A Beginner’s Guide to Planning Your First Cross-Country Overland Trip

Living a once-in-a-lifetime overland experience on the Continental Divide, the mountainous region that separates the eastern and western watersheds of the Americas, might seem impossible with a normal job and short vacations. However, thanks to today’s technology, it’s perfectly doable even with a somewhat limited budget, limited time, and minimum preparation.

overlanding
Olivier de Vaulx

First, Select Your Adventure

The first thing everybody needs before even thinking of going on a long trip is a dream. Not a destination, but a feeling that the route you’ll follow will bring you on the tracks of famous explorers, or will satisfy another personally desired goal, thus providing you with the sense of great achievement. That’s the reason my family and I chose one of the most famous routes: the mythic Continental Divide. This route, initiated by cyclists almost 20 years ago, crosses the whole United States border to border, from Mexico to Canada. However, it’s far from being a straight drive south to north. Passing across the four states of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, it follows the geological line along which the rain goes either toward the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific Ocean.

Find the Right Way

overlanding
Olivier de Vaulx

This 3,000-mile journey through the wilderness would be almost impossible to plan with conventional maps, especially if you have a day job. Luckily, there’s an easier way, since Kevin Glassett, a retired engineer from Hewlett-Packard, shares a full GPS track online on his website. It’s a substantially improved version of the cyclist route, which goes higher and follows more closely the actual Continental Divide line. For the incredibly low fee of $42, you will receive a memory card for your GPS device and the paper maps covering the whole trip. Since the maps and GPS list the gas stations and lodging locations, you can easily plan your days.

Which Vehicle Should You Drive?

Browsing posts on social media, you might be overwhelmed by the heavy-duty, off-road vehicles upgraded with huge wheels, high lifts, powerful lights, winches, and more. No worries — that’s overkill for an overland trip. If you already own a real four-wheel-drive with good ground clearance, low gear, and AT/T tires, it should be enough.

overlanding
Olivier de Vaulx

If you don’t, it might be time for a change. Trading your daily driver for a mid-size truck like the 2019 Ford Ranger FX4 will give you the best of two worlds: comfort on the highway and incredible performances off-road, straight out of the door. Opting for a mid-size truck instead of a full-size F150 will not only save you money but also allow you to follow narrow trails in the forest and take the high-mountain switchbacks easily. The stock brakes and heavy-duty shocks of the FX4 can withstand thousands of rough off-road miles and you still won’t have any rattle inside the truck.

Bring the Right Equipment

The trunk of a truck can hold removable racks, on which you can easily fix a roof-tent and all the camping stuff you need. Our list of overlanding essentials includes:

  • Rooftop tent: Unlike a traditional ground tent, using a rooftop tent like the Tepui Explorer allows you to be set in minutes while keeping the mattress, sleeping bags, PJs inside the tent. Climbing the ladder is not an issue, and it will prevent animals from coming in and will help keep your tent clean and dry. At night, you’ll just feel safer 6 feet in the air compared to lying down on a wet, muddy, or dusty ground. Here are some more great rooftop tent options.
  • Cooler: No need for an expensive fridge as you can reach a town every two to three days. Modern coolers can keep things cold for a long time and you won’t need electricity so long as you buy ice bags in gas stations. Plus, you can use the water from the melted ice to wash the dishes.
  • Storage: Your local hardware store will provide plenty of options in your quest for storage boxes. You don’t have to spend a fortune; you just have to check if the cover will stay in place and keep your tools dust-free. As for clothes, duffel bags that stay inside the car on the rear seats are enough.
  • Cookware and utensils: Don’t bring your usual kitchen utensils with you. Besides the mandatory camp stove, a dedicated cooking set that you can fold away neatly every day, with plastic and ceramic silverware, will be one of the most useful tools of the trip. If you don’t know where to look, the sets from GSI Outdoors are perfect and still looked brand-new after 40-plus days of camping.
  • GPS: The navigation system in your car won’t probably read the memory card you’ve received from Kevin Glassett. We used a Trail Tech Voyager Pro with a tactile color screen, integrated maps with all the trails, and cool features like “buddy tracking” that shows the other cars of your group on the screen.
  • Radios: Two-ways radios have a far longer range than walkie-talkies. They can save the day if you need to communicate with another vehicle or someone in your group. The MXT115 MicroMobile Two-Way Radio from Midland is easy to store on your dashboard while handheld devices such as the X-Talker T71VP3 radios help the spotters to give directions to the drivers. Both can also receive weather info from NOAA stations, which is a huge bonus!
  • Recovery tools: Going on an overland adventure with no recovery tools is simply looking for trouble. Mud, snow, flat tires, discharged batteries — anything can happen and you need to be self-sufficient. A pair of Maxtrax will help you find traction in the most slippery situations, as long as your vehicle is not stuck high-centered. Then, you might need a shovel. If you still can’t move, a kinetic rope will help another vehicle to pull you out in no time. In some forests, fallen logs have a bad habit of blocking trails and a chainsaw will come handy, especially if you remember to bring a can with the two-stroke mixture!
  • Lights: Adding a pair of Baja Designs LED lights up front and another pair at the rear will help a lot when, after a long day, you need to find a camping spot by night. Backing up with extra light is far easier, and at the front, the extra power will help you see animals. It’s an easy add-on to the car but a nice safety feature.
  • Camera: Saving memories from an adventure like this can be done with a smartphone, but there are better cameras out there. Since Canon came up with a new generation of mirrorless EOS-R cameras which let you see the actual exposure in the visor, you don’t even need to know anything about photography to obtain near-professional results, Changing lenses might seem complicated at first, but the 16-35mm wide-angle will frame the fascinating beauty of the starry nights and a 100-400mm zoom will capture the motion of the wildlife along the way.

