Overlanding vs Car Camping: What’s the Difference?

When people think of camping, they often picture pitching a tent in a designated campground and enjoying s’mores around the campfire. However, there’s a different type of camping experience that’s gaining popularity: overlanding. Overlanding is often confused with car camping, but the two are actually quite different. Both offer opportunities to escape the daily grind and connect with nature, but overlanding takes camping to the next level. In this article, I’ll explore the differences between overlanding and car camping to clear up any confusion and help you understand the unique characteristics and benefits of each type of camping.

What is Overlanding?

Overlanding is a type of self-reliant travel that involves exploring remote or off-road areas using a rugged vehicle equipped with camping gear, food, and water supplies. Overlanding can involve traveling through various terrains and landscapes, including deserts, mountains, forests, and waterways, often for extended periods, such as weeks or months. The goal of overlanding is to experience the journey and connect with the natural environment, rather than reaching a specific destination.

Moreover, overlanding offers the opportunity to explore off-the-beaten-path locations, experience a deeper sense of adventure and self-reliance, and connect with nature in a more profound way than car camping.

Overlanding requires a higher degree of self-sufficiency and planning than car camping. Overlanders must carry all the supplies they need with them, as they may not have access to nearby towns or facilities. They must also be prepared for emergencies, such as vehicle breakdowns or medical issues, as they may be traveling in remote areas far from civilization.

While not required, overlanders often use specialized vehicles, such as 4×4 trucks or SUVs, that are capable of traversing rough terrain and steep inclines. They may also have specialized equipment, such as rooftop tents, off-road tires, and winches, that allow them to access and set up camp in more remote locations.

What is Car Camping?

Car camping, on the other hand, involves setting up camp in a designated campground or established campsite, often with amenities such as toilets, fire pits, showers and picnic tables. Car campers typically bring a vehicle equipped with basic camping gear, such as tents, sleeping bags, and cooking supplies. They may also have access to nearby towns or facilities to purchase food and supplies, and can usually drive to and from their campsite easily.

Conversely, car camping is a more accessible and convenient way to experience camping, as it requires less planning and self-sufficiency than overlanding. Car campers can bring more gear and supplies with them, as they do not need to carry everything on their backs or in their vehicle.

Car camping is often used as a weekend or short-term camping experience, as it is easier to plan and execute than overlanding. It is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and connect with nature, without the need for extensive planning or specialized equipment.

Which Is the Best Camping Style for You?

When deciding whether to go overlanding or car camping, it’s important to consider your camping goals, preferences, and level of experience. Here are some factors to consider to help you determine which type of camping is the better option for you:

  1. Terrain and Destination: Overlanding is typically done in remote and rugged areas that require a specialized vehicle, while car camping can be done in established campgrounds and recreational areas. If you’re planning to explore off-the-beaten-path destinations that require a four-wheel-drive vehicle and advanced off-road skills, overlanding may be the better option. However, if you’re looking for a more traditional camping experience in a scenic location with easy access to amenities like bathrooms, water, and electricity, car camping may be the way to go.
  2. Equipment and Gear: Overlanding requires specialized equipment and gear, including a capable vehicle, roof top tent or camping trailer, portable fridge/freezer, water filtration system, and other camping essentials. Car camping, on the other hand, requires less specialized gear and can be done with a simple tent, sleeping bag, and cooler. If you already own a four-wheel-drive vehicle and enjoy the challenge of outfitting it for off-road adventures, overlanding may be a good fit for you. If you prefer a more minimalist approach to camping or don’t want to invest in specialized gear, car camping may be the better option.
  3. Skill Level and Experience: Overlanding requires a higher level of skill and experience than car camping, as it involves navigating challenging terrain, performing basic vehicle maintenance, and dealing with unexpected situations out in nature. If you have experience in off-road driving, vehicle maintenance, and outdoor survival skills, overlanding may be a good fit for you. If you’re new to camping or prefer a more relaxed camping experience, car camping may be a better option.

