The term “overlanding” is an extremely broad topic. Therefore, you can expect overlanding vehicles to be just as diverse. From old Broncos with off-road ability in stock condition, to expensive foreign models unavailable in the US, this segment even includes some high-end van conversions. It’s worth mentioning that the best overlanding vehicle is probably the one sitting in your garage right now. If it’s capable of comfortably transporting you, a friend, sleeping bags, and some beer to a place you’ve never been then it looks like you’ve got yourself an adventure rig.
However, if the plan is to really go off the grid and get some surrious mud on the tires, then we’re sure at least one of the vehicles on this list will get your attention. At the end of the day, overlanding is about the journey. So figuring out what you want that journey to look like will determine the vehicle that makes the adventure possible. In no particular order, here are six vehicles that we feel pass all (or most of) the tests regarding durability, capability, reliability, and cost-effectiveness.
And the nominees are…
1.) Land Rover Discovery II and III Series (1998-2009)
Despite being well known for its off-road capabilities, the Land Rover is notorious for being difficult. And much like a poorly chosen mistress, it can make your life a living (and expensive) hell if its demands are not met. That being said, many owners will still tell you that they love their Discos in spite of their faults.
So what makes it a good overlanding vehicle? The Disco is clever, functional, and powerful. It has a lot to offer adventure seekers, especially the second and third series models. These older gens are more affordable, thanks to a depreciation in value. And future models have guaranteed that parts are still in demand. Compared to the Discovery II, the LR3 offers a better engine, better transmission, more room, more comfort, and essentially more refinement. It also has significantly less reported headaches by drivers. However, the Disco II is smaller, lighter, electronically simpler, and capable of getting into tighter spaces. And honestly, it just has that classic look of a vehicle built for exploring the world. (Khaki shorts and safari hat optional.)
Reliability issues aside, either model can easily handle your next adventure as long as it’s been well-maintained. Many owners will have spent a decent amount of time on their Disco’s upkeep because they truly enjoyed driving them. They also couldn’t afford to flake on their investment in a middle market SUV. If you’re diggin’ the Disco, finding the right one may take some time, but it’s worth the search.
2.) Jeep Cherokee XJ (1984-2001)
Ahh, the Cherokee. A true classic that changed the future of SUV design. It sported creative engineering with an original uniframe design welded directly underneath the uni-body structure. This meant the Cherokee offered a strong and sturdy ride that was also light on its feet. Less weight meant more power and better fuel efficiency. And with seating for five, Jeep created the ideal overlanding vehicle.
It broke history in 1984 for being named “4×4 of the Year” by all three leading off-road magazines. And Cherokees maintain their tough and reliable reputation to this day. Newer models are already pushing twenty years old, but a Cherokee XJ, kept rust-free, is nearly invincible. Sure, they’re often plagued by little bugs (My daily driver had a particularly insistent Check Engine light for four years). But ultimately, these are exceptionally styled and well-built rigs that can go anywhere- even in stock condition. And the best part? Their universality has allowed them to stay cheap and easy to find. For less than $5,000 you can own a dependable on- or off-road vehicle with infinite aftermarket opportunities. A small lift for extra ground clearance, upgraded shocks, body armor, a winch, and creative storage solutions can be added at minimal cost to take full advantage of all the Cherokee has to offer.
3.) Subaru Outback (2000-present)
There’s a reason these cars are often affectionately referred to as the unofficial state car of Colorado. Comfortable, reliable, and incredibly safe, the Outback is a top performer on both paved and rough roads. As an overlanding vehicle, it offers true full-time AWD, excellent fuel economy, low weight, and loads of space. That means dependable and cost-effective adventure-seeking for you, your babe, your friends, the dog, and all your stuff.
