Eric and Kaley Hayes dream of driving their Land Rover from Alaska to Argentina, following the 19,000-mile Pan-American Highway — regarded as the world's most famous overland trail.
Overlanding describes vehicle-based adventure travel to remote places, with a focus on self-reliance and the journey itself. Using transport — which can range from a bicycle to a truck — travelers navigate unofficial "trails" comprising on- and off-road routes, carrying all they need: food; water; camp gear; gasoline in the cases where the trail leads hundreds of miles off-road.
"Our goal isn't just to do off-roading or technical rock crawling. We want to experience the road less traveled," Kaley says.
"There's a freedom in being able to escape in just a couple days to the middle of nowhere," says Eric, "places that would take a couple weeks to backpack to."
A trip along the Pan-Am may take six months to complete — and require a convoy, the Chattanooga couple says, to help navigate dangerous stretches, such as Darien Gap, a roadless section of jungle between Panama and Colombia.
That trip is the ultimate goal, they say.
But in the meantime, countless miles of less-demanding overland trails crisscross the United States, from the vast desert public lands of the West to the steep forest service roads of the East.
"People watch YouTube videos and see these $100,000 vehicles and think, yeah, [overlanding] is great if you have unlimited time and money. But it's not impossible to get into," Eric says.
In early January, Eric and Kaley spent six days exploring the 390-mile Georgia Traverse overland trail, stretching from North Georgia to South Carolina.
The mostly off-pavement trail is a good introduction to overlanding since "you're never so far from civilization that you can't bail if you need to," Eric says.
Though problems can — and do — still arise. Weather and closures can make planned routes unpassable. Misjudging the landscape can mean getting stranded. Mechanics can fail.
Eric, a videographer by trade, and Kaley, a nurse, began overlanding in 2016. They purchased a 2003 fixer-upper Land Rover Discovery for $3,000 and began attending overlanding expos, learning how to build and modify the vehicle themselves.
"I learned to work on cars in order to do overlanding, and I've now rebuilt every aspect of this vehicle, including the engine," says Eric.
Meanwhile, Kaley built its storage system, capable of stowing a week's worth of food, water and tools.
"Each trip is an experiment when it comes to rigging your vehicle," says Kaley, who is planning a storage upgrade following their recent trip.
"We're going to get a custom-built drawer system built into the shape of the vehicle. The goal is to be fully independent, so you really need to take advantage of the space you have," she says.
In total, the couple estimates they've invested about $12,000 into the vehicle, which includes its most important modifications: off-road tires, a lift kit and winch — as well as their luxury items: a memory foam mattress, rooftop tent and small refrigerator.
"You could get away with just having a cooler or using dry foods, but a cold beer at the end of the day is so nice," Kaley says.
Overlanding, after all, can be hard work.
An Uphill Battle
While most of the Georgia Traverse comprises forest service roads easily managed by vehicles with off-road capabilities, on day five of their trip, near Rabun Gap, Eric and Kaley encountered unexpected road closures. The trail was steep, narrow and deeply rutted, causing them to have to backtrack, searching their downloaded maps for detours, which cost them hours.
It was a frustrating day, Kaley says, "but you have to respect road closures."
"These roads aren't a right," says Eric. "[In the East], they're made and maintained by the forest service. The same way that you don't ride mountain bikes on wet trails, 'mudding' or four-wheeling is what ruins [overland] trails. If you rut the trail out so much that forest service trucks can't get down them, you lose access."
The difference between an off-roader and an overlander, he adds, is that the former values recreation whereas the latter values connection, both to the vehicle and the wild places it affords.
The right tire is the most important upgrade a person can make to an overland vehicle.
The Hayeses outfitted their rig with 32-inch KM2 tires, which, says Eric, "aren't massive, but you have to choose a tire that best fits your style."
They chose their tires based on the KM2's ability to cut through mud and handle clay.
"And that's super-important in the Southeast," says Kaley.
A self-recovery system is critical in getting a vehicle unstuck. Methods can include a jack, traction pads or a winch.
"I know guys who have gotten [unstuck] using just ratchet straps," Eric says.
But he and Kaley chose a Warn winch, featuring an abrasion-resistant steel rope capable of pulling 10,000 pounds.
Kaley says they chose the Front Runner Slimline roof rack for its low profile and light weight.
Moreover, she says, it's modular, meaning it's customizable, "so you can adapt it to your needs."