Choose your Own Adventure

I always have a hard time deciding whether to tell someone I’m overlanding or car-camping. In most situations I say car-camping, because most people aren’t familiar with overlanding. For the most part, I think the two terms are pretty interchangeable. But I also think there are important distinctions, which is why I wanted to provide an overlanding definition and compare it to car-camping.

The main differences between overlanding and car camping are the level of self-sufficiency and the remoteness of the campsites. Overlanding requires a higher degree of self-sufficiency and planning, as overlanders must carry all their supplies with them and be prepared for emergencies. Overlanding also involves traveling to more remote and off-the-beaten-path locations, often for extended periods, than car camping.

Car camping, on the other hand, is a more accessible and convenient way to experience camping. It requires less planning and self-sufficiency than overlanding, and campers have access to amenities and facilities that are not available to overlanders. Car camping is often used for weekend or short-term camping experiences and is a great way to enjoy the outdoors without the need for specialized equipment or extensive

Ultimately, the decision to go overlanding or car camping depends on your personal preferences, camping goals, and level of experience. By considering these factors, you can choose the camping experience that best suits your needs and allows you to enjoy the great outdoors on your own terms.

How to find camping spots with cell reception

If you’re a digital nomad living the car camping life, you’re properly looking for nice camping spots that have reception. After all, you still need to work to sustain this lifestyle. Fortunately, there are tons of beautiful camping spots out there that still have reception, even if they are seemingly remote or secluded. And there are a few tools you can use to find them.

Tools for getting a cell signal

Possibly the simplest way to know ahead of time if the area you want to travel to has reception is to download the app OpenSignal. This app shows you a map of a selected area with different colors plotted on the map that show you the strength of the signal. Areas with green spots show strong signal, while areas with red or no coloring indicate little to no signal. Unsurprisingly, you’ll notice that areas along highways or within cities have the highest concentration of green spots. But every once in awhile it’ll show you remote or forested areas with reception. You can even configure the app to show you signal for specific cell carriers.

Another method for finding cell signal while camping is to use some of the camp-finding apps out there such as The Dyrt or FreeRoam (both of which I frequently use). The Dyrt’s Pro feature allows you to filter campsites by which cell carrier has signal at the location. FreeRoam’s filtering system has something similar, but it’s free, and even lets you determine how strong of a signal you’re looking for. Both apps seem to rely on user-generated assessments of the cell signal and may not be entirely accurate.

Other tools for finding cell signal

There other ways to find cell signal or acquire an internet connection while roaming the lands if you don’t mind dropping some money. Devices such as cell signal amplifiers or even satellite internet configurations can get you connected on the go.

You can find cell signal amplifiers at just about any major electronics store, such as Best Buy, or outdoor sporting goods stores such as REI. Amazon.com has several options as well, ranging from home & office setups, to car & RV options. And there are some for specific cell carriers like Verizon and AT&T. I personally haven’t used a cell signal amplifier, so make sure to diligently research these before purchasing.

Sometimes even just purchasing a run-of-the-mill cellular hotspot can slightly amplify a cell signal better than your smartphone. However, in my experience, they hardly work any better than my smarthphone.

For an even more expensive but arguably more solid solution, you can purchase satellite internet equipment ready-made for cars, SUVs and RVs. These usually require mounting large satellite dishes to the top of your vehicle or on the ground. They often cost thousands of dollars too. But thankfully, Elon Musk’s Starlink company has new satellite internet equipment specifically made for moving vehicles. While Starlink solutions are much cheaper than traditional satellite internet setups, it’ll still run you a couple thousand dollars.

Or, if you just need some way to communicate or access maps and weather reports when there’s no cell reception, the Garmin inReach is a popular choice. It even has an emergency SOS button and is a must-have for anyone spending lots of time in the remote backcountry. I use one of these myself to communicate my location to my mom when I know I won’t have reception for awhile. If anything, it’s peace of mind.

Working remotely in the wilderness

It is absolutely possible to find secluded camping spots with cell connectivity. Some of the best spots I’ve found had full or near full reception. There’s nothing like working remotely with a beautiful office view of some mountains or a lush forest. While the apps I mentioned above do help, sometimes I’m disappointed at the connectivity, and sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised. In the end it’ll take a little exploring to find ideal places to work and camp from. Once you’ve narrowed down an area with cell signal, learn how to explore forest roads to find an even more ideal spot for yourself.