Sometimes the Outback is judged as a hippie car better suited for “soft roading” than off-roading. But really, the Outback is just the crossover that outdoor enthusiasts hate to admit they love. Okay, so its styling leaves something to be desired. And it doesn’t offer the power or sexiness of an SUV or truck. But slap on some upgraded tires and shocks, a slight lift (it can be done – I’ve seen it firsthand) and roof-top storage, and you too can love your Subaru. Also, it’s not unusual for these rides to reach and surpass 300K miles. With that kind of bang for your buck, who cares if a few haters call you a tree hugger?
Subies hold their value, and owners tend to drive them hard, so buying used isn’t always your best bet. Finding a well-kept older model with low mileage to use as an overlanding vehicle will still cost you a decent chunk of change.
4.) Toyota Land Cruiser 80 and 100 Series (1990-2007)
When originally introduced, the 80 series Land Cruiser was meant to showcase an incredible blend of technology and luxury. It was a vehicle that offered deluxe comfort but remained true to its tough ready-for-any-road legacy. The FJ80 Cruiser is a full-time 4WD vehicle with a strong frame, solid front axle, and coil-spring suspension. In 1992, Toyota upgraded the model with a stronger engine, adding nearly 60 horsepower, and released it as the FZJ80. The 80 series offers simple engineering and interior comfort without complex electronics and extra weight. The 100 series is bigger, more complicated, and lacking that solid axle so it might not be able to handle the same tough terrain as the 80. However, it’s still an extremely capable rig.
Unlike the Disco, the Land Cruiser (and really the Toyota brand in general) is renowned for its reliability. Enthusiasts like to joke that while a Land Rover will get you into the Australian Outback, a Toyota will make sure you come back alive. Unfortunately, their ability to keep going like the Energizer Bunny often means their previous owners have neglected routine maintenance. Finding the diamond in the rough will be a difficult search, but if you succeed you’ll have a truly outstanding overlanding vehicle.
5.) Nissan Xterra (2000-2015)
The Xterra may be one of the most underrated vehicles on this list. It was introduced in 2000 as a classic body-on-frame SUV when crossovers were beginning to invade the market. True, it’s often criticized as being the go-to option for mountain climbing bros who desperately need cargo space for all their energy drinks. However, the Xterra remains a simple and competent off-roader that is easy and cheap to maintain. Bigger than a Cherokee, with unique but practical styling both inside and out, the Xterra makes an effective and affordable overlanding vehicle.
The second generation (2005-2015) offers more muscle and a better use of space and features. But both gens provide a rough and ready, honest SUV that can handle most of what you throw at it. While their stock condition is not ideal for any serious off-roading, aftermarket potential is plentiful. Also, finding a used model in good condition at low cost shouldn’t be difficult. A quick Craigslist search shows some early models selling for less than $3,000 and later gens popping up anywhere between $6,000 and $9,000. For that price, you can afford to make some necessary performance modifications like suspension, sway and load control, bumpers, recovery items, and more to amp up the overlanding potential.
6.) Isuzu Trooper (1981-2002)
Okay, so they’re like big cardboard boxes on wheels. And they have a nasty reputation for rollovers. But as Jalopnik so aptly puts it: the Trooper is “big and tough and weird and different and nobody’s going to accuse it of being soft.”
For a mid-size SUV, these things have TARDIS-like interior dimensions. The Trooper will provide more than enough room for your family, camping gear, bikes, food supplies, a fully inflated air mattress, and a cozy corner for that family of raccoons you rescued down by the river. On the downside, they can sometimes be complicated to repair. And many models are at an age where reliability becomes questionable. However, Troopers still make a great overlanding vehicle. They’ll never be aggressive rock crawlers, (after all, that’s not really the point of overlanding). But for general trail excursions and traveling, they’ll be comfortable and practical. And at resale values well below $5,000, you won’t break the bank. That price also leaves room for aftermarket upgrades like front and rear protection, recovery gear, a lift kit, mud-terrain or all-terrain tires, and that ARB fridge/freezer combo you’ve been eyeing up.
Did you think we were done? Aww hell naw! We’re takin’ the list all the way up to 11 so check back with us in the next couple weeks for PART II of this overlanding coverage. In the meantime, share your favorite overlanding destinations with us in the comments section.