Archive for the Vehicles Category

Overlanding: It’s Not About the Gear

When we were preparing for our trip through Africa in 2003, overlanding wasn’t yet a “thing” in the United States. Thus it was a bit of a challenge to get the specialty gear that we wanted for our trip.  To do so we had to import some of our equipment, such as our rooftop tent, from South Africa.

Fast forward almost 15 years, and it’s fair to say that the overlanding industry has exploded. The Overland Expo in Flagstaff this year drew nearly 10,000 people and hundreds of exhibitors.  In addition, there are now many companies producing (or importing) excellent overlanding gear.

Overland Travel vs Off-Roading

Fellow overlander, Graeme Bell, wrote a fantastic article on the difference between overlanding and four-wheeling. He discusses the mindset and needs of each type of traveler, and it’s clear that there are different requirements for each.

To someone planning their first trip, the line between these two activities can seem very blurry. This is partly because many companies that have traditionally served the off-roading market have seen a new opportunity to sell the same gear to overlanders. But as Graeme says in his article, overlanding is more about being able to live comfortably out of your vehicle over the long term and not about testing its limits on weekend jaunts.

Relaxing in Western Sahara. This photo gives you an idea of the kind of gear that we had with us on our Africa trip. As much as we liked having shade, that awning was so difficult to set up that we hardly ever used it.

Relaxing in Western Sahara. This photo gives you an idea of the kind of gear that we had with us on our Africa trip. As much as we liked having shade, that awning was so difficult to set up that we hardly ever used it.

How Prepared Do You Have to Be?

If you spend an afternoon strolling through the exhibitor area at the Expo it’s easy to come away with the idea that you need tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear to have a successful trip. Similarly, many online discussion forums can be heavily tech- or gear-focused.  Our experience is that most travelers won’t need most of these items to have a successful overland trip.

There’s strong bias in the overlanding community around being prepared, and being able to deal with any situation that comes your way without help. In reality no one is ever completely self-sufficient. Yes, it’s difficult to be in a position where you need to rely on help from others, but those situations can lead to rewarding experiences. We have spoken with a number of travelers whose best stories started with, “When we got stuck in…”

What gear should you bring with you? Let’s break things down a bit and hopefully pare down the vast array of what’s available so you can figure out what you’ll actually need and use.

4WD and Recovery Gear

This is a huge market. Products are expensive, and it is easy to sell folks on fear — you don’t want to be stuck somewhere unable to get out!

What you actually need is dependent on where you’ll be traveling and what you plan to do. A trip through the Americas is perfectly feasible in a 2WD vehicle. Unless you’re way off the beaten track, if you do get stuck there will probably someone along shortly to help you out. Sure, you may not be able to tackle a few of the more difficult routes, but there are plenty of opportunities for exploration and adventure that don’t require a special kind of vehicle.

If you’re planning a trip to Africa or Australia you may want to look more closely at a 4WD and some basic recovery gear. Some of the most appealing destinations on those continents do warrant a 4WD vehicle.

Sand driving in Mauritania. This was probably the one time when we could've put sand ladders to use, but we still got by without having them along.

Sand driving in Mauritania. This was probably the one time when we could’ve put sand ladders to use, but we still got by without having them along.

Recovery gear is equipment to help you get out should you become stuck. Hi-lift jacks, sand plates, winches, and a dizzying array of other gear is available. Again it depends on where you’re planning to go, but ask yourself if it’s worth the extra weight and cost. How likely are you to actually use those sand plates? If you’re planning on crossing the Sahara desert, they could certainly be a wise investment.

Unless you’re going somewhere where special equipment is specifically called for, it may help to remember that the local people get around in most places in regular cars, vans or buses.

Comfort and Convenience

Van with shower curtain

Shower night at the Sparks Van. We had a hot water shower system rigged up so that we could set up a shower stall using the back doors of the van, a tarp, and a lot of magnets. It was difficult to set up, and because we only had a 15 gal supply of water on board, we needed to be near a water supply to use it.

