Overland Vanlife: Do You ACTUALLY Require 4×4? – with Slow Roamers

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By Car Brand Experts


We’ve all witnessed the attractive advertisements on our screens. Shiny trucks with polished rims and large rugged tires, substantial shocks and assertive bumpers tearing through the deserts and mountains, mud, dust and sand billowing from the wheel wells. You MUST have these gleaming items to venture off-road, you MUST have 4×4 to embark on a genuine escapade. We’ve been conditioned to believe that there is this extensive hurdle to overcome to venture out and savor the byways of North America. Well, I’m here to inform you that’s simply not the situation.

Regarding Overlanding with a 2WD

Howdy, it’s Alex, your pleasant van overland wanderer. Confessedly, I’ve been on a bit of a crusade for a while, attempting to enlighten people on how minimally they need to actually engage in vanlife or overland expeditions. I’m frequently somewhat puzzled by the multitude of individuals I encounter during my excursions who are convinced that they require something like what we use, or something akin to what they think we use (we drive an elevated 2WD delivery van it’s NOT 4wd), to venture onto the trail. Our vehicle of preference and the manner in which it’s been customized isn’t essentially the epitome of my message, but that’s chiefly because we stretch our vehicle well beyond its intended purpose. Amidst all the chatter about large tires, big suspension, and substantial bumpers, I aim to concentrate on the prevailing notion that you REQUIRE 4×4 to pursue an off-road journey.

I chuckle internally when I observe how often the term “off-roading” is employed. By the pure definition, off-roading is the travel over a surface devoid of a road, which is essentially prohibited in most states in the US and discouraged everywhere else. So, is anyone genuinely off-roading? With that being articulated, off-roading currently just characterizes anything off-pavement. At this juncture, instead of drearily elucidating the array of road surfaces and what is necessary to navigate said surfaces, I intend to recount a narrative of an expedition we recently underwent in our two-wheel-drive van. I believe what we achieved is a prime illustration of the point I’m striving to convey.

Telkwa pass overland travel in a 2wd
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Telkwa pass overland travel in a 2wd
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Overlanding Northwest Territory, Canada

Presently, my companion, Megan, and I are en route to Tuktoytaktuk, Northwest Territory, Canada to commence the Pan American highway. We initiated our journey from the uppermost tip of Vancouver Island, departing on a ferry that transported us from Port Hardy all the way to Prince Rupert. Upon exiting the terminal we reached Prince Rupert, British Columbia sixteen hours and 274 nautical miles later. Prince Rupert is situated amidst the labyrinth of islands and waterways constituting the British Columbia coast and right after departing the town you’re encompassed by towering coastal mountains. Traveling along the impressive Skeena River inland, you eventually reach Terrace, BC and just beyond Terrace is where our exploration genuinely began. I had my sights on a trail segment known as the Telkwa Pass that extends from just outside Terrace, through a mountain range to Telkwa, BC.

Telkwa Pass

Back in 2017 on another expedition through northern Canada and Alaska, I had paused with a friend in Smithers, BC and he had apprised me about the Telkwa Pass. Because of weather conditions and lack of experience at the time, I chose not to traverse the trail, but retained it in the recesses of my mind for seven years. Even though I came back with a 2WD vehicle that was less adept than the 4×4 Tacoma I had previously, I wasn’t going to forego the chance to explore this awe-inspiring region this time around. Being a YouTuber myself, I had observed two fellow video creators explore the area before me the previous year. Both of them are van enthusiasts, one with a competent 2WD van and the other a 4WD van. They had ventured in opposing directions and the one with a 2WD van had turned back at an obstacle he deemed impassable for his van. Apart from this, my knowledge of the trail was rather limited. It appeared that, for anyone traversing the trail with a compact 4WD vehicle, whether it be a side by side, quad, or small pickup, the trail was fairly straightforward. As far as I could discern, no 2WD van had completed the entire trail.

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Right after departing Terrace, we veered onto the FSR (forest service road) that led us into the hills. We entered a realm of tree-covered paths, glimpses of mountain peaks, cascades, and streams. After driving for 90 minutes along the Copper Mountain River, we discovered our camping spot for the evening, a flat area of sand just a few meters from the river. Drifting to sleep, we listened to the continuous murmur of distant rapids as the night only descended into darkness briefly for a few hours. The next day, we completed our online tasks swiftly, had breakfast by the river, and then set forth. It was going to be a day filled with travel and exploration. Gradually, the path started ascending. The mountains kept rising higher, and eventually, snow-capped peaks came into view from all angles. The path stayed in fairly good condition for most of the journey, albeit pocked with potholes. Approximately two hours later, we reached the start of the real trail section. Here, the road narrowed and began to twist, ascend, and descend steeply as it curved along the base of the mountain. Trail conditions were decent, with not much mud, a few deep puddles, and shallow creek crossings. Mile by mile, the towering mountains on either side drew nearer until they loomed above us like colossal sentinels.

