A budget minded approach to overlanding

From the ECOA mission statement: “A goal of ECOA is to take a budget minded approach to the overland lifestyle by advocating for wisely spent money on appropriate upgrades, money saved through DIY projects, and put the focus on the experience rather than the gear.”

Overlanding on a limited budget
Campsite = Free
Tent = Free
Jeep = mostly stock
Memories = Priceless
So, what do I mean by taking a budget minded approach to overlanding…


The word budget is one of the few words in the English language that takes three distinct forms. It can be used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective. Because of this, when someone uses the word budget, it’s often hard to understand which of these forms they mean. It’s also a very relative term, but more on that in a second. When I talk about overlanding on a budget I mean all three things and in this article I’m going to unpack that.

budg·et / ˈbəjət / (noun): an estimate of income and expenditure for a set period of time

  • In it’s noun form a budget is simply an estimated breakdown of how much something will cost. When planning an overland adventure this is extremely helpful when calculating costs like fuel, food, access fees, and also giving yourself a little spending money for non-trip related expenses. This is the classic mental image of a budget as a spreadsheet full of amounts, calculations, and expense lines. I use them for all my trips big and small.

budg·et / ˈbəjət / (adjective): inexpensive

  • The second most common way the word gets used is to describe something. When people say something is, “budget friendly” they often means it is cheap. They usually compare it to something more expensive. I’ll be honest, I don’t like using the word budget in this manner. Simply looking at the bottom dollar cost of an item often negates the bigger picture.  Overall cost of ownership, maintenance, down-time, and cost-to-replace are all long-term factors that should be considered.

budg·et / ˈbəjət / (verb): allow or provide a particular amount of money

  • When used as a verb the word budget describes an action or an outlook. This is the form I like and prefer use the most. I like to talk about a budget as a philosophy or outlook. This is why I like the adjective form because when you look at the big picture budget doesn’t, or rather shouldn’t, mean cheap. Quality gear that lasts a lifetime is a lot more “budget friendly” in the long run than buying cheaper gear that will break or wear out. There are also ways to prioritize spending as well that rank certain expenses above others.
For the 2015 No Highways Tour the LJ was kept mostly stock.
Stock power and drive train with stock suspension
Only major mods were a 1″ body lift with 31″ tires
I also added AtoZ Fabrication Bumpers front and rear, and rocker guards to protect the Jeep
I built a DIY storage box and fuel-can carrier to save money
Oh, and the fuel cans were a yard sale find for a whopping $5 (total not each)
For more check out Phase 1

Making the most of it

The pragmatics of budgeting are relatively easy. They do require some forethought and discipline, and making a budget is often easier than sticking to one. It’s good practice to get into the habit of estimating expenses to make sure you’ll have enough fuel not only for your adventure but also to make it home. Case in point: I grossly underestimated my fuel budget for my 2015 No Highways Tour trip because I had grossly underestimated my mileage. Now I have a separate line item called “The Z-factor” to account for zig-zagging due to exploring, detours, and ADD moments. I also now have an emergency “hotel night” line item based on past experiences with hurricanes and tornadoes. With that in mind it should be noted no two trip budgets are ever the same and the budgeting process should be viewed as organic that will grow and change as you gain more experience and knowledge as a seasoned traveler.

On the philosophical side of budgeting, at least when it comes to vehicle builds, I live by the mantra, “every dollar I spend on my rig or my kit is one less dollar I can spend on fuel.” This is why I lean towards saving money by doing DIY projects, buy used gear, and prioritize my spending on mods as wisely as I can. For me being on a budget isn’t about being cheap. If you look at my rig you will see some high quality gear. At the same time if you look at my kit you’ll see a lot of well used gear that I’ve been using for a lifetime. Case in point: I’ve been using the same mess-kit, Kabar fork/knife/spoon set, and camp stove (*till most recently using the Colemen stove I got from family; see picture below*) on my overland trips that I was using when I was a Boy Scout more than 20 years ago. I am also a fan of yard sales. Both ammo cans and both five gallon fuel cans I use came from yard sales. Even the Pelican cases I have are used. One is my father’s old camera case from the 1980’s and the other was rescued from a dumpster on an Army base. Another good way to acquire gear is at event raffles. The Jeep branded tent I used on my 2015 trip, my Hi-Lift, and my new 12v fridge are all raffle prizes. To be honest I don’t even consider myself lucky, but you can’t win if you don’t play. Right?

