “Run What You Brung.” Overland travel is about the journey, the unknown, and the sense of adventure. Your gear will present some left and right limits to your travel options, but gear will never be what makes your experience. Overlanders have driven across continents in Toyota minivans and Tercel station wagons, Subaru Justy’s and AMC Eagles. Never let waiting for a better rig be your limiting factor.
There’s also no better way to figure out what you need, want, and like than by getting firsthand knowledge. Get out there and hit the open dirt road and start overland camping. The only regret you’ll have is not getting started sooner.