Budget for a Four Month Road Trip

Four years ago I was sitting in my office back at my old job when I made the decision to travel the country. I pulled up a handful of cities on Google Maps to see how long it would take. My list only included 14 cities, so the mileage came out to 7915 (this would be about half of the actual mileage). The driving time added up to 132 hours, or 6 hours a day for 22 days. Then I started to do the real math.

I speculated it would take me 120 days, and guessed I’d spend an average of $30 a night. I don’t know where that number really came from, but it seemed right considering some of my lodging would cost much more, and some of it would be free. I looked up the average price of gas in the country, added a few dimes, and came up with $1400 in gas.

Adding together my speculative figures I came up with a number close to $8,000, which I rounded to an even $10,000 to be safe. This was my goal, and I had three years to do it.

Lodging: $3,164.96

The most I paid for a bed to sleep in was $184.31 for a single night at the Sunset Inn in Provincetown, MA on the end of Cape Cod. I probably could have found much cheaper accommodations, but I hadn’t planned ahead and was feeling especially tired by the time I had to pick a bed. I chose the Sunset Inn because it was the first place I saw with signs for both vacancy and free parking.

The cheapest lodging (excluding all of the fantastic friends, family members, couchsurfing hosts and occasional free camp site) was camping for $8.32 at Chickasaw State Park in Alabama. I was the only one in the park, which was fortunate when a thunderstorm rolled in and I had to move my tent into the pavilion.

Food: $1,512.33

The most expensive single meal I had was split with my sister the night we got back to the top of the Grand Canyon. We had decided ahead of time that we would treat ourselves to the place we had been assured was the fanciest in Grand Canyon Village. It cost us $59 each and was the weirdest dining experience I had the whole trip. For some reason the front of house staff was in a constant panic. When we arrived at 8:13 for an 8:15 reservations, the hostess actually told us to come back in two minutes. Despite the frenzy out front, the restaurant itself wasn’t busy. It looked like a completely ordinary dinner crowd. Our waiter had a strange voice like he didn’t belong to any dialect, and the food was decent but not spectacular. I have no idea what was going on in that place.

Car Maintenance & Gas: $3,711.38

The most I paid for a single tank of gas was $59.40 in Michigan, but that doesn’t say much. I did my best never to get below a quarter tank, and often filled up just after hitting the halfway mark, so it’s likely that I just waited longer to fill up that day in Michigan. I can say that the highest single price per gallon was in the middle of the redwoods in California. I only bought enough to get me out of the area, as it was more than $5.50 a gallon.

The largest single expense was getting my driver’s side window fixed in Kansas City for a whopping $427.92.

Entrance Fees, Audio Tours, Overpriced Internet: $820.72

Biltmore (the Vanderbilt mansion) was the most expensive attraction at $69. The lowest (outside of free) was a $1 donation I made to the Old North Church in Boston.

Gifts and Souvenirs: $123.81

When you have to carry everything you buy, you don’t buy much. There are really only three things in this category:

1) Site-specific gifts for my couchsurfing hosts. I would pick up little candies and soaps along the way that were indicative of the places I had visited, then leave them as thank you presents for hosts later on in the trip. Friends in Oklahoma got dried fruit from Oregon, that sort of thing. Most people got honey sticks from Pike Place Market that I picked up before leaving, which turned out to be the easiest gift to transport, and the most forgiving of high temperatures.

2) Shot glasses. I have a large shot glass collection that I have been curating since I was 11 years old. I tried to be a bit more reserved on this trip, and purchased less than a dozen over the entire four months.

3) Postcards for Rob. Along the way I purchased postcards from the places I visited, then sent them to my boyfriend with messages that confirmed my well-being but suggested impending doom. “HAVE NOT BEEN ATTACKED BY BEARS YET.” “DID NOT FALL OFF A BRIDGE.” And my personal favorite for Roswell, New Mexico: “NOTHING HAPPENED.”

The cheapest postcards were $0.30.

Public Transit: $77.70

San Francisco wins for most money spent on public transport, with Boston a close second. However both are only in the running because their transit systems are so good I barely used my car.

General Supplies: $222.71

This is the category for hiking poles and contact solution, as well as replacements for broken sunglasses, broken cameras, and whatever it was I kept buying at Walgreens.

GRAND TOTAL: $9,633.61

I know my numbers aren’t precise (they don’t align perfectly with the bank statements), but they are within an acceptable margin of error. I won’t bother doing a line by line comparison because ultimately it doesn’t matter if I spent ten extra dollars on gifts or twenty fewer on entrance fees.

