As the popularity of modifying our vehicles for overland travel grows, so does the market for vehicle modifications. New companies continue to pop up offering yet one more thing that you just can't live without. Although it is incredibly fun, and easy to get carried away, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern that which is needed from that which we want. Most people will not tell you this because they think it’s bad for business, but truth be told, you absolutely do not need a four wheel drive vehicle for overland travel. In fact, your skill-set is far more important than any piece of kit you bring into the backcountry. More knowledge, less kit should be your mantra as you outfit your rig.
Here we will outline the basic items that are needed for a safe, reliable rig that will provide support as you head into the unknown. Your kit will vary depending on where you will travel, and for how long you expect to be between resupply points. This guide serves as an outline for getting started with overlanding in your rig.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
Why modify our vehicles at all? That’s an excellent question; one that should guide you through the process of developing your kit. It’s easy to get caught up in the arms race that seems to drive many overland vehicle builds. The desire for just one more widget to make our vehicles perfect. It’s okay, we all suffer from this from time to time -it’s perfectly normal. The trick is to layout a plan for your rig before getting started, and sticking to it.
The proverbial pillars of survival have, and always will, consist of: food, water and shelter. These are the first three items that will need to be addressed. Once you have satisfied these basic needs of survival, the rest of the build will pivot around comfort and general enjoyment -which is the very reason we all travel, isn’t it?
As mentioned in the opening of this article, you will need to decide where you plan to take your rig, and for how long. This will determine (to name a few): whether you will need mud terrains or standard tires, higher clearance for underdeveloped roads, and what spare parts you should carry for repairs.
If you are intimately familiar with your rig and all of its nuances (if not, you should be), then you already know what parts are most likely to fail, and what tools you will need to replace them in the field. This information will guide you in creating your spares kit. As a general rule, it’s always a good idea to carry at least the bare minimum tool kit with you even on short trips. A loose hose clamp could leave you stranded, miles from help - where something as simple as a screwdriver can get you back on the road.
AFTERMARKET MODIFICATIONS AND MANUFACTURERS
It should be noted noted that a standard vehicle is the most reliable. Every part that is replaced with an aftermarket unit will carry with it unforeseen consequences. These can be as mundane as an annoying rattle, to utter and total catastrophic failure. For example, exhaust headers are a popular ”upgrade” for added horsepower. However, they are notorious for developing cracks around the welds, and the thin gasket surface can also warp from repeated heating and cooling which will lead to an exhaust leak, and potentially significant damage to wiring, hoses and in extreme cases, the valve-train. As such, it is highly recommended to skip exhaust modifications entirely.
Sometimes, it is absolutely necessary to reach out to the aftermarket. For example, loading your rig with heavy gear will compress the suspension reducing both suspension travel as well as balance. Adding heavy duty springs and shocks raises everything back to stock height (or slightly higher), thus returning any lost suspension travel while safely restoring balance. Not only is this important for comfort, but for safety as well. It is important to select a suspension package that is engineered for your vehicle. Avoid mixing and matching suspension components.
Recovery points are by far the most important component you can add to your rig. Without them, something as simple as becoming high centered can leave you stranded without a safe way to get back on the road. Recovery points (and gear, ie. straps, chains, ropes) are the only components that I would say are a necessity. Some vehicles are equipped with recovery points from the factory -most come with tie down points which are intended to secure the vehicle during transport, but often look like recovery points. These consist of a dangerously small piece of steel that can snap off during a recovery creating a dangerous projectile which can lead to injury or, in extreme cases, death. It’s important to know the difference: read your owner’s manual.
Since a standard rig is the most reliable rig, modification should not be taken lightly, but can be necessary at times. Just remember, when an aftermarket part breaks, it’s far harder to find a replacement in the field, than when you initially ordered it on Amazon. Factory replacement parts are much easier to locate, even in remote parts of the world.
Be sure to research other people’s experience with specific products (and manufacturers) before buying them. There are a handful of reputable companies who have been manufacturing products for overland travel for decades. There are many more who have only been active for a handful of years at best. Don’t let the age of the company determine whether or not they are a good fit, instead, focus on their reputation, customer service, and warranties. Do your research.
A vehicle’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) dictates the total amount a vehicle should weigh, full loaded. Most of the time, these ratings are for travel on pavement, not in through the rigors of off road travel. Subtracting your vehicle’s weight from the GVWR provides you with the payload capacity rating. All things added to your vehicle will reduce the available payload capacity. This includes trailer tongue weight, cargo, fuel and yes, even you! It is important to stay within these boundaries in order to ensure that your vehicle will actually stop, turn and accelerate safely. Exceeding GVWR not only creates an unsafe vehicle, it also leads to premature failure of the various systems that make up that vehicle. Broken ball-joints or anti-sway bar mounts, overheated transmission or engine, are only a few examples of damage that can occur from exceeding GVWR.
