Nearly 20 years ago, on a cold, early-December Friday afternoon, I left my job as managing editor at AutoWeek magazine, caught a ride to Detroit’s Metro Airport, and flew to Phoenix to begin the next phase of my professional and personal lives.
One of the first things I did was to buy my first pickup truck, a Nissan Frontier Crew Cab, and a 4×4 because now that I was going to be living in the Sonoran Desert, I wanted to explore, from the sandy trails of its floor to the steep roads up the mountains that punctuate its expanse.
I also ordered a tent designed that fit in the truck’s bed because sleeping on the ground with snakes and scorpions and other desert dangers offered no appeal, though it supplied plenty of apprehension.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I was a pioneer in what has come to be termed “Overlanding.”
Although “overlanding” is not yet an entry in my Merriam-Webster dictionary, OverlandingJournal.com defines it as “self-reliant adventure travel to remote destinations where the journey is the primary goal.”
I thought I was just driving off-road and camping off-ground. But at the recent SEMA Show in Las Vegas, not only was there a huge “Overlanding Experience” enclosure, but many of the companies that produce trucks, SUVs and equipment for them set up their own overlanding-style campsites in their SEMA Show displays.
“Buyers at the 2019 SEMA Show can see products and vehicles specifically for overlanding in the all-new SEMA Overland Experience area,” show officials proclaimed in a news release. “The dedicated section in the Performance Pavilion opened Tuesday, November 5, and featuring dozens of customized vehicles with portable kitchen systems, fully popped-out tents and sunshades.
“The vehicles are all outfitted for long-term backcountry exploration and survival in off-the-grid conditions. Also in the area, experts are sharing information and discussing trends, business opportunities and challenges in the overlanding market.”
“The new Overland Experience showcases a growing trend in the market,” SEMA vice president Tom Gattuso was quoted. “With overlanding products, vehicles and education displayed in a centralized location, buyers will gain a comprehensive understanding of what the market entails and how they can build overlanding into their businesses.”
SEMA admitted to “many similarities and connections to off-roading” and pointed out that the overlanding phenomenon “has roots in countries including Australia and South Africa and certain parts of South America, and has taken off in the United States during the past decade.”
SEMA’s Overland Experience was sort of a mini version of the Overland Expo, a series of events “for do-it-yourself adventure travel enthusiasts” with vendors and educational sessions held annually in Arizona, Colorado and Virginia.
Among those displaying at the Overland Experience was Tepui, a company based in California that started producing overlanding tents and other gear in 2010 after its founder did a trip across Venezuela and was inspired by seeing makeshift tents mounted atop various vehicles. Tepui takes its name from a mountain in the Guiana Highlands.
In late 2018, and recognizing the marketing opportunities overlanding presents, Swedish roof-rack producer Thule acquired Tepui.
“Does this mean high-end car camping — often called overlanding — is poised to become a mainstream trend?” asked Outside magazine’s website.
As I wandered among the various overlanding displays, I could overhear a well-attended panel discussion sharing information about the growing trend. I had assumed that “overlanding” might be newfangled millennial trend, a gentrification of off-roading.
“But what I heard was that a generation of backpackers is aging, has knees that no longer can carry all their gear all day, and who now want to use their vehicles to carry that gear and then to serve as a base camp.
I also heard that what overlanders also want is to be able to go places where they can get away from the noise and commotion of the dirt bikes, sand rails and other loud machines that have invaded so many off-road areas.