A Guide to Choosing an Expedition Rig

I have spent a lot of time thinking about expedition rigs. I started looking for the perfect one to see if I could find something better than the 4Runners and Tacomas Expedition Overland uses. Less than a year later, I bought a 4Runner. I resumed my search a few months later, and almost bought an RV instead of a house. As a home owner I have started searching again — and this time, I decided to talk about my process. I hope this guide will help those looking for adventure choose the right platform for their way of life.

A Note on Terms #

When I hear “expedition rig”, I think of the vehicles Expeditions7 drove across Greenland, and the monsters UNICAT builds in Europe. These get large groups of people almost anywhere for long periods of time. “Adventure rig”, to me, lives somewhere between those and a daily driver — think of the ones Mountain State Overland uses to explore the Northeast. These take smaller groups almost anywhere for shorter periods of time. Here, though, I use the two terms to mean the same thing. Anything can take you on an adventure, and you can turn it into an expedition by going just a bit farther, and staying out a little longer. I wrote this guide to help you find the vehicle that will get you out there, no matter where and how long you want to go. For this, that distinction makes little sense, and so I do not make it here.

Step 1: Create a List of Requirements #

Start your search by creating a list of requirements. I tend to get caught up in cool new things. The car buff and gear nerd in me sees the latest, greatest rig, and I tend to obsess over it for a while. I have learned to curb that impulse over time, though, by thinking back to this list. My answers to a few key questions help me stay focused on the vehicle that will best serve my needs, and avoid getting caught up in cool new toys. Everyone searching for the best adventure platform should start with spending some time thinking about these questions. Hat-tip to Martin and Bethany for the idea.

  1. Where do you want to go?
  2. How long do you want to stay there?
  3. How much do you want to take?
  4. How large do you want to be?

Let’s look at each in detail. Record your answers so that you can revise them over time, and so that those you adventure with can have a say in the rig’s requirements.

1. Where do you want to go? #

I put this question first because it can negate this entire process. I spent my first twenty-two years traveling in vans. A Dodge Grand Caravan, a Honda Odyssey, and a Chevy Equinox got me up and down the East Coast, and some old Toyotas and Mitsubishis and Isuzus took me across Africa and Mongolia. If you just want to get to parks and trail heads and down a few dirt roads, almost any vehicle will work. Your answer could also narrow the scope of your search: few vehicles can handle rock crawling, so if you plan on that, you have little left to decide. An honest look at where you want to go might help you avoid spending a lot of time and money here, which means more of both for adventuring.

2. How long do you want to stay there? #

I would have put this question first, but an honest answer to #1 will save so many people so much time and money that I had to start there. I cannot overstate the importance of this question, though, as one of the most often overlooked criterion for choosing the right adventure platform.

Even if you do not plan to go anywhere extreme, the amount of time you want to stay there may still push you toward more capable platforms. I once tried to pack enough gear for a multi-week camping trip into a Chevy Cruze. A much larger Chevy Equinox just fit it all, and I had to unpack and then re-pack almost everything every night. Think about how long you want to stay out before heading back into town, and how that will affect the amount of gear, water, food, and fuel you must take. Your answer may rule out many of the vehicles that made it past the first screening criterion above, or show you that a little car just might work after all.

3. How much do you want to take? #

Your answer to questions one and two will give you an idea of the minimum gear, water, food, and fuel this rig must carry. Also think about anything else you would like to pack, and any amenities you would like to have. A truck, for example, might handle the basics, but if you want a full bathroom, you have to pick something else. If you decided a car would work for weekend trips to the coast, but also want to bring surfboards and sea kayaks, you need a bigger vehicle.

4. How large do you want to be? #

As your list of requirements grows, so will the size of the rig that satisfies it. Jim Harmer put together a great breakdown of RV length limits for State and National Parks, so if you might go that route, check his article out. If you want to ship your rig overseas, plan to go smaller. Trail running and rock crawling will restrict you the most, in both size and weight. Set some sensible limits now and exceed them with care.

At the end of this process, you should have a list of requirements that looks something like this:

My list looks like this:

Step 2: Choose a Chassis #

Next, move on to choosing the best chassis for the job. I like to choose a chassis first and a fuel second, because the former will have a much greater impact on where you go, how long you stay there, and what you bring. A lot of overlanders get married to the idea that they must have a diesel rig, but most people will do just fine with a plain gas engine.

