Wrestling With Your Conscience When Picking an Overlanding Vehicle

For most of my life, I held onto the attitude toward cars that I learned from my father: buy them only when necessary, fix them as needed, hold onto them as long as you can, and don’t expect them to be fun. Cars weren’t something you did or had as a hobby, and switching them every couple of years was frivolous. Wouldn’t want to actually enjoy your rig or anything.

Of course, my dad was born in and grew up during the Depression and the lessons he learned then guided the rest of his life. After he passed away, I helped my mom buy a new Toyota and the night we walked into the dealer to pick it up, right as we were walking up the steps, a bolt of lightning struck a couple miles away and there was a massive rumble of thunder. Complain all you want, pops, but she bought the Camry, haha.

I love overlanding. I love driving a rig that will go most anywhere and using it as a base camp for deeper adventures. But I know too much not to deal with the impact, with my impact.

This attitude made the process of buying a Vanagon Syncro, which I did a little over a decade ago, somewhat of an emotional process. Who has two vehicles?! Wasteful! Well, I got over it and buying Vanzilla was one of the best things I ever did, not just because of all the camping and exploration it enabled with my kids, but because it cracked apart those old death-grip attitudes toward cars. Now, when it comes to vehicles, I’m, like, whatever, man. It’s just a car. If I want a different one, I’ll get a different one. Life is short.

So, I sold the van. I bought a 2002 4Runner. The 4Runner was soooo much fun. But its limitations became too much for it to work as a one-vehicle quiver. There was a deep stale smell that I could never eliminate. It wasn’t very comfortable around town, which is where most of my miles are driven. It was loud and slow and got miserable gas mileage on long trips to Utah and Arizona—far worse than it should have, despite a lot of work on tuning it up. Off-road, oh, baby, it was fun. But everywhere else? Not so much.

At some point, I couldn’t take the combination of issues and my heart turned on it. A new vehicle wasn’t in the cards, and I wanted four-wheel-drive. In the end, I found a gorgeous Lexus LX 470 at a fantastic price and went for that. The LX is the Lexus version of the Land Cruiser 100 series, just Lexus’d with leather and whatnot. For a long time, I considered the Lexus GX470, same engine, slightly smaller, way nicer silhouette, 25 percent better MPG, but I couldn’t abide the barn-door rear door and lack of opening rear window. The tailgate on the LX called my name.

That was seven months ago. The LX is by far the best vehicle I’ve ever owned. It’s smooth around town, flawless in the dirt. It will climb over just about anything without resorting to 4WD low or the locking center differential. Two of us can comfortably sleep inside.

But. But the miles per gallon are bleak. I knew this coming in, of course, but knowing it and owning it are two different things. And although I’ve been aware of and have been writing about climate change for 25 years, the past six months have felt like the tolling of the bell for all of us. We have installed solar panels, so the energy for us and AJ us carbon neutral. All four of us are vegan. We worked to flip our district and put a climate-oriented representative in the House. It’s still not enough. I know that we need planetwide solutions. I know that we need a carbon tax and/or cap and trade and carbon capture and all kinds of policies that sweep across individual choice. But my heart is telling me that we also need to do more as citizens, and that I’m personally not doing enough. And the fuel consumption readout on my dash feels like a scarlet letter.

So, the question I’ve been wrestling with it this: How many and what kind of hard changes do I have to make in my own life to deal with climate change, knowing that what I do is a drop in the bucket, yet still important? We’re long past inconvenient truths—we’re facing dire truths. Adventure Journal is a place to talk about our shared enthusiasm for adventure and outdoor recreation, so we don’t cover a lot of climate change news (and we don’t want to be a buzzkill), but this is the greatest issue of our time. Everything we do has an impact on the planet and on the people around us. And given the explosion of vanlife and overlanding, given our use of vehicles to access the wild lands we love, I think we have to be honest with ourselves about the cost of that and what we might be willing to do to change.

These issues are nothing new. In regards to vehicles, I’ve long felt conflict over the impact of mine. But this week, something tipped. Within the last two days, there was this story about how businesses expect to feel the impact of climate change on their bottom line within five years. And this one about how bad travel is—one passenger’s share of emissions on a 2,500-mile flight will melt 32 square surface feet of summer polar ice. And this apocalyptic view that humanity could end by 2050 because of climate change. (Happy Wednesday!) It’s not business as usual. Our response must not be business as usual.

