If you know where to look, the world is still a truly wild place, filled with remote back roads and empty campsites. And one of the best ways to explore them is by overlanding, a style of self-reliant travel that entails using an off-road vehicle or a van to cover a long distance, typically in a remote area. Essentially a fusion of off-roading and camping, the practice has long been popular in places like Australia and South Africa but has been gaining popularity here in the U.S.
The good news is that, as overlanding culture has become more developed here, it’s gotten easier to do everything from outfit your rig to plan an adventure, thanks to a growing route-sharing community, custom gear, and new devices like Garmin’s Overlander GPS unit, which combines turn-by-turn directions for on-road navigation with topography maps for off-grid guidance, public campground directories, integrated pitch and roll gauges, and more. Where to start? We spoke with Overland Journal publisher Scott Brady, who’s driven across all seven continents, to fill us in on this continent’s best routes for everyone from beginners to experts.
The Gold Standard in Navigation
Whether you’re new to overlanding or looking to go deeper than ever before, Garmin’s new Overlander GPS unit packs all the navigation tools you need into a single, rugged package. High-res topo maps, thousands of campsites and other POIs, pitch and roll sensors, and much, much more.
Valley of the Gods Road, Mexican Hat, Utah
By the Numbers: 17 miles point-to-point, 1–2 days
This easy dirt road winds through what Brady reveres as one of the most beautiful places in the United States—striking red-rock towers, isolated buttes, and wide-open spaces. It also happens to be “one of the best beginner routes in the country,” he says. And while you can probably make it through with a two-wheel-drive vehicle, you’re better off in an all-wheel-drive crossover like a Subaru Forester or Outback. The area’s backcountry campsites are second to none, and easily located using the Overlander’s preloaded Ultimate Public Campground and iOverlander directories, which are loaded with the best-established wild and dispersed campsites.
South Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina
By the Numbers: 20-plus miles, 1–2 days
Part of what makes this overland experience so unique is that the start of the route isn’t over land at all. A ferry ride from the small mainland town of Davis to South Core Banks, the middle of three barrier islands that make up Cape Lookout National Seashore, gets you to 21 miles of undeveloped, drivable beach ripe for fishing, swimming, and surfing. According to Brady, a stock 4WD with lowered tire pressure will do just fine here. Camp under the stars anywhere between the dunes and the high-tide line. Just be sure to get the required ORV Education Certificate before setting out.
Smoky Mountain Highway, Northern Arizona and Southern Utah
By the Numbers: 78 miles point-to-point, 1–3 days
While it’s not technical, the sheer out-there nature of this 78-mile dirt road from Page, Arizona, to Escalante, Utah, means you need to come prepared. “It’s one of the most remote places you can get in the country,” Brady says. With a full tank of fuel and a full-size spare, a stock 4×4 can navigate the scenic route through the heart of the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in about six hours—but the plentiful dispersed camping along the way shouldn’t be skipped. For added peace of mind in truly remote places like this, it’s always a good idea to bring along a satellite communicator, like Garmin’s inReach, which pairs with the Overlander, allowing for on-the-fly messaging right from the touchscreen.
Mojave Road, Mojave National Preserve, California
By the Numbers: 138 miles point-to-point, 2–5 days
Follow this historic route—used first by Native people and later by westward-bound settlers—as it bisects Mojave National Preserve, in California’s southeastern desert, meandering from one spring to the next. Unlike many other legacy trade routes, the Mojave Road was never paved over, so a trip here is a trip back in time. While the road is mostly nontechnical, “there’s a couple of areas along the route where people do get in trouble,” Brady says, so he recommends that drivers outfit their vehicles with skid plates for the rougher sections of road. To avoid the extreme temperatures in summer and winter, plan your crossing for spring or fall. If you’re not familiar with the terrain, check with park officials for current conditions before setting out, and keep an eye on the weather, as monsoons can quickly turn normally dry lake beds into impassable mud bogs. Bringing an InReach is a good idea on this route too, but not just for the off-grid communication—you can get weather forecasts without reception when you pair it with your Overlander.
