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Camping With Your Overlanding Vehicle

Welcome to the next article in the Building an Overlanding Vehicle series, where we look at the different camping options for Overlanding.

Maybe, before we get into this, let’s go back to what Overlanding really is.

Overlanding is a term that has become widely used in New Zealand over the last couple of years, but what is Overlanding?


What is Overlanding?

Like a lot of things, it can mean different things to different people. It could be a weekend away camping or a trip lasting many weeks or even months, crossing borders and exploring different countries. Our 2019 Overlanding trip to Europe, saw us on the road for over six months and visiting five different countries as we explored the French and Italian Alps before heading down through the Spanish Pyrenees. Kiwi, Aaron Rich and his family,, recently spent over nine months driving from Eastern Russia to London through Central Asia, covering over 30,000kms and crossing 16 countries.

For me, the best definition of Overlanding is as follows.

Overlanding describes self-reliant adventure travel to remote destinations where the journey is the primary goal. Typically using off-road capable vehicles where the principal form of lodging is camping.

Overlanding is about Exploration, rather than conquering obstacles. While the roads and tracks we travel might be rough or technically challenging, they are the means to an end and not the goal itself.

The goal is to see and learn about our world, whether it be a weekend trip 100kms from home or a 10,000kms trip across another continent.

The vehicle and equipment can be simple or extravagant as they, too, are simply a means to an end.

History, wildlife, scenery and self-sufficiency are some of the rewards of Overlanding.

So, as we can see, the principal form of lodging while Overlanding is camping. Being vehicle borne, we have various options available to us and in this article, I will try to set out the pros and cons of these options whilst trying to remain as objective as possible.

The options that will be discussed are Awnings, Roof Top Tents (RTTs), Swags, conventional ground tents and in-truck setups.

Photo 1 of Camping With Your Overlanding Vehicle


Before we get into the various types of tents available, it is worth taking time to talk about awnings. If your Overlanding for any period of time, an awning is one of the best investments that you can make. The sun is particularly fierce here in New Zealand and shade is crucial. Also, there is nothing worse than not having an area under cover when it’s raining.

There are many makes and models of awning on the market coming in at very different price points. As with anything, think about how much it is going to be used and chose the one that best suits your needs and your wallet. Check out online reviews and speak to friends who have an awning before making a decision.

We decided on a Rhino Rack Batwing 270° awning. This is extremely quick to deploy and pack away and gives us plenty of space to get out of the sun and rain. We cook out of the back of the vehicle, so having the full 270° is excellent.

If we are staying put for a few days, we have four side panels that we can attach giving us about 25sqm, under cover. There have been times where we have had the tent, a DOC picnic table and our chairs all under cover. One of the panels has a large door, so we can come and go easily and still have a view.


Photo 2 of Camping With Your Overlanding Vehicle

Roof Top Tents

RTTs are becoming increasingly popular everywhere. Here in NZ, they were once the reserve of serious Overlanders with highly modified vehicles. Now they are commonly seen on rental cars and I mean cars, not trucks!

The history of the RTT is not clear but I’m sure that RTTs first gained popularity on the African continent where sleeping off the ground offers lots of advantages in an environment where the local fauna sees you as their next meal.

We saw them everywhere in the UK and throughout Europe on vehicles of all nationalities, so why have they caught on so rapidly here and everywhere else?

RTTs have a solid base platform and a built in mattress making them very comfortable. No more need to worry about camping on rocky, muddy or snowy terrain. As long as you can get your truck reasonably level, you should get a good sleep. If the ground is uneven, a set of Maxtrax can be used to level the vehicle.

They are relatively easy and quick to erect and pack away and you can fold them away with all your bedding inside, so freeing up space in the vehicle. In fact all your sleeping equipment is on the roof, so doesn’t take up any space in the vehicle.

Many also come with an annex, which creates a separate enclosed room beneath the overhanging sleeping platform. If you are planning on staying put for a couple of nights or in the case of bad weather, these can be great to provide extra privacy and a sheltered area to change, shower, cook and live.

Most RTTs are of a reasonable size and so offer you space to move around and a decent degree of privacy if you are camping in close quarters to others. Many are also made of dark polycotton canvas, which will keep the morning light out if you fancy a lie in. Being away from the ground, also means that they are generally warmer in cold weather.

Most RTTs have ample windows equipped with insect netting, allowing air to circulate while keeping the bugs out.

There’s also something quite fun about being up high…. Like a tree hut for grown ups and lets face it, they also look really cool!

There are also Hardshell, or clam type, RTTs, which tend to be easier and quicker to erect, last longer, but are more expensive. We do not have time in this article to examine the merits of both types, but well worth looking into if you are in the market for a RTT.

