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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Top Overlanding Routes in the U.S.: Unforgettable Adventures for Off-Road Explorers

Photo by sshepard via iStock

Overlanding is an exciting way to experience the great outdoors, traverse rugged terrain, and create unforgettable memories with your family and friends. As a mixture of off-roading, camping, and adventure traveling, it’s become extremely popular among folks looking for a unique way to explore the world around them. From coast to coast, the U.S. boasts tons of picturesque landscapes and exciting trails that make for once-in-a-lifetime overlanding journeys.

The key to a successful overlanding adventure is selecting an epic route that offers a perfect mix of stunning scenery, challenging terrain, and a wide variety of destinations to explore. With so many routes to choose from, narrowing down the list might seem daunting. However, that’s why we’ve put this article together! It acts as a guide to some of the most remarkable overlanding routes in the U.S. to consider for your own bucket list.

These top overlanding routes will take you through breathtaking landscapes, historic landmarks, and untamed wilderness areas, each presenting their own unique challenges and rewards. Whether you’re a seasoned overlander or just starting your journey, these routes offer the ultimate outdoor adventure that promises to be an unforgettable odyssey.

So, with that, let’s get started!

Table of Contents

The Allure of Overlanding in the U.S.

Defining Overland Travel

Overlanding is a form of adventure travel that focuses on the journey rather than the destination. This recreational activity involves exploring remote regions and off-road terrain using vehicles like 4x4s, trucks, or SUVs. While overlanding routes in North America are diverse and vast, they share a common goal of immersing the traveler in the beauty of the great outdoors.

Some popular overlanding trails and routes in the U.S. include the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park and the High Water Mark Trail in the Ozark Mountains. One of the most difficult trails in the U.S. – the Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail – is highlighted in the video above by The Story Till Now.

Benefits of Overlanding Adventures

benefits of overlanding adventures

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1. Unbeatable Scenery: Overland travel offers the opportunity to explore diverse landscapes, from the arid deserts of the Southwest to the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest. The constantly changing scenery keeps the journey fresh and exciting.

2. Solitude and Connection: Overlanding allows travelers to disconnect from their daily lives and enjoy the peace and quiet of nature. This form of adventure travel nurtures a strong connection with the environment and can promote personal growth.

3. Physical and Mental Challenges: Navigating off-road terrain and overcoming obstacles require both physical and mental resilience. Overlanders learn valuable problem-solving skills and determination through these experiences.

4. Camaraderie: Overlanding often brings like-minded individuals together. Whether it’s joining a group of fellow adventurers or sharing stories around the campfire, the sense of community and friendship is a valuable aspect of the overlanding culture.

When considering an overlanding adventure in the U.S., keep in mind the variety of routes, destinations, and experiences that await. From the breathtaking vistas of Canyonlands National Park to the rugged beauty of the Ozark Mountains, the possibilities for exploration and adventure are endless.

Essential Overlanding Gear

Choosing the Right Vehicle

When planning your overlanding adventure, the foundation of your trip is the vehicle you choose. Base your decision on factors such as the terrain you will be encountering, your budget, and your personal preferences.

Subarus and trucks are popular options for their off-road capabilities, as well as vans for those who prioritize additional space for living and storage. Be sure the selected vehicle has a reliable engine and the necessary off-road upgrades for the specific routes on your bucket list.

The video above by 396jnky offers some crucial insights into essential overlanding gear.

Must-Have Overlanding Equipment

morrflate pro air compressor with jeep

  1. Tent: Shelter is crucial for any overlanding trip. Roof-top tents are favorable due to their convenience and elevation from the ground, which keeps you safe from potential wildlife encounters during your camping experience. Consider factors such as ease of assembly, weight, and insulation when selecting your tent.
  2. Camping supplies: Plan for your specific needs and consider items such as a portable stove, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, and a cooler or refrigerator. These items will enhance your comfort and self-sufficiency while on the road.
  3. Winch: A winch should be considered essential for your vehicle. Encountering unpredictable terrain is part of the adventure, and you’ll need a dependable winch to assist with getting your vehicle unstuck.
  4. High-Lift Jack: A Hi-Lift Jack is a versatile tool for lifting your vehicle, aiding in tire changes, and helping in many recovery situations.
  5. Tire Air Compressor: Keeping your tires adequately inflated is critical for both on and off-road driving. I use the MORRFlate TenSix PSI Pro, and it’s an excellent example of a useful tool to maintain proper tire pressure. More on that in a minute…
  6. High-quality tires: Your vehicle’s tires will literally make or break your ability to get to where you want to go. Investing in good rubber for your rig will make your life so much easier!

