Tag Archives: desert driving

Things to consider when choosing your family’s overland vehicle

The carrera terra austral Patagonia....rks in progr
The carrera terra austral Patagonia….bitumen to come

 

2WD or 4WD?

Do you really need a 4WD to road travel? Well, yes and no….. We have been to many countries where a 2WD capable vehicle, would do just fine. My 20 year old hatchback, could drive down almost all of the dirt or unpaved roads we have been on. In some countries, there are road  works currently in progress to better the road conditions.   In a few years, even the carrera terra austral in Patagonia will probably be all bitumen. However, until this happens, a top heavy vehicle with low clearance, won’t make it on the dirt roads.  So, it really also depends on what sort of 2WD vehicle you have…. you may be able to drive a motor home slowly along a dirt road if you need too but you wouldn’t want to drive 500 kms of it!  We tried initially..see blog: our 12 day motor home nightmare.  You are risking damaging the vehicle, getting lots of flat tyres or worse, getting stuck. A 2WD van would be more durable.

Then there are some countries where you just simply can’t go without a 4WD – e.g. Mongolia (most of the country has basically no roads – your following wheel tracks), Far east Russia, and some of the Stan’s in central Asia. So, first ask yourself where do you want to go – e.g. which country/continent, and then ask yourself, where do you really want to go once there e.g. countryside, national parks, off road etc.

Crossing the high Atlas Mountains on a 4WD track
Crossing the high Atlas Mountains on a 4WD track

The highlight of our Moroccan road trip was spending a week driving on an off road track through the desert and also trying some off road tracks in the high atlas mountains. We only passed about 4 or 5 other cars during our desert time (compared to 1000s along the bitumen inland and coastal roads) and got to wild camp (I mean really wild camp in the desert with no-one else around, rather than camp in a car park with 50 others). It felt like a real adventure. Whilst in Morocco, we spoke to other road trippers who kept telling us how bad the roads were when in our 4WD we hadn’t even noticed.

A 4WD gives you the capability to go off road and find somewhere discrete to camp, or even a really nice location to visit that’s off the main road.  During our central Asia trip, we camped in all sorts of places off the main road, and we were able to get to places (e.g. across a river) to camp where other 2WD/locals couldn’t get to – sometimes for both peace of mind and safety.

4WD’s come in all shapes, sizes and capabilities.   A 4WD is more than just having 4 wheels that drive.   Factors such as clearance, size of tyres and weight carried, can all affect the vehicle’s performance and ability off road. Whatever you decide, consider both the potential and the limitations of any 4WD vehicles; whether it be a van, truck or overloading a 4WD car/pick up (Ute) with a top heavy camper.

A travellers converted fire truck home...your imagination is the limit!
A travellers converted fire truck home…your imagination is the limit!

Can you live without your creature comforts; fridge, shower, satellite t.v.?

I didn’t think I could live without a fridge (I’m a cheese freak, my husband a beer one!)    Our Engel fridge in our car back home was in place and  ready for any camping or weekend trip away.  Do you know what?  It was always full…. However I have discovered during our time overseas that I  can live quite happily without a fridge. It hasn’t meant that  we have stopped eating or buying cold storage products, instead,  anything  bought is eaten and cooked within a day or so.    Most countries stock UHT milk rather than fresh milk so this is easy storage.

A shower however, well nothing quite beats a hot shower with a strong jet. This is not to say that I would get one in a travelling vehicle… filling up every inch of space in a camper is not ideal. A heavy and over loaded vehicle even if it is a 4WD does not necessarily equate to stable and/or practical.   Most people we spoke to who did have a shower, rarely used it, and rather it became  storage space.  Even if you did fit out a shower, at best it would be a trickle…… There are camp-sites available almost everywhere, and  these are often full of self contained vehicles!    Many road travellers even those fully contained will usually stop at a structured campsite, even if its every 2/3 days – to access power, water or for the security, social aspect it provides.  Most camp-sites will have a shower/toilet block to use although I cant guarantee it will be hot water or clean!

