In defense of “overlanding”

Overland Expo East 2017 is just around the corner.  This week I’ll be leaving for two weeks in North Carolina.  First I’ll be dropping down to Uwharrie National Forest for the annual American Adventurist Appalachian Rendezvous.  Then the following weekend I’ll be in Asheville for Overland Expo East.  With such a high profile event like expo looming on the horizon I thought it’d be time to address an elephant in the room.

Elephants don’t belong in rooms.

I’ve noticed a subtle backlash against the term “overlanding” in recent months.  At first there was some general cynicism from the mainstream 4×4 community.  Some people were just being sarcastic, others a little more hostile.  Either way, as the term “overlanding” gained momentum and acceptance so did the momentum of its critics.  Sadly that negative momentum is now sweeping into the overland community itself.  In recent months I’ve see a number of “overlanding” groups change their names.  There has even been outright attacks and mockery by some groups of the “overlanding” term and lifestyle.  While some of it is all in good fun, there is a subtle undertone that is a little less humorous.  The irony that such things are coming from early adopters of the “overlanding bandwagon” isn’t lost on me.  However, it leaves one prevalent question floating around: Is overlanding just “off-road car camping” or is it something more?  Let’s explore that…
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What’s in a name?

In college I took a class in linguistics.  For those unfamiliar with linguistics, simply put it’s the study of language.  This includes how words originate, how they are defined, how they are used, and how they evolve over time.  This is something that’s always fascinated me so when I saw it as an elective I jumped at the chance.  I will spare you on a long lengthy lecture on linguistics, however I will walk you through a little bit of the process in hopes it helps us get to the bottom of this overlanding mess.

“Overland” vs. “Overlanding”

What would you do if I told you “overlanding” really isn’t a word?  Seriously, look it up.  It’s not in the dictionary.  Sure “overlanding” has it’s own Wikipedia entry, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually a word.  However, the root word “overland” is in fact a word.  As defined it’s an adverb or adjective meaning, “by, on, or across land.”

So if “overlanding” isn’t a word, why is it so popular?  That’s an interesting question.  Growing up we were always yelled at for using the word “ain’t.”  The running joke at the time was “ain’t ain’t a word.”  Yet, many years later, it’s been accepted as a word and can now be found in the dictionary as a contraction meaning, “am not, are not, is not” or “have not, has not.”  It just took time for the slang word for “isn’t” to catch on and be widely accepted.  The same, if we step back and look at it, is happening with “overlanding.”  It’s not really a word, academically speaking, but it’s being used – a lot.

We’ve already defined “overland” as “by, on, or across land” so now let’s look at the suffix “-ing.” This is where things get messy and complicated.  So if I’m going to stick to my promise and not turn this into a linguistics lecture, I’ll have to use a few examples.  Adding “-ing” affects different kinds of words differently and a lot of it depends on the context.  So for instance, the verb “build” means to assemble.  If you add “-ing” to the end it could mean two things.  It can still be used as a verb, “I like building things,” or as a noun, “look at that building.”  In the first case, there is only a subtle difference.  “I like to build things” and “I like building things” mean the same thing.  Both are conventional uses of the word. In the second case, there is still an understanding that a “building” is the finished process of the verb “to build.”  Things get a little messy when the word is not a verb.

“Overland” as defined is an adverb or adjective.  That means it’s a modifier.  So it’s not a verb in it’s own right.  You don’t say, “I’m going to overland somewhere” like you would say, “I’m going to build something.”  It just doesn’t sound right.  However, if you say, “I’m traveling overland to Boston.” It means you are traveling to Boston “by, on, or across land” which implies you are not flying (by air) or taking a boat (by sea).

Is “overland” really that vague a term?

Historically the term “overland” originates in the 12th century.  Long before the inventions of things like trains and automobiles.  It was used mostly when talking about trade routes.  Something like the iconic “Silk Road” is often described as a series of trade routes connecting Europe with Asia.  This included both “overland” and “maritime” routes.

The history Silk Road” trade network from Europe to eastern Asia
Maratime routes in Blue
Overland routes in Red
As time went on the term “overland” began to become synonymous with traveling unaided. Such as moving livestock “overland” as opposed to “by rail” which was common both in US states like Texas along iconic routes like the Shawnee Trail or in Australia along the iconic Canning Stock Route.  It was also used in conjunction with the major trails of the Western Expansion in the US such as the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, and California Trail.  In similar fashion the term was applied to more pre-industrial trade routes such as the Old Spanish Trail just like it had been for older ones like the Silk Road.
The term “overland” fell out of favor during the industrial revolution and post-industrial world.  With ships, plains, trains, and automobiles common around the globe the term fell into disuse since it was easy to figure out that if you were traveling by auto or train, you were going “over-land.”  As such, the vagueness of the term contributed to it’s lack of use mainly because of it’s role as a modifier.

