I have been low income for most of my adult life, and for much of the time my finances were well below poverty line, yet in that same time I have climbed nearly the entire Cascade Range (the volcanoes at least),I have climbed Mt. Shuksan and the Grand Teton, I have gone kayaking, whitewater rafting, hiking and skiing, and for the most part I have not spent a ton of money doing it. There are numerous others out there doing the same thing, so it really is possible to experience outdoor adventure without breaking the bank. Let’s take a look at how this is possible:
Gear: Okay, there is no doubt about it, gear is one of the biggest expenses an adventurer is going to encounter, and unfortunately for certain types of activities you really aren’t going to want to skimp on the hardware necessary to keep you safe and secure in the backcountry. Despite that, however, there are ways you can cut costs and save money without putting yourself at risk. First of all, when it comes to gear that your life will be depending on, you must not ever, ever skimp or get used equipment (in my opinion.) Climbing harnesses, ropes, quickdraws, trad gear, PFD’s, and helmets are all examples of equipment I will not buy used. In fact, getting new gear from reputable companies truly is a bargain, when you consider what is at stake, so this is one area that you must be willing to spend a fair amount. Still, you can cut a few small corners by purchasing the gear you need without purchasing fancier options. Basic harnesses, entry-level rock shoes, strap on crampons (as opposed to semi-automatic crampons), no-frills backpacks, water bottles instead of water-bladders (really, is it that hard to take off you pack to get a drink of water?), a compass and map instead of a GPS, nylon rain gear vs Goretex can all make a substantial difference in your budget. The bottom line: when it comes to life preservation, don’t be afraid to spend what you must to keep yourself safe, but for everything else you can certainly do some bargain shopping.
Vehicles: I climbed many mountains without having a car of my own, and getting to the mountains from Western Oregon is often a two to three hour drive, so it wasn’t an easy feat. On a few occasions I was able to borrow a car, but for the vast majority of the time I found someone who
wanted to climb like I did and proposed a climb to them, offered to pay gas, and got the trip together. As long as you are willing to share fuel expenses and driving duties (especially on longer trips), then generally you will not need a vehicle of your own to have adventure. I think the key here is to be willing to ask. I am about to go on a trip to the Grand Canyon with my friend Charles, who basically told me not to worry about fuel expenses since he would have been paying for it anyway had he been going alone. The exchange? I will be the trip filmmaker and also I will lend my experience to higher angle adventures when we leave the canyon and head north to Zion. Just be sure to show how much you appreciate what the other person is doing, whether it is paying for fuel or using their own vehicle. Gratitude is key.
Food: I used to think I had to have fancy freeze-dried dinners and tons of Tiger’s Milk, Clif, and Builder’s bars in order to have a successful and satisfying trip, but
over time I refined my attitude to realize that I could just as easily get by on Mac & Cheese, sandwiches, bulk nuts, dried fruit and whatever else I could find that was inexpensive, nutritious and (hopefully) tasty. One caveat here: Be careful on what you are buying. I purchased some Betty Baker macaroni for my trip to the Grand Teton, and it ended up being a disaster. The day I climbed the Grand, I tried to eat some for dinner, but found that no matter how much I added to the macaroni in order to make it more palatable, I could not choke more than a few bites. It was seriously disgusting, and I vowed that I wouldn’t skimp that much again. After all, I had only saved a very small amount of change, and I ended up going without dinner after a very grueling climb. Having said that, it is still worth it to be frugal when it comes to food. I would rather take a loaf of bread and some PB&J with me rather than a bunch of bars. For the price of one Mountain House freeze-dried meal — around 6 or 7 dollars, you could buy three Mac & Cheese dinners, a week’s worth of Ramen (although this should probably be supplemented with additional ingredients), or the a fore mentioned sandwich-making materials. For day trips, my partner Brook will often make me really amazing sandwiches which taste a thousand times better than any bar out there and provide both more nutrition and calories, both important consideration when climbing. So be creative! You can eat well and still save money. The more home preparation you can do, the more likely you are to save cash. Buy your food in bulk, skip the fancy packaging, and also shop at places like Costco, where huge packages of food are the norm. If you must buy things like bars, buy them by the case instead of individually.
