Finding the perfect vehicle for long road trips and overlanding is a difficult if not impossible task. Every option has a significant list of pros and cons. When I began planning for a year of road trips across the United States and Canada, I started searching for the perfect travel vehicle and ultimately settled on a mid-sized pick-up truck.
I had previously road-tripped in a Class C RV, which was wonderful to live out of, but too big to fit in normal parking lots and to drive down some of the narrow national parks roads. I debated switching to a travel trailer, which would allow me to unhitch the trailer at the campsite before driving to areas where a larger vehicle was less manageable. A travel trailer works great for weekend trips, but for long road trips, I didn’t really want to have to keep driving back to a campsite to hitch up a trailer before continuing on.
So then I was down to a van/class B RV or a truck camper. And since I wanted to be able to traverse roads requiring high clearance, 4wd vehicles, I needed a 4×4 van or truck. Most newer 4×4 vans were $80,000 +. So I started the hunt for a truck.
For ease of parking and to keep gas mileage up as high as possible, I started looking at mid-sized, rather than full-size, trucks. It took me a while to make a decision on which mid-sized truck to purchase, and I read a lot of blog posts during that time, so I wanted to share my research in the hopes it helps someone else make a decision.
Mid-sized Trucks on the Market
There are several traditional mid-sized trucks on the market, plus a few newer additions that fall into this category.
- Toyota Tacoma
- Chevrolet Colorado
- GMC Canyon
- Ford Ranger
- Nissan Frontier
- Jeep Gladiator
- Honda Ridgeline
- +/- Ford Maverick
- +/- Hyundai Santa Cruz
Whether you prioritize off-road performance, towing capacity, payload capability, or a combination of factors, it’s crucial to find the truck that best fits your needs. To help you get an idea of the best features of each truck, here are some brief summaries.
*I used ChatGPT to help formulate these summaries, so some of the data is likely from the 2021 models. It’s important to consult the manufacturer’s specifications and the specific trim levels for the most up-to-date and accurate information on available drivetrain options, as configurations may vary based on model year and market.
The Toyota Tacoma is renowned for its reliability and off-road prowess. Its best features include a range of trim levels, engine options, and off-road packages to cater to various needs. With a ground clearance of 9.4 inches, the Tacoma excels in tackling rough terrains. In terms of towing capacity, it can haul up to 6,800 pounds, while its payload capacity stands at a competitive 1,440 pounds.
The Toyota Tacoma offers a range of drivetrain options. Most trims come with rear-wheel drive (RWD) as standard, while four-wheel drive (4WD) is available as an option. The TRD Pro and TRD Off-Road trims include an advanced 4WD system with various off-road modes and features like crawl control.
The Chevrolet Colorado is a versatile mid-sized truck offering multiple engine choices and impressive towing and payload capacities. While it may not be as renowned for its off-road capabilities as some competitors, the Colorado still delivers a satisfying driving experience. With a ground clearance ranging from 8.2 to 8.4 inches, the Colorado strikes a balance between on-road comfort and off-road capability. It boasts a towing capacity of up to 7,700 pounds and a payload capacity of up to 1,578 pounds, making it an attractive option for hauling and towing needs.
The Chevrolet Colorado provides both RWD and 4WD configurations across its trim levels. The ZR2 variant, known for its off-road capability, comes exclusively with 4WD. Additionally, diesel engine options are available for those seeking increased torque and fuel efficiency.
Sharing much of its platform and components with the Chevrolet Colorado, the GMC Canyon offers similar attributes while adding an upscale touch. Its best features include various trim levels, engine options, and available features. With a ground clearance ranging from 8.2 to 8.9 inches, the Canyon also strikes a balance between off-road capability and on-road comfort. It provides a maximum towing capacity of up to 7,700 pounds and a payload capacity of up to 1,605 pounds, ensuring it can handle demanding tasks.
Similar to its sibling, the Chevrolet Colorado, the GMC Canyon offers both RWD and 4WD configurations. The All-Terrain trim includes an advanced 4WD system with features like an automatic locking rear differential and an off-road suspension package for improved capability in rough terrains.
After a brief hiatus, the Ford Ranger made a triumphant return to the mid-sized truck market. Its best features include modern technology, strong towing capabilities, and a turbocharged engine for improved efficiency. With a ground clearance of 8.4 inches, the Ranger offers respectable off-road performance. Its towing capacity reaches up to 7,500 pounds, while its payload capacity stands at a competitive 1,860 pounds, making it a reliable choice for those with heavy hauling requirements.
The Ford Ranger comes with a standard RWD configuration across its trim levels. However, 4WD is available as an option for those who desire enhanced off-road capability and all-weather traction. The Ranger features a selectable drive mode system, allowing drivers to choose between different driving modes based on road conditions.
The Nissan Frontier has established a reputation for durability and affordability. While its design has remained largely unchanged over the years, a redesigned model was introduced for the 2022 model year. Although specific details about ground clearance, towing capacity, and payload for the latest model may vary, it is worth considering for its reliability and value.
The Nissan Frontier offers both RWD and 4WD options. The redesigned 2022 model offers an advanced 4WD system with multiple drive modes to adapt to various terrains and driving conditions. The specific drivetrain options may vary depending on the trim level and model year.
The Jeep Gladiator stands out among mid-sized trucks with its iconic Jeep off-road capabilities. With a removable top and doors, solid front and rear axles, and extensive aftermarket support, the Gladiator is highly regarded among off-road enthusiasts and overlanding enthusiasts alike. It offers a ground clearance of 10 inches, making it ideal for conquering challenging terrains. Its towing capacity reaches up to 7,650 pounds, while the payload capacity stands at up to 1,600 pounds, showcasing its ability to handle both adventure gear and heavy loads.
