Overlander vs Prerunner vs Rock Crawler

Overlander vs Prerunner vs Rock Crawler


So you want to build your truck for off-roading! Cool! So what does that mean? There are a bunch of different kinds of off-roading, and none of them are really built anything like any of the other ones. 

When you’re building your truck, what is the difference between an overland build, vs a prerunner build vs a rock crawling build? What makes each one so much better at doing what it’s designed to do? There are a lot of “overlanders” who think they are rock crawling, and there are even more rock crawling or go-fast guys out there thinking “isn’t overlanding just car camping”? There can definitely be a bunch of overlap between each style of build depending on how you want to use your truck, what the terrain around you is like, and what type of trails you enjoy hitting the most. 


It’s funny to me because “overlanding” is often seen as offroading for nerds. And I totally get it. Overland builds are often pretty mild, some bolt on suspension upgrades, bumpers and a winch, then a roof top tent with a bunch of recovery gear bolted to the outside. (if you want to see my recommended build order for overlanding, check out the video up here ^ after this one is over). 

Hard core wheeling guys make fun of the overland builds because of that, they seem to not really be built for “actual” off-roading, plus they look overly prepared. And that’s kind of the point. 

An overland truck build is not made to hit whoops in the desert at 100km/h, or get up a 4’ ledge. They are designed to do multi-week long trips, driving hundreds of kilometers on pavement to hit a dirt road into the mountains, drive comfortably on those for another few hundred KM’s, camp in an amazing place, then head on to the next spot. 

I don’t know of any serious wheeling truck, either rock crawling or prerunning, that you would want to do that with. 

Overland builds will have larger, but not huge tires to keep fuel economy in check, while still being able to get over some trail obstacles, and drive a decent pace on dirt roads. There is a HUGE range in vehicles that people use for overlanding, from porches to unimogs, and everything in between. The type of vehicle you build, and the way you build it is going to entirely depend on where you are trying to go.

I hear all the time “Isn’t overlanding just car camping?” and it sort of is, but it’s a more fun word to say. “Car camping” doesn’t quite inspire the same thought of awesome views far away from the nearest paved road, at least in my mind. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it. 


The prerunner guys will typically trailer their trucks out to the desert, because they run super high RPM’s on road, are loud, uncomfortable to sit in for a long period of time, have TERRIBLE fuel economy, and are otherwise purpose built for One thing only: Going very fast over very big bumps. Not to mention, the odds of breaking something that can’t be fixed in the desert is pretty high. 

Prerunners are built with big power, and big suspension travel. Usually they are only 2wd, though 4wd is becoming more common. Race seats & harnesses, and a cage are pretty much mandatory as you get more power and suspension, because it’s pretty easy to land your truck on its lid at 80km/h+ the faster you start going. 

Suspension is usually IFS in the front, with either beams or a-arms. Rear suspension will be a long travel spring under axle setup, or trailing arm 4-link setups. Front travel would usually be 16+ inches in the front and 18+ inches in the back, with 22-26” being very common. 

We went to the desert recently in Ocotillo wells with the JD Fabrication guys to blast around the desert, and it was insane. The most fun I’ve had in a very long time. But after ripping around the desert for the day, it was back to the tow trucks, sleeping in campers, and then trailering home at the end of the day. 

There are for sure people who drive out to a cool spot in the desert, and setup camp there, but they will have minimal gear because prerunners typically have minimal space, and are trying to keep their weight even so that they aren’t getting bucked over big hits.

Rock Crawler

The rock crawling builds are similar to a prerunner, where they often are either towed to the trails, or are driven there, but only over as short of a distance as possible. Rock crawler truck builds can range from relatively mild, to tube chassis truggies. 

Rock crawlers are trying to get to places that nobody else can get to. 4wd, lockers, transfer case gear reduction, huge suspension articulation, and massive tires are the mainstays of a build meant for crawling.  Usually you’ll see solid front axles and winches, with exocages on these kind of builds. 

