Trucks vs SUVs For Overlanding

Ross Ballot
by Ross Ballot
Photo Credit: Daniel Beckemeier / Shutterstock.com

When considering whether a pickup truck or an SUV is better for overlanding, several factors need to be taken into account, including cargo capacity, passenger comfort, off-road capability, durability, modifications, and fuel efficiency.

Is a pickup truck or an SUV right for you and your overlanding aspirations? We’re here to help with an explainer on the pros and cons of each.

Cargo Space:


Overlanding comes with the territory of inevitably carrying cargo. Pickup trucks have the advantage of a separate cargo bed, offering substantial space for gear, tools, spare parts, and camping equipment. The open bed allows for the transport of large and awkwardly shaped items that might not fit inside an SUV, and accessories like bed racks and storage boxes can further enhance cargo organization. However, gear stored in the bed is exposed to the elements unless covered with a tonneau cover or canopy, and items might be less secure from theft compared to an enclosed vehicle.


On the other hand, SUVs provide an enclosed cargo area that protects gear from weather and theft, and typically offer more organized storage space inside the vehicle. However, they have limited cargo space compared to a pickup bed, and bulky items may be harder to accommodate.


Cargo space also impacts sleeping options. If you pack smartly (and fit), it's possible to sleep in the back of an SUV. You can do so in the bed of a pickup as well, but you're exposed to the elements unless the pickup has a cap. Both options offer the ability to carry a rooftop tent, but if you want to sleep inside the vehicle, an SUV might be easier, especially if you want to live in the lap of luxury and use an inflatable cargo-area air mattress.


Cargo systems do also exist for both pickups and SUVs. Trunk and bed-mounted drawer systems are a common overlanding addition, allowing for organization and ease of access to everything one might need. These do limit sleeping ability, but they're helpful for those who prefer to keep things together.

Photo Credit: Kelly vanDellen / Shutterstock.com

Comfort and Capability:


In terms of passenger comfort and capacity, modern crew-cab pickups offer spacious and comfortable seating for up to five passengers, but rear seats in extended-cab models can be less comfortable. Additionally, some pickups have limited rear passenger space, making long journeys less comfortable. That said, full-size crew cab pickups tend to offer an enormous amount of space in the second row, more so than even many full-size SUVs. Still, SUVs generally offer more comfortable and spacious seating arrangements for passengers, with additional rows of seats that can accommodate more passengers, making them suitable for family overlanding. However, these additional passenger seats can limit cargo space when fully occupied.


Regarding off-road capability, it’s a wash. Pickups generally have higher ground clearance and better approach and departure angles than traditional passenger SUVs (we’re not discussing Wranglers, Broncos, or 4Runners just yet), with heavier-duty suspension systems better suited for rough terrain and more robust four-wheel-drive systems. However, the longer wheelbase in some models can reduce maneuverability on tight trails, and their heavier weight can be a disadvantage in certain off-road conditions, especially ascending and descending. SUVs, with their shorter wheelbase, often offer enhanced maneuverability on tight trails and come with advanced traction control systems. Yet, they may have lower ground clearance and less robust suspension systems compared to pickups.


In general, the difference in off-road capability comes down to the specific models being discussed. For example, a 5th generation Toyota 4Runner TRD Off Road may be more capable off-road than a 3rd generation crew cab long-bed Toyota Tacoma TRD Off Road, but it would be very similarly capable to a crew cab short-bed model. There are endless considerations that come into effect here, from terrain to tire choice and so on. There is no definitive "better" here.


Reliability:


When it comes to durability and reliability, pickups are often built on tougher, more durable platforms (body-on-frame construction) and are designed for heavy-duty use, making them more resilient in rugged conditions. However, they have a higher potential for wear and tear on suspension and drivetrain components due to heavier loads and rough use. Many off-road-capable SUVs are also built on durable, body-on-frame platforms and are designed with a balance of comfort and durability. However, not all SUVs are built for heavy-duty off-road use, as some are more oriented towards on-road comfort.

Photo Credit: EddieHart / Shutterstock.com

Aftermarket Modifications:


In terms of modifications and aftermarket support, pickups benefit from extensive aftermarket support for off-road modifications such as lift kits, larger tires, off-road bumpers, and winches. They are easy to customize and modify due to the modular nature of their construction, though these modifications can be costly and require professional installation. SUVs also have strong aftermarket support for popular models, including roof racks, suspension upgrades, and off-road armor, though some models have limited modification options compared to pickups.


There are also components that are universal to both pickups and SUVs, like most auxiliary lights and rooftop tents. The addition of these will improve the overlanding experience for owners and buying a certain vehicle should not be fully dependent on the use of such unless it is a make-it-or-break-it aspect for the buyer.


Fuel Efficiency:


Finally, regarding fuel efficiency, pickups are generally less fuel-efficient than SUVs due to larger engines and heavier weight, while SUVs are typically more fuel-efficient, especially in the crossover and mid-size segments. However, some pickups have larger fuel tanks available, and aftermarket, even larger tanks are more widely available for pickups. Fuel economy and driving range are important to consider when overlanding in remote places, so be sure to factor this in if that's your desired plan.

Photo Credit: Kyungjun Kim / Shutterstock.com

In conclusion, the choice between a pickup truck and an SUV for overlanding largely depends on individual needs and preferences. A pickup truck is ideal if you need extensive cargo capacity, plan to carry heavy or bulky or particularly dirty items, and prioritize flexibility and durability. An SUV is better if you prioritize passenger comfort, need enclosed cargo space, and value maneuverability and fuel efficiency. Both vehicle types can be excellent for overlanding with the right modifications and setup. Consider your specific overlanding plans, including the type of terrain you'll encounter, the amount of gear you'll carry, and the number of passengers you need to accommodate, pick a vehicle, and go for it.


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Ross Ballot
Ross Ballot

Ross hosts The Off the Road Again Podcast. He has been in the off-road world since he was a kid riding in the back of his dad’s YJ Wrangler. He works in marketing by day and in his free time contributes to Hooniverse, AutoGuide, and ATV.com, and in the past has contributed to UTV Driver, ATV Rider, and Everyday Driver. Ross drives a 2018 Lexus GX460 that is an ongoing build project featured on multiple websites and the podcast.

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