Darwin chose a maritime expedition for his research due to the flexibility of sailing around the world
This is a depiction of his ship the H.M.S. Beagle anchored in the Straight of Magellan

Up until recently if you were talking about remote wilderness travel the word of choice was “expedition.”  As defined it’s a noun meaning, “a journey or excursion undertaken for a specific purpose.” There is also an implication that such a trip has an overarching political, social, or scientific  significance.  This where iconic images of expeditions to the north and south poles, trips across the desert or jungle, or research trips like those made by Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle.

A modern take on Overland Travel

By my observation the term “overlanding” has only gained mainstream traction within the last decade.  Before then things still revolved around the expedition term.  Case in point, the most iconic “overland” website is called “Expedition Portal.”  Not “Overland Portal” but “Expedition Portal.”  The implication was, for a while at least, people were planning trips with a purpose most often to remote locations.  When “Overland Journal” spun off of Expedition Portal they billed themselves as, “The publication for environmentally responsible, worldwide vehicle-supported expedition and adventure travel.”  In this context the term “overland” was still only a descriptor and often attached to the words “expedition” and/or “adventure.”   Rightfully so, I might add, because one is an adjective and one is a noun.  That’s how language is supposed to work.  So when and where did “overlanding” come from?

“Overlanding” is in my opinion, based on how most people use it, a slang term referring to “overland expedition travel” or at the very least “overland adventure travel.”  As with most slang terms it’s often just a quicker easier way so say something.  So rather than saying it with three words, it can be said with one.  Also, with the attachment of the suffix “-ing” it turns a rather vague modifier into an action.  People can now say, “I’m going overlanding” much in the same way someone might say, “I’m going swimming” or “I’m going hunting.”  It should be noted that this only works when you’re familiar with the action and the action isn’t vague.  If we play the substitution game saying “I’m going overlanding” simply means “I’m going to travel by land” or something like “I’m traveling by land.” Nothing more, nothing less.  Anything beyond that is conjecture; and therein lies the problem.

Meaning verses Usage

Ultimately the whole question of “What is overlanding?” boils down to a semantic argument between what the word means and how the word is used.  As we’ve explored above, overlanding means traveling by land.  That’s all.  Doesn’t matter if you’re walking, driving, riding on a train, riding horseback, on a trail, a road, a highway, in the middle of a city, or in the middle of a desert.  It’s all overlanding.  Thus, things like road trips, car camping, expeditions, and whatnot are all technically overlanding.  So, is overlanding just car-camping?  No.  That’s a classic logical fallacy.  Car-camping is overlanding but overlanding not car-camping.  Just like pants are clothing but all clothing are not pants.  Doesn’t stop people from making the argument though.
So if “overlanding” means traveling by land, how is that different than how it’s being used?  Let’s go back to Overland Journal.  They state that, “Overlanding describes self-reliant adventure travel to remote destinations where the journey is the primary goal.”  For the most part, this is the conventional usage of the term within the community. However, there is a lot of conjecture implied here.  Just like baking a cake takes multiple ingredients, which include but are not limited to, eggs, sugar, butter, and flour, it’s apparent that overlanding has a few implied ingredients.  So let’s break them down:
  • Self-reliant
  • Adventure travel
  • Remote destinations
  • Journey as the primary goal
Self-reliance is more often than not the hinge point for the debate between “overlanding” and “car-camping.”  The implication is that someone going overlanding doesn’t need anything other than what they’ve brought with them.  They have their own food, water, and shelter.  They probably also have their own tools, spare parts, and the knowledge and experience to go along with them.  This stands in contrast to someone who is “just car-camping” and is most likely not as self-reliant and needs the typical facilities common to most developed camping areas such as running water, bathrooms, electricity, and what-not.
Adventure travel also stands in contrast to things like car-camping and road-trips because the emphasis is on adventure.  Adventures are things that are unfamiliar and often uncomfortable – at least in so far as they push people out of their comfort zone.  Someone aligning themselves as an overland enthusiast would most likely say you’re not overlanding when you’re at the local state park, a mere stones throw away from civilization.  They might also say you’re not overlanding when you’re still within the confines of a homogeneous culture similar to your own.  So if you’re from North America it would impossible to go overlanding in North America because it wouldn’t be an adventure otherwise.  Admittedly this is a bit on the narrow side, and I’ll address it some more later, but I have heard such an argument.
Remote destinations imply a disconnect from civilization.  Cultural homogeny aside, the implication here is that overlanding takes you into the wilderness.  A world without people.  This is why overlanding is so attractive to outdoor enthusiasts that enjoy the natural world.  They want to get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life and just “get out there” and “get away from it all.”  This also plays a role in overland expeditions that tend to focus on more primitive areas of the globe such as Africa or central Australia and even some parts of South America or Asia.
Lastly overlanding is different from other modes of travel because the journey itself is often the primary goal.  This is where exploration and discovery come into play.  When you take a road trip you’re often focused on the destination.  When you’re car-camping you’re often setup in one location for an extended period of time.  Neither of these align with this romanticized notion of overlanding.
With a vague term like “overlanding” meaning one thing and being used in another, where does that leave use?  Should we continuing using the term “overlanding” or should be abandon it like some of the cynics and contrarians have done?  Is it worth correcting people in hopes to separate the conjecture and focus on what overlanding really means?  Is there a point to it all?