I want to hit on the last two components just a little more…

MORRFlate in the snow with a timer

First, an air compressor is a crucial element of an overlanding kit. Compressors like the MORRFlate TenSix PSI Pro (shown above and below) have the CFM output (6.5 CFM at 30 PSI and 10.6 CFM at 0 PSI) to inflate up to six tires simultaneously. If you’re like me and you overland with a truck and trailer, having the ability to tend to all six tires at the same time is a huge bonus.

Second, a quality air compressor makes the process of inflating or deflating your tires so much easier. The TenSix PSI Pro, for example, has an auto PSI function that allows you to set it and forget it. So, let’s say you aired down earlier in the day and are ready to hit the pavement again. Just fire up the PSI Pro, dial in the desired PSI you want, and it’ll do the rest. Nice!

morrflate tensix psi pro gen2

A third element to this is that you want an air compressor that’s easy to transport. The TenSix is a compact unit (that’s also bright green, so you can easily see it, even at dusk) so you can mount it just about anywhere on your vehicle. Or, do like I do and keep the TenSix under your seat and get it out when you need it.

I’ve had the MORRFlate TenSix PSI Pro for a good, long while now, and it’s proven to be a fantastic addition to my overlanding kit. I use it to air down before I hit the trail, that way I have a more comfortable ride with the softer tires and shocks working together to manage the bumps, dips, and washboards of off-road travel. It’s easy to use, hugely functional, and the price isn’t bad, either!

milestar patagonia mt 02 tires

The other element of this equation is having the right tires for the job. Now, people are often very loyal to their chosen tire brand, and I totally get that. But if you want or need an upgrade in the tire department, I’d throw Milestar’s name out there as a solid choice.

I’ve been running Milestar Patagonia M/T 02 tires on my Gladiator (shown above and below) for a few years now, and they’ve been rock stars. They offer rugged off-road capabilities with excellent performance in mud, snow, and sand. They also offer a surprisingly comfortable and relatively quiet ride when I’m driving on paved roads. It’s the best of both worlds!

milestar patagonia mt tires

When I’m on difficult trails, I take solace knowing that these tires have a three-ply sidewall that is flexible, pliable, and also extremely durable and rigid. These tires can take the abuse of overlanding and off-roading without skipping a beat. This pliability also makes these tires ideal for airing down.

Additionally, the cross-directional siping ensures these tires have excellent tread block strength – another feature that helps improve the tire’s resilience and durability. It also ensures more stability, especially when you’re driving in challenging conditions.

milestar banner 2

I could go on and on about these tires, but you get the point. Adding rubber to your vehicle that’s durable, performs well in various situations, and has the siping and tread features you need to keep your truck on the trail is all too important!

When selecting your overlanding gear, prioritize quality and durability. Invest in the right equipment and vehicle to ensure a successful and memorable journey through the epic routes you have planned.

Top Overlanding Routes by Region

Western U.S. Overlanding Spots

The western region of the United States is renowned for its diversity of landscapes and challenging terrains, ideal for overlanding adventures. In the video above by Overland Trail Guides, learn about five awesome beginner trails in California.

Another notable route is the El Camino Del Diablo Overland Trail, located in Arizona, stretching 130 miles from Ajo to Yuma. Best explored during Spring (Feb-April) or Fall, this journey offers incredible sights and experiences.

In Utah, which offers plenty of amazing overlanding spots, you can choose from the picturesque White Rim Trail to the challenging Elephant Hill Trail. Oregon contributes to the list with the breathtaking trek along the Oregon Backcountry Discovery Route and the Washington Cascade Overland Route, providing scenic drives and challenging trails for different experience levels.

Midwest and Eastern U.S. Treks

Moving to the Midwest and Eastern U.S., you’ll find overlanding routes suitable for a variety of enthusiasts. The Ozark Overland Trail in Arkansas offers a challenging adventure through the Ozark Mountains. With a total distance of 140 miles and a recommended trip duration of 2-3 days, this journey is best experienced in Fall.

The eastern end of the U.S. offers overlanding spots in North Carolina, such as the infamous Uwharrie Mountains. This region boasts various difficulty levels and is home to many off-road clubs, making it a popular destination for outdoor explorers.

