The Best Vehicle for Overlanding Pan-America

“What is the best vehicle for overlanding?” is one of the most popular questions people ask when planning an overlanding trip of a lifetime. And this is for good reason.

That’s because the vehicle you decide on will have an outsized effect on the type of journey you will have. Your vehicle will dictate the following:

  • What roads you can drive on
  • How you will be sleeping at night
  • Inside livability
  • How much stuff you can bring
  • And more…

We have seen vehicles of all different shapes and sizes throughout our travels. So, in this post, we will look at some of the most popular vehicles that overlanders use to travel the Pan-American highway and discuss the pros and cons of each one.

Not surprisingly, there is no ‘best’ vehicle. But knowing what you want to get out of your adventure (and what you value and don’t value) will help you choose the best rig for your needs.

VW Combi/Vanagon

Classic Combi For Van Life & Overlanding

Perhaps the most iconic travel vehicle in history. Driving along the Pan-American in this classic motor home elicits sweet nostalgia of a prior nomadic era—laid-back vibes, spontaneous planning, and old-school cool.

If having a photogenic van and being the wickedest-looking overlanding vehicle at your campsite is important, this is the option for you.

This is a space space-efficient van and has the smallest footprint of all overlanding rigs. This means you can zip around urban areas, navigate narrow roads, and quickly locate a street-side parking spot.

Downsides

What you gain in compact beauty, you lose in practicality. And what is lost the most is the interior living space.

Could you imagine traveling an entire year (or possibly longer) in a vehicle that wasn’t realistically conducive to living inside? Sleeping space is limited, the cooking area is cramped, and standing room is practically nil.

These vehicles are also old. Like…20-40 years old. This means experiencing a vehicle breakdown is not a matter of if but when.

Best Example: KombiLife

Commercial Van

Ford Transit camper van with girl sitting in sliding door
Enjoying a nice pit stop in Canada

Hey, that’s us!

We chose the standard commercial van as our Pan-America overlanding vehicle because they’re easy to buy in the USA. Whether you’re looking for a new or used van, there’s a large selection. And best of all, these vans come in all different lengths and heights. So, finding a van with the exact dimensions you want isn’t difficult.

The boxy shape of these commercial vans means you also get a sizeable amount of internal living space for sleeping, cooking, and hanging out. Also, since these vans often come as an empty shell, it is convenient to DIY your camper interior.

Also, while we don’t think stealth camping is that important, we appreciate that our generic white van largely goes unnoticed when driving throughout Latin America.

Downsides

Commercial vans typically lack the rugged toughness that other overlanding vehicles have. (We’ll get to those other vehicles below).

Most of these vans are only 2WD, which can make navigating rough & remote roads challenging. Though Sprinters and Transits have a 4×4/AWD option, you’ll need to spend considerably more.

Clearance under the chassis is also lower than the other vehicles discussed below. This could be an issue since not all the roads you’ll drive on will be perfectly paved.

4×4 SUV With Tent Roof

Toyota 4Runner with roof top tent camped in nature
Photo: Outdoorsy

The 4×4 SUV is one of the more common overlanding vehicles to travel the Americas. Owners often choose a capable off-road SUV, like a Toyota 4Runner or Jeep, and pair it with a roof-top tent. The result is a compact yet powerful vehicle capable of getting you far off the beaten path.

SUVs like the 4Runner are common throughout Latin America, and your vehicle would fit right in without turning many heads. So, this is a good option if ‘flying under the radar’ appeals to you.

Downsides

The obvious drawback of an SUV/roof tent pairing is the lack of interior space. Space will be so limited that everything you do will likely be outside. Cooking, cleaning, eating, and hanging out will mostly be done outside, next to your rig.

For many people, this may not necessarily be a bad thing. This is especially true if you can install an awning on the SUV.

The last major downside is that you’ll sleep in a tent every night. Not only does this mean constantly setting up and taking down the tent, but you’ll be much more exposed to the elements (hot, cold, wind, and rain) when compared to sleeping inside a vehicle.