I listed as many chassis as I could think of below, with pictures and links where possible, and notes about who I think should and should not buy each. Try not to get caught up in the idea of one perfect vehicle, when another might do a better job of serving your actual needs. You set good goals, and sensible limits, earlier; change and exceed them now with care.

Cars #

Many have done amazing trips in vehicles like these, so for those who just want to get to parks and trail heads and down a few dirt roads, a car will do just fine. You could go with a more capable platform, but all the money you save in car payments and at the pump will leave more for the fun stuff.

Certain people should choose a car. I wrote out a rough guide below. To those who fit the bill for the former, I hope you will think long and hard about moving on to something larger and more expensive. If any of the latter describe you, though, move on. Many try to force whatever they already have into a new role as an adventure platform — and when that fails, they give up on adventuring. Set yourself up for success. Think back to your list of requirements from earlier. Those who can meet them with a car, should — and if you can’t, keep reading.

Buy this if:

SUVs #

The sweet spot for most people, SUVs carry more and do better off-road than cars. This means they can take you to far-flung places for medium amounts of time, but know that you cannot take much, and that you will camp while there. The folks over at Expedition Overland love this; others, not so much. Again, certain people should choose an SUV. See my rough guide below.

Buy this if:

Trucks #

Trucks tend to have more power than SUVs, but that may come at the cost of size, weight, and off-road ability. These vehicles can also take you to far-flung places for medium amounts of time and you will still camp while there, but you can bring more with you.

Buy this if:

Vans #

With so many people living in vans these days, they have proven their viability as both homes on wheels and adventure platforms. Few vehicles will beat them for one or two people a few days at a time. A second row of seats will take up a lot of that living space, though, vans eek by off-road, and they lack the weight capacity to hold food, water, and fuel for long adventures off-grid.

Buy this if:

Side-by-sides #

I almost left these out. Side-by-sides do not have the weight or fuel capacity to support long trips, but a lot of people out west love them. For fun day trips, one might work for you.

Buy this if:

Recreational Vehicles #

The classic “adventure vehicle”, RVs come in many shapes and sizes. Each suits a different type of adventure, and so I broke this class up by type.

Class A #

These bus-like monsters have the space and amenities to support large groups on multi-week trips, as long as they stay on the pavement and camp in RV parks. I like these because they can replace a house, but their size, inability to go off-road, and dependence on water, electrical, and sewage hookups limits their utility outside a narrow use case.

Buy this if:

Class C #

Although Class Cs can rival Class As in size, few will. Built on large truck chassis like the Ford F350, these smaller RVs can handle rougher roads. They also have enough space and amenities to support mid-size groups on multi-week trips. These RVs still depend on water, electrical, and sewage hookups, so do not expect to stay off-grid for long.

Buy this if:

Fifth wheels #

These massive trailers have the space and amenities to support large groups on multi-week trips. Pulled by large trucks, and close to Class A RVs in size, they have similar capabilities and limitations. You can unhitch your truck and leave the trailer, though, which makes this route a bit more flexible. Park a side-by-side in the attached garage, and you get a capable base camp from which to launch some serious adventures.

Buy this if:

Travel trailers #

Think of travel trailers as Class Cs you tow. They have the same amenities as large RVs in a smaller package, to support mid-size groups for multi-week trips. This means you can tow them with smaller, more off-road capable vehicles, which gives you the base camp setup of the larger RVs and an overland-capable rig.

Buy this if:

Pop-up trailers #

Pop-up trailers have few amenities but come in the smallest package. Almost any vehicle can tow one, so although their size makes them ill-suited to large groups, a capable overland rig could tow one to make long-term camping possible with extra supplies, and more comfortable with basic amenities.

Buy this if:

Truck campers #

The smallest of all the campers here, these sacrifice size and all but the most basic amenities to fit in the back of a truck. This truck, in turn, can go almost anywhere. Think of these campers as SUVs with interior living space, so you do not have to camp while on the trail.

Buy this if:

Medium-Duty Utility Vehicles #

Most adventure vehicles fall into one of those six groups. As you search for the perfect fit, though, consider these two types as well. Although unusual, medium- and heavy-duty utility vehicles have a great deal to offer as expedition rigs. Built to withstand hard use in austere environments, and with the size and weight capacity to support mid to large groups on long trips, they can do things and go places unlike any other platform on this list. Equipping one will take some time and money, but go into this with an open mind — you might just like the idea.