Typically a prerunner will have an internal cage because the smaller cage is a bit stronger, and the truck also looks a lot cleaner without a jungle gym around it. Rock crawlers, on the other hand, are basically using the cage as a giant full vehicle slider. The roof can slide along trees or rocks, the quarter panels and rockers are protected, plus they can roll over, then flip the truck back on it’s wheels and try again. 

Rock crawlers roll pretty often, but at slow speeds, trying to get up super off-camber obstacles. While race seats and harnesses would be a lot safer, you need to be able to see the ground right under your wheels, and you just can’t lean out of your seat at all with a harness. That’s why most rock crawling builds will just keep the stock seats. 

I would say that the biggest difference in design philosophy between a prerunner cage and a rock crawler cage is that a prerunner cage is meant to save the driver/passengers, while a rock crawler cage is designed to save the vehicle. I don’t know if that’s totally true or not, but it’s an observation. 

Rock crawlers will often go on day trips to the trails then head home, but they will just as often hit a difficult trail, and then camp out for a day or two before heading home. They just will usually use a ground tent and more simple camp setup because having a low center of gravity is super important for the kind of obstacles these vehicles are built for. 

Your Build

So I hear you saying “but Braeden, I don’t fit into any of those categories, I do two, or all three of those things”. I hear you, and I understand. I also do all of those things, but the truth is, my truck can’t really do any of them very well. 

When you try to compromise between 2 or 3 different styles of build, you inherently have to make compromises. Maybe you built a long travel tacoma with a rtt and camping gear on it, and like to hit the desert, and camp for a week straight. That’s awesome, but I guarantee you aren’t driving in the desert even close to how a dedicated prerunner does, PLUS your truck probably doesn’t drive nearly as nice on the highway as a milder truck would. 

Or maybe you like to overland into really cool locations, and there are some pretty techy rock features on the way that you get up and over. That’s rad too, but you’re probably locking up the diffs, and possibly winching up sections that a dedicated crawler would drive over like it’s flat.

I’m also trying to build a truck that does all of these things, but my tacoma is loud and annoying to drive on the highway, with tonnes of body roll and terrible fuel economy. It’s also relatively slow in the desert, because it’s heavy, underpowered and doesn’t have the suspension travel or cage to really go fast. Then when I get to a rock crawling feature, my truck is too long, and the spring under leafs get hung up on rocks, and the front IFS doesn’t have forced articulation like a solid axle would. 

I basically want a vehicle that doesn’t exist! Like an Ultra4 Truck that can do crazy rocks, go super fast over whoops, but with a roof top tent and a fridge and good fuel economy and on-road handling. 

Everything is a compromise depending on what you want to do, and your build might not completely fit into any of these molds, but it will be a combination of certain parts of one or another. Maybe you don’t mind roughing it a bit more on the highway and at the camp site, so you sacrifice those things for a more capable crawling truck. Maybe you’d really prefer to cook a proper nice meal and hang out at a beautiful spot for a few days without rocks in your back, so you lean towards a more comfortable camping setup, and sacrifice all out truck capability. 

There’s an infinite amount of ways you can build your truck, and that’s the beauty of this hobby. Your truck is like a statement of what you're into and where you like to go. And things change over time as well, I can’t count how many times I’ve changed the direction of my own truck build as I learn things and my interests change. 


If you want to check out the day we spent having our minds blown in the desert, you’ll like this video, or if you want to watch us trying to tackle some of the harder rock crawling features we’ve tried, maybe watch this video! Hopefully this video helped break down the differences in builds and why each truck is built the way it is. 

Overlanders get a lot of flack from the older styles of off-roading like the rock crawler guys or the prerunner guys, saying that they spend a tonne of money on their trucks, then just drive on pavement. But I know just as many rock crawler and prerunner builds that actually only live in their garage, and their hobby is more just building a cool truck than actually driving it. 

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