Keep on truckin': a guide to overlanding

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So you fancy an epic adventure, but don't want to go it alone...Overland trips can offer a good balance of offbeat exploration and independence, guaranteeing transport but leaving you free to decide what to do once you've rolled into town.

Overland truck stuck in the mud, Kenya. Image by Christer Fredriksson / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images.

A typical day

Life on a truck requires plenty of community spirit. You'll be split into cook groups and take turns shopping for supplies and coming up with meals. Sometimes you'll spend long days on board, giving time to get to know your new travel companions, to soak up the scenery and to wave at passers-by. At other times, you'll set up camp and stick around in one town for a few days, taking advantage of local attractions.

Mornings often start early in the overland world. While the cook group on duty rustles up some breakfast, you'll be taking down your tent, packing your possessions and if you’re not at a bush camp, maybe even having a shower. Days might be punctuated with stops to shop in markets, explore museums or visit temples.

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Once the truck arrives at that night's camp, grab your tent buddy and pick a site. Evenings could be spent around camp fires or occasionally ditching the outdoors to eat in local restaurants.

Calculating the costs

Working out the total cost of an overland trip can be a headache. Remember that your outlay will essentially be split into three sections:

Pre-trip payment: the upfront cost generally covers use of the truck and its equipment (tents, cooking gear, etc) as well as the services of a knowledgeable guide. Some companies include certain activities in the upfront fee, so check exactly what's included. You're usually on your own when it comes to flights, visas, vaccinations and insurance.

Local payment: also known as the kitty, this is standard on all overland trips. It's usually payable in USD, or sometimes in GBP, EUR or the local currency. This cash payment, handed directly to the guide, covers the group costs on the road - things like camping fees, food and gas. It's essential to check the kitty cost before you leave home as it’s prone to change and might be higher than when you first booked.

Spending money: with the basics covered - transport, accommodation and food - the rest is entirely up to you. On many trips, every extra activity will incur an extra cost. If you're just along for the ride, here to soak up the scenery and shop in local markets, your daily expenditure will be low (think postcards, souvenirs, evening beers and phone calls home).

Other travellers want to take full advantage of the trip, indulging in every animal encounter, experiencing every adrenaline sport and tackling every optional extra along the way. Your chosen operator's site should have a comprehensive list of possible activities with their approximate price to help you budget.

What to pack

Overland truck at a viewpoint in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Image by / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images.

Locker space is limited, so don’t go mad. Here are a few essentials to add to the usual list:

  • Sleeping mat, sleeping bag and some sort of pillow - a rolled up jacket gets tedious after a couple of months
  • Ear plugs - you'll almost definitely be sharing a tent
  • Books - a couple will do as you're likely to swap with other passengers
  • Guidebook - it's easy to get lazy on a guided tour. A guidebook helps you keep track of where you are and gives insight into local language and culture
  • Insurance - it's compulsory on most overland trips and you won't be allowed on board without it
  • An open mind - overlanding is a whole different type of travel. Itineraries change, trucks get stuck in mud and you’ll be travelling intensively with people you've just met. Expect all sorts of travellers and remember that for every annoying truck-mate (and there's likely to be one), you’ll also find a friend for life.

How to choose a company

Different operators offer different perks, so decide what you're looking for beforehand. Would you rather rough it and save some cash? Or is the extra splurge worth it to know that someone else will be cooking your meals and that nights under canvas will be broken up by the occasional hotel stay? Would you rather pay up front and have lots of activities thrown in? Or would you prefer to pay for a bare bones trip and add on safaris, boat rides and temple tours as the mood takes you?

Questions to ask before you go

Just because it's an organised tour, that doesn't mean you don't have any responsibilities. Once you're on the road much will be taken care of - your work happens in the planning stages. Ask lots of questions and above all make sure you know what's included and what's extra.

Some suggestions to get you thinking about what to ask:

  • What local experience does the guide have?
  • How long is the trip? (And, crucially, is that too short? Some itineraries try to cram in way too much – if you only have a month to spare, focus on a smaller area rather than relegating yourself to endless 10-hour days in the truck)
  • What's included in the price? (Will you be paying for excursions? Are all meals covered?)
  • Do you need to stock up on visas before you go or will guides help with that as you travel? Are visas included in the cost or is that a hidden extra?
  • How many people will be on your truck?

Lucy Corne - aka The Brew Mistress - combines an incurable love of travel with a profound knowledge of South African craft beer. Follow her on Twitter at @LucyCorne.