Overland Recreation

To be honest, I don’t like the term “overlanding” and I try not to use it whenever I can.  I never say, “I’m going overlanding” or “I’m into overlanding.”  Which is a little ironic given I moderate the /r/overlanding section of Reddit.com  I try to limit my usage to “overland.”  I might say, “I’m an overland enthusiast” or “I enjoy the overland lifestyle” or even “I’m a fan of overland adventures.”  Which is where the name ECOA came from.  It’s a very easy thing to unpack.  When I named this blog “East Coast Overland Adventures” I hoped to imply it was about land based adventures here on the east coast – or at least from an east coast perspective.  When I describe myself as an “overland enthusiast” I hope to imply that I’m a fan of land based travel aspect of the method.  However, these hopes are still laden with a lot of conjecture.
As I’ve sat back and watched the overland lifestyle grow, develop, and enter the mainstream I’m left with an observation that there is now a difference between previous forms of overland travel and what I now call “Overland Recreation.”  I think this is where much of the debate about what is or is not overlanding tends to focus on.  I also think this where most of the “old timers” get frustrated with the new mainstream appeal of overlanding and its associated gear.  It’s also where the contrarians tend to focus their, “it’s just off-road car-camping” complaints.
In a way, they aren’t wrong.  They’re just backwards.  Off-road car-camping is overlanding.  While overlanding might share similar ingredients to both off-roading and car-camping, it doesn’t make them just the same. That’d be like saying a chocolate chip cooke is just chocolate chips.  The logical fallacy at play is reductionist by nature and, as I said above, that doesn’t work.  The goal of such an argument is often to diminish or exclude people by adhering to a narrow definition.  This is similar to the “built not bought” debate i weighed in on earlier this year.  Both seek to exclude people from a smaller subset of enthusiasts to believe themselves to be superior and others inferior.  That’s something that doesn’t sit well with me.
Opponents of a broader definition of overlanding argue that it waters down the term and they are afraid that anyone and everyone will start using the term for even the most mundane forms of travel.  I’ve heard people joke about “overlanding to the mall” or quips that things like number campsites disqualify you from overlanding.  I’ve even had people on Reddit complain that they were afraid people would start posting pictures of their Honda with a roof top tent.  Haven’t seen one yet, but I did find one with a snorkel on it.  A Honda equipped RTT can’t be too far behind.
Regardless of how broad or narrow it’s defined, I believe “Overland Recreation,” whether labeled as such or not, is here and here to stay.  As it continues to gain mainstream acceptance the term overlanding is soon going to be a household name. It’s already commonplace amongst offroad and outdoor enthusiasts.  Since overlanding lies at the intersection between the two its no surprise the integrity of its definition is being called into question.

Okay, so let’s wrap this up why don’t we

I’m a proponent of a broader looser definition of “overlanding.”  Let’s drop the conjecture around it and let’s be honest. “Overlanding” is nothing more and nothing less than traveling by land.  The root of the word is overland and, by definition, a modifier.  So we can’t just say “overlanding” and leave it standing on it’s own.  Does that mean those that say “overlanding is just car-camping” are right?  Not at all.  While it does mean that “car-camping is overlanding” it doesn’t mean that car-camping is the only form of overlanding nor does it mean that overlanding is limited to only car-camping.

Simply put, as I see it, overland travel is a spectrum.  Like any spectrum there will be people at either end attempting to limit or exclude membership to their own clique.  Some will draw arbitrary lines in the sand saying, “you must be this tall to ride this ride.”  On the flip side critics and contrarians will also say that, “anything and anyone can go overlanding now” and they’ll claim the word has lost all meaning.  Well, it wasn’t a word to begin with anyway.

Personally I’ll always try to use the word overland as it was intended, as a modifier.  While I’m not perfect and I’m sure the “overlanding” word will slip out from time to time I hope to always use phrases along the lines of “overland adventures,” “the overland lifestyle,” “overland recreation,” and “overland expedition.”

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect any thoughts or views of any ECOA Corporate Partners, membership of the Patron Support Team, or followers of the blog. This article is not meant to cause division or incite ire within the overland adventure community, but rather encourage a more open understand to the subtle differences within the overland travel spectrum. 

0 thoughts on “In defense of “overlanding”

  1. Thank you for the excellent well timed read. I've heard the talk and shrug it off because I know why I enjoy "the overland lifestyle". See you at Expo.