I was told I’d spend a third of my money on gas, which was true. I expected the total would be between $8,000 and $10,000, which was also true. My original estimates for food and lodging ended up being switched – I overestimated the cost of food and underestimated the price of a campsite. My original gas estimate was off because it was based on the wrong mileage (once I plugged the correct mileage number in it was almost perfect). I also vastly overestimated the cost of “fun.” Turns out a lot of fun is cheap or free.

To me, staying under ten grand for a four month tour of the entire country is pretty good, though I doubt I’ll be selling any copies of “How to Do America on $79 a Day.” And in the interest of total honesty, there was another $1000 that I spent on reusable supplies like my tent, sleeping bag, backpack, etc. But I’ve already used most of these things again since returning (and will certainly use them more in the future), so it’s hard for me to count such items as trip expenses. That’s a slope that gets slippery fast. I bought shorts right before I left, are those trip shorts or my own shorts? Do I have to count the other pair of shorts I took, even though I’ve owned them for years?

I could have easily spent thousands less than I did. All it would have required was a bit more planning, and few different choices, and an alternative outlook about what kind of trip I was on. I could have couchsurfed more and saved hundreds on lodging. I could have eaten in my car more and saved on diner food. And I could have decided that I’d rather spend an extra day in a national park than a few hours touring a deadman’s indulgent home. I could have driven less and stayed in each location longer. But these aren’t the choices I wanted to make for this trip, and I was willing to spend the money.

I make this point because I don’t want anyone to confuse my budget with THE budget. You can do America on a lot less money, and many have. I spent $10k and could have easily spent half that. Ultimately the money doesn’t matter, as is often the case with money. And don’t forget I would have spent $6,000 over the course of four months back home, just putting in my normal expenses for rent, food, etc. After asking how I managed to take four months off work, people always ask where I got the money. But the cost of travel is what you decide it is. You decide if you need a hotel or a hostel. You decide to eat at world renowned restaurants or street corner hot dog carts.

The only thing that’s difficult is that you have to decide.

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Hiking the Grand Canyon, Part One: Eat All the Things

The following is part of a three part series on Hiking the Grand Canyon.
Part Two: Whose Dumb Idea Was This?
Part Three: Up is Mandatory

Food As Packaged

On the assumption that trail mix sold at the top of the Grand Canyon would be $50 a bag, my sister and I opted to do all our food shopping in Las Vegas. Buying snacks for our hike was one of the strangest grocery experiences I’ve had. We read on the canyon website that we should bring a lot of food, enough to eat 300-500 calories per hour. It also said to bring salty snacks to make up for the salt your body loses in sweat, and junk food items like candy and chips because they will be calorie dense and (emotionally) satisfying. Nikki had been training for a half-marathon and on a fairly strict diet, and I’d been doing my best to keep my junk food in check knowing the lure of the road side convenience store. But there we were, standing in the Fremont Street Walgreens, looking at labels to find the most fattening, high calorie, salty junk foods possible.

There was beef jerky, Oreos, trail mix, peanut butter crackers, Swedish Fish, Chewy bars, Gatorade, and so much more. We also tried to factor in what I already had in my car (raisins, dried fruit, etc.) We had pre-ordered a dinner, breakfast, and to-go lunch from the kitchen at Phantom Ranch (the lodge at the base of the Grand Canyon), but without knowing what would be in the lunch we planned as though we wouldn’t have it. I got out a calculator and Nikki and I got to practice our mental math skills trying to add up the total calorie counts for what we had in our basket. It was plenty. More than plenty.

Food for two DaysBack in our hotel room we grabbed a box of plastic sandwich bags and got to work separating out the food. The goal was to make individual bags that would hold about 400 calories worth of a particular snack. That way it would be easy to compare how many bags you’d finished with how many hours you’d hiked to ensure you were staying within the 300-500 calorie recommendation. Once it was all bagged up, we compared the number of bags with our predictions for how long the hike would take. We had way too much food.

Next came the packing. We opted to get duffle service, which allows you to pack a bag of stuff that you don’t need on the hike itself and have it sent down on one of the daily mule trains. We compared lists we’d made, adding to them as we thought of things. We figured out what could go in the duffle (sleeping bags, tent, Gatorade for the second day, etc), and started to divvy up the rest. We had shared items like a pair of binoculars or a tube of Neosporin. Other things we doubled up on for obvious reasons, like rain jackets and flashlights. For those who enjoy this sort of thing (like me), here’s the lists I made to help us pack:

In the Duffle:

  • tent
  • sleeping bags
  • Day Two food
  • change of underwear/shirt
  • flip-flops
  • books

Nikki’s Pack:

  • water bottles
  • gatorade
  • rain jacket
  • flashlight
  • extra socks
  • ankle wraps
  • stingeaze
  • sunscreen
  • snacks
  • toilet paper
  • water purification tablets
  • Neosporin
  • hand sanitizer
  • signal mirror
  • ibuprofen
  • camping permit
  • map
  • writing pad
  • phone
  • ID/credit car/cash
  • toiletries (extra contacts, glasses, toothbrush, etc)

Katrina’s Pack:

  • ankle wraps
  • water bottles
  • gatorade
  • rain jacket
  • flashlight/batteries
  • extra socks
  • lipbalm
  • phone
  • camera
  • car key
  • ID/credit car/cash
  • journal
  • snacks
  • spray bottle
  • mole skin
  • bandaids
  • gauze
  • binoculars
  • swiss army knife
  • trowel
  • hand sanitizer
  • toiletries (extra contacts, glasses, toothbrush, etc)

Attire:

  • sunglasses
  • hat
  • underwear
  • sports-bra
  • hiking shoes
  • socks
  • long-sleeve button-up
  • tanktop
  • pants
  • bandana
  • trekking poles

Looking back now, our packing was generally good. With the possible exception of buying and bringing too much food, we hit the sweet spot between having enough without carrying too much. Anything we didn’t use was the kind of thing you bring hoping you won’t need it (first aid, signal mirror). A few things stand out as being really handy:

Non-FoodFlip-flops – We had these in the duffle so that when we got to the base we could give our feet a break from the hiking shoes. It was Nikki’s idea, and I’m very glad she thought of it.

Bandana and Long-Sleeve Shirt – Both of these were recommended by the park website. It’s the desert, so even through it’s hot you’re better off covering up your skin to avoid sun exposure (think about how people dress in middle eastern deserts). The added bonus of these two items is that you can easily remove them and soak them with water in a stream or at the water pump. Known officially as evaporative cooling, you’re essentially doing what your body does when it sweats: getting moisture on your skin so the evaporation process can cool you off. It’s so dry in the desert most sweat evaporates instantly, so your body needs a little help.

Trekking Poles – Nikki was worried that trekking poles would be more of a nuisance than an asset, and I was worried about how many we should get if we got them (one each? two? three to alternate between us?) We asked a ranger at the backcountry office who told us without hesitation to rent two poles each. I noticed the benefit within the first two hours down the trail, and Nikki soon agreed. The poles take pressure off your knees and leg muscles, as well as allowing you to stay balanced while using less energy. Easily the best $12 I spent.

So we were ready. We were scared, but we were ready.

Hopefully.

Investments

I’ve been doing a lot of shopping lately. It’s a big deal for me, because I don’t like shopping much and I don’t do it often. Usually I find it hard to justify purchases. “Do I really need this?” “How often am I going to even use it?” “Where will I put it?” These are the thoughts that go through my head.

But it was clear to me that I would need a tent for this trip. And a sleeping bag that didn’t weigh 30 pounds. And so on. The good news for my sanity is that most of the things I’ve purchased so far feel like investments, because this trip won’t be the only time I use them. I’ll be doing a full packing list post at some point, as that sort of thing appeals to people like me, but for now I wanted to give you an idea of what I’ve been blowing all that carefully saved cash on, as well as what I decided against getting for this particular trip.

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INVESTMENTS

Tom Bihn Synapse Backpack, $140 at tombihn.com – This specific bag was highly recommended by Tynan, and the company has popped up several times when I’ve been looking for bags and backpacks. I haven’t had a decent backpack in years, and felt that I would need one on an almost daily basis for this trip. Here’s hoping the bag lives up to it’s reputation.

REI Passage 2 Tent, $160 at REI – My biggest desire in a tent was simplicity. I wanted something that would be quick and easy for me to set up, and take up little space both in the car and at the campsite. In a perfect world I would also get something that could be fully set up without stakes, as tent stakes are at the heart of most of my past camping frustrations. But maybe having a brand new bag of steaks and a proper mallet will solve that.

Matching Tent Footprint, $24 at REI – I considered whether this one was worth it, but Rob wisely pointed out that it’s the kind of thing you’d rather regret spending money on that regret not having when you need it.

Marmot Trestles 30 Sleeping Bag Long, $109 at REI – I think I must have tried out 10 different sleeping bags while I was at REI, and in the end I concluded that I don’t have a lot of opinions about sleeping bags. I’ve never used a mummy style before, so I’m hoping I don’t spend all my time claustrophobically kicking into the sides.

Platypus Softbottle Water Bottle, $8 at REI – This is more of an investment in my Bug Out Bag, but it seemed like it might be helpful on my trip, especially on long hikes.

Gorillapod Camera Tripod, $20 anywhere – I’ve thought about getting one of these since the first time I saw one many years ago. I’m not sure how much I’ll use it in my life after the trip, but I thought it would be helpful if not vital if I ever want to take a picture of myself at some fantastic location.

