Overlanding vs. Vanlife: What’s the Difference?


Life these days is rather hectic, and the chaos of every day has many people craving a different way of life. Overlanding and Vanlife are two ways to add some adventure into the everyday.

While similar concepts, VanLife, and Overlanding differ in one key area: intent. Overlanders travel with purpose, seeking out adventures, camping, biking, and exploring. Van life, on the other hand, is more static. To put it plainly, van life is simply when you live in a van, without the intention to adventure or travel.

There is a thin line between Vanlife and overlanding, and Vanlife can easily become Overlanding if you set out to travel. Keep reading for everything you need to know about these alternative, innovative lifestyles. 

What is Vanlife?

VanlifeOpens in a new tab. is an alternative way of living. Instead of rooting into one home, people choose to convert their vans into living spaces. This lifestyle became popular in the 1960s; there are a plethora of images of hippies, hanging out in their VW vans.

Now the trend is resurfacing with millennials. Vanlife allows you certain freedoms, like mobility and a constant sense of adventure. In addition, it also allows you to save a lot of money on rent and utilities.

These days, rent prices are staggeringly high, and the job market is not forgiving. Many millennials prefer Vanlife to paying outrageously high rent and working a regular 9 to 5.

Vanlife’s popularityOpens in a new tab. has exploded in recent years. Vanlife has become a popular hashtag on social media. You can find pictures of young millennials in their converted vans, posed in front of mountains, pine trees, or beaches.

The quaint and vintage hippie aesthetic is a huge draw for Vanlife; it is a romanticized nomadic way of life that resists the status quo. Vanlife is appealing for both fiscal and aesthetic reasons.

When talking about Vanlife, it’s important to note that not everyone has a choice in the matter. While some people choose Vanlife for its quaint and quirky appeal, others are forced into it for fiscal reasons.

What is overlanding?

Vanlife can quickly turn into overlanding when the Van dweller decides to set out and travel with a purpose. Overlanding is more than living for free in a van: it is setting out to seek adventure. It is traveling with intention. 

Overlanding is a mix of travel, off-roading, and camping. Typically, overlanding consists of a long journey, not a singular trip. Overlanders find themselves travelling for several months to a year.

With overlanding, the journey itself is the objective. Usually those who overland will also camp, hike, bike, and experience nature. The primary difference between overlanding and Vanlife is adventure versus survival.

Those who overland are passionate about travel. For them, it is not about the destination but the journey itself. They are curious, adventurous, and are filled with an intense desire to learn about the world around them: both the natural, wild world, and the people that make it up.

Overlanding is said to originate in the Australian outback. It first began with horses, and people would travel across the Australian continent, exploring the natural climate, trading with various people. When the rail was invented, people began traveling by train. Nowadays, Overlanders mostly use cars and motorcycles.

Whereas some people convert to Vanlife out of financial necessity, most people Overland as a means of recreation. It’s important to note that this takes a certain amount of financial wealth. 

Overlanders must be able to pay for gas and food and other expenses. This requires either finding ways to work from the road, or having the privilege to take a year or so off work.

Essential to Overlanding is the spirit of adventure and self-reliance.

Popular Vocabulary

If you are considering either Overlanding or Vanlife, then you might want to become acquainted with some of the verbiage describing the lifestyle.

  • Conversion: This is the act of converting your vehicle into a liveable space. This process usually consists of adding storage, a cooking area, and a space to sleep.
  • Hippies: Vanlife became popularized with hippies in the 1960s. The word hippie originated in the ‘60s, and was used to describe bohemian, free-spirited folks who were moving into New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.
  • Nomad: A wanderer or drifter; anyone who roams frequently, without a fixed home.
  • Vandweller: a term used to describe someone who lives in their van or vehicle. Vandwellers can live in their van part time or full time.
  • Vagabond: A Person who travels often
  • Wanderlust: A term describing a strong desire to travel, wander, adventure, and explore the world around you. Many Overlanders experience wanderlust.

Key Differences between Overlanding and Vanlife

The essential difference between overlanding and Vanlife is intent. If you are committed to traveling, exploring, adventure, and you are always on the move, then you are Overlanding.

Another key difference between Overlanding and Vanlife involves privilege and your fiscal situation. Overlanders must have the means to travel, eat, pay gas money, and pay parking fees when needed. It can be a costly endeavor. 

Vanlife, on the other hand, can be rather inexpensive, depending on how you choose to do it. Sleeping in your van can help you save money on rent. And you don’t necessarily have to drive often, so you can save money on gas as well.

Getting Started with Vanlife

To get started with Vanlife, technically you can just begin sleeping in your vehicle. It doesn’t even need to be a van!

If you have the means, materials, and time, you may want to consider converting your van into a comfortable living space. This may require tearing out flooring and seats, and building a bed and storage area.

Some people who live the Vanlife even add a small kitchenette area for cooking and preparing their meals. You may want to consider a mini-fridge, or a tiny electric stove top.

Getting Started with Overlanding

Vanlife doesn’t necessarily necessitate much preparation. If you wish, you can simply begin your Vanlife by making the decision to sleep in your van or car. Overlanding, however, takes a little more preparation.

People who have been overlanding for years will mention that the most important part of beginning your overlanding life is your mindset.

It is a romantic, idyllic way of life. But the reality of it can be gritty, difficult, and frustrating. You must be mentally prepared to persevere through the setbacks, storms, and tough times. Without plumbing, you must be prepared to go days without showers or toilets.

Once you have committed yourself to this life, you should prepare your vehicle. The most popular vehicles for overlanding are Jeeps, like the classic Jeep Wrangler or Cherokee XJ. The Nissan Xterra and Chevy Colorado are also popular choices.

When choosing your vehicle you will want one that can handle various terrains. As you will be traveling frequently in diverse climates, you will want a car that can tackle everything from desert dust and rocks to snow and sleet.

In addition to choosing your vehicle, you will also want to make sure you have all the right gear. Tents, sleeping bags, water purifiers, heaters, and fire starters are all essential gear to have before beginning your Overlanding journey.

You will also want to have tools on hand for the inevitable accidents. Parts will break, tires will pop, and having all the necessary tools on hand will save you a lot of trouble. Be sure to have jumper cables, spare tires, and repair kits ready to use.

Conclusion

Here is everything you need to know about the difference between Overlanding and Vanlife. While there are key differences, they are both innovative and creative ways of living that remind us we don’t always have to stick to the status quo.

Jeremy Hoxie

Born and raised in beautiful Northern Michigan, I've have spent two decades enjoying everything the outdoors has to offer. When not working on RigForge, I spend my time Overlanding and tackling off-road trails while sharing my experiences and testing gear along the way. My current rig is a 2013 Jeep JKU Moab.

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