Overland Envy

I have a 12-year-old son who has recently started ogling sports cars. Corvettes, Ferraris, Lambos…anything small, fast, and shiny. People tell me this obsession is perfectly normal—plenty of boys (and men, women, and girls for that matter) like sports cars—but I find it unsettling, so I looked my son straight in the eye and gave him the best piece of advice a father can give a child: Don’t ever buy a car that’s too small to sleep in. 

Shit happens. Road trips, heated arguments with your spouse, bad luck at the craps table, flooded campsites…there are a million reasons why you might find yourself sleeping in your car, and you’ll be sorry if that car is a Lambo. Being able to go 0 to 60 in 1.2 seconds doesn’t mean squat when it’s 3am and there’s no place to comfortably lie down.   

I’ve required my car to double as an emergency apartment since high school. Back then, I drove a mid 70s-era Cadillac, a giant boat of a thing with two bench seats a full-grown man could spread out on. It was basically a two-bedroom on wheels. I moved on to a truck with a bed big enough for two sleeping pads, then a full-on VW Van with a queen bed, curtains, and a disco ball. This was well before the whole van life and overlanding phenomenon, so I was just a sketchy guy who would occasionally sleep in his van. Thankfully, modern society has caught up with my proclivity for tiny RVs. It’s no longer sketchy to sleep in your car; it’s #lifegoals. 

The interest in overlanding and van life has been growing for the last decade, but the pandemic seems to have intensified our zest for mobile living.

Social media is full of people living in a van, down by the river. All of a sudden, we’re a society of gypsies with all of our worldly possessions strapped to our carriages, ready to roll at any minute. I spent the last year building out an old 4Runner with a baller rack and rooftop tent, built-in drawers that contain a camp kitchen, and more “end of the world” accessories than are necessary for the life that I currently live, which is made up primarily of car camping in Pisgah National Forest and driving my kids to soccer practice. I’m happy to say that my 4Runner is a perfectly capable adventure rig, well-suited to all of my needs. And I’m completely dissatisfied with it because my neighbor down the street has a much larger SUV that he’s outfitted to be an adventure rig with a bigger rooftop tent, larger awning, dedicated generator, and propane heat. His adventure rig is better than my adventure rig, and it drives me crazy.  

I have overland envy. 

I recognize the problem because I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta where home ownership was the only sport that mattered. If your neighbor got a hot tub, you installed a pool. If your neighbor added on a rec room, you built a personal movie theater and an extra garage. For the boat you just bought. I managed to eschew that lifestyle (my small house has no room for a boat), but I’ve fallen into a trap that’s equally as destructive. I might not be keeping up with the Joneses in the traditional sense, but I’m definitely keeping up with the Joneses’ overlanding rig.

The 4Runner sleeps four people comfortably, which should be fine because that’s the exact number of people I take camping regularly, but I can’t help but feel the urge to expand. It’s like Manifest Destiny on wheels. This whole thing started because I wanted to be able to take my family camping more often, but it’s morphed into a different animal completely. I want a dedicated shower/changing room and some sort of a deck branching off of my rooftop tent, so my wife and I can enjoy the sunsets with a cocktail in private. This is the master suite expansion we’ve always dreamed of! I’ve been using a cooler to keep my beer and food cold, but obviously I’ll need to upgrade to a fridge/freezer combo. Do they make microwaves you can plug into a car? And how great would it be if a movie screen pulled down from the awning so I could show movies out in the wild? Maybe I could fit a popcorn popper in the glove box.  

I don’t know what watching a movie on an 80-inch screen has to do with camping, but I’ve convinced myself that it’s absolutely necessary to make the upgrade. My happiness depends on it. Help me. 

There’s not much difference between keeping up with the Joneses’ McMansion and keeping up with the Joneses’ overland vehicle. The disease of one-upmanship is the same, and I’m not sure where it all ends. Will I be satisfied when my SUV can comfortably sleep 8? And when it does, am I going to adopt more children so I can justify all of the expansions? What if my neighbor upgrades to a 16-passenger van? Will I buy a school bus? What’s the logical conclusion of this overlanding arms race? Bankruptcy? Divorce? Mortgaging my actual house to pay for the upgrades in my mobile pretend house?  

The great irony to all of this is that I rarely get to use my overlanding vehicle as it was intended. It’s not often that I get to drive miles off road into the wilderness to camp far away from civilization. Mostly, the 4Runner just looks cool parked in my driveway. And the rooftop tent makes a great treehouse for my kids. But really, using the overlanding rig isn’t the point here. The point is, I could sleep in my car if I needed to or wanted to. And you never know when that moment will come. A dream road trip could pop up or my wife could finally get fed up with me because I spent so much money upgrading a 20-year-old SUV and kick me out of the house. Either scenario is a possibility and when that time comes, I know I’ll be comfortable. I’ll have a car to drive and a place to sleep. And you can’t say that if you’re driving a Lambo. 

Cover photo: The author’s kids in his more-than-adequate adventure rig.

Places to Go, Things to See: