Archive for August 2016

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!

Melanie & Justin

Welcome to our From the Driver’s Seat series, where we feature “real” overland travelers who are either currently on the road or have just returned from an overland trip.

Today we introduce you to Melanie Cahill and Justin Smith, who have traveled overland on 3 continents — North America, South America and Europe!

Our family was lucky enough to meet them for the first time at a hostel in Colombia.   It’s safe to say that we hit it off with them right from the beginning.  We also had a fabulous time traveling with them for several weeks in Ecuador and Peru.  We know that you will love them as much as we do!

So grab a cup of your favorite beverage, sit back, relax and enjoy the ride…


Tell us about yourselves.  What are your names, backgrounds and where are you from?

Before we traveled we’d been married for 12 years and were living in Providence, RI. Justin owned a wooden window making shop and Melanie was administering public housing in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Melanie & Justin in Paris

What inspired you to do an overlanding trip?  What are the steps that you took to turn the dream into reality?

A few months into our marriage we were happily unemployed, had an expiring apartment lease and some time on our hands. So we embarked a camping trip around the US that ended because Melanie was offered a job. 15 years later we were in similar circumstances and thought “what the heck, let’s do something different!” We bought a small RV that allowed us to practice driving and stocking up for many weekends. We spent that year making decisions that kept us moving forward toward full-time travel life. We deferred getting a dog, new drapes, eliminated junk mail (!) etc.

What was your biggest obstacle (real or imagined) to embarking on your trip?  Did anyone try to talk you out of it?

In terms of obstacles, fortunately, we had few.  No kids, pets or jobs. No one tried to talk us out of it.  At most folks thought we were either a little odd or complete slackers. Justin’s attitude was anyone who thought it was strange/dangerous/weird was suffering from a paucity of imagination.

What kind of rig do you have?  Does your rig have a name?  What do you like or dislike about your current setup?

Our rig is a 2004 Mercedes Sprinter Westfalia. It’s creatively called “Westy.”

We (meaning Justin) picked it since Westy met our laundry list of can’t-live-without features. A bathroom (specifically a shower for Melanie), enough height so 6’3” guy can stand straight up and maneuverability in small towns and cities. Oh, and a bed long enough for said, tall guy.

We could list the things pros (many of them) but the list of dislikes is shorter: A bit more ground clearance (we lost some — replaceable — plumbing from underneath in Peru).  We would swap an aggressively cold coach AC for some solar panels.

Melanie in Westy

Where have you traveled (so far) with your vehicle?

Horizontally across US – Maine to California. South through Baja, east to the Yucatan, south through Central America, ferry across the Darien Gap, south through the west coast of S.A, ‘til we cut across Argentina to Uruguay.  Shipped to England, drove around western Europe, shipped from Antwerp to Baltimore – done.  Westy is currently residing on the East Coast of the US awaiting further deployment. (and also functioning as our daily driver!)

What have you learned from your travels?  Have you experienced any unexpected revelations along the way?

We have learned: don’t overpack. Meaning, don’t pack 1 year’s worth of bathroom supplies, trash bags, t-shirts etc.  If it’s something you need for everyday living, don’t sweat it, your new neighbors need that stuff too and probably buy it cheaper. And, Walmart is everywhere — after a while, you will be happy to see them.

We were well prepared with fantastic RV water filters, only to experience that outside of the US & Uruguay no one had enough water pressure to use them. So, we got used to the taste of bleach or went to water stores and stocked up. Water (in five gallon bottles called“garrafons”) are common and cheap through Mexico and Central America.

Everyone says this because it’s true: people are nice.  They are friendly and helpful. Also, everyone in the world laughs at Justin Bieber (take it from Justin…. Smith).

99% of obstacles are solvable. It is not necessary to have a rig/set-up that will handle every emergency that could possibly occur.  Heck, you’ll be sharing the road with 7 locals driving in a Toyota Camry. If you design a rig for every situation, you will miss the chance for real adventure and connection. So plan to cover most situations: have a tow strap for yourself and others, make sure you’ve got the minimum country requirements to avoid tickets and just GO.


Do you have a favorite travel experience that you can share?

Meeting the Sparks-ci! We visited the Galapagos for a big trip splurge. It was an experience of a lifetime.  5 days hanging in the Atacama Desert all alone waiting for money to hit our bank account turned out to be a great week.

France & northern Italy. Who knew they were RV-ing paradises? We found great municipal RV parking and easy access to cities and sight-seeing. And bread. A lot of bread.

Justin fishing

How do you fund your travels?

We run an online business  We maintained a connection to wifi for the most part and checked in everyday. Sometimes we spent days at a good wifi spot to get work done and some weeks we were out of pocket.

What future overlanding plans do you have?

We left the southern halves of Chile & Argentina and Brazil for a returntrip. We plan to ship Westy to Europe again and maybe head east to India and Thailand.