Awnings, camp chairs, BBQ grills and refrigerators can all make your life easier and more comfortable. What you’ll need and want all comes down to budget and personal preference. Again, think about how often you’re going to use some of these items, and about how they’ll pack into your rig. Yes, you might be able to wedge in that BBQ grill somewhere, but if it takes 15 minutes of unpacking to get to it, how often will you really use it? On the other hand if you love to grill and you have a great spot for it bring it along!

Take some test trips before you leave home, ideally longer than just a weekend. Start with minimalist kit – only the stuff you know you’ll be bringing. If you decide you really love those comfortable camp lounge chairs, then find a spot to stow them and add them to the list.

Rules of Thumb

Deciding what kind of gear to bring on an overland trip is a personal decision. It’s a trade off between simplicity and comfort and between self-reliance and accepting help from others. Keep in mind that you’ll be living out of your vehicle for months at a time. Using your limited budget to enhance day-to-day comfort will probably be more rewarding than that really cool looking LED light bar.

Here are a few more guidelines to keep in mind when selecting your gear:

  • Accessibility and ease-of-use are key.  If something is hard to get to or set up, you won’t use it very much.
  • Keep the weight of your vehicle within its maximum limits.  Your vehicle’s suspension will have fewer issues during your journey and you’ll get better gas mileage too.
  • Stick to a budget. If you can spend a little less on gear you can travel less frugally and/or travel for longer length of time.  While the preparation phase can be exciting in it’s own right, actually getting out on the road is what overlanding is all about.
  • Less is more.  The more things you have, the more things there are to break or lose.  Chances are that you can pick up what you need along the way, so don’t feel that you need to pack for every possible situation.
  • Bring items that serve more than one purpose rather than a lot of specialty gear. Doing so can greatly reduce the amount of stuff that you have with you.
  • Figure out where you plan to store each item.  Shuffling stuff around (or tripping over it) gets old rather quickly.  It’s better to have everything tucked out of the way of your living space.

Stay tuned for more on this topic!

What if I’m Not a Mechanic?

The clicking noises coming from the wheel of our Land Rover had started the day before. We were driving through Chobe National Park in Botswana, and for the rest of the day I tried to convince myself that we had a branch stuck in the wheel. I didn’t want to actually check because I didn’t want to find out that we actually had a serious mechanical problem brewing.

As we were leaving the park the noise got worse and worse until finally I decided we had to stop before the wheel fell off or something. I suspected a problem with the wheel bearings and, since we had a spare set with us, I took apart the wheel only to discover that the bearings looked fine.

Out of ideas, I got out our trusty satellite phone and called up the Land Rover guru back in Superior, Colorado, who had helped us put together our vehicle for the trip. He patiently explained that there are actually two wheel bearings in each wheel, and described what I’d need to do to replace the other one.

I worked the rest of that afternoon and into the evening with Jen keeping a fire going to keep the lions and hyenas at bay. I finished the job the next morning. A few tour vehicles drove by and all of them stopped to ask if we needed help. At least we knew we wouldn’t be stranded there forever if I couldn’t get it fixed!

Witt fixes our wheel bearings in Botswana

Witt fixes the wheel bearings on our Land Rover in Botswana

Overland Vehicle Maintenance Strategies

An oft-cited, and legitimate concern for aspiring overland travelers is vehicle maintenance, and especially repairs. Being on the road a long way from home means that you don’t have your local, trusted mechanic just down the street. Apart from recommendations of other travelers, there’s no good way to tell whether a mechanic is competent or honest. On top of that, as soon as the repair is made, you’ll likely leave town never to be seen again so it’s tough to return if the problem hasn’t been fixed properly. This is known as the “taillight warranty” — good as long as they can see your taillights. Unscrupulous mechanics everywhere have been known to take advantage of travelers this way.

If you’re not an enthusiastic backyard mechanic, all is not lost. Here are some strategies for avoiding the need for repairs in the first place and getting them done right when need arises.

Get a Reliable Vehicle for Your Trip

Cruising down the coast of Ecuador in a 1970s van with surfboards on top and bluegrass pumping through the speakers may sound romantic (or maybe it doesn’t), but remember that the older the vehicle the more maintenance it’s likely to need. If you are prepared repair it yourself, an older vehicle can be a good choice. Everything is simpler. Both you and a local mechanic should have an easier time repairing it. Lack of modern computers and electronics means that you’re less likely to suffer a failure that only a computer can diagnose. Plus (for some makes) parts can be easier to find for an older vehicle.