Naranja Road, Baja California Sur, Mexico
By the Numbers: 55 miles point-to-point, 1–3 days
Baja is an overlander’s dream: empty beaches, expansive deserts, rocky mountains—all connected by endless dirt roads and dotted with primitive campsites. If you don’t have time for an end-to-end traverse (often done over the course of weeks or even months), Brady recommends flying in with your camping gear, renting a Jeep in San José del Cabo, and heading west on this classic route all the way to Todos Santos, a chilled-out fishing and surfing village on the Pacific coast. Also used by bikepackers, Naranja Road climbs through cardón cactus desert and over two forested passes in the Sierra de la Laguna mountains before rolling down toward the Pacific Ocean. While cell service is available for much of this route, a stand-alone GPS ensures you stay on track in dead zones—the Garmin Overlander comes with preinstalled maps for all of North and South America.
White Rim Road, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
By the Numbers: 110-mile loop, 2–4 days
This classic route explores Canyonlands National Park’s stunning Island in the Sky district, a Mars-scape hemmed on three sides by river—to the east, the mighty Colorado; to the west, the snaking Green; to the south, their confluence. It’s only moderately difficult, but Brady recommends doing it in a high-clearance vehicle equipped with true low-range gearing, a big help when descending some steeper sections of trail. Grab an overnight permit from the Park Service and break the route into as many as four days—more days means more opportunities to camp in some of the 10 incredible campgrounds that line the 110-mile road. But keep an eye on the weather—parts of the White Rim become impassable when wet.
Rubicon Trail, El Dorado National Forest, California
By the Numbers: 22 miles point-to-point, 1–2 days
It’s no coincidence that Jeep’s most tricked-out Wrangler bears the same name as this trail. It’s a gnarly, beautiful 22-mile route through the rugged Sierra Nevada that should be on every overlander’s bucket list. Unlike a lot of the other routes listed here, the Rubicon can be very crowded depending on when you go, but the scenery and challenges make it worth it. The demanding route takes an experienced driver and a modified, well-built vehicle to complete—the trail’s mix of granite slabs, soft dirt, sharp rocks, and large boulders require precise maneuvering. In addition to large tires and a lift kit, you also want additional tools, like the Overlander’s built-in pitch and roll gauges, to keep you safely on track when the trail gets steep.
Dempster Highway, Yukon and Northwest Territories, Canada
By the Numbers: 456 miles point-to-point, 5-plus days
The Dempster Highway, which runs between central Yukon and the far northern Northwest Territories, is mainly nontechnical gravel and dirt, but it takes some serious logistical and route planning to pull it off, given the long distances between fuel stops. Completed in 1978 to reach oil and gas deposits, this lonesome strip ends just shy of the Arctic Ocean in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and is the gateway to an otherwise untouched swath of mountainous tundra. Drive it and you’ll cross the Continental Divide (three times), the Arctic Circle, and two mountain ranges. “Overlanding is all based on this idea of being prepared. I always have a GPS unit,” says Brady. “People have become very reliant on their phones, and the reality is that these are relatively fragile devices. It’s good to have a stand-alone device to do the navigating.” Take advantage of the Overlander’s 64 GB of storage space by downloading all the base maps you’ll need ahead of time, so they’re available when you’re far from cell reception.
TransAmerica Trail, Virginia to Oregon, USA
By the Numbers: 5,000 miles point-to-point, 2-plus weeks
The stats of this route should say it all: 5,000 miles, 92 percent dirt roads. As its name implies, the TransAmerica Trail (TAT) crosses the entire U.S., from Virginia to Oregon, on dirt roads and two-track. That’s right—you can still drive coast to coast almost entirely off-pavement. And while the TAT was originally pieced together by dual-sport motorcycle riders, it’s a fantastic drive in a 4×4 as well. With several variations and “spurs” to choose from, the route skirts or takes you straight through some of the country’s most beautiful gems, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Arches National Park, and Yellowstone National Park, but the route’s biggest charms are all the in-between areas—the beautiful and largely empty winding roads through rural countryside and lush forests. An Overlander unit comes in particularly handy for this route, as its preloaded maps can help you to bypass certain sections of the original route that were intended for motorcycles.
The Garmin Overlander™ is a rugged, all-terrain navigator with a seven-inch color touchscreen that features turn-by-turn directions for on-road navigation and topography maps for off-grid guidance. Use the Garmin Explore™ app to easily sync your waypoints, tracks, and routes across your Overlander™, smartphone, and desktop.