Alaskan Wilderness Routes

Last but not least, Alaska features some of the most breathtaking and remote overlanding routes in the entire U.S. Due to the nature of the terrain and weather conditions, adventurers in Alaska should be well prepared and experienced. The Dalton Highway is a challenging yet rewarding journey, spanning 414 miles from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean. This route showcases Alaska’s pristine landscapes, immense wildlife, and unparalleled scenic beauty.

Iconic Overlanding Trails

The Kofa Wilderness is a prime spot for overlanding in Arizona. Check out the video above by XplorAdventure to learn more!

Mojave Road: A Desert Adventure

The Mojave Road is a fascinating overland route that takes you through the heart of the Mojave National Preserve. Spanning approximately 140 miles, this off-road trail offers a mix of desert terrain, geological wonders, and historical sites. While passing through the preserve, adventurers will encounter diverse terrain including sandy washes, rocky hills, and dry lake beds. With its mix of stunning landscapes and rich history, the Mojave Road is a must-visit for any overlanding enthusiast.

The Historical Dalton Highway

Spanning over 414 miles, The Dalton Highway is an iconic overlanding route that starts just north of Fairbanks, Alaska, and ends in Deadhorse, Alaska, near the Arctic Ocean and the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field. This remote and challenging route traverses through the breathtaking Brooks Range, across the Arctic Circle, and eventually reaches the Arctic Ocean. Along the journey, travelers will experience some of the most remote landscapes in North America, marked by rugged terrain, extreme weather conditions, and stunning vistas. Due to its harsh climate, the best time to explore the Dalton Highway is during the summer months.

Rubicon Trail: Off-Roader’s Dream

Nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountain range is the legendary Rubicon Trail, a 22-mile off-road path that every off-roader dreams of conquering at least once in their lifetime. This challenging route features some of the most technically demanding terrain in the United States, from massive granite rock slabs to steep inclines and ledges. The beautiful landscape of forests, lakes, and alpine meadows is not only aesthetically pleasing but also provides a thrilling ride for any avid off-roader. The trail connects Placerville, California, with Lake Tahoe and is located within the boundaries of the Eldorado and Tahoe National Forests. The Rubicon Trail offers incredible excitement for those seeking an extreme off-roading experience.

Seasonal Considerations for Overlanding

seasonal considerations for overlanding

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Best Times to Travel Specific Routes

When planning an overlanding adventure, considering the season is essential to ensure a smooth trip. Different routes in the U.S. have their optimal travel times based on factors such as weather, difficulty, terrain, and wildlife.

  • El Camino Del Diablo Overland Trail: Located between Ajo, AZ and Yuma, AZ, this 130-mile trail is best traveled during spring (February to April) or fall, as it allows for more comfortable camping temperatures.
  • High Water Mark Trail (Ozark Overland Trail): This 140-mile route runs through the beautiful Ozark Mountains in Arkansas, and it’s recommended to visit during fall for better visibility and colorful foliage.
  • Dalton Highway: Stretching 414 miles from Fairbanks to Deadhorse in Alaska, the Dalton Highway is open year-round but can be challenging during winter months due to snow and darkness.

Some routes may be best suited for specific seasons because of unique experiences, such as witnessing the northern lights in Alaska during winter.

Weather Challenges and Solutions

weather considerations for overlanding

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Weather can present numerous challenges during an overlanding trip, depending on the season and chosen route. Here are some common weather-related issues and potential solutions:

  • Extreme heat: In desert regions, such as on the El Camino Del Diablo Overland Trail, high temperatures may cause discomfort when camping. To mitigate this, plan your trip for milder seasons, like spring or fall, and utilize coolers to keep food and drinks cold.
  • Slippery terrain: In mountainous areas, rain can cause muddy tracks, increasing the difficulty of the route. To tackle this, travel during drier seasons, ensure your vehicle has the appropriate tires, and prepare for potential recovery situations.
  • Snow and ice: Routes like the Dalton Highway may face harsh winter conditions, making travel more difficult and potentially leading to road closures. Solutions include traveling during warmer months or equipping your vehicle with proper winter gear, such as snow chains and quality insulation.

navigating overland trails

Photo by swissmediavision via iStock

Overlanding is a fantastic way to explore the vast and diverse terrains of the U.S., embracing the scenic routes and remote trails that define this captivating country. To fully enjoy and safely navigate these routes, it is essential to gain a comprehensive understanding of map reading, route planning, and off-roading techniques. This section provides an overview of the fundamentals to help ensure a successful overland adventure.