But if the thought of being stranded on the side of the road with a bad fuel pump is something you’d prefer not to think about, it may be worth considering a newer vehicle if your budget allows it. Modern cars are amazingly reliable, and a late model of pretty much any brand is likely to complete an overland trip with no maintenance issues at all.

Make Sure it’s in Top Shape Before Departure

Take your car to a mechanic before you leave home — preferably to “your” mechanic whom you’ve worked with for awhile. Tell him what you’re planning, and after he retrieves his jaw from the floor ask him to give the car a thorough going over. Replace anything that looks worn, even if normally you’d wait till the next oil change to fix it. Take a look at the owner’s manual and see what scheduled maintenance items are coming up. Fuel filter? Flushing the radiator? If it’s a significant milestone like a 60,000 mile service it might make sense to do it ahead of time.

While you’re talking to your mechanic, ask him to demonstrate a thorough inspection. Take notes and learn what things to look for. Ask about things that commonly fail on whatever model of car you have. For small, lightweight items like electronic sensors (or wheel bearings) it might be worth carrying a spare.

Regular Inspections and Maintenance

Getting a tune up in Zambia

Our Land Rover, “Rafiki”, gets a tune up in Zambia

Once you’re on the road there are several things you can do that will reduce the likelihood of breakdowns. Just like at home, stick to a regular maintenance schedule. You’ll learn to say things in the local language that you never would on a regular holiday. “Cambio de aciete, por favor” isn’t really all that useful at the Grand Fiesta Americana Hotel bar, but it will come in handy on an overland trip in Latin America.

If you’re traveling quickly, you’ll need oil changes frequently. Don’t ignore them. Get in the habit of checking filters and fluids regularly. Some advocate a daily inspection, but if you’re driving a newer vehicle once a week or once a month should be enough.

Drive With Mechanical Sympathy

Crossing a bridge in northern Angola

Crossing a rickety bridge in northern Angola

I can’t take credit for this phrase, but it’s perfect. Drive your car as though it were your friend — because after you’ve lived in it for a few months, it will be!

  • Accelerate and brake more gently than you normally would. This is easier on your brakes and transmission, not to mention being safer.
  • Take speed bumps and rough roads slowly. Even if you’re driving a tough 4×4 truck, constant hammering will eventually break something.
    • The occasional exception to this is when driving on washboards or corrugations. If you’re on a straight road free of big obstacles like potholes, a higher speed can make the ride easier on you and your car.
  • Use low gears when descending steep hills. Change down early and at low speeds to avoid jerky, high-rpm shifts, especially with an automatic transmission.

Keep in mind too that your overland vehicle is probably at or near (hopefully not over) it’s factory recommended maximum weight. That means all of the components, from the tires through the drive train to the engine, are already working at or near their design limits. Back off, swallow any macho pride that you may have, and your truck will thank you!

Pay attention to the sounds your car makes. When you hear a new vibration or noise, check it out. Hopefully you just need another tie down strap for your stuff in back. But noticing an impending mechanical problem early can save you from being stranded and may reduce repair costs.

If Something Does Go Awry

Tire issues in Cameroon

Tire issues in Cameroon

If you travel long enough, you’ll eventually find yourself in need of repairs. It’s great if you can repair it yourself, but if not you’ll need to find someone to help. Here are some tips to maximize your chances of getting the work done right the first time.

Get Recommendations

Try to get recommendations for a good mechanic, especially if your car needs major work. Post to an overlander’s social media group such as Overland Sphere, Pan Am Travelers (both on Facebook) or the Horizons Unlimited bulletin board. The iOverlander app and website has a category for repair shops where travelers can leave reviews. If you’re staying at a campground frequented by overlanders, ask the proprietor for recommendations. He may know of a local shop that has experience working on foreigners’ vehicles. Since he’s local the shop will want to keep getting referrals from him so you are more likely to get good service.