So those are the primary reasons to buy a RTT, but what should you be aware of when considering this as an option.

A RTT is attached to your vehicle and they generally weigh over 60kgs. They are removable, but difficult to do single-handed. If you get away occasionally and your truck is your daily driver, would you be happy fitting and removing one every time you went on a trip or would it become a permanent fixture? Also, once the RTT is erected, the vehicle is immobile. This can inconvenient if you want to drive off to the beach, collect firewood or have a run to the shops.

You will also end up with a lot of extra weight on the roof, which will have an effect on your vehicle’s centre of gravity. Most of the time this is not an issue but on a mountain track with an adverse camber and a long drop off, you may start to think differently. You are also adding extra height, which may become restrictive in close country.

RTTs are easy to set up and take down, in theory, but keep in mind the height of your vehicle and the fact that the tent is at roof rack height. Some vehicles are fitted with ladders to access the roof rack and these do definitely make life easier. If you don’t have a ladder, imagine how you would erect and pack the RTT.

A lot of RTTs are sold on-line and there are many different models, at different price points and varying levels of quality. I would recommend buying a RTT from a well-known and reputable vehicle out fitter where you can see and touch the product and will get good aftersales service in the case of a failure. Ironman4x4 and DARCHE sell a range of RTTs and accessories. Local New Zealand company, Feldon Shelter, have also been getting good reviews but there are many more.

Great as RTTs are, they are not cheap. As with everything, you tend to get what you pay for. A good quality RTT will cost you in excess of $1500, although there are some available for around the $1000 mark. A lot of information is available on the Internet. Have a look at what’s available and read the reviews.

Also think about your set up and pack down times. For us, this is crucial and the ExpeditioNZ range of Clam shell tents look awesome with set up and pack down times of around three minutes. They also can be supplied with heaters.

If you have a friend who has a RTT, ask if you could borrow it for an overnight trip to see how it works with your setup. Failing that, next time you see one, ask the owners what they think the advantages and disadvantages are. Bear in mind though, that someone who has just spent nearly $2000 on a RTT is unlikely to tell you that they made a mistake……

Photo 3 of Camping With Your Overlanding Vehicle


Swags are an Australian invention and are also gaining popularity here in NZ, possibly because of the influx of Australian 4WD on-line retailers such as Adventure Kings.

A Swag is the historical Australian name for what is literally a bedroll. Swags were originally carried by 'swagmen', who were itinerant farm workers, usually sheep shearers, that walked from job to job in Australia's outback during the late 1800's to early 1900's.

Today, a Swag could be described loosely as a ground based RTT. They sometimes have a built in mattress and generally have hooped poles providing a tunnel type shelter and are normally manufactured using polycotton canvas. Many have a side access system with a large opening flap and an insect net inside.

A Swag is not a tent and will have restricted headroom. They are really designed as a weatherproof sleeping system.

Bear in mind that, being Australian, they are designed for Australian conditions, which tend to be hot and dry as compared to NZ, which can be cold and wet.

The positive points around swags are that they can be very comfortable, depending on the quality of the mattress. If you are not happy with the mattress, this can easily be changed or you could instead use an inflatable air-bed.

If the ground is particularly wet, muddy or uneven, a Swag can be easily set up in the tub of a Ute for more comfort or on top of a tarp.

Being made of polycotton canvas, they are also dark inside. For me, this is a major positive point as I’m very sensitive to light and don’t necessarily want to wake up when the sun comes up.

They are also very quick to set up and take down and as with an RTT, you can store your bedding inside when packed away. Being free standing you retain the use of your vehicle.

Swags come at various price points from around $200 to as much as $1000, so can be a very cost effective sleeping option.

The only real drawbacks with swags are the limited headroom, large size when packed and the lack of any covered outdoor space.

The large pack down size is a price that is paid for comfort. Some swags come with oversize weatherproof storage bags and they can be easily stored on a roof rack so not taking up space inside the vehicle. Not being as large as a RTT, there will be still be space on the roof platform to store Maxtrax, fuel or whatever else you normally store up there.

The lack of outdoor space, particularly in bad weather, can be solved by setting the swag up underneath an awning, such as the Rhino-Rack Batwing.

When I’m away solo, I use a DARCHE swag, which I pitch under the awning. Combined with the DARCHE -12C Cold Mountain sleeping bag, I’m guaranteed a great nights sleep.

A lot of information is available on line, so do your research, speak to your friends and see if you can borrow one before committing.

Photo 4 of Camping With Your Overlanding Vehicle

Traditional ground tents

The range of ground tents available is huge! They range from small lightweight one-person hiking tents to multi room family holiday tents and can therefore cater to virtually all scenarios.