This stove is over 40 years old… but it works.
The pot on the left burner was purchased by me over 15 years ago.
The frying pan on the right is quality cast-iron that will last multiple lifetimes.
Even the food is “budget minded” with an entire meal costing under $10.

When it comes to prioritize spending it can become a little tricky. We all struggle with things we want verses things we need. When the two overlap it makes it really hard to say no. While I can’t really help you with this directly, I can at least share some of the decisions I’ve made and why I’ve made them.

First, learn to drive your rig stock. Don’t slap on a big lift, big tires, a 50” light bar, and a snorkel just because “that’s what overlanders do.” As you learn to drive your rig stock you’ll not only learn better driving habits but you’ll also learn what you actually need based on the types of trips you do and the terrain you travel. You don’t need a locker if all you do are fire roads. In that case a limited slip will do more for you. You also don’t need tons of auxiliary lighting if you don’t do much driving at night. Simple upgrades to headlights and fog lights will be a lot more useful and more cost-effective than large light-bars that can’t be used on public roads. You might also find you prioritize spending on your camp rather than your vehicle if you travel with a family. As they say, “happy wife, happy life.” Double that if you plan on bringing kids. You might also find the family may not be keen on the super technical terrain which would negate the need for overbuilding your rig’s suspension. Then again, if the wife (or husband) is all about it when you might have carte blanche to build your rig as you see fit. In which case, does she have a single sister? I digress.

Second, start small and light. If you’re anything like me you’re prone to overpacking. After being immersed in the 4×4 lifestyle for over a decade I’ve become a total packrat. Before that, during my outdoor enthusiast days, I was all about ultralight backpacking. How I went from carrying everything I needed to survive on my back to now having an overloaded Jeep and an overloaded trailer is a mystery. My new goal moving into 2017 is to trim as much fat from my kit as possible. Downsizing not only how much I’m carrying but what I’m carrying as well. The key to this process is lists. Make an inventory of everything you carry. When you use it, check it off. If you don’t use it then maybe it’s time to stop carrying it. Unless it’s a fire extinguisher. That’s still a good unused thing to carry and hopefully you’re not using one on every trip.

Lastly, come to terms with the fact that overlanding is an outdoor activity. Everyone’s comfort level is different but I am seeing far too many travelers that look like an outdoor store threw-up in their campsite. If there is a gadget or gizmo they have it. If there is a campsite accessory they have it. It’s kind of crazy. Even I’m guilty of this to a degree. As I just said, I need to downsize my kit and put the focus back on the journey rather than the gear. There’s a lot of stuff I carry in the name of personal comfort that I probably don’t need. That doesn’t mean I think we as overlanders should be miserable and uncomfortable when we travel. I’m just saying when we’re camping we should remember what camping is. It goes back to the idea of carrying everything you need in a pack on your back verses overloading a vehicle with stuff we want just because we have room. Lists are a nice objective way to accomplish this, and being honest with oneself about the outdoor nature of the lifestyle is a good way of keeping it all in perspective. This helps with spending by putting less emphasis on gear and more emphasis on the experience.

For the 2016 No Highways Tour I built a camping trailer
The trailer was a limited budget build with an overall goal of being under 2,000 pounds and under $2,000
Right now it sits at $1,200 total investment.
More details on the trailer here.
With that in mind, the focus was on the adventure and the above photo is a small taste of the epicness of the 2016 NHT trip.


One of the things to help keep everything in perspective is to remember why we travel. The goal isn’t to accumulate gear and play with it. The goal is to accumulate memories through unique experiences. The gear, and moreover our vehicles, are a means to an end. The point is the journey itself not what we used to get there. Our kit becomes a way to sustain ourselves on the trip. That said, I fully recognize that for many people, myself included, our vehicles become an extension of ourselves. More often than naught our personalities are mirrored in our vehicles. Even the gear we choose to carry is a reflection on our outlook on life. Therefore it becomes important to take a step back every now and then and make sure things are still in focus. That’s where things like a plan, lists, and of course a budget come into play. They are all metrics of discipline we use to make sure we are making the most out of our overland adventures whether they are weekend trips, annual vacations, or a full-time lifestyle.


East Coast Overland Adventures advocates for a healthy and constructive overland adventure community that is about inclusion not exclusion.  As such, ECOA hopes that people will refrain from judging other overlanders based on their vehicle, how it is (or is not) modified, or their kit regardless of how expensive or cheap things may look.

0 thoughts on “A budget minded approach to overlanding

  1. Great article. I see too many lifted kitted out dirt and dust free Jeeps in my area. Hopefully those people will skip the next upgrade and spend that money and time on a adventure.