However, there are always other ways to wash that will do the trick if you don’t want to stand under a cold shower jet.   Be creative – go for a swim, have a bucket/flannel wash, carry a solar shower pouch or do as the locals do – have a bath at the local bath house (private showers in Mongolia for $1), the baths in Turkey, hammans in Morocco, the saunas in Russia. Washing kids is easy – buckets/baby baths/standing in the sun with a water container….  Even at 2 and 4 yo, my kids could still fit sitting together in a baby bath we borrowed from a neighbouring family, they thought it was hilarious and fun.

Save yourself the money and space and go for the cultural as well as the cleaning experience.

In terms of everything else; ask yourself if it really is a must have.   The bigger your vehicle, the more space to fill, and believe me, you will fill it!

Location and purpose

Camping in the middle of ruta 40, Argentina
Camping in the middle of ruta 40, Argentina

Where and how do you want to travel?

Some of our  trip highlights have been going to places where others can’t go so easily.  Fewer tourists and fewer people equals more remote, and in my opinion, a nicer experience.  If you do meet a local, you might even have a genuine interaction.

Getting to the good bits, chile's national parks
Getting to the good bits, chile’s national parks

In Patagonia, there were few motor homes. Partly because of the shipping costs and partly because you couldn’t drive the kms needed to, on the dirt roads.   We chose a 4WD and camped, it was summer time and lovely. We enjoyed touring the national parks and being outdoors in some breathtakingly  natural and scenic environments.  See blog: overland vehicle choices when buying in South America.

 

However, in Morocco, camping in a tent was not so nice. This time, we bought our 4WD in England.  Structured camp-sites are made for motor homes and are essentially glorified car parks.  Free camping is not so easy and/or practical with a tent.  In addition, it was winter: warm and sunny, but early cooler evenings.  In this situation, we would have liked a contained lock up vehicle – to be able to either camp in structured sites or have the freedom to really park anywhere.    It would’ve  been useful to have the choice to drive even after dark and be able to stop for the night and get into bed without setting up a tent.  You could even buy a reasonably cheap motor home/van in Europe, as there is the variety available – every brand and year you could think of.  For a family of 3 or 4, a pop top or hard top van or 4WD is a reasonable option with enough bed and seat space.

If you are considering a road trip in Europe or North America, you have predominately bitumen/paved roads so that a 4WD would be unnecessary and plenty of infrastructure exists for motorhome travellers such as free camper overnight stops.

When considering a vehicle, imagine how you might be perceived in the local country. Do you really want to stand out? What do you think locals see when you drive by in your €150,000++  convertible travelling home…. Even for a westerner from an affluent country like me, it seems like an inconceivable amount of money to spend.

Imagine locals in some of the poorer countries of the world where there are many more people than cars.   In Morocco, we gave 3 women a ride in our car (yes 3 women squeezed in the front seat next to my husband) when they flagged us down. They were already  walking (in the middle of nowhere), when we saw them and had another 8 kms to travel carrying heavy packs on their heads. They had no car, not even a donkey to help them carry their heavy load. Suddenly we felt very wealthy in our £3000 Land rover.   In Mongolia, we often had locals ask how many people slept in my sister in law’s rooftop tent, surely not just one?!   We would often see old Russian jeeps pull up, and could not believe the number of adults who would emerge….5, 6, 7, 8!   Incredible..it was like a bottomless car..

Period of travel and budget

Think of the period you will be travelling for, are you doing a long extended trip or a short one?  Is it worth spending a significant amount of money on a travel vehicle you will only  use for a short time…what about the re-sale value?  Will you need to sell the vehicle quickly?

Some people will travel for 3 months every  year and want a vehicle that’s well set up and ready to go that they will use for the next 10 years…. In Australia, people love caravans because you don’t have the huge registration costs and expense of another vehicle to maintain.

If its an extended trip – how long for?  Do you plan on road tripping the whole time or stopping somewhere for a few weeks/months?   The money saved in not buying an expensive convertible home could buy you months/years of accommodation in some places – especially when negotiated for a longer period.  While in Morocco, we got to stay in ryiads in some of the city medinas, and in Patagonia in cosy log cabins when we needed to (in times of bad weather, in cities, or simply for a treat).