Sunset over mountains

What was the biggest misconception about overlanding that you had before your travels?

That we were odd or unusual. Really, there’s whole community of folks doing the same thing and they are fun and have good info to share. That officials and police might present some problems. As it turned out, we had one laughably bad encounter and the rest were really nice and helpful.

What piece of advice could you offer to aspiring adventurers?

  1. You don’t need lots of stuff, especially technical stuff. A cell phone, local chip, paper map and good attitude will get you where you’re going.
  2. GO! You can always come home.  Maybe you won’t really care for it.  But at least you’ll be able to say so from a position of experience.
  3. You will meet folks on the road who totally “get it” and will make you feel like this was a really good decision. Plus, they probably have more experience and you will be inspired!

Justin & Melanie at a Fort


So there you have it — some terrific advice and travel-inspiring words from Melanie & Justin.  We hope that you enjoyed this peek into their adventures.  Who else wants to explore Europe in an RV?  It sounds so amazing!

Want to be featured in future installments of From the Driver’s Seat?  

Please leave a comment and let us know.  Who knows?  Sharing your experiences might provide the inspiration for someone else to follow their own travel dreams.

Until next time…. Happy Travels!

How to Travel Well with Others

Meeting fellow travelers on the road is always fun. Preparing meals together at campgrounds and sharing stories over the campfire is one of the things we always look forward to during our travels. If schedules and interests intersect travelers will sometimes team up and spend time traveling together. Sometimes this is simply because people become friends and like spending time together. Other times it is because travelers want to tackle a remote or difficult route and having two or more vehicles increases safety in case of a breakdown. For difficult off-road routes, having more than one vehicle makes recovery much easier should someone get stuck.

Using our winch to help other travelers

Helping another traveler in Gabon

Safety in Numbers

When we traveled in Africa, the political situation at the time required that we change our plans and take a relatively unknown route down the West coast of the continent. At the time only a few travelers had been through Gabon, the two Congos, and Angola recently. We met two other groups online who were contemplating the same route and we made plans for a rendezvous in Gabon before setting off to cross these countries on our way to Namibia. Eventually another French couple joined us, making us a group of five vehicles, 11 people, and one large dog.

Psychologically this gave us a sense of safety in numbers. Crossing through these regions as a couple in a single vehicle would probably have been much more stressful. We had a good time and, although we only spent a few weeks together as a group, we’re still friends with these people nearly 15 years later.

Traveling with Friends

Having successfully reached Namibia together, our fun travel group poses for this one last photo before going our separate ways.

In it for the Long Haul

Teaming up with others for short sections, or for as long as everyone is having fun, is the best way to travel as a group. Traveling as a group for an entire trip is much more difficult.

It’s been said that a good test for a couple’s compatibility is whether they can travel together. Travel gets people out of their comfort zones. Different cultures and foods, uncomfortable and crowded buses as well as trains and dodgy lodgings bring out the best and worst in everyone.

Traveling overland as a group is like being in a close relationship. Different people have different ideas about how they want to live and travel. One person might want to sleep in while another wants to be on the road early. Different ideas about what to see and when and how often to stop can make long-term group travel difficult.

Group camping in Congo

Bush camping with friends in the Republic of Congo

Maintain your Independence

If you do decide to set out with another person, couple or family, make sure that each vehicle is independent. Each party should be willing and able to split off on their own for any reason at any time, and the other part of the group needs to be completely comfortable with that.

Difficulties arise when travelers feel bound to each other. This can be for a number of reasons. Someone may feel they lack the mechanical knowledge they need and are reliant on another member of the group to keep the vehicles running. Another person may feel that they need the perceived safety of being in a larger group.

When this happens seemingly small differences in travel and living preferences can become amplified until they tear at the fabric of even close and otherwise enduring friendships.

Sharing a meal with friends in Colombia

Sharing a meal with friends, Jeff, Rick and Letitia in Colombia.  We all traveled separately (in 3 groups) but, as we were traveling along similar routes, we met up together on several fun occasions.

Take Breaks from Each Other

When traveling long-term in a group, planning for separations early on can help all parties feel more independent and give everyone a much-needed break. Split off for a few days or weeks while one part of the group goes hiking and the other visits the beach.

I’ve heard of a few instances in which two couples had planned to set off together in a single vehicle. While this can reduce some trip costs, it ties everyone even more closely together. Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship understands how difficult they can be at times. Imagine being married to not just your spouse but to two other people as well!

Driving in Northern Chile

Always Part as Friends

Although it can be sad saying goodbye to new friends as you each head your separate ways, it’s much worse to allow the “group” to take precedence over the friendship. Embrace the group for as long as everyone is having fun, but always be willing head off on your own. Even though it might be years later, the re-union of travel companions is always a sweet one.

Traveling with friends in Ecuador

Traveling with our friends Melanie & Justin in Ecuador (& then Peru).  We had an absolute blast traveling with them.