What’s the difference between Overlanding vs. Off-Roading?

Overlanding has a long and storied history, sharing its roots with the growth and expansion of human civilization. While humans have been “overlanding” since the beginning of their existence, today the term conjures very different images than it did long ago. But what exactly is overlanding? And what’s the difference between overlanding vs off roading?

What about all the 4WDs (Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, Jeep Gladiators, Toyota Tundra etc.) cruising off-roads?

Is that overlanding?

Is there really a difference between overlanding vs off-roading?

If you’re confused, you aren’t alone. While we explored overlanding in earlier blog posts, here we’ll dive a bit further into the difference between overlanding vs off-roading.

Overlanding vs Off Roading Colorado

Origins of Overlanding

Overlanding is exactly what it sounds like: travel over land. It has been a primary mode of transportation for hundreds of years. The earliest humans traveled over-land primarily by foot, eventually taking to the backs of horses, camels, donkeys, and other four-legged friends amenable to carrying humans and their gear across vast landscapes.

While the concept of “overlanding” has been around since the dawn of mankind, the actual term first surfaced in Australia. The term was used to reference the droving of livestock across the vast lands of the outback.

Pioneers of “overlanding” cut tracks across the outback, opening new territory and stock routes for driving sheep, cattle, and other livestock to market. These original routes are still used by overlanders today.

Overlanding Today

Many peoples and cultures around the world still “overland” as they have for hundreds of years, driving their herds with the seasons in search of better climes, abundant food, water sources, and markets.

And, while overlanding is still alive and well in this sense, today the term “overlanding” is much more broad. The term is often used to describe travel overland via a mechanized vehicle – from bicycles to cars, trucks, and Jeeps – with off-road or all-terrain capabilities, where the travelers typically camp each night along their journey.

Web searches for “overlanding” will yield results of vehicles kitted out for life on the road for short trips to full-time living on-the-go.

It’s About the Journey, Not the Destination

While most looking for an overland experience today may not need to push new territorial boundaries or find new fields to graze our sheep or cattle, the root in adventure remains the same. Today, we overland to experience life differently, living in the present moment and enjoying the journey as much – if not more –  than the destination. Often, there is no destination. The goal is open exploration, wanderlust, and often a desire to reconnect to the simplicity experienced by the original nomads, explorers, and adventurers.

Today, people embark on overlanding expeditions for anywhere from a long weekend to a multi-year trip. In a ruggedly outdoors state like Colorado, where new adventures can be found around every turn, there is no trip that is too short or too long to have a grand adventure.

Overlanding vs. Off Roading

An important distinction that is often confused is the difference between overlanding vs off-roading. While overland travel can certainly include some off-road travel, the term “off-roading” is most frequently used to refer to more extreme versions of off-roading, such as four-wheeling and rock-crawling. Before we continue, let’s break down the meaning of some of these terms.


Overlanding is has a broad definition but it is generally understood as vehicle-supported, self-reliant adventure travel to remote destinations, where the journey is the primary goal. Your vehicle is the primary mode of transportation and living, and all gear and supplies that you need are carried with you.

Overland vehicles are typically built out to accommodate living from the vehicle, a set-up that usually is not compatible with extreme off-roading, four-wheeling, and rock-crawling due to balance and weight loads.

Off Roading

Off-roading involves travel on unsurfaced roads or tracks or over natural terrain. This may include extremely rugged terrain that involves four-wheeling or rock-crawling.

Off-roading encompasses a wide spectrum of driving conditions, from unsealed dirt, gravel, and forest roads, to driving completely off roads over natural terrain. In terms of rental vehicles, it’s very important to know what type of off-roading, if any, is allowed by the rental terms and agreements.

Four Wheeling

Four-wheeling is driving off-road, typically in four-wheel drive. Typically done with some form of all-terrain vehicle (ATV), utility terrain vehicle (UTV), or other truck/Jeep/vehicle with an appropriate build-out. Extreme four-wheeling can include vehicles with roll cages and other specialized features.

Smaller ATVs and UTVs such as four-wheelers and buggies are often the most popular choice for four-wheeling. There are many companies that run four-wheeling day-excursions, a very popular activity in Moab and other regions. Some people deck out their cars and dedicate themselves to four-wheeling as a sport.

Rock Crawling

Rock crawling is an extreme form of off-road driving that typically includes travel over very rugged terrain including boulders, large rocks, and other obstacles. Rock crawling often requires very specialized, highly-modified 4WD vehicle build-outs to handle the terrain.

Due to its extreme nature, in addition to requiring highly modified vehicle build-outs, rock crawling also requires specialized terrain knowledge and driving skills and is not an activity to be undertaken by novice rugged terrain drivers.