Being able to work remotely in the wilderness is great and all, but if possible, I highly recommend finding beautiful places with no cell reception. Soon I’ll be publishing an article that explains all the reasons why camping with no reception is ideal. Stay tuned for that. But in the meantime, let me know if any of the methods written in this article have helped you find camping spots with cell reception, or if you have any other tips to offer!

The hidden gems for camping are down forest roads

Ever since I started doing some serious exploring for prime camping spots I’ve learned that the hidden gems are down forest roads. I’ve been doing occasional camping since I was a kid, but usually at well-known, maintained campgrounds in the PNW area. Now that I have my 4×4 and some trusty apps, my world has been opened up to some amazing new places.

What are forest roads?

Forest roads are a type of road designed specifically for access into wilderness areas. They’re often used for forest management, logging, firefighting, and recreational activities. Some of them are paved roads, but often (or the further through them you travel) they will be gravel or dirt roads. Depending on how well-managed a given forest road is, sometimes it is only possible to access them with a 4×4 or high-clearance vehicle. And in other cases, they’re only accessible with small, non-highway legal vehicles such as ATVs. But in my experience, most forest roads can be accessed with any type of vehicle, up to a certain point.

Enter into any national forest or wilderness area and you are likely to find forest roads strewn throughout and off to the sides of main roads. Popular navigation apps like Google Maps sometimes don’t show them unless they are directly in route to your destination.

Finding the forest roads

Usually what I’ll do to find forest roads is use a combination of apps to narrow down good candidates. For example, I’ll use The Dyrt to find a decent campsite in an area I’d like to explore. Once I arrive to the area, I’ll load the app Gaia GPS which displays all of the forest road networks in the area.

Another tactic, if you have the time and gas to spare, is to simply head into the wilderness area you want to camp in and keep an eye out for unpaved roads off the main road. Make sure there aren’t any “No Trespassing” signs or anything, of course. Once you start travelling down forest roads, it becomes easier to identify them in the future when you’re just cruising through forested land.

Typically, the further you travel down a forest road, the more likely you’ll find some nice and secluded camping spots. Oftentimes what you’ll find are little pull outs where you can park and sleep in your vehicle, if that’s your jam. Larger areas where you can set up a tent are a little less common, but they’re out there! It really depends on what forest you’re in. You can also use Google Earth to identify spots along forest roads.

I went exploring the Olympic National Forest last summer and found a logging forest road that led me to a beautifully forested, secluded area with full reception. I camped out there in my car and worked remotely for a week!

Over the summer of 2022 I found countless hidden gems by exploring forest roads. I was able to do the type of camping I only dreamed of in prior years. My preference is for areas that are either lushly forested, or offer vast, scenic views in remote, secluded areas. All of that and more can be found along forest roads.

Long-term camping is teaching me to be more sustainable

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As I ramp up my car-camping digital nomad lifestyle, I’ve been reflecting on how it’s teaching me to be more sustainable. More so than I’d be at home with seemingly unlimited resources. Out on the road, I have noticeably finite resources, especially when I’m in more remote places for long periods. So long-term camping has me thinking about how the products I use affect the environment and how I can best stretch out my resources.

Rationing resource usage

Camping is usually a game of determining how much you can pack in your car and survive off of before calling it quits or making a trip to the nearest store. The game becomes more complicated when camping long-term, maybe for a week or more, while also in remote locations. The essential resources I’m usually thinking about are:

  • Water
  • Energy (gas and electricity)
  • Food

I use water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking. Gas is obviously used for my car, but my vehicle sometimes doubles as a gas-powered generator so that I can charge my equipment. The electricity stored in my battery packs and Jackery generator is used for whatever electronic devices I bring, whether for entertainment, work, or survival. As for food, I try to bring a good combination of dry foods and whatever fits in my portable refrigerator.

And then there are the miscellaneous resources such as cleaning wipes, paper towels, personal hygiene items etc.