A glib and appropriate response to SUV guilt could be: Get a Prius, dumbass. Which is one solution, I admit. But this equation, as we all know, isn’t just one of practicality. One of my greatest passions is exploration, is driving down dirt roads and tracks to see what’s there. The van, the 4Runner, and the LX have enabled to the extent of my dreams. As I consider other options, the list of appropriate vehicles for exploring the Mojave Desert and Colorado Plateau is pretty short. I paid $20K for my LX. Do I sell that and get a new 4Runner for $40,000-plus, knowing it won’t drive as well and will only get five more mpg? Swap it for a used GX that gets four mpg more? Stop traveling and exploring altogether, except where an all-electric vehicle will take me?

These are, I am painfully aware, first world problems. Nobody needs to be able to drive over Imogene Pass. A cheap dirt bike like the Honda CR250L is an option for that, as are electric dirt bikes, electric pedal-assist mountain bikes, mountain bikes, and your feet. Many of you drive Subarus and are completely happy. Some of you don’t have cars at all. I get it—wah. But since I sold my last Subaru wagon in 1989, I have owned four-wheel-drives, I have used the 4WD liberally, and I have enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s been a big part of how I’ve lived and who I am.

A glib and appropriate response to SUV guilt could be: Get a Prius, dumbass.

But the days of letting other people deal with climate change are over. We are all part of the problem. We all consume, to one degree or another. My internal combustion truck is bad, but if yours uses gas, it’s bad, too. We’re all culpable. But we’re also all part of the solution. I am trying to be ruthless about auditing and confronting my impact, about confronting these truths and being willing to make changes for the good, even if that means abandoning or altering some of the things I love to do (at least until electrics 4WDs are available).

I’m also trying to be really open about the issues I’m wrestling with. We need to encourage and learn from one another. Most of my friends are dealing with issues like this, too, whether it’s the volume of plastic in their lives or the travel demands of work. (As an aside, has anyone in the outdoor industry consider the massive impact on the planet by increasing the number of Outdoor Retailer trade shows by 50 percent?) I love overlanding. I love driving a rig that will go most anywhere and using it as a base camp for deeper adventures. But I know too much not to deal with the impact, with my impact.

So. I’m not sure what I’m going to do. But these are the two primary options I’m considering:

1. Buy a used Nissan Leaf and drive it for all trips except off-road road trips. Keep the LX for exploration.

2. Sell the LX, buy a versatile, small, higher-MPG SUV/wagon and pump up its dirt capabilities, acknowledging it will never be a 4WD. Candidates: Subaru Outback (full-time AWD), Mercedes GLB (full-time AWD with option to lock 50-50 front and back).

Assuming 10,000 miles driven a year, with 4,000 of those going to road trips, the options are about equal in terms of carbon output. The cost is lower in option one, even counting the extra insurance for the second vehicle. Option one is a good one.

On the other hand, I’d love to have one smaller, capable vehicle that’s fun to drive, looks good, and makes me feel good. It would be fun to not drive a truck for a while and part of me is leaning toward option two just to mix it up for a couple years. It’s only a car, and life is too short not to hold these things lightly. Plus, let’s be clear: decent ground clearance, the right tires, and good driving technique will get you most of the way,

Regardless of the overall impact, the symbolism of rolling around in a big, gas-fueled rig is only going to get harder to stomach as the expressions of climate change become more pervasive. At least until a new wave of vehicles goes on sale in the next couple of years. Currently, there are reports or rumors of an electric or hybrid Ford Bronco and Land Rover Defender. All-electric Rivian is coming soon, and Ford just invested a half billion in the brand. The Mercedes GLB, whose silhouette makes my heart sing, is rumored to have an all-electric coming in 2021. I don’t know when we’ll see an all-electric that you can overland to Tierra del Fuego, but more sustainable 4WD rigs are coming soon. The only issue then will be the cost.

Okay, I’ll bring this to a close, I’d love to hear from anyone who’s pushing the limits of their AWD in dirt, especially those with Outbacks. Subaru has had a ton of problems with its continuously variable transmission and from what I’ve seen they can be a real drag in the dirt. What kinds of experiences have you guys had? What kind of changes have you made? Let’s see if we can move things forward, together.



Four issues, free shipping, evergreen content…