Overlanding vs Off-Roading: What’s the Difference, Anyway?

The line between overlanding and off-roading is blurrier than ever, but they aren’t the same thing. Let the experts explain.

byCaleb Jacobs|
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Back in 2020, we were all faced with a choice: stay inside or get outdoors, far away from everyone else. Many chose the latter, and lo, the overlanding craze boomed as a result. It continues to erupt as new off-road-capable trucks and SUVs debut every other week with cheers from drivers and the aftermarket. The barrier to entry is lower than ever because of that—but what does this explosion of interest and access mean for overlanding in the traditional sense?

It's tricky. You might have noticed that "overlanding" has almost become synonymous with "off-roading" in the casual 4x4 lexicon lately. The two terms are often used interchangeably, which misrepresents both as something they're really not—or rather, something they aren't entirely. Off-roading is a part of it, but the larger definition of overlanding has just as much to do with navigating, overnighting, and generally experiencing the world as it does with trail driving. I know that could sound like gatekeeping, but by no means do you need a $150,000 rig and the latest gear to overland—it's all about the spirit.

Take it from Clay and Rachelle Croft, who recently wrapped up a long-term Nordic journey across the Scandinavian Peninsula. They've spent more than a decade turning Expedition Overland into a brand with its own streaming service and 350,000 YouTube subscribers. They've managed this while also transversing the globe for the sake of adventure, living life across North America, South America, Europe, and Australia, almost always behind the wheel of a Toyota.


In doing so, they've built a career around helping define what overlanding is in the 21st century for a huge swath of people. The three of us spoke about this culture shift that has transformed a previously tiny niche into the next big thing for automakers, gear companies, and yes, content creators.

"Overlanding is the mountaineering of the vehicle-based adventure world, which is why it's so cool because it has all these different skill sets built in," Clay said. "So when I go out and do a trail run for the day, I'm just honing in that part of the skill set that I need for the greater objective of overlanding when I want to do a big trip. So they're all valuable things.

"Camping—running the camp well, being efficient—very important on a big overlanding trip. People have kind of latched the bigger word to smaller things like camping, and I can understand why they'd do that, but really the term 'overlanding' and 'overland travel' is much more aspirational than a single skill set."

"And in the earlier definitions [of overlanding], there's always an international component to that," Rachelle continued. "Because you want to cross that border, you want to interact with a new culture around you. There's such a difference between flying in, hopping on a tour bus, and going on a guided tour as driving your own vehicle through that country or even flying in to rent a vehicle and then driving through that country. Because then you're getting gas, you're buying groceries, everything's different—and you have to figure it out and problem solve. At the end of the day, that's really the bones, the foundation, and the mission of why we do what we do.

"We believe travel—especially international travel—will make you a better person. It's really hard to have those experiences and do that problem solving without growing as a person, having empathy for other people."

Again, no one is assuming every person has the option or ability to travel abroad. I'll be the first to tell you that spending days on end in a truck with my wife and two young kids would be rough, and that's before a breath is breathed about the budget it requires. This is strictly referencing the origins of the hobby and how they inform it still today. In other words, to use the term accurately, overlanding generally requires going a bit farther than a backcountry fire road 20 minutes from your house.

Ultimately, this is a semantic debate. What matters most to people like Clay and Rachelle is that however you experience the outdoors, the land is being respected. And that's another division they've noticed.

"You have overlanders that, from their roots, came from a place of going and traveling to see the world out of respect for the world," he said. "And [they] want to float through it sight unseen and experience it." Clay went on to draw a distinction between that and the "off-road trail guy that would throw his beer can out the side of the Jeep." And even outside that kind of disregard for nature, the object of off-roading—finish the trail, get from A to B—creates a very different mindset.

"These are two opposite mentalities," Clay added. "Overlanding has now turned into the new phrase for off-roader, which isn't really the case, which is why we've always stayed away from that [label]."

Now, cinematography has been the Crofts' gig even longer than overlanding has, and they first started this project in 2010 before everyone and their brother became an influencer. This much is clear when you see how crisp and clean their videos are. If you've watched them, you know they're less run-and-gun and more slow drama than your typical four-wheeling channel.

"What people don't realize is when we started, YouTube only allowed two-minute videos," Clay explained. "We could only put our content on Vimeo because that's what allowed for long-form. And if you wanted it to go anywhere to be seen as long-form content, you pretty much had to go to TV."

"Our goal when we started... we were hoping for it to land on Discovery," Rachelle added. "That's the caliber we were aiming for. So we didn't stumble into filming a show and putting it on YouTube. We started with the intentionality, like Clay said, coming from cinematography, we wanted to film these shows and make good-quality TV. We didn't like the reality TV that was on Discovery at the time, so we felt like there's a way to do it differently."

Nowadays it seems strange to think about overlanding without some sort of public documentation of your trip. That's what social media has done to the hobby, sometimes for better and other times for worse. Whether you go on a trek with a 4K camera or a Polaroid, though, enjoying the journey ought to be the focus. I'd argue Clay and Rachelle nail that; what they do is almost like an ultra-HD, dynamic version of the 48-hour prints that used to be so common. The form of media is different, but the memories are still at the center.

There are obviously good 4x4 enthusiasts who go off-roading and not overlanding. I'd like to consider myself one, as I don't venture outside my native Ozarks much. But each term carries with it a certain association that, rightly deserved or not, impacts the people who enjoy the hobbies respectfully.

You can be on either side and enjoy it, but division is nasty no matter if you poke fun at the rednecks in their small block Chevy-powered Jeeps or the clean-cut dude in his $80,000 built Toyota Tacoma. Just make sure you're respectful of others and the terrain you both inhabit. We've only got one Earth and we're meant to be good stewards of it. Let's not mess that up even more.

Got a tip or question for the author? Contact them directly: caleb@thedrive.com