Can Overlanding and Ultralight Backpacking Go Together?

Rafael "Horsecake" Mujica

Me, enjoying the view in my BTT Alpha Hoodie, before it was interrupted by coyotes howling close by. Taken somewhere remote on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. 

I use to take my 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe to the most egregious of places. Despite only having two-wheel drive, I never got stuck once... well, except that one time. With complete stock and basic economic features, I happened to get my crossover stuck between a literal rock and a hard place. I used my jack and sheer brute strength to move a small boulder from out between my wheels. Despite my trouble, the trip ended up being relatively successful, bagging two out of the famous Four Peaks of Arizona. 

Within the year, I bought an old Chevy Tahoe, which had great features like 4Hi and 4Lo, a body built onto the frame itself, and an enormous amount of room. It took be back to the Four Peaks, where I bagged the remaining two. But why? What is overlanding? What is a Truck Bivy? And what does any of this have to do with ultralight backpacking? Let's discuss. 



Outdoor recreation has really taken off since the days of the pandemic. Yet very few of us have the pleasure of having the Lost River Range or the Brooks Range in our backyards. As backpackers, the majority of us often find ourselves driving several hours to get to a promising prime backpacking location. When I lived in Texas, I had to drive at least 8 hours to get to a decent backpacking spot. In Phoenix, I have to drive at least that to get out of the suffocating heat that lasts from late Spring to early Fall. 

I often leave work or home and arrive at my chosen parcel of public land well after dark. Wanting to get a good night's rest before a multi-day trip, I forgo hiking in a few miles to look for a flat spot to set up my tent because honestly, that sounds awful. Rather, I'd roll out my Thinlight, snuggle into my quilt, and blissfully pass out until first light. 


I put a lot of research into finding the right vehicle for my needs. Then even more time upgrading and adding components to make it a competent and comfortable SUV camper. 

Legendary ultralight backpacker and guy gracious enough to let me interview him for my Wildfire Article, PMags, calls it a Truck Bivy. It's fairly simple. You have a destination in mind, you drive to get there, and you sleep in your car that first night. Funnily enough, this is close to the definition of Overlanding. The main difference being that the emphasis in overlanding is put on the journey, the road-trip portion of the trip, rather than the destination. 

Overlanding has a reputation that gets confused with actual Rock Crawling up steep and rugged terrain located nowhere near a road, or a towering Monster Truck like Gravedigger, and fully kitted out SUVs that look like they could be used off-road, but actually just transports food to and from the grocery store. In essence though, I've built out a comfortable camper SUV that can go nearly anywhere. I now get to enjoy the journey and the destination. 

I’m not the best carpenter, but my sleeping platform came out functional and sturdy. In the picture, you can see my Waterbricksgarbage, and laundry bin, and sitting right in between my front seats is my fridge.  

I put together a sleeping platform from wood being thrown out at work, bought a fridge, repurposed my emergency solar generator, slapped a solar panel to the roof, and called it a day. There's a little more to “my rig” (insert the heaviest eye-roll here) than that, obviously, but that's the Cliffs Notes version. 

It is exceedingly comfortable; I sleep better in this bed than I do at home. It is fantastic to have fruits, vegetables, good coffee, cold drinks, yogurt, and other perishable foods within an arm's reach; both before and after backpacking trips. I can fully charge my headlamp, battery banks, Garmin InReach, and phone whenever I need to; an especially neat necessity when you string multiple backpacking trips together. I can live weeks on the road (and I have), visiting seldom seen places and backpacking locations far from home. 

I made a LighterPack of a lot of the stuff I take with me on my trips, to include the safety and leisure gear pictured here. Most of the leisure stuff, like my chairs and table, got moved to my cargo box

I definitely went the luxury route with my “Truck Bivy,” but I wanted to get my hands dirty building out my camper as well as have a place to rest before and after my backpacking trips. What I've saved on hotel rooms and coffee alone must be huge. My wife is more of a car camper as well, so we both can go on trips together now. I love spending time together and introducing her to more wild places off the beaten path. 

The biggest change I’ve seen is how more flexible I can be with my schedule and how much more of the backcountry is open to me. I can sleep nearly anywhere and can go nearly anywhere. I’m not rushing to get home in order to be well rested before reentering the concrete world. I’m not worried about being stranded in the middle of nowhere. I’m eating better food and recovering better. 

Before I built the permanent sleep platform, I used to throw two cots into the back whenever my wife would come along. There’s still room for one cot now, even with the platform in there! (Pro Tip: use traction boards as a campsite leveler.) 

Do you need a rooftop tent, a roof rack basket, a cargo box, a cell phone signal booster, a HAM Radio, pod lights covering every inch of surface area, a lift kit and upgraded suspension components to enjoy the outdoors? To go BACKPACKING. Absolutely not. Hell, you probably don't even need a fridge or a solar set up like the one I have. 

If my old crossover, fitted with a backpacking sleeping pad and ultralight quilt could get me almost anywhere, yours could too. Often, careful navigation, a great set of all-terrain tires on a high clearance vehicle, with basic recovery gear haphazardly thrown in the trunk, will take you most places. 

Use what you've got, get out there, and have some fun (but safe) fun!



Rafael is a freelance writer and adventurer based in the Mountain West. You can find him trail running, backpacking, or sampling the best tacos during his free time. Follow all his adventures over on Instagram, or read more of his work over on his website.

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