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  • Polaris Overland

Overlander, Van Lifer Or Car Camper?

They say that the best way to get people involved is to deliver something controversial and or dramatic.

Maybe this will come under that kind of header as I say Overlander, Van Lifer and even Car Campers are all the same. And this is true in many cases. I will also say not all Overlanders are Van Lifers or Car Campers and the same holds true in the reverse. But a van lifer certainly can be an overlander as can a car camper and we have seen evidence of this on our trips.

Overlanders or Car Campers? Does it matter? Look at the smiles!

So why does the debate over what is an Overlander so often get heated? Well personally I think social media has much to do with it . Right now it's fashionable to be an overlander or a van lifer but no one seems to want to be classed as a car camper.

Overlanding USA

Overlanding is also regional in both style and description. For instance, in the USA an Overlander tends to be more of what we would call in the UK an off roader in tricked out 4x4’s with big tyres and raised suspension ready for serious off road but rarely do they cross international borders.

Overlanding Namibia Africa

In Africa the style of overlanding is different to that in UK where tarmac roads are few and far between so vehicles tend to be standard but prepared for the roads and tracks that make up the road networks on that continent. And in Australia we see similar to the USA on tricked out vehicles often towing tricked out trailers.

In the UK / Europe Overlanders tend to be driving a 4x4 (but not always) vehicles but often standard running gear and maybe all terrain tyres for driving mainly on tarmac and crossing international borders before heading off into different continents such as Africa and Asia. This is where we fit into the picture as Car Camping Overlanders in a Van.

So which region is the true overlander? The answer is all of them and more importantly who cares what they are called, it’s the journey that counts not what you are called!

Camel Trophy Overlanders

Throughout social media we see pictures of Overlanders portrayed as Livingstone style adventurers looking for their Victoria Falls in gnarly Camel Trophy style 4x4 vehicles fitted with recovery gear, side lockers, a winch, hi lift jacks and a driving dash that would not look out of place on a rocket to the moon.

Van Life Dreams

Van lifers are displayed as good looking carefree hippy types with huge happy smiles doing paddle boarding and Yoga as they relax on sun kissed beaches or play guitars around a roaring fire and usually there is a cute dog.

Car Campers

Then we get to Car Campers. Car Campers come over risk averse families in a campsite with badminton and sickly-sweet smiles of a perfectly manicured wife and happy smiling children but no sense of adventure and not a hint of sweat or dirt on anyone.

Ok so I’m being a little bit disingenuous but in the end what does it matter what you are called when you are doing the things you enjoy and why does what your description make such a difference?

The honest answer is it doesn’t, to your trip that is, but it seems it does to your ego or sense of where you think you belong on the ladder of outdoor travel. Put simply being an Overlander is a medal of honour to be worn and stated with pride, a fashion statement and lifestyle rolled into one with all the positive impressions of adventure and daring do that come with it where as to be recognised as a Car Camper is something whispered and hardly ever shouted out loud.

In the past we used to pack up our 4WD pick up, loaded with Kayaks, Tent, BBQ, kids, and a dog and head off to a campsite in the Lake District for a couple of weeks. We weren’t Overlanders although we did cross a country border and were definitely not Van Lifers so we must have been Car Campers. Did that affect our enjoyment of the freedom of a couple of weeks away camping, BBQ’s, kayaking, hillwalking, and gill scrambling. Not at all we had a ball doing all the things we enjoy and as #overlandbound say" adventure is necessary" but it does not need an expedition prepared vehicle, a hilift jack and mud terrain tyres. No it just needs what ever you have available and the right mentality.

Back in those days, we didn’t really have social media to give us an unrealistic and totally false impression of what we need to be and how we need to do it to be happy. We did what we did because we enjoyed it, we did it as efficiently as we could to make our trips more comfortable and apart from shared photos with family it was not shared far and wide in the effort to attain followers and create likes.

Step away from the kind of negativity that encourages you to fit in with a particular stereotype which is ultimately just a push by modern day society to put a brand or tag on everything as if by doing so it creates some sort of order.

Wakhan Valley - Tajikistan

Social media is a great tool but also has much to answer for in offering up unrealistic garden of edenesque vistas that often have no connection with reality. Whilst on our trips we have found stunning instagramable locations, we have met some of the most generous people ever and swam in warm clear clean waters but we have also experienced completely the opposite which is not the social media dream and this side of travel needs to be accepted before you set off on a trip.

