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The difference between an Overlander and an Offroader


A very important distinction needs to be made between the Offroader and the Overland traveller; often the two are thought to be the same.

An Offroader uses his vehicle, usually highly modified and not his daily driver, for recreational purposes and perhaps the odd holiday where he will venture into the realm of the Overlander for a while. His priority is to test the limitations and endurance of both himself and his vehicle either in designated 4×4 areas or on a round trip to an adventure destination where he will rely on the vehicle to take him to remote places over difficult terrain. The Offroader has nerves of steel.

The Overlander’s objective is adventure travel over vastly changing terrain while testing his own courage and resourcefulness and the vehicle’s endurance and reliability, all while maintaining some degree of comfort, usually over an extended period of time. Not all Overlanders like to drive far from the beaten track and many will never exploit the off-road capabilities of their vehicles. There is nothing wrong with this way of travel. Many places we have been are accessible by a well-driven, unloved sedan. If you are an Offroader who intends to become an Overlander, you will have a fantastic journey if you are willing to adapt your mindset by carefully considering your long-term travel needs.

There is a German I never met who toured Central South America at the same time we were there (the first time around). We had mutual friends so the rumours we heard were fresh. He drove a custom modified Pinzgaue-based vehicle which resembled a lunar landing pod with wheels. The dashboard and ceiling of the driver’s cab was equipped with knobs and dials and switches, lights that flashed and gauges to inform of the pressure, fluid level, heat and health of every bloody moving part. Antenna swayed above the vehicle and a satellite dish jutted out the side of the living quarters. He had upgraded almost every part and had installed an electrical system which would baffle most electrical engineers. The thing had six driven wheels, portal axles, lockers on each differential, self-inflating tyres, you name it.

It probably cost more than I have ever earned or spent, and I started working when I was 14. Problem was, the thing hardly ever worked. The electrical system would crash frequently and the highly tuned engine ate the gearbox and pooped out the clutch. Twice he had to have a technician and a huge crate of spare parts flown in from some spotless Swiss workshop. Those mechanical problems were undoubtedly an inconvenience und very, very frustrating, but we are going to assume that Herr. Otto had a huge pile of Euros under his bed back home in Bavaria. The rub was that though the vehicle was designed to be highly competent off road it was unreliable and therefore unlikely to leave the hard top for any significant periods of time.

Contrary to popular belief many Overlanders are not able to afford either the over-the-top rig or the associated costs. If you are going to travel around the world in a 4×4, or any vehicle, you want to live by that old corporate chestnut: KISS, or Keep It Simple Stupid. No doubt when planning to outfit your vehicle you will spend countless hours on the web and attending outdoor shows where gleaming hardware and all manner of camouflage-strapped solar-powered water filtration air beds will coax the hard-earned cash right out of your pants. That burly, khaki-clad salesman who once drove a fully kitted Toyota to Outdoor Warehouse, on a particularly wet and windy day, will convince you that you should not even consider leaving home without the rock sliders and the custom roof rack and the full-length LED light bar, the three extra fuel and water tanks (including the latest-generation, NASA-designed pumps installed by his workshop), all while they drill in a cast-iron drawer system, a full lighting system, a bar, two fridges, military-grade underbody protection, 40-inch tyres and all the associated upgrades to the running gear and electrical system. All of that is great if you plan to use the vehicle to impress your mates and a busty girl every second weekend, and once a year for a run to Namibia, but maybe not so great when you are planning to be a long-term traveller.

The focus when modifying a vehicle for Overlanding should be on comfort and everyday useability. You want to be dry when it is raining, warm when it is snowing or ice cold, cool in a heat wave, protected from the wind with the ability to store and prepare food under all those conditions and sleep well at night, safe from bugs and predators, both two- and four-legged.

Recently we were camping in a desert with a leak of Defender drivers when a small sandstorm blew through camp all night. Everyone was miserable except for the genius who had put an ambulance body on his Defender and our family which could sleep in a tent through a tornado. Said genius (he really is a genius, a rock climbing PanAm vet who manages a team researching paediatric cancer) was warm and clean and safe behind insulated walls. He had sleeping space for two and could cook inside or outside the vehicle. He had one-way blacked-out windows for privacy, vents for ventilation and fans to cool the interior. The roof housed solar panels and surfboards, and had space for climbing gear or kayaks. Inside he had storage space for more than he needed and a large, lockable safe for cameras and other expensive technology as well as external storage boxes built into the ambulance body’s cavities. I spent a day with him driving some low-range routes in the surrounding mountains and was impressed that the Defenders off-road capabilities were not hindered at all. I was envious. The cherry on the cake was that he had spent the equivalent of the price of a new rooftop tent on the conversion, but, being a genius, he had created that bit of luck.

Our advice to anyone planning a long-term Overland journey is to first consider their particular style of travel and their own capabilities and requirements. If you like to get out there in the tough stuff and machete your way through a jungle then you will need a vehicle equipped to be as tough as you are. If you prefer a gentle cruise with a bit of off-piste driving and camping thrown in then you will need a vehicle better suited to that style of travel. You will save a ton of money by investing in the vehicle which is best suited to your style of travel. How do you discover your style? Get out there and do it! Take whichever vehicle you have and go for a long drive, explore, meet other travellers and study their rigs. Only then will you know what is right for you.

The Bell family has been overlanding the planet continuously since 2012 in a Land Rover Defender 130, known affectionately as Mafuta.
We have home-schooled our children (Keelan, 20 and Jessica, 15), have written three books about our journey and international overland travel and are determined to explore the planet by whatever means possible, immersing ourselves into the cultures, languages and countries we visit.

This journey is the greatest challenge we have ever faced. We live hand-to-mouth and invest every cent we earn in this dream of overlanding the planet – until old age stops us in our tracks. We do not live by a schedule and travel spontaneously, going where the road takes us with only a distant destination as a geographic goal. Since 2010 and over 250 000 kilometers, we and our trusty Land Rover have explored southern and East Africa, have circumnavigated South America and drove from Argentina to Alaska before touring North America extensively.

The family then drove across the USA, and together, over three months of blood, sweat and tears, converted the Defender into an off-road camper with accommodation for four adults and capable of taking on the planet’s most challenging terrain. In early 2017 the Land Rover was shipped to the United Kingdom and the family began a journey around Europe and to Asia Minor (Turkey).

In late 2018 we began a trans-Africa journey from Morocco to South Africa along the volatile West African coast.
Our adventures are documented in bi-monthly episodes on our Patreon channel – A2A Expedition.
You can find us on:
Instagram: Graeme.r.bell
Facebook: A2A Expedition

Discover the planet with the Bell Family!

The Bells are a South African family who kicked normality in the crotch and set off in their Defender to explore the planet overland.
These books are their story.
We Will Be Free – Overlanding from Cape Town to Kilimanjaro, selling up and setting off to circumnavigate South America.
Overlanding the Americas – La Lucha! (The Fight) – From Ecuador to Alaska, the highs and lows, financial ruin and rebirth through dedication.
Travel the Planet Overland – Written to inspire! This book shares the secrets of how anyone, sufficiently motivated, can overland the world. From vehicle preparation to travel hacks, our most popular book yet!
Coming soon: Overlanding Europe and West Africa.
To purchase your books visit