Rooftop tents are pricier than ground tents, but the Hayeses say theirs was well worth the cost.
"When you're in the middle of nowhere, being off the ground gives you extra security," Eric says.
Part of Cascadia Vehicle Tents' Summit Series, their "Mt. Rainier" soft-shell was specially designed for the Pacific Northwest's damp climate.
"Which means it's also great for the Southeast," says Kaley. Though, she adds, "It's honestly too big for us. We'll be downgrading to their smaller Shasta line or their low-profile hard-top shell tent."
Contrary to popular belief, Kaley says, a snorkel "does not waterproof your engine in any way."
Rather, it functions as a raised air intake, preventing trail dust and debris from clogging the engine's air filter.
A satellite phone is critical for overlanding, the couple says. Even on the Georgia Traverse, which stays relatively close to civilization, they carried their Garmin inReach Explorer.
"But, we've never had to use it, thank goodness," says Kaley.
Misadventures in Overlanding
In addition to the Georgia Traverse, Eric and Kaley Hayes have done trips through parts of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Florida. They've clocked a lot of miles — and experienced a few bumpy roads along the way.
Here, Eric shares two of his and Kaley's most memorable misadventures in overlanding.
Next time, don't forget the axe.
"When we first started overlanding, we decided to explore an old road in the Southeast. It didn't appear on any [paper] maps but it could be seen by satellite. It was late, but we decided to do the trek anyways — just an evening trip. So we had no tools, no food, no sleeping bag, no SAT phone.
"We also forgot to let anyone know where we were going.
"As the sun started going behind the Appalachian Mountains, we came to a very difficult part of the trail — impassable to us, though it did have a bypass that traveled 200 yards through the woods. We decided to try the bypass. We began our tree-limb-scratching, mud-sliding descent, then we came to a V-shaped turn that the vehicle couldn't make because of a tree.
"Kaley hopped out of the Land Rover with her headlamp and tried to spot me.
"I attempted to make the turn, moving my tire over the tree, but then my tire slid, and with a SNAP!, the tree was lodged between my front frame and the axle. Now, the tire was off the ground and I was unable to turn the steering wheel.
"Our hearts sank. We were in the middle of nowhere with no supplies, no one knowing our location, and it was dark.
"With no recovery gear, we started weighing our options. And sleeping in the car in the cold was looking like our only option.
"But I decided to give it one last shot. I put the car in drive and started traveling further up the tree — lodging it even further between the axle and frame. I paused, took a breath and slammed it into reverse.
"With momentum from the height, the car slammed down, sheering my driver-side fender, made of sheet metal, completely in half. But I just kept reversing. We were free!
"We got the Land Rover turned around and headed back the way we came, back home to safety. We were relieved, but all of that would have been prevented by having the proper recovery gear: a jack, a chainsaw or an axe."
— Eric Hayes
Do you smell something funny?
"Another time, we were off-roading in our 1989 Land Rover Defender 110, our first off-road vehicle, at about 10,000 feet elevation in Colorado. The trail was rugged and wet, and it was starting to rain again.
"As the trail went on, we started smelling diesel — and a lot of it.
"Thinking, 'Ehh, just an old 4x4 being inefficient,' we continued on our way.
"The smell didn't subside, and we eventually saw smoke coming from under the hood. I hopped out of the truck and looked underneath. The smoke, I learned, was coming from diesel dripping from a loose fuel line directly onto the hot exhaust pipe. The vehicle could have caught on fire!
"We immediately turned the truck off and pulled the tool kit from the back and started doing a muddy, rainy repair. Somehow, we were lucky enough to have some silicone tape in the tool bag. We fixed and tightened up the dry-rotted fuel line enough to safely make it back in town."
— Eric Hayes
Where the Rubber Meets the Backroad
Ready to get in on the action? Here are three overlanding trails to add to your bucket list.
Valley of the Gods Road
Featuring red rock towers and buttes, this easy gravel road winds through Navajo Nation and is considered one of the best beginner trails in America.
Start: Mexican Hat, Utah
Distance: 17 miles
While this desert trail is not technical, it is remote, bisecting Mojave National Preserve as it traces a historic route first used by native people and later by European settlers.
Start: Bullhead City, Arizona
Distance: 138 miles
The cross-country TAT is almost entirely off pavement. Along the way, it takes travelers through or near a number of national parks, from the Great Smoky Mountains to Yellowstone.
Start: Andrews, North Carolina
Distance: 5,000 miles