Wild camping romantic versus reality

You will meet police and border officers pressurising you for bribes, you will spend the night in rubbish strewn sites where you need to try and clear up as best you can just to be able to relax, you will struggle to find clean water to drink and bathe and you will find like in every society those who can be a threat to your possessions or safety.

Mountain sluice bathing in Kazakhstan

We have washed in mountain sluices and freezing cold rivers, camped up surrounded by rubbish and junk. Every day is not an Instagram post and you should expect the reality.

You will have to deal with different cultures, languages and laws that can catch you out unless you do your homework.

Overlanding requires an ability to create travel itineraries, navigate the world of visas and plan logistics for your trip and when plans change, which they will, adapt and regroup to be able to continue your journey as we experienced with Angela’s emergency surgery in Uzbekistan.

Border Money Changing - $100 worth in Uzbekistan

You will be working with many different currencies and in some cases exchange rates that seem ludicrous and understanding exchange rates and where you can and cannot get money is key to ensuring you get the best bang for your buck so to speak.

Expect vehicle break downs and recoveries along the way as they will happen and usually at the worst moment. Its just the physics of mechanics, things wear and break and when you take a heavily laden vehicle across thousands of miles of corrugations and pot holes things will break and wear out. We had over the 3 years an intercooler blow, a head gasket replacement, a number of welding repairs and multiple UJ's and wheel bearings replaced. So it makes sense to learn your vehicle, understand some of the simpler tasks and create a maintenance / inspection schedule.

A good maintenance schedule is key

Here we offer some good simple examples of the issues associated with overlanding. Recognising that medicines legal in one country may cause you problems at the border crossing into another as we found crossing from Turkey into Georgia. This held us up for a couple of hours whilst they looked up every medicine in our first aid kit online to check ingredients before Dave had to sign a form written in Georgian that he could not read and was not translated and additionally have the medicines (in this case Asda decongestant) confiscated.

In Russia as we have blogged before about how Dave was stopped by a Police Patrol and told he should not be on the road he was driving. He had a Visa and all the required vehicle paperwork; he was leaving a town after picking up supplies and he had not had any issues at the previous 2 police stops or on our outward journey some months before. But he was on a local road and not a federal road and apparently in some regions this is not allowed. It took a friendly lady who spoke a little English helping to translate and calls to the UK Embassy in Moscow to avoid being deported.

We have experienced being separated at border crossings where the driver crosses with the vehicle and passengers must cross on foot. Dave was then subjected to about 5 hours of pressure and in some cases intimidation to make a payment or at very least hand over a gift with the Landy being emptied and inspected four times and x-rayed once. This happened to us crossing back from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan. Dave was stuck with border officials whilst Angela was pushed to cross the border, in affect we were in different countries separated with no means of contact and Angela left worrying about where Dave was and what was happening. On future crossings neither of us crossed the line until the other was ready to cross, a lesson learned.

Georgia early evening before the unwanted visitors

In Georgia in remote mountains and in the middle of the night we were accosted by a bunch of drunken Georgians trying to climb the ladder to get to our roof tent and it took a lot of self-control to show them the error of their ways and to move away which gave us a chance to drop the roof tent and get away to a more secure place. And in Spain we were robbed of our passports on the hard shoulder of a toll road. All of these are the realities of life on the road crossing international borders but thankfully most of them are few and far between. We have seen these stories repeated in similar fashion by many of our overlanding friends. But these issues are the in the minority and by connecting with other travellers you can get a real time update on the areas you are travelling through helping you avoid trouble spots and prepare you for what to expect at border crossings. Patience is also a valuable asset as 14 hour border crossings are not unheard of with Russia into Mongolia an example. Not because things are difficult but because it can be a slow process so prepare, have a good book, sandwiches a lot of patience and sit back and enjoy the unique experience.

Mongolian Border Crossing - A lesson in patience

Experiencing an overland journey is life changing and whilst we do tend to hear more about the horror stories these are in the minority with the positive experiences massively outweighing the negative experiences so please don't let the negatives be the catalyst that stops you travelling especially when you consider the risks you take daily just going to work!

So we say grasp the opportunity to unburden yourself from the weight of societies expectations and accept the freedom of living and unloading of possessions to set off on a journey where your biggest priority is keeping the vehicle moving. And don’t get weighed down worrying about what might happen instead concentrate on soaking up the adventure.

And whilst Coronavirus keeps the world locked down the best advice these car camping overlanders in a van can offer you is don’t hesitate, start planning your journey as none of us knows what the future holds and what will be out there when we finally get to overland again.


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