5 Great Places in California to Get Into Overlanding

colorado overlanding
Courtesy of Shawn Rossmiller

In recent years, the term “overlanding” has become an increasingly popular term – maybe not quite as popular as CBD, but it has certainly gained some steam.

But what exactly is overlanding? Simply put, it’s a vehicular departure that embraces the lost art of getting lost; being able to load up your truck with supplies and self-recovery gear and head nowhere as quickly as you can get there. No cell phone reception, no traffic, no stores or fuel stations, no Starbucks or WeWork, and ideally, no people outside of your own crew.

Does the sound of clocking out early on a Friday afternoon, packing up some easy-to-score essentials, and making a beeline for remote bliss make your mouth water? Fantastic … this article is for you.

colorado overlanding
Courtesy of Shawn Rossmiller

You don’t need to be an aspiring do-it-yourself travel enthusiast (but it sure helps) to get involved in overlanding. It’s a perfect way to incorporate the need to get off the grid while quenching your thirst to tinker with things.

Professional action sports and landscape photographer Shawn Rossmiller built his first overlanding vehicle from a 2016 Chevy Colorado pickup.

“The first thing I did was put on a simple leveling kit and some good all-terrain tires. That’s it,” Rossmiller tells ASN. “You don’t need the perfect rock crawler to have fun, you just need a good set of tires that wont puncture easily.”

Aside from his desire to get out into the wilderness and shoot photos, Rossmiller’s motivation is the same as most: to take a break from all the noise-traffic-people-cellular-WiFi and find somewhere quiet to put up a hammock and hit that reset button. Listen to nothing but the wind blow and water flow before responsibility dictates that you return to work on Monday morning.

Overland Bear Glacier, British Columbia

Ultimately, Rossmiller became savvy and outfitted his pickup with full King suspension, a camper with racks on top for a tent, and all the bells and whistles he would eventually need to get out. He built most of the interior with some plywood, one-inch aluminum and skateboard bearings. After a few treks into the wild to test his gear, Rossmiller took a trip to Alaska, where he was really able to put his vehicle, gear and skills to the ultimate test – off-highway and off the grid.

“During my trip to Alaska, I learned that my setup was great for short trips, but not ideal for long-term trips, which is what I’m really interested in,” says Rossmiller. “I had 22 days of rain and some serious winds while staying in the tent above my truck.”

Upon his return, Rossmiller made the decision to ditch the camper-and-tent situation and order a slide-in truck bed camper by Four Wheel Campers.

It’s a slippery slope once you start making investments, but Rossmiller holds fast that there are really only a few essentials you need to have a successful trip when no-man’s land is your destination.

Overland Essentials

“I would never leave home without a personal locator,” explains Rossmiller. “I use a Garmin inReach GPS Navigation System, but there are plenty of good ones. Once you’re out of cell phone reception, you have no way to make contact without this.”

Rossmiller also recommends recovery boards (an easy way to get unstuck when you’re alone), an extra vehicle battery (in case you leave a light on all night by accident), and a simple tire repair kit and air compressor in case you end up with a flat.

“People get caught up in buying all the latest and greatest stuff that they end up never using,” he tells ASN. “Start intelligently, get the real essentials first, and have fun with it. Overlanding is not about how much money you spend, it’s about getting out there and being self-reliant.”

Along with Rossmiller’s help, we’ve researched a handful of great places to learn (or simply gain more experience in) off-highway adventures. There are some exceptional courses you can sign up for, whether you’re new to overlanding and want to gain a bit of off-road experience or you’ve been out in the dirt many times and are looking for a more complete understanding or special skill-set.

Joshua Tree National Park

Overland Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park offers a ton of fun dirt trails to explore and take photos. “They do require that you camp in one of their designated campgrounds,” says Rossmiller.” But once you get out into some of the best roads Joshua Tree has to offer, you can’t help but feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Get out to those rugged rock formations and stark desert landscapes in the fall, winter, or spring (the rocks are almost too hot to touch in summer) and experience the strength and beauty that can arise from the dysfunctional winds that plummet this cactus-dotted divide of the Colorado and the Mojave Deserts.

Another great tip here – which applies to all of your overlanding adventures – is the use of a great online off-road resource like AllTrails, where most of the work has been done for you. Maps and reviews are ready, there’s an easy-to-use app available, all curated by real people so that you can explore the outdoors with confidence.

Mammoth Lakes

The Mammoth Lakes Trail System connects enthusiasts to a vast network of native-dirt roads to explore. This region also offers a great elevation change, where you can see all the lush vegetation of the Sierra so you can take in all that picturesque nature with the lakes and mountains and pine trees.

Just imagine yourself circumnavigating a barrage of creeks and lakes, craters and glacial moraine, in search of the ultimate spot to hang your hammock and hit that reset button. You’re welcome.

Big Bear

Overland Big Bear

Located in the San Bernardino National Forest, Big Bear is jam-packed with off-highway roads to explore, some maintained and some much more rugged. And the high elevation of Big Bear makes for great summertime off-roading in Southern California, when other destinations – like Anza Borrego and Death Valley – are simply too hot.

A great ride, for those interested in exploring a bit, is the trail from Big Bear to Pioneertown (next to Joshua Tree) through the Burns Canyon Trail. This is a breezy beginner’s overland thoroughfare with wondrous views of Yucca Valley and the San Bernardino National Forest.

Death Valley

Overland Trona Pinnacles

Outside of summer, Death Valley is an incredible geological destination. Elevation changes are fantastic here, as you can go from below sea level to over 6,000 feet with panoramic views looking over the sea level floor desert. For the higher ground, set your GPS console for Aguereberry Point, from which you can see literally everything: salt flats, mountain ranges, desert floors, Chuckwallas and Desert Horned Lizards (“Horny Toads”).

Another great road to follow in Death Valley is Racetrack Valley Road – a long, gravel road that will lead you through mountain passes, narrow trails, a Joshua Tree forest and widespread desert valleys.

You should also find your way to the Mars-like Trona Pinnacles where they filmed for movies including “Star Trek” and “Planet of the Apes” – surely Instagram-worthy photos once you return to civilization.

Badlands Off-Road Adventures

death valley
Courtesy of Shawn Rossmiller

Badlands Off-Road Adventures offers courses for first-time students and those with more experience – all taught by certified professional 4WD trainers. You can sign up for beginner clinics that take place in Los Angeles (at Gorman and in Mojave) or San Diego (Borrego Springs).

You can bring your own vehicle, or rent a Jeep for use on their adventures and clinics. The company also offers specialty courses (like sand dunes and self-recovery), all the way up to advanced rock crawling clinics. You can join in on the fun for as little as one day or sign up for a multi-day adventure in Death Valley or Utah. Most classes are offered in groups, but private sessions are available.

Honorable Mention: Overland Expo

While Overland Expo isn’t a local destination, or an outdoor terrain, it still may very well be the best place for you to get started or explore the possibilities of overlanding. They make it easy, hosting both East and West Coast conferences each year and offering much more than your average trade show.

While vendors are always a trade show staple, the Overland Expo also has thousands of rigs on display, offers demonstrations, hosts classes for 4WD and motorcycle enthusiasts, and puts on a full-blown film festival. It’s a great place to (as the Expo liner reads) “Get Trained. Get Outfitted. Get Inspired.”

All Photos by Shawn Roscmiller.

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