With the essential resources, long-term camping has forced me to think about what can be recycled. For instance, after a week of camping, I realized how quickly water is used. Everything from washing my hands to doing dishes uses much more water than I had expected. So I started thinking creatively and realized that some of the water I use could be recaptured and used again. I try to capture any excess water I use for cooking, doing dishes, or washing my hands in a container. Later, I re-use it for putting out campfires or rinsing dirt off of some things.

Furthermore, I’m forced to think more about my electricity usage and how far I can stretch my battery power before recharging. Whenever possible, I operate my electronics in lower power or eco mode, and I completely power down devices when I’m not using them, as well as when I’m charging them.

My electric generator is easily the most essential piece of equipment I have. It has a large capacity, but I need to give it some charge often so I’m not stuck in a situation where it is depleted when I really need it. Soon I plan on buying a solar panel accessory to have it charge throughout the day when there is sunlight. But for now, I plug it into my car port whenever I drive somewhere else. Sometimes I’ll let it run off my car battery alone for a bit. Or sometimes I’ll do a “5-minutes on, 10-minutes off” sort of rotation with my car so that I don’t drain my car battery.

When cooking food, I try to estimate the exact serving size that will fill me up instead of cooking a surplus of food and wasting some. However, if you bring suitable food storage containers and can prevent things from spoiling, that’s a good alternative. I also find getting food that doesn’t need to be reheated is a good idea. I have a propane gas burner that can reheat some food, but even the gas used for that is limited.

Sustainable products

Another thing I often think about these days is which products that I bring into the wilderness are the most harmful to the environment. Of course, sustainable consumerism is something I think about a lot at home in the city too. But things feel more palpable when you’re directly interfaced with nature. Certain products, such as plastic, stand in contrast to my immediate surroundings whenever I pull them out to use. It also doesn’t help that I sometimes see the trash remnants of prior, less sustainability-minded campers in the spots I choose. One principle I’ve been following is to try and leave a camping spot cleaner than how I found it.

In terms of sustainable products, I try to think about possible alternatives to the things I’d traditionally use while camping. For example, there are biodegradable versions of most cleaning wipes, such as hand wipes, body wipes, and general cleaning wipes. In addition, the soap I use for dishwashing is environmentally-friendly, and I’m currently shopping for other sustainable personal hygiene products. Toothbrushes & toothpaste, body wash/soap, and paper towels are examples of things I’m hoping to replace soon.

Gas usage

Arguably the worst thing I’m doing to the environment is constantly driving. Unfortunately, I’m a bit priced out of high-range electric vehicles with 4WD, and there are limits to where I can go with EVs due to the underdeveloped fast-charging network infrastructure. Nevertheless, I have high hopes that EVs will become a better alternative for digital nomads soon. 

For now, I try to do things like better trip planning and getting better at timing when I have my car engine on. As I mentioned before, there are times when I need to charge a bunch of things in a pinch. In those situations, I may use a “5-minutes on, 10-minutes off” rotation to avoid emitting too much gas while keeping in mind my car battery. Fortunately, I do have a portable jumper cable that I can use if my battery does die.

Overall I try not to let my car idle. I also tend not to drive aggressively and prefer seeing how high I can get my gas mileage while driving. It helps to have a vehicle that displays that sort of info in the dashboard. For what it’s worth, I also use premium gas because apparently it gives you better gas mileage and price savings in the long run.

Becoming one with nature

Going forward, it’s a no-brainer that I should continue optimizing my sustainability as a digital nomad. Not only does it help the environment, but it potentially helps to save me money. I’m thinking about how I can recycle my grey water, which products are biodegradable, and how I can stretch out my resources. I suspect that I’ll bring this improved mindset home with me when I head back to the city.

To be one hundred percent sustainable may not be realistic for most digital nomads. But with the products on the market today, we’re privileged to have options. As consumers, we can also make sure we are buying from sustainability-focused companies and advocate for better products.

There’s so much more I could be doing better, and I’m only scratching the surface. If you have any tips or suggestions for me, please let me know, and I’ll try to incorporate them into my lifestyle!