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The Best Vehicle For Overlanding Pan-America

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“What is the best vehicle for overlanding” is one of the most popular questions that gets asked when planning for an overlanding trip of a lifetime. And this is for good reason.

That’s because the vehicle you decide on will have an outsized effect on the type of journey you will have. Your vehicle will dictate:

  • What roads you can drive on
  • How you will be sleeping at night
  • Inside livability
  • How much stuff you can bring
  • And more…

Throughout our travels, have seen vehicles of all different shapes and sizes. So, in this post, we will look at some of the most popular types of vehicles that overlanders are using to travel the Pan-American highway and discuss the pros and cons for each one.

Not surprisingly, there is no ‘best’ vehicle. But knowing what you want to get out of your adventure (and what you value and don’t value) will help you choose the best rig for your needs.

So if you’re ready, let’s get to it!

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    VW Combi/Vanagon

    Classic Combi For Van Life & Overlanding

    Perhaps the most iconic travel vehicle in history. Driving along the Pan-American in this classic motor home elicits sweet nostalgia of a prior nomadic era. Laid back vibes, spontaneous planning, and old-school cool.

    If having a photogenic van and being the wickedest looking overlanding vehicle at your campsite is important to you, this is the option for you.

    This is space efficient van and has the smallest footprint of all overlanding rigs. Meaning you can zip around urban areas, navigate narrow roads, and easily locate a street-side parking spot.

    Downsides

    What you gain in compact beauty, you lose in practicality. And what is lost the most is interior living space.

    Could you imagine traveling an entire year (or possibly longer) in a vehicle that wasn’t realistically conducive for living inside it? Sleeping space is limited, the cooking area is cramped, and standing room is practically nil.

    These vehicles are also old. Like…20-40 years old. This means experiencing a vehicle breakdown is not a matter of if, but when.

    Pros

    Cons

    • Stylish & Cool

    • Easy to drive

    • Compact

    • Very limited space

    • May break down often

    • Parts may be hard to find

    Best Example: KombiLife

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    Commercial Van

    Ford Transit camper van with girl sitting in sliding door

    Hey, that’s us!

    We chose the standard commercial van as our Pan-America overlanding vehicle of choice because they’re easy to buy in the USA. Whether you’re looking for a new or used van, there’s a large selection to choose from. And best of all, these vans come in all different lengths and heights. So finding a van with the exact dimensions you want isn’t difficult.

    The boxy shape of these commercial vans means you also get a sizeable amount of internal living space for sleeping, cooking, and hanging out. Also, since these vans often come as an empty shell, this makes it convenient  to DIY your own camper interior.

    Also, while we don’t think stealth camping is really that important, we do appreciate that our generic white van largely goes unnoticed when driving throughout Latin America.

    Downsides

    Commercial vans typically lack the rugged toughness that other overlanding vehicles have. (We’ll get to those other vehicles below).

    Most of these vans are only 2WD, which can make navigating rough & remote roads challenging. Though Sprinters and Transits do come with a 4×4/AWD option, you’ll need to spend considerably more for them.

    Clearance under the chassis is also lower than many of the vehicles we’ll discuss below. And this could potentially be an issue since not all the roads you’ll drive on will be perfectly paved.

    Pros

    Cons

    • Great For DIY Conversions

    • Lots of size optons

    • Large internal space

    • Usually not 4x4

    • Clearance can be an issue

    • Not particularily aesthetic

    4x4 SUV w/ Tent Roof

    Toyota 4Runner with roof top tent camped in nature
    Photo: Outdoorsy

    One of the more common overlanding vehicles to be used to travel the Americas. Owners often choose a capable off-road SUV, like a Toyota 4Runner or Jeep, and pair it with a roof-top tent. The result is a compact, yet powerful, vehicle capable of getting you far off the beaten path.

    SUV’s like the 4Runner are common to see throughout Latin America and your vehicle would fit right in without turning many heads. So, if ‘flying under the radar’ appeals to you this is a good option.

    Downsides

    The obvious drawback of a SUV/roof tent pairing is the lack of interior space. In fact, space will be so limited that everything you do will likely be outside. Cooking, cleaning, eating, and hanging out will mostly be done outside, next to your rig.

    For many people, this may not necessarily be a bad thing. This is especially true if you can install an awning on the SUV.

    The last major downside is that you’ll be sleeping in a tent every night. Not only does this mean constantly setting up and taking down the tent, but you’ll be much more exposed to the elements (hot, cold, wind, and rain) when compared to sleeping inside a vehicle.

