Few people in overlanding are more recognizable than AT Overland founder, Mario Donovan. He’s been involved in the hobby and industry since 2000 and founded AT Overland soon after that. If you know anything about the history of overlanding, you know that this is a good 10 years before the hobby really took off. Indeed, Mario has watched the hobby grow from a fringe activity to one that is now recognized worldwide. Here in North America, Mario has led the charge because the man knows his stuff. Aside from running AT Overland and expanding its reach with nationwide dealerships, Mario also provides a full consultative service to save his clients money, time, and frustration. To learn more about truck camper design and his equipment preferences, Mario was kind enough to answer a few questions.
Thanks, Mario, for taking the time to talk with us. First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Mario Donovan: It’s great to talk with you today Mike. I’m the President and Founder of AT Overland Equipment. We are located in Prescott, Arizona. My childhood was spent in rural coastal towns in California. Outdoor life was part of everyday life. I’d fish or scoop crawdads out of the creek near our house after school if I wasn’t chopping wood or other chores. For inland fun we’d go backpacking in the Sierras. At the age of 10, we moved to Ethiopia and Kenya where the enduro bike and the 4WD became a part of my everyday transportation life. Every free moment was spent pursuing remote places with friends or scientific staff doing research in the bush. I was fortunate enough to have been exposed to so much of the world through those experiences all of which lead my continued pursuit of the outdoors and the equipment that we design and make today.
When was AT Overland founded?
Mario Donovan: The seeds were germinating in 2000 when I started researching available trailer options in the USA and worked up a business plan to import trailers from South Africa. The company officially incorporated in 2002. The plan later morphed into designing and building our own and eventually leading to where we are today as a designer, manufacturer, purveyor and vehicle outfitter.
What services and products does AT Overland offer?
Mario Donovan: AT Overland provides a full consultative process to our clients who are building adventure vehicles. We want to understand the needs of our clients so that we are matching products to their outdoor needs. For example will ask questions such as how many people are you going to support, what type of terrain will you be driving on, which seasons and climatic conditions will you encounter, distance between resupply points and the like. Once we have a full understanding of our clients adventure vision then we will recommend the best products available to achieve those goals.
We manufacture three different models of truck toppers, Atlas, Summit, Habitat and our Aterra camper in-house. We also offer vehicle upfitting services such as suspension, roof racks, lighting, power and solar, portable refrigeration etc. We only carry top level brands like National Luna, AEV, ARB, Eeziawn, Tern Overland, Energy, Sunpower, Tembotusk and Step 22 to name just a few.
We’re big fans of the AT Overland Summit and Atlas? Which truck topper is the better seller?
Mario Donovan: Right now the Atlas is our number one seller. The Summit tracks number two with the Habitat in third place.
We love the AT Overland Aterra XL? What was the inspiration for the design?
Mario Donovan: The inspiration came from years of experience with other brands of campers that fell short of understanding the user interface and pushing the engineering envelope to deliver a better product.
The Aterra XL was a collaborative effort between Tern Overland and AT Overland. Tern Overland engineered the basic shell structure with light weight, structural integrity and thermal efficiency as the goals. AT Overland designed the multi-functional interior systems to maximize storage and ease of use while maintaining an ergonomically comfortable interior. The process took nearly three years. The result is the wonderfully lightweight 1,100-pound yet robust and efficient Aterra camper. The Aterra is built in house in our facility in Prescott, Arizona.
What makes the Aterra XL so great?
Mario Donovan: The Aterra XL is ergonomically a very comfortable space to be in. While very well suited for two to three persons, we did manage to cram 12 people inside during the Equipt Overland Expo Happy Hour! It features easy to access storage that is removable, large underbed drawers and a closet for clothing, the galley is delightful to use with lots of counter space and ease of access to the fridge. We managed to squeeze in nice luxuries such as the comfortable Froli box spring system, Subrella clad upholstery and the odorless-waterless Wrappon toilet. Little touches like a wireless operable Garmin switch system for lighting and 10 USB ports in different places for charging devices. 400 watts of solar and LiFePO4 batteries are standard. The additives to our coatings enhance thermal efficacy along with the Tern double pane windows with black out curtains and our fresh Air Replenishment System which reduces thermal loss in ventilation while keeping the inside fresh air at desirable levels with a reduction in humidity. Black-out curtains on the Tern Overland windows let you sleep-in. We also paid special attention to service access so that all appliances, electrical and plumbing is consolidated into two easy to access areas. In short, all of the features in the Aterra XL represent fixes to the shortcomings of other campers we have dealt with in the past.