Where to Go Along the Continental Divide

Land of Enchantment

Starting at the southern border, the GPS route takes you on the perfectly maintained dirt roads of New Mexico. Driving at a good pace, you’ll be amazed by the constant change of scenery throughs plains, small mountains, deserts, and forests — it changes every hour! Driving here can be either super easy or tricky, depending on the weather; the trails, amazing when dry, can become impassable when wet. In some cases, a detour to the highway will be mandatory. The towns are very sparse but you’ll always find great food, such as the hand-made pastries at Pie Town. Finding a free camping spot in the BLM is more than easy and you’ll often sleep under the Milky Way with no neighbors within a 50-miles radius. It’s a good way to find quieter and better camping locations.

Colorful State

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Olivier de Vaulx

Entering Colorado brings you to another dimension. The surrounding 14,000-plus summits are intimidating and, climbing above 12,000 feet, you’re almost certain to encounter tough conditions. This year, Colorado received five times more snow than usual and some passes were still closed mid-July. The open passes were themselves challenging, with cold temperatures, snow, hail storms, and rain. Thanks to the high ground clearance, our Ford Ranger FX4s could go through most of the snow patches, but we still needed the shovels and the Maxtrax to clear the deepest ones. The mountains are definitively humbling and here again, a detour is sometimes the wisest option. When not snowy or muddy, the trails are technical but fun, with a lot of double tracks used by UTVs where you definitively need a good four-wheel-drive. Hikes, wildlife sightseeing, historic gold mines, fishy rivers — the opportunities to get out of the car are numerous. Yet, with more tourists and a lot of bear activity, finding a perfect camping spot might be a bit more challenging than in New Mexico. The best option is sometimes to stop in a National Forest campground equipped with metal storage boxes.

Untamed Spirit of the West

In Wyoming, the mountains are more distant but the extra space gives an incredible feeling of freedom. The dirt is just amazing and offers incredible off-road experiences. The gracious pronghorns will race with your vehicles and jump over the fences as you approach, while bald eagles fly over your head. Cowboys are still active and living in the vast plains as their ancestors did one century ago and the old barns are plentiful. While in town, it’s hard to resist the urge to buy a Stetson and a pair of boots. Camping in Wyoming is pretty simple, and you will find yourself in the tracks of the pioneers with their carriages. Seeing that cattle and yearlings are in open range, the illusion is perfect. It’s best to set camp early to enjoy some of the best sunsets on the trip while sipping a cold drink. Who said that camping had to be hard?

Wild Montana

After peaceful Wyoming, the forest of Montana will be a bit more challenging. There’s less maintenance on the trails, and you’ll have to avoid thousand of potholes. Our tough pick-up trucks didn’t mind the bumps, but it was a bit difficult on our backs! Outside of some fallen logs that we had to cut with the chainsaw a couple of times, we had some fun off-road experiences. Some road closures forced us to follow technical trails with big boulders, narrow paths between trees, and big ruts in steep downhill. In these conditions, where the vehicles can lean more than 20 degrees on their side, the rock crawling feature of the Ford Ranger FX4 came handy. Hopefully, Montana can be also a sweet destination when, out of the forest, you pick cherries or stand-up paddle in a lake.

overlanding
Olivier de Vaulx

The Border

Arriving at the border between the United States and Canada, you’ll find a metallic pole but no fence. After 3,000 miles mostly on the dirt, seeing this milestone planted in the middle of nowhere is an incredible feeling. You crossed the whole U.S. off-road, how couldn’t you feel a bit special? It’s official, though. Since you finished this huge cross-country off-road exploration, you’re now a part of a very private club of adventurers, and it’s time to go back home and celebrate.

Split the Trip

Considering that most people have limited time for vacations, there’s virtually no chance that the 3,000 miles of the Continental Divide can fit in their tight schedule, not counting the time needed to reach the start of the trip and to come back home by the freeway. Indeed, driving more than 200 miles every day, on dirt roads, with almost no time to stop and enjoy the places you’ll visit, would be ruining the whole purpose of an overlanding trip. It’s not supposed to be a race!

overlanding
Olivier de Vaulx

Thankfully, the journey can still be done in parts. New Mexico should be done first as a warm-up. Since monsoon season is in July and August when temperatures are the highest, the end of winter or spring might be the best option to discover the Land of Enchantment. From mid-July to September, when the snow had disappeared, it will then be the right time to cross Colorado. The following year, the last part would include Wyoming and Montana in a single 12- to 15-day trip. There are fewer risks of snow then and any time during summer should work just fine. All in all, splitting the adventure in three parts won’t make is less extraordinary. By spreading the thrill of this journey on the Continental Divide over three smaller adventures, you might even enjoy it more.

Special Thanks
Samantha Vanhoef at Ford for the loan of two Ford Ranger Lariat FX4s with the exact colors we wanted

Beth Brennan at Tepui for the two Explorer rooftop tents and the Thule racks

Matthew Scott at Adventure Imports LLC for the pair of Maxtrax MKII

Andrew Kinsman for the two sets of Midland MXT115 Micromobile two-way radios and the pair of X-Talker T71VP3 radios with extra long-life battery

Jessica Tiller for the Baja Designs LED lights front and rear

Jessica Lee Sill for the mirrorless Canon EOSR

Ingrid Niehaus for the GSI Outdoors kits

Joshua Barton and the whole Trail Tech team for the two Voyager Pro with buddy tracking

Kevin Glassett who put together and shared with the community this awesome International Continental Divide route

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