    Pros

    Cons

    • Great drivability

    • Doesn't stand out

    • Rugged 4x4

    • Limited space

    • Not conducive for inside living

    • Sleeping in a tent everyday

    Truck Camper

    Truck Camper - Best vehicle for van life & overlanding

    The pickup truck & camper combination might possibly be the most ideal compromise between off-road capability, size, and livability. This is especially true when coming from the US or Canada, where truck campers are ubiquitous everywhere.

    First, you get a solid 4×4 vehicle capable of driving across virtually any terrain you come across. Sandy beaches, muddy roads, steep rocky mountain passes; you name it.

    Second, you get a spacious camper that sits conveniently on top of the truck bed. There’s often a full-size bed, roomy kitchen, and convenient nook for eating and working.

    Another benefit is that you can detach the truck from the camper in case you want to drive somewhere for the day and return later. This way you don’t need to haul your camper needlessly around town for the day.

    Downsides

    The largest downside of driving a truck camper is its overall size. Yes, you get a powerful truck and larger camper, but consequently the total volume of the vehicle can sometimes feel a tead unwieldly.

    Overall length and height of the vehicle is important, but we think vehicle width is the most critical. Unlike in the US or Canada, roads in Latin America can become narrow very quickly. Whether you’re navigating small, colonial-era towns or simply trying to escape from a busy market area, having a wider-than-normal vehicle can make driving stressful or even impossible.

    Planning ahead and choosing roads wisely is important if driving a truck camper.

    Pros

    Cons

    • Powerful 4x4

    • Great internal livability

    • Many household conveniences

    • Bulky to drive

    • Poor fuel economy

    • Stands out

    Iveco Truck Conversion

    Iveco truck camper for overlanding

    All we can say is, ‘very cool!’. We’ve seen several of these vehicles on the road throughout Pan-America and would love to get our hands on one of these Iveco Camper conversions.

    Not only are these 4×4 vehicles built to handle tough roads, but like the truck camper, they also provide a roomy interior for living. But the biggest difference between these campers and the previous pick-up truck camper is that these trucks have a more streamlined look and aren’t as wide, which is critical for navigating narrow and busy streets.

    Also, if you can get one of these trucks with an empty cargo area, you can then DIY your own interior.

    Downsides

    The biggest drawback of this vehicle is that they can be hard to locate! This is especially true if you’re located anywhere in North America. If you are starting your trip in Europe, then you may be able to find a used one or even buy new from an Iveco dealer.

    Pros

    Cons

    • Powerful 4x4

    • Roomy Interior

    • Cool looking (we think!)

    • Hard to find

    • Can be expensive to buy

    • Harder to drive

    Best Example: TucksTruck

    Expedition Truck Campers

    You can be forgiven if you’ve never laid eyes on one of these mega-duty ‘expedition-style’ truck campers, but they are more common for overland travel in Pan-America than you might think.

    With the highest clearance of all the camper options, these tough 4x4s can go practically anywhere. Brazil’s rain forest tracks, Chile’s Altiplano, and probably the straight across Antarctica if you so choose.

    You also get an incredible amount of interior living space. Full-size bed, kitchen, toilet, shower, dinette, you name it. We’ve even seen expedition campers that travel with their own washer and dryer!

    This is comfort travel at its finest.

    Downsides

    These truck campers aren’t for everyone, however. And the two largest reasons for that is size and cost.

    Because of the vehicle’s largess, you may not be physically able to drive in certain areas. This may include:

    • Dense urban areas
    • Small towns with narrow streets
    • Finding impromptu street-side parking
    • Paid parking lots with height limits

    Cost is also a factor. Not only is there a large upfront cost to purchase one of these rigs, but poor fuel economy will ensure that you’re consistently paying more at the gas station than other overlanders.

    Lastly, shipping your vehicle across the Darien Gap will be the most expensive since this vehicle has the largest volume of all overlanding vehicles.

    Pros

    Cons

    • Maximum interior space

    • Powerful 4x4

    • Difficult to drive & get around

    • Very expensive to buy

    Building a camper van? Download our free e-Books with intuitive electrical, solar, and plumbing diagrams.

    Conclusion

    In the end, the vehicle you end up choosing for your overland Pan-America travel will say a lot about how you like to travel and what you prioritize.

    But it’s important to remember that there is no best vehicle for overlanding. That’s because your vehicle of choice won’t dictate how epic your trip becomes. It’s simply your home and a way to get from one point to another.  

    It’s up to you to decide how you use your vehicle.

    Happy Planning!

    Go Back: Build A Camper Van Guide

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