Rockforge Camp Axe, $19 at Home Depot I’ve only had to set up a campsite by myself once before, when I was volunteering at Mt. Rainer Park for the weekend. One of the perks of volunteering is that I got to stay in a secluded campground meant for volunteers and staff. They said there would be free fire wood, so I didn’t bother to pick some up on the way in. What I didn’t realize was that the free firewood was in gigantic logs. I had no way to break up the logs, and I ended up scrounging around the base of the woodpile looking for scrap bits that I could use to start a fire. I have no intention of ever doing that again. Plus a small axe just seems like a good thing to have around in life. You never know when something will need chopping.

Rubber Mallet, $5 at Home Depot – As previously mentioned, I shall not be defeated by tent stakes. Also this seems generally useful, see above RE: Axe.

Five Gallon Bucket with Lid, $4 at Home Depot – I figure a bucket is a combination kitchen sink and washing machine. I’m sure I’ll find many other uses for it. After all, it’s a bucket.

Canon Powershot, $150 at B&H – I felt like it was time to upgrade my camera, but I wasn’t interested in spending $1000. I did a little research, but quickly determined I’m not enough of a photographer to care about most of the differences I was comparing. The Powershot was recommended by a friend and fit my price point.

Merrell Siren Sport Shoes, $90 at REI – I spent at least 20 minutes putting on different hiking shoes at REI, but I ending up buying the first pair I tried on.

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NOT THIS TIME AROUND

Travel pillow – I was a little worried that a normal pillow would be a bulky nuisance, but considering the price of the travel pillows and the likelihood of ever using it again, I’m going to stick with one of the regular old pillows I have in the apartment.

Camp stove – I lucked out on this one. My folks have a small butane stove that they’re letting me borrow.

InstafireThis stuff seems pretty cool, but so does becoming adept at starting campfires by myself.

Cooler – I already own a small, 9 quart cooler. The plan is to use the cooler more as general food storage and only occasionally bother with ice. It’s not much, and it’s possible I’ll want something bigger as I go. But a bigger cooler is something I am positive I can and will find at stores all across the country this summer, so I’m waiting until I know I need it to upgrade.

American Road Trip Playlist

Some years back my friends and I went to Yakima for a weekend. We had to take multiple cars, and I offered to be one of the drivers. I spent hours crafting a lengthy and diverse playlist and burning it to several CDs. My friend Jon, on the other hand, insisted that his car listen to the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive for two hours straight. Jon claimed that it was the ideal song to play on repeat during a road trip, and believe it or not the reports from his passengers corroborated this. I was thinking I might test it out by listening to the song on repeat while driving the length of an entire state. A small state. Like Rhode Island.

But since I can’t listen to the Gibb brothers nonstop for four months, I need a few more hits on my playlist. Imagine what a waste it would be to take off on such a grand adventure without a soundtrack. Here’s my list so far:

1. 1000 Miles Per Hour by OK Go

If there’s one song that has been on my road trip playlist since the first day I heard it, it’s this.

Something about the chorus just makes me want to abandon all my plans and drive off towards the east.

2. Rock’n Me by the Steve Miller Band

This is one of those classic songs that you might not realize you already know.

3. Route 66

I’m still looking for the best version of the song Route 66, since my travels will take me along the old highway. There’s Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry of course, as well as what always seems to be an oddly ironic cover by the Rolling Stones. I would have sworn Ella Fitzgerald did a famous recording of it, but it’s possible I’m just remembering Natalie Cole.

4. Lost and Found by Katie Herzig

I’m still considering this one. It starts to have that road-trip-freedom vibe near the end, though if you pay too much attention to the lyrics it is about something else entirely.

5. Cruz by Christina Aguilera

For the absolute, straight-forward, “I’m outta here” ballad.

Doin' It for the People

6. Sault Ste Marie by Mick Sterling with Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets

I picked up a live recording of these guys several years ago at at the Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, MT. While I love the whole CD, the song that I want to put one when I’m driving late at night is “Sault Ste Marie.” I credit this song wholly and specifically for why I’m even bothering to go to Sault Saint Marie on this trip. I didn’t know the place existed before this song. I can’t find the live recording anywhere online, but you can listen to a preview of the studio version on iTunes.

7. The One I Love by Greg Laswell

Because every playlist needs something chipper but bitterweet.

8. Down in the Valley by The Head and the Heart

One final song that was added to my list recently also has the benefit of coming with a road trip themed music video. Though I’ve never been a specific fan of The Head and The Heart, it will be nice to know that I’m bringing a little bit of Seattle with me the whole way.