Telkwa Pass Journey with a 2WD Vehicle

After an additional hour, I was feeling quite self-assured. We had faced no real challenges, navigated through tight passages, minor inclines, and crossed all water obstacles. Simple! But then, we reached the point where the fellow creator in the 2WD van had turned back. A lengthy, steep, and winding ascent highlighted by a water channel (a small depression allowing water to cross the road) at the base and numerous large loose rocks. I was quite skeptical…but I am also reckless and irrationally determined to finish what I start. Momentum is truly remarkable; if you can sustain it, it can assist in overcoming many hurdles. In an off-road scenario, when you’re using momentum to tackle an obstacle, you must balance maintaining as much momentum as possible without risking harm to the crucial components of the vehicle you’re driving. In this instance, I needed to sustain enough momentum up the hill to pass the initial water channel obstacle without damaging my front suspension and then maintain enough afterwards to propel us up the steep incline and over the sizable loose rocks. I surveyed the hill for a mere 10 seconds and then decide to proceed.

Telkwa Pass 24
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Telkwa Pass 24
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The most undesirable event for me was to reach a point where the previous explorer had to turn around due to the challenging terrain.

halted on the slope and needing to reverse downhill. Accelerated on the minor elevation preceding the ascent and kept the gas pedal pressed, adjusting the throttle until eventually it had to be fully depressed. To my utmost astonishment, the van pushed through and continued climbing all the way to the summit. I was amazed and bewildered by the breathtaking view that awaited us. The sight from the peak might have led most to believe, “we’ve reached the destination,” as we did, but there was still another 5km to cover. This final stretch was undeniably the most demanding and aggressive off-road challenge we had faced in the van. Shortly after the initial incline, we encountered an even steeper climb that we barely managed to ascend, followed by numerous rocky terrains, a rock slide requiring us to clear boulders with a winch, and tree passages so narrow that we feared our solar panels and awning would be torn off.

Following six hours on the trail, we eventually reached the camping spot for the next two nights. Let me assure you, this spot is legendary, with little exaggeration. Locations where you can drive a vehicle, especially a 2WD, are scarce. Nestled at the foot of a colossal mountain with three glacier-fed waterfalls, on a sandbar extending into a clear lake, we found our temporary abode. It was truly epic.

Preliminary Considerations for Overlanding with a 2WD Van

Before I leave you pondering the prospect of conquering rocks and trees with your sizable RV or 2WD van, let’s reflect on the realistic scenario. We proved that accessing this magnificent lake spot was feasible with a 2WD. Is it advisable, though..? Probably not. There were enough instances where I feared we might overheat our transmission that I must strongly advise against tackling this trail without a transfer case and locker. Yes, we managed the trail without a transfer case, but as I mentioned earlier, I might have a tad of recklessness in me. Thus, as a precaution, refrain from attempting this journey in a 2WD van; however, our experience adequately demonstrates that you don’t necessarily require a 4WD vehicle equipped with all the bells and whistles to embark on an adventure. In fact, I’m beginning to believe that one can derive more enjoyment from a 2WD vehicle since the threshold for an exhilarating experience is lower. Every individual we encountered on the trail, whether maneuvering a side by side, ATV, or pickup, downplayed the trail’s difficulty. It was, to them, effortless and relaxed. For us, it entailed at times an epic struggle just to climb a hill.

To conclude this narrative of mine, challenge yourself with your 2WD van in unfamiliar territory, and you might be pleasantly surprised by how much ground you can cover. Keep in mind that forest service roads or lengthy, gravelly desert tracks are traversed by cars and service vehicles routinely; just because the road is unpaved and bumpy doesn’t automatically mean you’ll lose control and end up stranded. And if you do encounter a setback, embrace the experience and anticipate sharing the story in the future when you’ve overcome it. Your adventure awaits, regardless of how grand or modest it may appear to others, and the entryway is often less restrictive than you assume.

Explore Further on Overlanding:

Essential Overland Gear

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