Overlanding in Colorado in a Jeep Wrangler

Key Differences Between Overlanding vs Off-Roading:

1) The vehicles are built-out and designed to accommodate specific purposes.

Overland vehicles are typically set-up not only for travel but also for living in from anywhere from a long weekend to years on the road. This includes equipment for camping, cooking, and other adventure needs and supplies.

So, while it can be important that your overland rig has 4WD and is capable of handling some rugged terrain, overland vehicles are not best-suited specifically for extreme off-roading, four-wheeling, or rock-crawling.

Remember that the purpose is self-reliant adventure travel, not flipping over gnarly rocks. That’s why overlanding vehicles are usually built out differently. Build outs usually focus more on self-reliance with roof top tents, custom drawer systems, awnings, coolers, and more.

Likewise, serious rock-crawlers do not have a tent on their roof for the same weight and balance considerations. Extreme off-roading and rock-crawling vehicles are modified with special equipment and features to handle moderate to difficult terrain. They are also pared down in terms of what amenities they are carrying (typically very few to none) to enable more off-road activites.

2) There’s an off-roading spectrum and a distinction between “off road” vs. “off-roading”.

As noted in the description above, off-roading can include any unsurfaced or unsealed roads or tracks. Or, it can also refer to driving completely off-road over natural terrain, extending into the extreme four-wheeling and rock-crawling categories.

This description is very broad and means that off-roading can include anything from a simple, non-technical forest road to an intense rocky Jeep track to completely leaving roads/tracks altogether.

It’s also important to note that saying that you are driving “off road” can denote something very different than saying you are going “off-roading”.

Signifying that you are going “off-roading” often implies a more intense version of off-road travel, such as four-wheeling, rather than simply meandering down a smooth dirt or gravel forest road.

3) Overlanding and off-roading are geared for two different types of experiences.

What type of experience are you looking for?

While off-roading and its extreme variants are more focused on the technical aspects of driving/traveling over challenging varied terrain, the overlanding experience is focused more on the journey and exploration.

As you will quickly find traveling through the western United States, you do not need to do any form of off-roading to have an amazing adventure in the mountains, desert, or beyond. While dirt and gravel backroads are certainly an element to overland travel, they don’t need to be technical for you to enjoy your time off the beaten path.

Utah Colorado Boarder, Jeep Overlander

Do You Prefer Off-Roading?

For those travelers that are interested in more extreme off-roading excursions as part of your overland travel, there are several companies that provide Jeep, ATV/UTV and other off-roading vehicle tours in designated areas.

Off-roading is especially popular in Ouray, Colorado (Jeep Capital of the World) and Moab, Utah (America’s Off-Road Capital).

Companies that provide these tours have vehicles that are more appropriately built out for extreme rugged terrain and carry additional insurance policies to handle these activities. While appropriate for extreme off-roading, these vehicles are typically not kitted out for overnight overlanding adventures (for the weight reasons mentioned above), making them an excellent supplement activity for those that want to spend a  day on an extreme off-roading tour and then return to their campsite.

Is Overlanding Right For You?

We encourage you to determine exactly what type of overlanding experience you are interested in before renting from any company. If you are interested in only extreme off-roading experiences, we recommend that you seek out a company with appropriately robust build-outs, tours, and insurance designed for these activities.

However, if intense 4WD-ing and off-roading is not the primary goal of your trip or something you are only interested in including as a portion of your overland adventure, you can find rental companies that offer 4×4 campers near you. Some of these rental companies focus specifically on “overland rentals” (like Colorado Overlander, Cypress Overland, Funki Adventures), while others have 4×4 campers with roof top tents as part of a larger fleet (like Titus Adventure Company in Colorado and Overland Yukon in Canada).

As always, in all of your travels – with these rental partners and beyond – please respect the environment and tread lightly. Enjoy your journey with minimal impact on the environment around you, leaving it pristine for future adventurers.

Learn More About Overlanding

You certainly don’t need to travel down gnarly Jeep tracks to have an amazing overland adventure.

Colorado and the surrounding states are full of amazing backroad terrain that is both suitable for beginners and exciting for seasoned overlanders. There are overland routes and trails in different parts of the country. From beginner routes to more advances, technical trails, there’s an overland adventure for everybody. Don’t worry about your experience level.

Are you interested in learning more about overlanding? We’ve put together a beginner’s guide to overlanding to help answer all of your questions. Learn more by reading our blog What is Overlanding? >

And remember… overlanding is all about the journey, not the destination. Enjoy it.

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