West bound and overland

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Overland tents are making a big comeback.

Yakima's SkyRise car-top tent. Photo courtesy of Yakima.

Overlanding is one of the top buzzwords of today’s outdoor consumer, melding advanced gadgets and sophisticated vehicle configurations to get beyond the usual campgrounds and trailheads and gain access to areas that few can reach without vehicle-assisted travel. Think of it as car camping, but tech'd out, rugged and way far from pavement.

“Walking around OR, look at the displays and notice how many companies are using overland-related imagery in their displays and photo walls,” said Brian McVickers, chief business development officer for Overland International. “Pictures of Land Cruisers, vans and other vehicles are just about everywhere you look. It’s become a recognized element to the outdoor lifestyle of adventure.”

Industry watchers say overlanding is the new backpacking, and brands are churning out more comfort-focused gear for spring. Everyone from old dudes who are too cool for RVs to Millennials are embracing this four-wheeled, but not four-wheeling, outdoor lifestyle.

“The popularity of overlanding and van life is by far one of the best things about working in the digital era,” said Lindsey Elliott, co-founder of the Wylder women-focused e-commerce and online community platform, from the show floor. “It’s no longer mandatory to be stuck in an office to be successful. We can downsize, work remotely and enjoy more time in the wild places we love. This is the era of the digital nomad.”

Like so many things Millennial, however, overlanding isn’t actually a new trend. Automobile camping predated the tow-behind camper, which essentially led to the motor lodge and RV phenomenon of the 1950s through the 1970s. In 1919, according to an article in Atlas Obscura, a few “vagabond” car campers, including Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, embarked on a car camping expedition that required 50 cars, including one built just to keep their food refrigerated.

Thousands of auto camps both municipal and private drew “overlanders” out into the countryside, and Atlas Obscura cited an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 camps and more than 10 million people hitting the road for nature-based recreation—until the Great Depression put an end to most leisure travel and the camps descended into what Hoover warned were places full of disease, thievery and murder. Other sources date the phenomenon back to the early 1900s in Australia, as herders had to travel long distances to market.

While the idea of using vehicles for adventure or wilderness travel can be a sensitive topic in the outdoor industry, the growth is undeniable. But devotees of the category say that overlanding is not about monster trucks, off-roading, “muddin’” or even venturing off existing trails. These are, for the most part, educated outdoor consumers with above-average incomes.

Overland

Tepui's Baja series features its lightest tents yet, with different canopies to accommodate all kinds of weather. Photo courtesy of Tepui.

“I think overlanding, in its simple form, is just a refinement of the fine art of road tripping,” said Josh Aldridge, co-founder of the Overland Collective, a loosely organized group of writers, photographers and adventurers roaming the show floor on foot. “Portability has become a huge part of our culture, but we’ve also realized that the outdoor industry can provide creature comforts well-suited for a modern nomadic lifestyle.”

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