Medium-duty utility vehicles, like the Mitsubishi Fuso and Isuzu N-series, have single and crew cab models to support small to mid-size groups of up to seven. Many also ship from the factory without anything on the frame except that cab, making them a blank slate upon which you can build almost anything. Some models, like the Mitsubishi FG4x4, also come equipped for off-road driving in their stock form. Although this route will take some extra time and money when compared to others here, it gives you the chance to build the perfect custom expedition rig.

Buy this if:

Heavy-Duty Utility Vehicles #

A step up from their smaller cousins, heavy-duty utility vehicles offer even more space and carrying capacity. This comes at the cost of size and a couple miles per gallon, but opens up a world of extreme expedition rigs built to excel in harsh environments. Take the U.S. Army’s Family of Light Medium Tactical Vehicles, for example, which even in great condition sell for around $10,000. The base model, the M1078, can carry 5,000 pounds, run on almost any combustible fluid, and go anywhere its large frame will fit. Many companies and millitaries around the world have similar offerings, such as the storied UNIMOG or the MAN KAT. Building these out, too, will take some extra time and money as compared to other options here, but this gives you the chance to create the perfect expedition rig.

Buy this if:

Each group here has many awesome vehicles. I encourage you to find a class that sounds like it will work for you, and then search for the best rig within it. Most people can get away with a car. Those who want to stay out longer should go with an SUV, or an RV for the whole family. The most adventurous amongst you, who want to travel to faraway places for long periods of time, should consider something custom built atop a utility vehicle. I walk through this process below using our example list of requirements, and then a second time with my own. Once you pick a chassis, move on to choosing a fuel source.

Recall the list from earlier:

The East Coast does not allow for much off-road driving, but some trails do exist. Assume our example person here wants to explore them. This rules out a car, a van, and Class A, Class C, and fifth wheel RVs. I would not wish driving through cities in a heavy-duty utility vehicle on anyone, so cross those out, too. Take travel trailers and side-by-sides off the list for the same reason. This leaves SUVs, trucks with or without a truck camper, pop-up trailers, and medium-duty utility vehicles. These all meet the criteria above, so trimming the list further will come down to two important questions.

  1. How much do you want to camp?
  2. Which seasons do you want to adventure in?

If our example person likes camping for long periods, like the folks over at Expedition Overland, their answer to #1 will do nothing to trim this list. Sticking to fair weather adventures, during the spring and fall in particular, also does not help. Any one of these chassis will serve this type of person’s needs, so I would suggest picking the one that gets them out there the soonest and for the least amount of money.

Suppose our example person wants a respite from nature, though. Cross out SUVs and trucks. Neither has the space to do much more than support nearby campers. If they want to adventure during the summer and winter, cross these out along with pop-up trailers: although possible, using a tent in deep northern snow or smothering southern heat makes for rough living. This leaves truck campers and medium-duty utility vehicles. Choosing the latter means investing a lot of time and money into this project for an awesome, custom adventure rig. The former costs less and sits atop a more capable vehicle, but its lack of interior living space will push its occupants outside often. Our example person would have to choose between these trade-offs.

Going through this process again, in a less abstract way, recall my list from earlier:

Traveling throughout North America makes cars and side-by-sides poor choices. The remote and austere environments I want to visit in Canada and Alaska also take Class A, Class C, fifth wheel, and travel trailer RVs out of the running. Wanting to spend a week or more in those places between refits precludes vans, for mediocre off-road ability and limited cargo capacity. Lack of space and cargo capacity would also take SUVs and trucks in general out of the running, if not for the possibility of using a small trailer.

This leaves me with a truck (with or without a truck camper) or an SUV, paired with a small trailer. I could also choose a medium- or heavy-duty utility vehicle. Let’s revisit my two bonus questions from last time, “How much do you want to camp?” and “Which seasons do you want to adventure in?”

I have spent enough time in the middle of nowhere, unshowered and sleeping under the stars, to know I can do that for weeks if needed. I prefer to do it for a day or two at most. I love the outdoors but I need a break every few days, which each of these options can give me. This pushes the limits of an SUV- or truck-based setup, but I want to keep an open mind here, so I left them on my list.

When it comes to which seasons I want to adventure in, though, my answer rules out both SUV- and truck-based setups. I have plans for a year-long grand adventure throughout North America. Again, although possible, using a tent in deep northern snow or smothering southern heat makes for rough living. I would also like to live in this rig for a few months each year, and I do not want to limit myself to spring and fall. This leaves me with medium- and heavy-duty utility vehicles, upon which I can build a custom habitat.