The Jeep Gladiator is equipped with the legendary Jeep 4WD system across all trim levels. It offers various 4×4 configurations, including part-time 4WD and full-time 4WD options, allowing drivers to choose the setup that suits their off-road needs.
The Honda Ridgeline distinguishes itself from other mid-sized trucks with its unibody construction, which offers a smoother ride and more car-like handling. Its best features include a comfortable cabin and innovative storage solutions. With a ground clearance of 7.64 inches, the Ridgeline may not be the most off-road-focused truck on this list. However, it compensates with a towing capacity of up to 5,000 pounds and a payload capacity of up to 1,580 pounds, making it a practical option for those seeking a comfortable and versatile truck.
The Honda Ridgeline is unique among mid-sized trucks as it features an intelligent Variable Torque Management All-Wheel Drive (i-VTM4 AWD) system as standard across all trim levels. The i-VTM4 AWD system enhances traction and stability on different road surfaces, ensuring a confident driving experience.
The Ford Maverick is a new entrant in the mid-sized truck segment, targeting customers seeking a compact and fuel-efficient option. While specific details about ground clearance, towing capacity, and payload may vary, the Maverick aims to provide a versatile bed design and an affordable package with a hybrid powertrain, making it an interesting choice for those prioritizing efficiency and utility.
The Ford Maverick is available with both RWD and optional 4WD configurations. Additionally, the Maverick Hybrid model features a front-wheel-drive (FWD) configuration with an electric motor assisting the gasoline engine, providing enhanced fuel efficiency.
Hyundai Santa Cruz
The Hyundai Santa Cruz is another recent addition to the mid-sized truck segment. It features a unique crossover-like design that blends the characteristics of an SUV and a pickup truck. With its unibody construction, the Santa Cruz offers a comfortable ride and a range of modern features. It is worth considering for those seeking a versatile and distinctive option in the mid-sized truck market.
The Hyundai Santa Cruz is available with a choice of drivetrain options. It comes standard with front-wheel drive (FWD) configuration, which is suitable for everyday driving and offers good fuel efficiency. Additionally, all-wheel drive (AWD) is available as an option for enhanced traction and capability, especially in adverse weather conditions or light off-road use.
Narrowing the Options
I’ll be honest, I wanted a more off-road capable truck, so I never looked at the Honda Ridgeline or the Hyundai Santa Cruz. The Jeep Gladiator is a solid choice, but I don’t really like the boxy style and its MSRP is about $10,000 or more higher than some of the other mid-sized trucks.
So that left me with the following lists of trucks to compare:
- Toyota Tacoma
- Chevrolet Colorado
- GMC Canyon
- Ford Ranger
- Nissan Frontier
- +/- Ford Maverick
To make a decision, I started test driving and put all of the specifications that were most important to me in a spreadsheet.
Note: The 2023 Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon wasn’t out yet, so some of those numbers are from the 2022 version. Otherwise, the specifications are from the 2023 versions.
I had briefly considered the Ford Maverick for road trips and overlanding, as it has an excellent payload for a mid-sized truck and gets fantastic gas mileage with an estimated 22 city and up to 29 on the highway. But ultimately, they were a little hard to get a hold of (this truck is selling out fast), I wanted true 4wd for off-roading rather than AWD, and I wanted at least a 5-foot bed length. So I crossed the Maverick off of the list.
The Colorado and the Canyon are mostly the same truck, so I decided to take the Canyon out of the running, instead focusing on the Colorado.
And then I was down to the big 4: Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Colorado, Nissan Frontier, and Ford Ranger. They all test-drove pretty well around town. I didn’t have the opportunity to take them off-road, so I had to rely on YouTube video reviews to assess off-road capability.
If you’re interested, here are some good comparisons videos:
Which Truck Is Best?
While I strongly considered the Ford Ranger and almost bought a 2021 Chevy Colorado, ultimately I ended up purchasing a 2023 Toyota Tacoma.
The Toyota Tacoma, specifically the TRD Off-Road, may not be the best truck for everyone, but for me, it is the ultimate vehicle for an overlanding adventure rig.
With standard 4-wheel drive, a locking rear differential, crawl control, great tires, and an off-road-tuned suspension, the Tacoma is designed for rugged adventures. The Tacoma also has my favorite exteruir look of the traditional mid-sized truck group and holds its value very well. It has traditionally been a best-seller in the midsized market and Toyota’s are known to last for a long time. My previous vehicle was a Toyota Highlander and it is still running well with over 200K miles.
Another pro for the Tacoma is that it has been around for a while and there are a lot of easily available aftermarket parts to choose from for upgrades and modifications.
The only major downside to the Tacoma is the low payload capacity. It is very easy to load your truck up with 1155 pounds when you’re overlanding. Especially when about half of that weight is taken up with people, dogs, and fuel. The extra 400-500 pounds of payload capacity that the Ford Ranger and Chevy Colorado have would have come in handy.
But now that I have purchased the Toyota Tacoma for my ultimate overlanding adventure rig, my challenge is to create a durable truck camper light enough for the truck to safely handle. If you’re interested in truck camper builds, stay tuned for updates on my custom Tacoma truck camper.
Also, Toyota is releasing a new model of the Tacoma in 2024, so make sure to check that out if you are looking to purchase a new vehicle next year.