With that out of the way, let’s look at how to best locate weight inside of the vehicle. Heavy items should be placed as low and as close to the center-of-gravity (CG) of the vehicle as possible. This can be difficult to achieve. Typically, the CG is located just below the base of the front seats. Luckily, the corner balance of a car can be maintained by keeping heavier items as close to this area as possible -this is where you want to securely mount your water stores, tools, spare parts and other heavy items.
Basically, keep the heaviest items mounted low and as close to the CG as possible. Everything else will be packed according to importance, and how often you need to access it. First order access items are those that can be reached without moving other items. Things such as First Aid kits and daily necessities fall under this category. Keep these things in mind when packing, constantly packing and unpacking to reach daily items can become old really fast.
The final consideration for weight is possibly the most important: securing your load. Everything in your kit, must be securely tied down with the appropriate gear. Ratchet straps are the easiest and most consistent. If you are good with rope, then it is certainly an alternative. The addition of a drawer system is also great way to keep gear secure and organized, just don’t forget to secure the drawer system to the rig. Remember, anything that is not tied down can end up in the back of your head during a rollover or collision.
Roof racks are a great topic to segue the vehicle weight section. Should you install a roof rack and what should go up there? The former is a difficult question to answer. Roof racks can be a great place to store lightweight items and provide a platform for securing awnings, shovels, roof top tents, and accessory lighting. As convenient as they are, roof racks are often heavy, thus reducing load capacity even before the first items is strapped to them. Remember when we talked about adding weight as low as possible? Weight added outside of the CG has an amplified effect, ie. a 50 lb item added to the roof, may affect vehicle performance more than a 100 lb weight placed directly at the CG. Roof racks also add height to the vehicle thus reducing roof clearance. A situation that is only amplified when it’s loaded.
Of course, in some cases, the inside of the vehicle is just too small to bring all of your gear. This is where a roof rack will shine. Just remember to keep the weight of the rack and gear down to the absolute minimum, your vehicle manufacturer should list the appropriate load capacity for the roof. Mounting rows of jerry cans filled with fuel may look cool, but greatly increase the likelihood of a rollover. Speaking of fuel.
Overland travel means isolation. Isolation from food, water, and of course, fuel. How much you bring with you really depends on your range and the distance between fuel stations. That’s it. Pretty simple, eh? However, it’s not uncommon to see rows of Rotopax and jerry cans strapped to either the roof rack or tire carrier of every overland vehicle on the planet. Many of these travelers carry extra fuel with little thought to whether or not they are carrying too much, let alone if they even need it at all, and the weight of this extra fuel quickly adds up.
Gasoline weighs roughly 6.2 lbs/gallon, and the traditional steel jerry can weighs approximately 10 lbs. Therefore, a full 5 gallon jerry weighs 41 lbs. Most people tend to arbitrarily carry 1-2 minimum. This greatly depletes much needed load capacity to carry items that you really need or want. Increasing weight also reduces fuel economy, therefore reducing range -there’s a bit of irony to adding unnecessary fuel weight then isn’t there?
Instead of carrying that just in case weight, map out your destinations ahead of time and plot the fuel stations along the way. You can carry an empty jerry can and fill it on those longer routes that may require a bit more fuel to get to the next fuel pump. Alternatively, if you are seriously concerned with carrying spare fuel, you can carry on of Rotopax’s smaller, 2 gallon fuel cans. In all likelihood, this will be more than enough for most situations.
How to store gear really comes down to your rig choice, and what you want to bring with you. As long as you secure everything and you can get to what you need when you need it, then you are all set. Traditionally, there are two methods: a drawer system, or storage boxes. True, some people prefer soft bags and there’s nothing wrong with this method. Soft bags can be crammed into places where boxes can’t and they take up less room when empty. However, both the drawer and the bin are superior in organization. After all, it’s difficult to place dividers in soft bags.
Storage boxes come in both plastic and aluminum flavors and have been around for a very long time. Zarges and Alubox make incredibly tough, weatherproof aluminum boxes. They have been on all seven continents experiencing a range of weather from subzero to cooking temps. They are nearly indestructible, but incredibly expensive. This expense could better be used for fueling your adventure. FrontRunner makes sturdy plastic cases that are much more reasonably priced and, though not as strong as their aluminum competitors, incredibly resilient. Rubbermaid, though not as cool, makes an inexpensive alternative called the ActionPacker and are available at almost any large retail store.