How many Aterra XL’s have you sold so far?
Mario Donovan: We were expecting to sell 10 Aterra campers within the first year of product release, but the reception exceeded our expectations with 17 orders placed in the first eight months. We are ecstatic about that and are excited for the Aterra variants that we will be releasing soon.
Really? Can you tell us more about these Aterra variants? Will this include one for mid-size trucks?
Wow, that’s great. What in your opinion makes a great overland expedition truck camper rig?
Mario Donovan: The correct answer to that question is the truck camper rig that meets your needs! For us that means a truck that is operating under its GVWR, has a compliant suspension system, adequate fuel range for its intended usage and does not have so many exotic parts on it that it cannot be easily serviced by a reasonably qualified technician. My personal preference to meet our criteria for an adventure vehicle is a Ram 2500 or 3500.
We agree. You recently partnered with Overland Explorer Vehicles. What made OEV standout from the rest?
Mario Donovan: We were looking for a company that builds pop-up campers with an engineering mindset similar to our own. Overland Explorer Vehicle’s design and building methodology is not focused on shaving pennies off of its production costs, but rather on building the strongest structures with the best thermal efficiencies and using the best available technology in appliances. They are committed to quality in the same way AT Overland is committed to quality in its products and does not compromise on that vision.
OEV also makes the Aluma Tray line of flatbed trays. It falls between the lightweight Australian design concepts and the industrial North American designs. We used to make our own flatbeds in-house until we discovered their product line. They have worked with us to make flatbeds that are compatible not only with their campers but our Aterra and many other camper brands. Their quality is unapologetically good and we are proud to carry their product line.
What are your thoughts on body lifts and tires sizes for trucks?
Mario Donovan: We’re not a fan of body lifts, it’s a poor shortcut to larger tire clearance. Suspension lifts are always preferable in our book. Obviously the higher you go, the higher the center of gravity. Larger tires provide improved traction in off-pavement situations and ultimately improved the clearance between the drivetrain and the ground. Before making tire and lift decisions it is important to define the usage. If you’re primarily a forest road wash board traveler, ground clearance needs are minimal. Shocks and tire selection are more important. If the desire is to tackle more technical terrain such as steep drop-offs, cross axle situations, watermelon sized rocks, then tire size and suspension lift height play a more important part in the up-fitment decision making process.
The Aterra XL is designed for full-size trucks. By their very nature, full-size trucks have larger turning radiuses due to their longer wheel bases and take more effort in terrain with tight turns. Larger tires and suspension lifts increase ground clearance and traction with the trade off of a higher center of gravity and increased roll over risk. To safely drive a fully equipped overland vehicle in compromising terrain requires skill. We always advise seeking professional instruction from qualified trainers like Offroad Safety Academy, 7P, OEX, Overland Training Canada to name a few that we trust.
When it comes to truck campers, what is the difference between off-roading and overlanding? Aren’t they basically the same?
Mario Donovan: We see that they are different and often blended together. The true definition of “off-road” is exactly that, no road, no trail, blazing a new path. This would occur at Glamis sand dunes or some other unrestricted area. The more common interpretation though is technical trails requiring 4WD-low such as found in Moab, Utah or the Rubicon. “Off-roading” is about the pursuit of technical terrain as the end goal.
“Overlanding” by our definition is the pursuit of remote destinations that in route one might encounter technical terrain. Being remote requires self-sufficiency. Remote self-sufficiency means protecting the assets that you have to get you home safely and by nature, not taking unnecessary risks that could strand you.
Do you prefer all-terrain or mud-terrain tires on your vehicles?
Mario Donovan: I prefer hybrid tires, however, many of the larger sizes are only available in mud-terrain patterns. For most overlanding scenarios that incorporate a high percentage of pavement before getting to the dirt, the all-terrain tire is a good choice.