Oversee the Work

Calvin's shop near Oaxaca, Mexico

Unlike shops in the USA, in most places you’re allowed to go back into the shop and watch the work being done. Even if you haven’t a clue what’s going on, your presence might encourage them to do a better job. Remember, they don’t know that you’re not a master mechanic yourself!

Use Dealerships

If you have a newer car, a dealership is more likely to have the computer diagnostics and specialized tools needed for later models. Going to a dealership, though, is unfortunately not a guarantee of a a good outcome.

Do it Yourself

Witt fixes the wheel bearings

Even if you don’t have a lot of know-how, don’t be afraid to try repairs yourself. Google the problem you’re having, and you’ll probably find a backyard mechanic with a Youtube video on how to repair it. Bring a basic set of tools with you. This is especially true in a camper, since you’re more likely to need to make minor repairs to the RV systems than to the vehicle itself.

During our travels in Latin America, I always took our van to a shop for oil changes. Without the tools to collect and properly dispose of the used oil, it was easier to have the work done by a professional mechanic. I always hung around the shop during the service. I also tried to remember to check the oil shortly afterward in case they forget to tighten the drain plug or something.

During our trip through the Americas breaking down was the biggest stress factor for me, especially early in the trip. We had a number of fuel-system related problems that even caused us to question our whole trip a couple of times. Eventually though, with the help of local and expat mechanics along the way, we got everything sorted out. After that we enjoyed 18 months of completely trouble-free travel. Prepare your car beforehand and take good care of it on the road and you’ll be rewarded with a reliable home on wheels.

Calvin helps diagnose our engine issues near Oaxaca, Mexico

Calvin helps diagnose our Sparksmobile engine issues at the Overlander Oasis near Oaxaca, Mexico





Exposure Vs. Isolation

How your mode of travel can affect your opportunities for interaction

As we pulled onto the dirt soccer pitch where we were told we could camp, the entire population of the village of thirty or forty people came over and surrounded our Land Rover. We were in a remote region of Zambia; they spoke only a few words of English, and we spoke none of their language. We were hungry and tired after a long day’s drive, and we wanted to get our camp set up so we could cook dinner and hit the sack. We had no internal living space to cook in, so we would need to set up our outdoor table, and get our “kitchen box” of cooking implements and camp stove out of the back of the car. The village and the people, though obviously poor, did not look desperate, but we still didn’t feel that it was polite to get out our fancy cooking gear, prepare our dinner and eat it in front of them. We definitely did not have enough food to share. So it was an impasse. They stared at us waiting for us to do something interesting. We sat in our car, not sure what to do.

Living "around" your vehicle opens you up to more interactions. On this evening a man wandered in from the desert. We offered him a cigarette and a cup of tea, and he sat by the fire while we attempted to converse in a combination of English and Arabic. When he was done with his tea, he disappeared over a dune and into the desert.

Living “around” your vehicle opens you up to more interactions. On this evening a man wandered in from the desert. We offered him a cigarette and a cup of tea, and he sat by the fire while we attempted to converse in a combination of English and Arabic. When he was done with his tea, he disappeared over a dune and into the desert.

Rule of Thumb: The Heavier the Vehicle, the More Potential Isolation

When you choose your mode of overland travel, you’re choosing more than just how much protection you’ll have from the weather. You’re also deciding whether you’ll be primarily living indoors or outdoors, and whether you’ll have the option of privacy when you want it or need it.

On foot you have the most exposure. Anyone who can walk can join you at any time, whether you’re in in good spirits and happy to have the company, or if it’s been a long day and you just want to keep your head down for awhile.

Unless you've paid for a private place to camp/park, anything you do outside is subject to investigation.

Unless you’ve paid for a private place to camp/park, anything you do outside is subject to investigation.

Traveling by bicycle isn’t too different – you’re moving a little faster than those on foot, but you’re still very much “out there” with nature and with the rest of humanity.

On a motorcycle you get some level of insulation and privacy when you’re moving. But any time you stop, again, you’re open to interaction whether you’re in the mood for it or not. And as with walking and bicycling, unless you’re camped in an official paid campsite your camp is fair game for visitors at any time.