If you want a stable familiar space for you and the kids – what size do you need?   How much are you prepared to spend for the initial outlay?  This is on top of your daily travel expenses.

We managed to 4WD and camp for a period of 3 months each in two different continents.  This was fine, although any longer, e.g. 6 months to one year of continuous road travel and a mobile home is looking good!

At the end of the day, your budget will determine what vehicle you can afford. Whilst being self contained helps to reduce costs e.g. accommodation, eating out etc, there are still costs to consider. Yes we met road travellers who rarely paid for accommodation (camp-sites or other) but most people we saw still parked in structured camp-sites where we were staying with our tent.

An affordable way to roadtrip in south america
An affordable way to roadtrip in south america

Budget

There are lots of affordable motor homes and converted vans available in Europe (less so in South America). However, a brand new motor home or self converted 4WD truck camper can cost anywhere from $100,000 – 200,000.

We met a traveller in a custom made 4WD truck after doing a desert off road crossing In Morocco.   We found out that he had driven one section of the  off road track we had, but then he decided to re-route back to the  bitumen road because it was too rocky (and it was). However, by doing so, he missed the best bit of the track – a second, more interesting and less rocky leg.   He had invested so much in a vehicle he had purpose built for exactly this sort of off road driving, yet the potential costs of any tyre or body damage was far too great that it outweighed the experience and the reality.  It didn’t matter so much to us, if our £3000 car, (with a couple of dents already) got another one. It didn’t even matter if we re-sold the car for £2,000 and lost £1,000  at the other end…it was a small scale risk. The more expensive the investment, the greater the liability and the greater the financial loss when things do go wrong.

Family size

So, what’s the size of your family? It can difficult to find a suitable vehicle that seats and sleeps 4 people without being oversized. However, if family size and comfort is your main consideration, then there are a multitude of options from vans, trucks, motor homes etc -the list and variety is endless. In some cases, e.g a smaller van and pop or hard top but be suitable.  It might be difficult to find one wide enough to sleep across so that your tall members of your family can fit…for example, my husband stands at 187cm tall.   It might just require a test sleep before you buy one!

What’s your style/personality?

Different countries will have different trends when it comes to road travel. In Australia, your lucky if you see a motor home – caravans, tents, campervans are all the rage.   In Europe/north Africa, there are lots of different vehicles but motor homes are topping the list in popularity – its the new holiday home.   It doesn’t mean you have to do the same. Find out what you like, what’s available and choose your style!  After all,  you and your family will be the ones travelling and living in it 24/7.

What would we choose?

We weren’t completely sold on spending our extended travel period, driving.  We liked the idea in theory, but we weren’t sure the practicality of long term road travel was for us.  Our youngest son was 1 when we started and not a big fan of extended periods in the car.  We also were keen to explore other continents and other ways of travelling.  We were interested in sailing and walking.   However, if we were to go on a one or two year road travelling trip or even if we wanted regular road trips to be part of our home life, these are options we would consider and our must have list….

Our list

  • 4WD e.g off road capable
  • can fit in a standard car park – gives us the flexibility to park anywhere – in a town, city, countryside, etc.
  • simple fit out (bed, sink, cooker, maybe fridge/portable toilet.
  • walk through cab
  • encourage greater outdoor living – cook inside or out and eat/play out
  • have a contained lock up space to sleep in
  • most likely pop top to fit beds for family of four, but be able to all sleep without pop top up- even if it means one mattress on the floor!
  • affordability
  • light!!  Windows that open
  • can fit in a container for shipping purposes
  • think less rather than more – keeping our “stuff” to a minimum: no overloading the vehicle
  • Some vehicles we have considered – 4WD ambulance, 4WD pop top, small ex military 4 or 6WD vans

What did we buy?

After almost two years of travel, meeting lots of other single, couple, families road tripping across two continents, seeing other vehicles/conversions (talking to lots of German and dutch travellers who can be creative and innovative when it comes to vehicles)  and simply working out what would be best for us given our preferences and experiences,  we think we have found the perfect vehicle for future road trips…we are in the process of trying to work out how and if we can import it into Australia….if we can, we will let you know about it!!