Overlanding is one of the most unique and rewarding methods of travel. The combination of independence, remote destinations and ability to freely interact with your surroundings are essential ingredients for a great adventure. Unfortunately, unique considerations have to be made when it comes to vehicle selection for an overland trip or vehicle dependent expedition. Robust design, cargo capacity, mechanical reliability, fuel economy, availability of spares and many more factors all come into consideration when selecting an overlanding platform.
There is no “one size fits all” vehicle for everyone. However, the following vehicles consistently rise above all of the others as the five best vehicle platforms ever made for overlanding and expedition use.
The Unimog is undoubtedly the “big daddy” on this list. Its titanic size dwarfs all of the other vehicles but it comes with a reputation that’s unparalleled. Straight from the factory, a Unimog features portal axles, which allow for gobs of ground clearance; a flexible frame for added articulation; factory axle lockers and enough cargo capacity that you could probably carry any of the other four vehicles on this list around as a backup. The ‘Mog, as its affectionately called, has been around since the early ’50s, but as a platform it really hit its stride with the onset of the “U” series vehicles in the late ’70s.
Unimogs come in a seemingly endless array of configurations. This versatility makes the ‘Mog a flexible platform for building an off-road camper, as demonstrated by countless overlanders as well as companies like Global Xpedition Vehicles.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to this vehicle is also its greatest assets – its massive size. A truck this big is inherently limited to where it can go. The ‘Mog’s sheer girth makes vehicle recovery a challenge and keeps it off of tighter more technical trails. Although the Unimog is very reliable, when it breaks, repairs can be expensive and complex. These factors keep the Unimog from rating higher on this list.
German vehicles are famous for their engineering and build quality, so it should come as no surprise that Mercedes produced (another) one of the greatest overland vehicles of all time in the Geländewagen. If ever there was an endorsement for the G-Wagen, it’s this: Tom Shepherd, the guy who literally wrote the book on overlanding, abandoned his 30-year relationship with Land Rovers and now drives a custom G-Wagen.
The robustly-built G-Wagen features a heavy-duty suspension, quality construction, classic boxy looks and front and rear lockers from the factory. The end result is a vehicle that’s capable and reliable with loads of cargo space. Many of the parts under the hood are shared with the ubiquitous diesel Mercedes found in much of the developing world. This means that spare parts can frequently be found when you’re far from Stuttgart.
The Toyota Hi-Lux has a long-standing reputation for its durability. In 2003, Top Gear famously put the diesel Hi-Lux’s “unkillable” reputation to the test as they attempted a series of increasingly silly stunts to snuff out a long in the tooth Hi-Lux. In the end, their vehicle survived being put out to sea, burned, crushed, crashed and even put atop a 240ft building during a scheduled implosion. In the end, the truck was … well, just watch: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
The Hi-Lux lacks a lot of the extra body bits of some of its larger Toyota brethren, meaning it has a greater cargo capacity. The combination of legendary reliability, capability and capacity makes it an excellent platform for expeditions.
While not the most reliable vehicle in this esteemed group, the Land Rover Defender 110 is quite possibly the quintessential expedition vehicle. Nothing can match the classic style and timeless appeal of a “proper” Land Rover. The modern Defender can trace a direct lineage back to the original Land Rover Series I which started rolling off the assembly line in 1948. The unmatched aesthetics, robust and simple construction, excellent suspension design and great cargo capacity make it an excellent choice for expeditions.
On the downside, the Defender historically has suffered from reliability and build quality issues, more so in petrol versions. But these drawbacks are offset by near world-wide availability of spare parts. Perhaps this is the reason why a staggering 70 percent of all Land Rovers are still on the road today. If you’re looking for a Land Rover for expedition use, the most reliable drivetrains are the 200 and 300 Tdi diesel motors.
Sure, the Defender is outdated, loud, slow, drafty and spartan. But it is dripping with character, it can be fixed anywhere and when you think safari, the image of a Defender set against the backdrop of a savannah instantly comes to mind.
There have been only a handful of trans-African expeditions to be completed without a mechanical breakdown. But in almost every instance, it was a Land Cruiser 70 Series that made the journey trouble-free. This impressive record of reliability places the 70 Series firmly atop the list of the best overland vehicles ever.
Starting with the introduction of the HJZ75, this is the truck that Toyota simply “got right”. The LWB version is available in two basic forms, a pickup and the hard top Troop Carrier or “Troopy”. Both forms of the formidable 70 Series have great cargo capacity and, with the right engine, impressive pulling power and decent fuel economy.
While the Land Cruiser may lack some of the charm of a Defender and its track width is a bit narrow, the shortcomings stop there. This truck is impressively well-built and robust in its design and just plain reliable. Savor the 70 because with increasing complexity and electronics added to each subsequent year, this might possibly be the last, perfect expedition vehicle.