Mapping Your Overlanding Journey

Mapping your overlanding journey is a crucial first step. Begin by researching overland routes and trails that encompass your desired regions or states. Seek information on the most popular and recommended ways, bearing in mind the type of dirt roads or scenic routes you aim to tackle. It’s important to select paths that match your skill level and vehicle capabilities.

Gather resources such as paper maps, guidebooks, and online forums to gather intel on trails, landmarks, and any potential hazards or limitations. Additionally, consider incorporating GPS technology, both in your vehicle’s navigation system and backed up with handheld GPS units or smartphone apps. These digital backups provide an extra layer of security, accurate position data, and off-the-grid access.

When planning your route, pay attention to the following key factors:

  • Road conditions and terrain
  • Seasonal access and weather patterns
  • Estimated travel duration, including fuel and supply stops
  • Points of interest and attractions

A great way to present your route is through a table, which can serve as your trip planner.

Region Trail Name Terrain Recommended Season Duration
Arizona El Camino Del Diablo Desert Spring, Fall 1-2 days
California Rubicon Trail Mountains, Forest Summer, Fall 2-3 days
Colorado Black Bear Pass Mountains Summer, Fall 1 day

Technical Skills for Off-Roading

Mastering off-roading techniques is another crucial aspect that will enhance your overlanding experience. Practice essential skills before setting off on your journey, familiarizing yourself with your vehicle’s capabilities and limitations. Online and in-person courses offer guidance, lessons, and training for various off-roading scenarios, such as:

  • Steep inclines and declines
  • Rock crawling
  • Navigating through sand, mud, or snow
  • Water crossings and deep puddles

Traveling Responsibly and Safely

overlanding responsibly

Photo by Luca Ladi Bucciolini via iStock

When embarking on an epic overlanding adventure across the U.S., it’s crucial to prioritize responsible practices and safety. In this section, we will cover the important aspects of Leave No Trace Principles and Overlanding Etiquette and Safety to ensure a safe and enjoyable journey through our country’s stunning landscapes.

Leave No Trace Principles

Following the Leave No Trace Principles is essential for preserving the natural environments you traverse while overlanding. These principles emphasize minimizing your impact on nature and preserving the experience for future adventurers:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare: Research your route, camping locations, and the requirements for waste disposal, to avoid unnecessary harm to the environment.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Stick to established trails and designated campground sites to minimize damage to vegetation and wildlife habitats.
  3. Dispose of waste properly: Always carry out all of your trash and dispose of human waste following the best practices for the area you’re visiting.
  4. Leave what you find: Preserve the natural and cultural heritage by not removing any objects, plants, or artifacts from the sites you visit.
  5. Minimize campfire impact: Use a camp stove for cooking, and if a campfire is essential, use established fire rings or pans and opt for smaller fires.
  6. Respect wildlife: Observe animals from a distance, avoid feeding them, and store food in wildlife-proof containers.
  7. Be considerate of other visitors: Keep noise levels low and respect the privacy and tranquility of fellow travelers.

Overlanding Etiquette and Safety

overlanding etiquette

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When traveling through remote areas, it’s important to abide by proper overlanding etiquette and prioritize your safety:

  • Know your vehicle’s capabilities: Familiarize yourself with your vehicle’s clearance, traction, and recovery capabilities and terrain limits.
  • Travel with a group: A buddy system can be invaluable in case of emergencies or mechanical issues, and promotes responsible recreation.
  • Maintain communication: Carry a satellite phone, GPS device, and emergency locator beacon to stay connected in remote areas and facilitate safety measures.
  • Safety gear: Equip your vehicle with a basic first aid kit, fire extinguisher, jack, tool kit, and recovery gear (such as a shovel, winch, and traction mats).
  • Drive cautiously: Adjust your driving speed to match weather conditions and terrain features; offroad driving often requires slower, more deliberate maneuvers.
  • Respect the local community: When visiting small towns or rural areas, be courteous to local landowners, ask permission to enter private land, and support local businesses.
  • Stay informed: Keep track of weather forecasts, trail closures, and any potential hazards during your trip. Adjust your plans accordingly.

Creating an Overlanding Itinerary

creating an overlanding itenerary

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When planning an overlanding trip, it’s essential to create a solid itinerary. First, research the best Overlanding trails and routes in the U.S., and choose a few destinations that suit your interests and skill level. Some popular options include the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, the High Water Mark Trail in the Ozark Mountains, and the Alpine Loop in Colorado.

