The Minimalist Approach To Overlanding

I’ve always liked the idea of having less stuff and living a minimalist lifestyle. The problem is I like things. It doesn’t matter if it’s gear, clothes, movies, books, or whatever thing I might be into at the time. I like the physical items. Over the years, I’ve learned to get rid of certain material items that take up too much space in my small house (books and movies being the primary items). After a few trips into the woods, I wanted to see if I could take a minimalist approach to the gear I overland and camp with. This article is going to focus on strictly my camping gear and what I feel I can manage with for a weekend. In the future, I may expand on some other items.

The Background

One of the first outings I took as an “overlander” was with a bunch of equipment I did not need. It was just my oldest son and I going so I packed my three primary camping tubs into the back of my truck. Once we were on the trails, making camp, and needing to get to the gear, I realized this was an absolutely terrible idea. Not only did I not need all the equipment but it was continually rattling around as we traveled. The primary lesson learned from that trip was to travel with as little as possible and take more of a minimalist approach to hauling and using gear.

Pack too much and you’ll find you don’t need it.

Now there is no denying that if I had been out with my entire family (5 people), I probably would have needed most or all of the stuff in those bins. After that initial trip, I started looking at what I needed versus what I took. Most of the stuff didn’t even get used, and it ended up being more of a hassle to dig through bins to get to what I did need. The outcome was an article on having an adventure-ready set up in your rig.

The New System

I paired down everything I needed into a spare cooler I had. Other than some larger items, most of the gear fit. This included a weekend’s worth of dehydrated meals as emergency food, or if I wasn’t feeling into the groceries, I bought along. A second cooler was used to house all of the food that was needed for a weekend trip. This included all of the cold and non-cold items.

organization cover photo

The little amount of gear I try to carry.

I got a chance to test out my adventure ready set up a couple of times during a Manistee trip and then during a trip in the Grayling/Kalkaska area. It turns out I could whittle down my gear loadout even further than what I had. And to be honest, I added in my camp table and full-size stove to what I have. They fit neatly behind both coolers, so they were not a hassle to get to. Once again, I was able to determine I could remove and substitute some things.

Lightweight vs. Minimalism

There are two ways to look at gear reduction: the weight of items versus the number of items. Weight reduction is not necessary as an overlander because we can use our vehicles to carry heavier weight items. I think the definition of lightweight is pretty understandable, but I’ll give it to you anyway. Merriam-Webster gives one definition of lightweight as “of thin material or build and weighing less than average.”

Minimalism doesn’t focus on weight necessarily but rather “extreme spareness and simplicity,” again the definition comes from Merriam-Webster. The minimalist approach is what I want to focus on when dealing with packing gear for a trip. Some of that gear happens to fall into the lightweight category as well. Even after cutting my gear load out down to a third of what it was, I still found I had more than necessary.

I think there is a balancing act to be had between lightweight gear, approaching packing with the minimalist mindset, and functionality of the equipment you bring. For example, I have an MSR Pocket Rocket as part of my gear loadout and it works great. Functionality wise though I’d much rather use my two burner Coleman stove. So, in the end, I’ll probably transfer the backpacking stove to my survival bag. The survival bag travels along with me so it’ll be there regardless,  just not used as the primary cooking stove.

The Minimalist Approach

While the two cooler system works, the next project on my mind is a modular cargo system for the rear of my rig. I’ve got rough plans drummed up for a cubed drawer system that can work in one of two ways. If my third-row seat is either out or folded up, the cubes would lay flat, giving me drawer access to the rearmost cubes and top access to the front most cubes. If the rear seat is up, which is how it tends to be, then the cubes would stack one on another giving me access to all the available drawers.

When I planned out my idea, I started thinking about what I wanted to have stored in the drawers full time, so I didn’t have to keep packing things. What I took with me on my last trip would end up being more than what I could probably fit in the drawer space, so I had to start listing what the most used and essential was.

  • Cookstove and fuel canisters
  • Cook set
  • Utensils
  • Recovery gear
  • Medical kit
  • Tools
  • Lighting
  • Fire starting kit
  • Hammock/tent
  • Chair(s)
  • Camera

This ended up being what I came up with as full-time stored items. I didn’t include a table because the plans called for either storage for my table or a built-in slide out table. This list isn’t dependent on building my drawer system though. Until that project is done, I’ve taken the same approach and repacked my adventure box with this setup.

Approaches To Packing

There is any number of ways to go about packing light with a minimalist mindset. For me, I don’t mind having heavier items that serve a purpose, which is why my cook table still travels with me. If space claim in your rig is a problem or you’re just looking to run as light as possible, the following packing options might help.

Consolidation Is Key

It might seem like a good idea to carry around a bunch of kitchen gear or cooking gear, but realistically you can consolidate it down. You don’t have to buy each piece. I would recommend investing in something like the GSI Destination Kitchen and a nesting GSI Pinnacle Camper Cookset. Both pack down or nest together into a small footprint that can be stowed easily.

Take The Lightweight Approach

I know my approach is to go the minimalist route without much of a concern for weight, but if certain gear is needed consider going the lighter weight approach. Instead of taking a large foldout table, consider a smaller, more packable table. Pack clothing into a lightweight duffel bag instead of a hard case. Again with clothing, buy something that will stay fresh for days as opposed to packing multiple shirts or underwear. The cost is more for these items, but in the long run, you may only pack one t-shirt versus three or four.

Take The Ultralight Approach

Consider people who ride their bicycles or even motorcycles around the world on trips. The amount of packing space they have is considerably less than what someone with a four-wheel drive is going to have. Most of their stuff could probably fit in one pack in the front seat of any overlanding rig. I would venture to guess most of us could pack everything needed for a three day weekend into one bag and manage just fine.

Don’t Pack It

The last option is not to take it. If it hasn’t been used in a while or never, don’t pack it. Take it out of your kit and leave it at home. If you find you need a certain item, figure out if something you’ve already got packed can pull double duty. I’ve found I pack more camera gear than I probably need so I’m working towards carrying what I use in a smaller, more manageable bag.

Going Forward and A Crazy Idea

In the end, I’d like to have a loadout that can be used for just myself and also for my family that fits in my future drawer system without having to stuff things in. The most change will probably happen with my camp kitchen gear. I have about four different sets that I use items from. Eventually, I’ll possibly replace all of it with a nested cooking set like the GSI mentioned above.

Another idea I have had is to pack everything into a single bag and see if I can sustain myself for a weekend just out of that. This would include all of the necessary cooking items, food, tools, and clothing for a weekend. Because I like to hammock camp, it would also be easy enough to include this as well for sleeping in. Granted this doesn’t include certain items like drinking water, but a well set up rig would include water storage of some kind. While I currently do not have this, a 30 pack of stowed water bottles have worked well in the past.

Maybe this idea will materialize into a Michigan Overland trip of some kind; maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll just end up testing it out myself on a trip. Who knows. Either way, I’m going to continue to ween down the gear I carry into as little as possible. I’m always interested in feedback, so feel free to leave a comment with some suggestions.

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Nick Howell

Nick is a lifelong Michigan resident, born and raised. He grew up in Bay City and transplanted to the metro Detroit area after college for work. Seeking more woods and outdoors time, he resolved to get out more. In a spark of creativity, he co-founded Michigan Overland with the intent to travel to parts unknown both within Michigan and abroad.

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