Choosing between the two came down to size, capability, and cost. I went with a heavy-duty M1083 LMTV over a Mitsubishi FG4x4 because it allowed me to design a living space capable of carrying weeks’ worth of food, water, and fuel. The entire project on the M1083 chassis will also cost about the same as buying the empty Mitsubishi chassis, after which I would have to invest a few thousand more into building out a much smaller rig.

The medium-duty utility vehicle’s ability to fit inside a shipping container almost swayed me. This would have made it easy to get my rig to another country, or even just to a port in Alaska. I could have got it to Europe for about $3,000, for example. As it turns out, though, it does not cost much more to transport a full-size RV on a ship. In the grand scheme of things, when considering the magnitude of a multi-continent expedition, a difference of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars matters little. This sealed the deal for me.

A Note on Buying vs Leasing #

This should need little explanation, but every once in a while I see someone try to justify leasing an adventure vehicle over buying one. In brief, mileage limits, rules against excess wear and tear, and an inability to customize your vehicle should rule leasing out, regardless of the chassis you choose. If not for these reasons, consider how my car purchase shook out: I will pay my 4Runner off in just over four years, at $850 per month with no money down. A typical 36 month lease would have saved me about $400 a month, money that I would have then spent over the course of a second lease. At six years, my lease payments could have bought a new 4Runner. I bought a reliable car that holds its value, though, so instead I will spend the foreseeable future without a car payment, and years before I expect to spend much on a serious repair. Give yourself the freedom to build something great, and save yourself money in the long run, by buying your expedition rig.

Step 3: Choose a Fuel Source #

Again, I like to choose a chassis first and a fuel second. For the most part, the former will govern where you go, how long you stay there, and what you bring. As you start looking at lengthy and remote expeditions in particular, though, the type of fuel it runs on becomes a serious factor. Decide this next.

Gasoline #

As I said earlier, a lot of overlanders get married to the idea that they must have a diesel rig. Most people will do just fine with a plain gas engine, though, which has plenty of power and sips fuel found everywhere in the Americas. For ease of use and simplicity, almost everyone should stick with gasoline as their rig’s fuel source.

Diesel #

Diesel engines get a lot of credit for cranking out more power than gas. Although well-deserved, a good transmission and gearbox combo can all but close that gap. This means your choice comes down to a few key factors: efficiency, longevity, and service interval. As the more energy dense of the two, diesel can offer better range for the same storage capacity. Many also choose this fuel because these engines tend to last two to three times longer than those running on gas. They tend to go around twice as long between service intervals, too. All these upsides come at a higher initial cost, though, and higher costs at the pump. If you want to travel super long distances with few refuels and even fewer tune-ups, and have the money to pay for that, go for it.

Diesel does have one huge advantage over gas in custom expedition rigs, though: its ability to fuel everything. Gas can power an engine but everything else must use propane or electricity, whereas many companies offer diesel stoves, heaters, and water pumps. This simplicity has incredible value during remote, long-term expeditions in particular. If you picture yourself in a scenario where a system’s loss could have catastrophic results, think about this route as a way to reduce points of failure.

Electric #

Electric vehicles will revolutionize the overland space. With a water filter, a cooler, and some careful planning, I can live off the grid for weeks at a time. I can burn through fifty gallons of fuel in less than a day, though, and so as fuel cells and solar panels get better, “refueling” in the field will make extreme, long-term expeditions possible for anyone. I do not see this happening any time soon, though, but I would love to have someone prove me wrong.

Other #

Many automakers have at least one vehicle that runs on something else, such as natural gas. The infrastructure does not yet exist to make these fuels viable for the general public, though, let alone the small subset of people who want to explore the unknown for indeterminate periods of time. Steer clear.

Jumping back to our example person from earlier, who wants to travel up and down the East Cost for up to a week at a time, gas will work just fine. In my case, the M1083 runs on almost any combustible fluid. It prefers diesel, though, and so I will oblige. Bonus for me, though: this means everything can run on one fuel, so I have a little less to worry about as I cruise the backcountry.

As with most things, I wrote this to help clarify, condense, and record my thoughts on a tough topic. I needed to work through the complicated process of choosing an expedition rig. This framework lead me to the same conclusion I have leaned toward for months now, which I hope to make a reality over the next few years. In the meantime, I hope my guide helps you choose the right platform for your way of life. It’s about time you got out there.