On four wheels your level of potential isolation goes up. Even in a car or SUV where you’re living “around” your vehicle rather than in your vehicle, you can sit in your car with the windows up, giving you privacy but also isolating you from interactions with local people.

Impromptu Interactions Are One of the Unique Benefits of Overland Travel

As we discovered in our Land Rover many times, being outside cooking, relaxing, or updating our website frequently attracted visitors. One evening while preparing a meal in a roadside clearing, a group of about six people wandered into our camp. They all carried machetes and one had a dead iguana slung over his shoulder, which apparently was going to be dinner that night. They were fascinated by us and our cooking equipment and decided to hang out for awhile.

Campsite visitors can be stressful at times, but they can also lead to positive experiences.

Campsite visitors can be stressful at times, but they can also lead to positive experiences.

We were able to communicate with them, and the fact that they were small in number made us feel more comfortable with the situation. I was chopping carrots for dinner, and I got the impression that they were surprised that I would be doing what to them was a woman’s job. Our laptop had primitive mapping software on it (this was in 2004) and we showed them a map of the world, and indicated where we were from in the USA, then zoomed in on Cameroon and found the name of a nearby town that they recognized. I don’t think they’d ever seen anything like that before, and they seemed to get a big kick out of it.

When we traveled in the Americas we had a camper van. Other than the fact that we didn’t have a toilet inside our van, we could stop, prepare a meal, and go to sleep without ever leaving our van. We didn’t do that too often, but we did tend to prepare meals and eat inside, simply because it was more convenient than setting up our outdoor table and moving all of our food and cooking utensils outside. When it was warm out, we’d always have the sliding door of our van open (with a screen to keep out the bugs) but the fact that we were inside created a barrier – we seldom had anyone walk up to our van and poke their head inside uninvited.

Making pancakes in the van in British Columbia. It was cold and rainy outside - the comfort of indoor living space can't be denied. But we didn't meet any exotic Canadians that morning!

Making pancakes in the van in British Columbia. It was cold and rainy outside – the comfort of indoor living space can’t be denied. But we didn’t meet any exotic Canadians that morning!

The situation in Zambia might sound a little frightening. It was obvious to us that the people had no ill intent; they were simply curious. Eventually we got out of our car and managed to convey that we needed to cook and that we’d like a little privacy, please. They understood, and one of the leaders of the village led everyone away. I often think back to that situation, knowing that if I’d just been a little more outgoing and a little less tired and hungry that I probably could have turned it into a very positive experience.

The Amount of Interest Locals Have in Travelers Depends on Location

We had a lot more guests and a lot more people who were curious about us in Africa than we did during our trip through the Americas. I think there are a few factors at play here.

First, the cultures we encountered in Latin America were more similar to our own culture than those we encountered in rural Africa. For example, even in poor parts of Peru and Bolivia, I’d guess most people had someone in their family who had visited a “big box” retail store. That meant that our stuff and our customs were less foreign.

In Africa, however, we drove through villages where there was literally only one or two operable vehicles in town. Thus our convoy of Land Rovers and other vehicles made quite a spectacle there.

This leads to the second difference – the level of isolation of the people. In Africa we encountered many people for whom a journey to a mid-sized city would be an expensive and rare undertaking. In Latin America, with its extensive network of cheap public transport, this type of isolation is less common and people are more accustomed to seeing outsiders.

Interactions Are Largely What you Make of Them

There’s no right or wrong answer here – it’s not better to be more or less exposed. But it is important to understand how your choice of travel mode will affect your opportunities for interaction. If you tend to be a private, introverted person it is especially important – you may need the additional privacy of a camper in order to feel comfortable and re-charge. But it’s also important to recognize the potentially isolating effect that may have. So if you’re in a camper, don’t forget to set up that table and invite some strangers to dinner sometimes.

Even if it is a little more effort, sometimes it's worthwhile to break out the table and meet some locals. Just don't let them take your dinner!

Even if it is a little more effort, sometimes it’s worthwhile to break out the table and meet some locals. Just don’t let them take your dinner!