Boxes are great. They need only hold the contents you want them to, and with many available sizes, fit where you need them to -like all things, they do have their drawbacks. Many boxes have to be unsecured to access the contents, this can be annoying, especially on extended trips. At times, they also need to be removed from the vehicle to really see what is in them -stacking them only makes this worse (of course, listing the contents on the outside is helpful). This is why I prefer storage drawers.
Storage drawers are permanently mounted in place can be lockable and, with the addition of dividers, can really change your organization game. They can also be outfitted with slide trays on the top to provide easy access to a fridge/freezer or even, yes, a box. Unlike boxes, storage drawers can also be built based on your particular vehicle platform and in as many configurations as the imagination can muster. Double stacked drawers, side by side, single drawer it all depends on what your specific needs are. The cons? Drawer systems tend to be on the heavy side and, unlike boxes are difficult to remove or reconfigure. They are also far more expensive than even the most expensive boxes. Of course, the DIY option reduces cost immensely and provides an opportunity for a far more customized build.
TIRES AND WHEELS
Tires are a compromise, there’s no two ways about it. Mud terrains look aggressive, but unless you spend 100% of your time tromping through mud, you are leaving a lot of performance on the table everywhere else. The best solution tends to lie in a good all-terrain tire. These days, most tire competitors have the game pretty well sorted winning tire tests by only the narrowest of margins. So, instead of focusing on which tire brand you should choose (ultimately, that’s up to you anyway), let’s focus on what’s important. Since you plan to overland your rig, you will cross mud, sand, tarmac, snow and other types of terrain. The best tire for this type of mixed duty is an all-terrain. That doesn’t mean that if you don’t have, or can’t afford a new set of all-terrains that you should stay home either. This is just the best suited tire for what we do with our rigs and something you should keep in mind when shopping around for your next tire. Be sure to observe the manufacturer's recommended load ratings.
Wheels should only be changed if you are increasing tire size where a change in backspacing is warranted to clear brakes, suspension components and body panels. You should avoid wheel spacers as they are not safe and typically eliminate the hub centric mounting feature that the stock hubs provide. The center rings on a vehicle’s hubs not only help to center the wheel, but add additional support. Without this feature, your the weight of your vehicle rests solely on the wheel studs.
One final note for tires: Airing down (decreasing tire pressure) is a great way to increase comfort on harsh roads, and increase traction on certain types of terrain. This is a topic in itself, but it’s worth mentioning here. Just remember to bring a method to re-inflate your tires to the appropriate pressures.
Everyone loves a good widget, they have blinking lights, bells that ding, and they make us look cooler than we already are. But, are they necessary? The short answer is no. Maps are easy to find, cheap to buy, and work without batteries -of course, you need to be able to read them to use one properly, but the same goes for widgets, right? A solid GPS is a great tool to supplement a paper map, and can provide additional information such as traffic conditions, latitude/longitude, time to destination and your exact location. GPS will also track your route, which is important if you need to turn back from a washed out road, and make it incredibly easy to share your route with others.
Despite the need to escape, communicating with the civilized world is sometimes necessary, and cell phone towers aren’t always available if you need to call for help. Having a rescue device such a SPOT, or satellite phone can literally save your life. A HAM radio (which of course requires a license) can also help you keep in touch with friends and family back home. This can help curb homesickness and provide your loved ones with peace of mind. All of these communication devices are relatively inexpensive and worth their weight in gold if you find yourself in need.
An air compressor is a piece of kit you should really consider. When the road gets rough, reducing air pressure in your tires a few PSI can really make a difference on your dental bills. This is one of the places where it’s worth spending the extra money on a quality device. The last thing you want is to air down and have no way to to air back up when you have to hit the tarmac again. Both ARB and Viair are reputable companies that offer high quality air compressors.
If you find yourself in need of electronics, try to stay away from items that tap into factory wiring as this creates an area of failure and a possible fire hazard. There is also an added risk of disabling important vehicle systems such as ABS, lighting, or the ignition. Avoid aftermarket alarm systems, they have a tendency to disable vehicles in the worst of times. Especially when they are wired for remote start or an ignition immobilizer. These systems are placed between the ignition key and the starter/ignition system. Thus, when they fail, there is no easy way to bypass them to start your vehicle, if there was, they wouldn’t be very effective theft deterrents, would they?
One last caveat against aftermarket electronics, every new component added to your rig can fail. Sometimes when they fail, relays stick open (which drains batteries), and wires can short (which can cause fires). Failures are inevitable, your goal should be to reduce the risk of catastrophe in the event of a failure of any kind -whether that be mechanical or electric.
This guide is intended to provide general advice and to steer you towards a safe overland experience. However you choose to outfit your rig, remember to consider the safety of your occupants and of those around you. Consider learning basic off road driving and recovery techniques. If you plan to travel solo, learn self recovery. Above all, have a great time!