One of the obvious drawbacks with Swags and RTTs is that they are really only good for two people, whereas a large ground tent can accommodate a family. Indeed Aaron Rich and family, 5GoOverland, opted for a large ground tent when crossing Central Asia last year. Aaron has a diesel heater and their tent, DARCHE AT6, is large enough for all five of them to sleep comfortably and have a large heated space out of the elements.

Tents also come in a wide range of price points, and are cheaply available at many of our discount stores here in NZ. This can make a tent a very cost effective entry point into Overlanding. As we said in the introduction to this article, equipment can be simple or extravagant and is only a means to an end. If a cheap tent can provide a good nights sleep and protect you from the elements, why not!

Ultimately, as with all your Overlanding equipment, your budget should depend on how much you can afford and how much you will use it.

At 4x4Explorer, when we were away together and prior to acquiring the DARCHE swag we used a relatively cheap (circa $400) two-person tent that we purchased at Decathlon in France a couple of years ago. It’s self-supporting, so doesn’t need pegging out. This is handy if you want to pitch it on a beach or if the ground is too hard to get pegs in. It’s called a “Fresh and Black” and has a silver reflective flysheet and black insect netting interior. Primarily designed for use in the South of France, where it gets extremely hot, the advantage is that when it’s closed up, the inside is pitch black! Essential for me to get a good nights sleep!

The tent itself also takes up very little room in the truck, although, because we travel so much, we do have a 200l weather proof Rhino Rack cargo bag which contains a double self-inflating mattress, a double duvet and four pillows. This is stored on the roof rack out of the way.

Other advantages of a ground tent, such as ours, are that if we needed to abandon the vehicle and walk out, it is small enough and light enough to take with us and if we are in a campsite, we can still use the truck.

For the 18 months prior to the 2020 lockdown, we had been living out of our Prado here and our Shogun in Europe, and had become proficient in setting up and packing away. With both of us assigned to various tasks, we can pitch and strike camp in under ten minutes, including stowing the Rhino Rack Batwing awning. For prolonged periods of Overlanding this really matters whereas it’s not so important for a quick weekend overnight.

Photo 5 of Camping With Your Overlanding Vehicle

In-Truck set ups

Having said that we mostly use the ground tent, we also have the possibility of sleeping in the truck.

Both the New Zealand and European 4x4Explorer vehicles have been configured so that we can have a double sleeping platform in the back. In New Zealand, we removed the back seats and created a platform, the size of a double bed, beneath which we store all our equipment. In Europe, we retained the back seats and have a system where we can slide a piece of wood forward, which rests on the reclined rear seats.

We have a set of black hessian curtains that we can use for privacy and to keep the light out. I must say at this point, that my partner, really dislikes sleeping in the truck and refers to it as the “Coffin”, maybe on account of the curtains.

I’m also not a huge fan. I don’t like the restricted head height and I find it difficult to get in and out of bed. When you reach a certain age and have calls that need to be attended to in the middle of the night, it can be quite an effort, especially if I’m in a sleeping bag.

One of the advantages of sleeping in the truck is that it is very quick. All I need to do is unpack my sleeping bag and it’s ready. I really only sleep in the truck if I arrive somewhere much later than planned or if the ground is just too rocky to erect the tent. This has occurred a few times mainly up High Country Canterbury Valleys.

Other advantages are that the truck is totally weather proof and you benefit from the vehicles sound insulation.

Setting your truck up to enable you to sleep in the back is very simple, inexpensive and can be achieved while retaining the rear seats. I have written an article on how the 4x4Explorer truck is fitted out and there are many articles and videos available on the Internet to show you how.

I have many Overlanding friends who sleep in their vehicles and are extremely happy with this option.

I always keep a sleeping bag in the truck in case I end up spending the night in it for any unforeseen reason or have to walk out. An important part of Overlanding is being self-sufficient.


Photo 6 of Camping With Your Overlanding Vehicle


So there we have briefly examined the sleeping options available to us as Overlanders. Each option has its benefits and drawbacks.

Which option you chose will be based on how you use your vehicle and how important various factors are to you. These could include speed of set up and stowage, budget, number of people in the party, amount of use, space available, terrain, climate/season and comfort level required.

Whichever system you are using at the moment or are considering in the future, it will be based on what suits YOU best. There may be a tendency to follow trends and copy other people, but before you make any decisions, do your research and really think what would work best for you. If you look in the back of any Overlanding vehicle, chances are that the set up will be different to your own. This is because each set up is personal to the user. Everyone knows what works best for them.

Choosing which sleeping system to adopt is one of the most important Overlanding decisions that you will make. As we all know, a good nights sleep after a day behind the wheel is priceless!

I hope that you have found this thought provoking, interesting and objective.

We look forward to meeting you out there Overlanding and discovering New Zealand!


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