Truck Camper

Truck Camper - Best vehicle for van life & overlanding

The pickup truck & camper combination might be the ideal compromise between off-road capability, size, and livability. This is especially true when coming from the US or Canada, where truck campers are ubiquitous everywhere.

First, you get a solid 4×4 vehicle capable of driving across virtually any terrain. Sandy beaches, muddy roads, steep rocky mountain passes, you name it.

Second, you get a spacious camper that sits conveniently on top of the truck bed. There’s often a full-size bed, a roomy kitchen, and a convenient nook for eating and working.

Another benefit is that you can detach the truck from the camper if you want to drive somewhere for the day and return later. This way, you don’t need to haul your camper needlessly around town for the day.

Downsides

The most significant downside of driving a truck camper is its overall size. Yes, you get a powerful truck and a larger camper, but consequently, the total volume of the vehicle can sometimes feel a tad unwieldy.

Overall, although the length and height of the vehicle are essential factors to consider, we think vehicle width is the most critical. Unlike in the US or Canada, roads in Latin America can narrow quickly. Whether navigating small, colonial-era towns or simply trying to escape from a busy market area, having a wider-than-normal vehicle can make driving stressful or even impossible.

Planning ahead and choosing roads wisely is essential if driving a truck camper.

Iveco Truck Conversion

Iveco truck camper for overlanding
Iveco overlanding truck

All we can say is, ‘very cool!’. We’ve seen several of these vehicles on the road throughout Pan America and would love to get our hands on one of these Iveco Camper conversions.

Not only are these 4×4 vehicles built to handle rugged roads, but like the truck camper, they also provide a roomy interior for living. But the most significant difference between these campers and the previous pickup truck camper is that these trucks have a more streamlined look and aren’t as wide, which is critical for navigating narrow and busy streets.

Also, if you can get one of these trucks with an empty cargo area, you can DIY your interior.

Downsides

The biggest drawback of this vehicle is that it can be hard to buy one! This is especially true if you’re located anywhere in North America. If you are starting your trip in Europe, then you may be able to find a used one or even buy a new one from an Iveco dealer.

Best Example: TucksTruck

Expedition Truck Campers

You can be forgiven if you’ve never seen one of these mega-duty ‘expedition-style’ truck campers, but they are more common for overland travel in Pan America than you might think.

With the highest clearance of all the camper options, these rugged 4x4s can go practically anywhere. Brazil’s rainforest tracks, Chile’s Altiplano, and probably the straight across Antarctica, if you choose.

You also get an incredible amount of interior living space. Full-size bed, kitchen, toilet, shower, dinette, you name it. We’ve even seen expedition campers that travel with their own washer and dryer!

This is comfort travel at its finest.

Downsides

These truck campers aren’t for everyone, however. And the two most significant reasons for that are size and cost.

Because of the vehicle’s largess, you may not be physically able to drive in certain areas. This may include:

  • Dense urban areas
  • Small towns with narrow streets
  • Finding impromptu street-side parking
  • Paid parking lots with height limits

Cost is also a factor. Not only is there a significant upfront cost to purchase one of these rigs, but poor fuel economy will ensure that you consistently pay more at the gas station than other overlanders.

Lastly, shipping your vehicle across the Darien Gap will be the most expensive since this vehicle has the largest volume of all overlanding vehicles.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the vehicle you choose for your overland Pan-America travel will say a lot about your travel preferences and priorities.

But it’s important to remember that there is no best vehicle for overlanding. That’s because your vehicle of choice won’t dictate how epic your trip becomes. It’s simply your home and a way to get from one point to another.  

It’s up to you to decide how you use your vehicle.

Please let us know in the comments section below if you have questions about the best vehicle for Overlanding Pan America.

Happy Planning!

Free Downloads

Van Conversion Essential Bundles

Every resource on our website is 100% free to download and use. We don’t charge you, and we don’t require your email address. Happy building!

  • Electrical Diagrams
  • Battery Calculator
  • Solar Diagrams
  • Solar Calculator
  • Plumbing Diagrams
  • Full Product Lists

Similar Posts

Have A Question? Let Us Know!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *