I recently returned from my annual incursion into the wilderness, and my time outdoors was precisely what I needed: challenging, stunning, interesting. Perhaps not what some would think of as the ideal vacation, but perfect for me. In the last few years, I’ve become quite clever at merging work and travel and finding ways to be productive (speaking, writing, brainstorming) whilst looking at some of Mother Nature’s dopest shize—and spending very little money above and beyond normal living expenses in order to do so.
The “perfect” vacation: Winning an epic staredown with a mountain goat. This goat’s beady black eyes pierced Nola’s soul. Luckily I traded my soul for a Nacho Cheese Chalupa way back in college so I escaped unscathed.
Today I’m sharing how I adventure for cheap and—more importantly—why!
But first, know that my goal in detailing how I travel is not to shame anyone for spending money on vacation. I do not conflate what I do for thrills with “traditional” time off from work. If you spend 40+ hours a week slobbin’ the corporate knob (or as a freelancer—really, just workin’ your damn cooter off), you should vacation in whatever way best serves you. Go chill TF out on a beach, have some sexy cabana boi serve you 750ml of dark rum in a freshly-shucked coconut, get some fly beach braids tied up with black light beads, don’t talk to ANYONE but said pool boi for days on end. Also, I’m not here to glamorize extremely frugal travel—some of my methods can be uncomfortable, may feel too unsafe for some, and aren’t realistic for families.
For me, camping began as a compromise. While I now love this mode of travel, it was born out of a place of necessity—if I wanted to freelance and save money and adventure, travel would just have to be, well, grimy. Luckily, that’s fine by me and fits well within my own personal lifestyle “trade-offs” spectrum. And truly, it no longer feels like a sacrifice—I cherish my weird experiences on the road.
Though I believe that every hardworkin’ being should vacation however they want, a lil affordable travel inspo never hurt nobody either! If nothing else, I would love to show you that wonderful experiences can be had for cheap if you’re willing to get creative.
If it’s leisure (pronounced “lehshure”) you’re really after, allow my talented and hilarious cohorts over at Bitches Get Riches to play devil’s advocate and ensure you make no apologies for your relaxing va—or stay!—cation.
Since returning to the Pacific Northwest almost three years ago (OMFG), I’ve had Washington’s smokin’ hot wilderness areas on the brain. I budgeted 11 days for a trip, scored backcountry permits for the Enchantments and North Cascades National Park, assembled a few best buds, and spun out onto the trail like the podcast-blaring, un-bathed wild woman nature intended me to be.
During my ten nights on the road, I slept in my car for four nights, in backcountry campsites for another four, at an AirBNB for one, and at a roadside motel for one. If I was traveling solo, it is unlikely that I would have stayed in any motels or AirBNBs, but it’s easiest for rounding up with friends, and splitting the costs makes it totally DD-friendly!
When I tell folks I sleep in my car, some don’t so much as bat an eye. Others look at me like I just told them I’m giving blow jobs to the Taliban in exchange for Peanut Butter M&Ms. You do whaaat?!! I was first inspired to convert my vehicle into a mobile bedchamber by my favorite nomadic friend, Ryan. He mostly lives out of his car and travels about California when he’s not teaching. Last year, I tracked down a mattress salesman willing to cut me a screamin’ deal on some returned memory foam ($40), which I then sculpted to the dimensions of my backseat using an electric turkey carving knife. Ryan’s #1 pro sleeping-in-your-car tip? Sleep with your head at the rear, and your feet dangling in the center console. Because the mattress is exactly my height—5’8”, I’d be cramped otherwise. Divine!
Do I suggest you sleep in your car? Only if you want to. It’s pretttay tittayz to have a free hotel room anywhere you want, whenever you want. When I tire of driving, I just find somewhere unassuming to park, usually around a sleepy town, lodge some ear plugs as close to my brain as physically allowed by the ear canal, and allow exhaustion to escort me into deep(-ish) slumber. If you ain’t into this (totally fair), find a cheap camping spot. Thanks to all of the State parks, forests, and wilderness areas—not to mention BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and privately owned sites—affordable campsites blanket this country. I’ve had nights where I couldn’t find an agreeable place to park/sleep so pulled into a campsite and ponied up the $10 for the night. I still sleep in my car, but you could just as easily set up a tent and sleeping pad!
La Casa de Doggy! My RavBNB. I guess some would say that this is really my…wheelhouse.
The total cost of my trip was ~$460, or about $40/day for 11 days and 10 nights. This includes gas, permits, camping supplies like maps and cooking gas, motel and AirBNB, food (Haribo gummy bears and corn nuts), bags of wine, dispensary trips, and so on. And I woulda spent a helluva lot less (~$125) if I wasn’t such a sucker for saloons and other small-town drinking establishments. The $460 also includes the $20 Nola and I gave some kids for a hitchhike into town after our Enchantments hike.
A favorite pit-stop from my trip through The Yaak, Montana, last year.
Last year, I did about twenty days on the road and in my car through the Idaho panhandle, Glacier National Park in Montana, Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. If you see me postin’ travel pics from around the American West, you can assume that I’m engaging in this combination of camping/hiking/writing/car-sleeping/plain old fashioned Dumpster Doggin’.
Logistics down, let’s get to the good stuff:
5 Dumpster Dog travel thoughts and ideas for seeing cool shit on da cheap!
1. Appreciate that there’s a lot of beauty in your backyard.
I know we all wanna dig up our neighbor’s yard before we dig up our own, but if we’re struggling to save money, it’s worth considering staying local while we are young and building our careers and incomes. I know, I know, this is coming from someone who’s been SO lucky to travel a ton—but I speak honestly when I say that I’ve had experiences traveling within the U.S. that were equally as special as without.
An example? Almost three years ago—shortly after my return from a year traveling through South America—my family took my brother to the Grand Canyon for his birthday.
‘Twas the fam’s maiden voyage to the ol’ Grandola. (Or as I like to call it, Planet Earth’s finest slit! The Grand Vagina! Mother Nature’s boulder folder!) I stood there, gawking at the vast, stunning, geological masterpiece and processing my year abroad. My first thought? Well FUCK, this shit is WAY cooler than anything I saw traveling for a year in South America. Now, of course, I was being dramatic and superlative for effect (as I often am), but there is some truth to this. The Grand Canyon is unarguably intriguing in a natural and historical sense and there is an opportunity to learn about and support the Native American people whose cultural influences characterize the region.
2. Once you have the gear, travel can be as cheap as permits, food, and gas!
It’s as simple as it sounds. I research where I want to go, apply for permits in March and April if necessary, shove as many groceries into a cooler as possible, and let the rubber meet the road. The learning curve happens quick; you’ll be a pro after doing it twice.
I know it’s harder and more costly with a family and a 9-5, but you can make it work.
Now, there are a few other Dumpster Doggy preparations I take that are kind of silly, such as stockpiling snacks throughout the winter (I have an Andre the Giant-sized bag of free bars from TED Talks, the MS Walk, and events at the brewery I work at). I also hoard all Starbucks gift cards from the year (you know you’ll get at least 3 of those mofos per annum) cuz while I’m not usually tryin’ to go to a Buxxx at home, it’s a universally reliable pit-stop for some legal uppers, warm spinach and feta wraps, and toilets that aren’t holes in the earth.
Point being? Just use whatever you have! Except for some dehydrated meals for overnighters, you don’t need anything special. But of course, there’s getting the gear.
3. With time and patience, you CAN get started for cheap.
With camping, whether it be “car camping” or “backcountry camping,” there is requisite gear to get started, and there’s no way around that. The good news? If you give yourself a year to get all of the essentials together, you can do it for relatively cheap!
I put all of my camping gear together for about $330 total. I don’t want to bore the masses with the details of how I pulled this off, but if you’re interested in hearing about it, please let me know! If so, I’ll do a follow-up post or checklist. Update: Here it is!
If you’re still intimidated by the overhead, I get it. Consider renting from an outfitter in your city, or borrowing! Everyone knows someone that’s all jacked up on camping these days, so ask a friend to loan you a pack or a tent before you make the commitment to buy one. Start a gear circle with your friends; everyone buys an item or two and you either a) go camping together or b) borrow their gear when you go with someone else! Accept that gear gets abused out in the wild, so only do this with people who aren’t gonna be weird when shit breaks.
4. Nature doesn’t need my defending, but I’m gonna anyway.
No one needs a finger wagged in their face about the dangers of the relentless, addictive cycle of inbox-checking and Twitter feeding but here are some good reminders about screen time and health, just in case. Being fully removed from the grid is particularly lovely because you can’t even sneak back to a hotel for a covert glance at the ‘Gram. You are shut off with no choice but to do a sanity intake and enjoy the natural world around you.
Further, there’s lots of evidence that spending time in nature is good for your health in ways that we don’t even fully understand yet. Yes, you get exercise and Vitamin D, but it may also improve cognition, relieve anxiety and depression, and boost empathy. I am wholly intrigued by the Japanese practice and ongoing physiological studies of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. The hypothesis is that slow, purposeful time in nature is powerful preventative medicine to the many maladies of karoshi—death by overwork.
Without fail, I come away from my time in the wilderness feeling significantly more gratitude for my existence on this wacky planet we call home. This sounds as cliché as posting a filtered sunset picture on Instagram (guilty as charged), but it’s true. And in the current political environment, gratitude is something I crave and am certain benefits me in incalculable ways.
Also, ummmmmmmm, it’s fuckin’ awesome. AIIGHT NOW HIT ME WIT DEM INSTAGRAM LIKES, dweebolas!!
5. Backcountry hiking and camping is a unique experience in creativity, bonding, and introspection.
Without Kermit memes and work emails and your cousin’s boyfriend’s offensive Facebook posts to fume over, you’re relegated to spending time with only *gasp* yourself and your loved ones. This is when the best bonding, creativity, and introspection happen!
The time I have spent in the good ol’ out-of-doors has been so meaningful—allowing me the space to explore new ideas and confront my own feelings and behaviors. Last year, on my trip through Montana and Wyoming, I came to terms with starting this blog and even generated excitement for it—previously, self-doubt and unassuredness crippled my decision-making.
Just as important as the introspective time is the bond you create with friends when you’re physically exerting yourself and accomplish something difficult together. I LIVE for the “we’ll laugh about this later” experiences of, say, getting caught in a hailstorm on an open ridge or having to hitchhike an extra 100 miles because you forgot the car keys or a heart-pumping encounter with bothered wildlife.
I treasure the time spent and conversations with friends that might remain buried if not for the desperate need for fresh convo on an 18-mile hike. Nola and I covered just about every instance of sexual harassment and assault that we’ve experienced over the last ten years. Fun conversation? Fuck no, homey, I’m tryin’ to talk about my secret crush on Brian Reed. But was it necessary? Yup. Social media has a weird way of making us feel connected and feel like we’re being heard, but it’s only ever in a superficial way. I want and need down-and-dirty time with my friends, time to focus on them and only them—and that’s what we get when we adventure in the wilderness.
And lest we not forget what is easily one of my favorite aspects of being out on the trail: Meetin’ trail folk! As someone who is naturally too cynical, it’s a precious reminder of how much I have to learn from those around me. Everyone’s got a story—and this trip’s muse is Richard. Richard worked as a city planner for 15 years, saved all of his money, and retired by the age of 40. He’s spent the last 25 years exploring our country’s endless wilderness areas and living out of his Toyota Tacoma; he used the word “perfect” to describe his own life.
Before I go, a few more pics to get you inspired for your next adventure!