Do you have a preference on tire make and model?
Mario Donovan: We like the Toyo Open Country MT in 40-inches the best. In the 33-37-inch range, Toyo, General, BFG, Cooper in mud-terrain or all-terrain styles are all good choices.
Do you prefer diesel or gas for your trucks?
Mario Donovan: I personally prefer diesel for the torque, mileage and engine longevity. It is not always the practical choice for example if you are undertaking an international journey, low-sulfur diesel and DEF fluid are not available in all countries for vehicles that require it. In that case a gasoline platform is more desirable.
For truck campers, do you prefer AGM or lithium batteries?
Mario Donovan: For auxiliary house batteries inside a temperature compliant environment, we prefer lithium (LiFePO4) for weight and capacity. For starting batteries, we prefer AGM.
Which suspension system do you recommend for the trucks you work on?
Mario Donovan: For Ram trucks we recommend American Expedition Vehicles (AEV). For Ford we recommend Carli. For Toyotas we recommend OME and Icon.
Do you have any favorite places or trails you like to explore? What was the most difficult and challenging?
Mario Donovan: It’s too big of a world to decide upon a favorite! The Southwest US, Western Canada and Baja are all drop-dead gorgeous and adventure traveler friendly. Hard to go wrong west the Rockies.
The most challenging trail I have ever encountered was Surprise Canyon to Panamint City via the waterfalls in the mid 90’s. This route is now closed. It was extremely challenging requiring lockers, winching and a pain threshold for body damage.
What are your thoughts on where the overlanding is heading? Will technological advancements lead the way?
Mario Donovan: “Overlanding” is no longer a fringe activity. Access to the gear has proliferated over the last decade in the US as more people have become attracted to the lifestyle. The lines are being blurred between camping and off-roading in the US interpretation of overlanding. Mainstream companies are now getting involved in the lifestyle trend and are marketing as such. In 2000, when we started our company, roof-top tents were a rarity. Now you can order them online from big box retailers. Just for giggles I found a roof-top tent in a search on Home Depot!
I believe that the market still has significant growth ahead of it and ever improving gear will make the activity more accessible. We see electric vehicle makers marketing to the space as they increase their range and offer 4WD systems. The biggest challenge we see ahead for North American overlanding is land access. In the absence of stewardship and responsible use awareness, the iconic places that people aspire to travel to may have access cut off. During the height of COVID, we saw a lot of careless overuse of public land. It is incumbent upon companies serving the overland market to educate newcomers to their responsibility to treat public land with respect and what that entails.
We agree. Are there any other companies out there that you admire?
Mario Donovan: Absolutely! There are other upfitters whose work and integrity we respect like Technique Vehicle Outfitters in the Pacific Northwest and TAV LLC in New Mexico. Equipt Expedition Outfitters for their excellent products and unparalleled service. AEV for uncompromising quality and engineering. OEV as I mentioned before. Truma for top-of-the-line appliances.
What’s the most worrisome or scariest moment you’ve experienced during your travels?
Mario Donovan: Traveling in Ethiopia in the 70’s was a bit unnerving with a Coup d’état and a revolution in full swing. Lots of road blocks, demonstrations in the streets, gunfire, explosions, assassinations etc. There’s nothing quite like having an assault rifle held to you by a person whose language you don’t understand nor motivation you understand to turn you into an effective diplomat!
Do you have any other hobbies as they relate to the great outdoors?
Mario Donovan: I love to hike and fish when the opportunities arise. I also like to travel by dual sport motorcycle.
This has been great talking to you, Mario. Do you have any final advice or words of wisdom for our readers?
Mario Donovan: Keep a list of all that travels with you. Debrief after every trip to see if the items carried with you were used. If yes, keep it on the list. If not, ask yourself if you didn’t have it and wanted/needed it, would it have been life threatening or merely inconvenient. Could you have done without it or improvised from other resources in your vehicle or around you in the environment. Examples of that would be a first aid kit vs. a telescoping marshmallow roaster. The goal is to reduce your kit to the functional essentials. The lighter your kit, the better you will take care of it and the less that you must haul around. Oh yeah, and get out and have yourself some fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right!