Make a list of the key waypoints, such as camping spots, off-roading trails, and points of interest. Gather essential information about each destination, like weather conditions, distances between points, and difficulty levels. Being organized and thorough during the planning stages will help ensure a smooth journey.

Budget and Time Management

Estimating your budget and time frame for an overlanding adventure is a crucial aspect of trip planning. Account for various expenses such as:

  1. Fuel: Calculate the approximate distance you’ll be traveling and your vehicle’s fuel consumption.
  2. Food: Plan your meals and snacks throughout the journey.
  3. Camping fees: Many campsites charge fees for overnight stays.
  4. Off-roading permits: Some off-road trails require permits.
  5. Vehicle maintenance: Set aside a budget for potential vehicle repairs and maintenance.

Time management is equally important, as it helps to avoid unexpected delays or interruptions during the trip. Strike a balance between traveling, off-roading, and camping. Allocate enough time for rest and leisure activities, such as exploring the destinations or enjoying outdoor activities like hiking or fishing.

Inspirational Overlanding Stories and Tips

inspirational overlanding stories

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Experienced Overlanders’ Advice

When embarking on an epic overlanding journey, seeking advice from experienced travelers is crucial to prepare for the adventures ahead. Many seasoned overlanders recommend creating a detailed plan that includes your route, estimated travel time, and essential supplies. For instance, the High Water Mark Trail, a popular route in the Ozark Mountains, spans approximately 140 miles and typically requires 2-3 days to complete.

Research your journey: Thorough research is key to a successful overlanding venture. Use resources like online forums and guidebooks to gather in-depth information about your chosen route, including topography, climate, and potential obstacles. This will help you anticipate challenges and plan accordingly.

Vehicle preparation: Proper vehicle maintenance, such as regular check-ups and utilizing the right equipment, is crucial. This ensures both safety and a comfortable experience throughout your trip.

Essential gear: Pack necessities like water, food, clothing, and first aid supplies to ensure a comfortable journey. Additionally, invest in essential overlanding gear like off-road tires, recovery equipment, and navigation tools.

Building the Overlanding Community

building the overlanding community

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The overlanding community is known for its camaraderie and support. By participating in overlanding events, you can meet like-minded adventurers and exchange valuable insights from various overlanding routes. There are numerous ways to contribute to and build the community:

  1. Share your stories: Document your overlanding experiences through blogs, photos, or videos, as these can inspire and inform fellow enthusiasts.
  2. Join local clubs: Connect with fellow overlanders in your region to discover new routes, share advice, and plan group trips.
  3. Communicate: Participate in online forums and social media groups to exchange ideas, seek input, or provide guidance to others.

The Future of Overlanding

the future of overlanding

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Trends and Technology in Overlanding

The world of overlanding is constantly evolving, as adventurers embrace new trends and technologies to enhance their off-road experiences. One significant development is the growing popularity of electric vehicles for overlanding trips. As more manufacturers introduce electric trucks and SUVs with improved range and power, these vehicles are set to become the backbone of future overlanding adventures.

Not only do electric vehicles offer a more sustainable way to travel, but they also bring advancements in on-board technology, such as advanced navigation systems, remote diagnostics, and smartphone integration. Additionally, innovations in portable power and solar charging solutions are making it easier for overlanders to stay connected and powered during their journeys.

Another trend shaping the future of overlanding is the integration of smart technologies into vehicles and gear. For instance, state-of-the-art communication systems and vehicle telematics are making it easier for travelers to stay informed about road conditions, weather forecasts, and local attractions. Moreover, overlanding equipment is becoming more modular and lightweight, thanks to cutting-edge materials and design techniques, allowing for easier packing and transport.

Sustainability and Overlanding Travel

As awareness of environmental issues grows, overlanders are increasingly seeking sustainable practices in their travels. One of the key elements of sustainable overlanding is the adoption of leave no trace principles. This involves minimizing waste, sticking to designated trails, and respecting wildlife habitats. By adopting such practices, overlanders can ensure that they are preserving natural environments for future generations to enjoy.

Another aspect of sustainability in overlanding is the use of eco-friendly vehicles, such as electric or hybrid models, which reduce the carbon footprint of their adventures. Many overlanders also opt for smaller vehicles to minimize their impact on the environment while maximizing efficiency.

Finally, some Overlanders are increasingly focused on community engagement as part of their sustainability efforts. This includes supporting local businesses, participating in community-based tourism projects, and working with conservation organizations to contribute to the protection of both the environment and local culture.

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