Permits: Hard to get around this one, but there are still ways to save. Out here in Oregon (and Washington) we have to pay for a
Northwest Forest Pass at many trailheads, and if you pay for it at each trail, it is something like$5/day. However, if you purchase a yearly pass, it costs $30, so if it gets used at least seven times or more then you will save money. Use it 30 times in a year and you are only paying $1 each day! The same can be said for National Park passes. Since it costs around $25 for each National Park, and it is $80 for an America the Beautiful pass, using it 4 or more times per year will bring the price down.
Clubs: This could have easily been put under the fuel expenses section, but since there are a multitude of ways that joining climbing/hiking clubs can help you save money, I thought they deserved their own recognition. Not only can climbing clubs help you save a lot of money, they are also great places to meet new climbing partners, gain lots of knowledge and experience and open doorways to many opportunities one might not normally be able to find otherwise. In Oregon there are the Mazamas (The oldest climbing club in the U.S., if I am not mistaken), the Obsidians (whom I did many climbs and training with when I lived in Eugene), the Santiam Alpine Club, plus many others. In fact, there are climbing clubs for virtually every state in the Union, even in places that have few climbing opportunities of their own (for example – the Iowa Mountaineers have a long and storied history doing first ascents and great climbs all over the U.S., despite having no ‘real’ mountains in their own state.) As a resource for training, this is an excellent option for lower-income people who cannot afford private, guided instruction. This is how I learned how to climb. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Obsidians, I don’t know how far I would have gone with my climbing, since there was no way I could afford to go to a private climbing school. Another great option that falls under this category are Search & Rescue groups, who, like clubs, also often offer inexpensive training for climbers, hikers and would-be rescuers.
Keep it regional: If you don’t have a lot of money but want to climb/hike/kayak as often as possible, then try as best as possible to keep your adventures within your home state, or even better, your own county. Of course, for many people, this simply isn’t an option. I am fortunate that I have options for mountaineering, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking, backpacking and even ocean-based recreation all located in my county, but not everyone is so fortunate. Nevertheless, there are almost always outdoor recreational activities in every
single state in the U.S. Sure, there isn’t climbing to be found in Louisiana and Florida, but there are loads of boating, hiking and even caving opportunities in those fine states, so just get creative if you can’t do exactly what you want, outdoor-wise. By doing this, your fuel expenses will be kept low, you can spend more time actually recreating instead of driving, and you will be able to do it on a more regular basis. As I discussed in my post, 3 days of adventure, I was able to rock climb, mountaineer and whitewater raft for three consecutive days earlier this year, and this is not the first time I have been able to pull off such a feat in this area. Investigate what opportunities are within an hour of where you live, and you might be able to have many seasons of epic adventure that might otherwise not be possible if you were travelling further.
Friends: I have gone river running in a kayak around ten times, and not once did I do it using my own boat. My longtime friend Brandon owns multiple inflatable kayaks, and so too does my friend Scott, so anytime I want I can call them up, suggest we go, and it is almost a guarantee that we will get on the water. Often people will be more than willing to take you on a trip if you are a good partner, are willing to listen and learn and take care of their gear. In fact, I have had friends who have offered to not only let me use their boats, but have picked me up and dropped me off as well, just so they would have a partner to kayak with. Again, make certain that you show the proper amount of gratitude, and be willing to re-pay the service by offering manual labor, cooking dinner, or exchanging a particular service you might be able to offer.
Training: Like I said above, climbing clubs and Search & Rescue groups are great resources for training, but beyond that, finding a friend or mentor who is willing to take the time to teach you the techniques and procedures necessary to be a safe outdoors-person can be another great option. This choice does have its inherent risks, however, because unless that person is a certified guide or teacher, you don’t always know if you are getting the proper training, especially if you are a beginner. Do your own research, have an understanding of technique and safety, and you will at least have some idea if what you are being taught is sound advice or not. Remember that when it comes to your own safety, you have every right to question what you are being taught, so don’t be shy about asking questions or even leaving behind a teacher who you feel is endangering you with poor technique or safety.
In the end, having outdoor adventure is going to cost something, but it doesn’t need to break your bank or leave you destitute. By simply being frugal, patient and appreciative, you can still have a lot of adventure in the backcountry without sacrificing safety, comfort or nutrition. Do your homework, network, join clubs, offer services in return for fuel and/or use of equipment, and there is virtually no limit to the types of outdoor recreation you can have. After all, considering the benefits of being in wilder places, climbing, hiking, kayaking and backpacking should not be the sole domain of the affluent.