A year exploring
May 2, 2010 9:42 PM   Subscribe

I want to spend a year or two of my life going across the United States on foot or on bike, and don't know where to start or how to finance such a trip.

For a while now I've wanted to spend an extended period of time exploring and traveling, both in cities and in the countryside, and I've decided that the sooner, the better. However, I'm still a student right now, and I've never been employed. I have a parent paying most of the bills, so I'm not going to graduate in debt, but I also only have about $1300 in my name, all as a result of $1900 in scholarships which I've been spending gradually.

I don't want to go on this trip unprepared, and I don't want to go without an ability to make it either self-sustaining or operating solely off earned money. Making this trip on a parents' dime would be entirely counter to its goals.

So, I have a few questions, but hopefully other MeFites know more about this than I do and know the answers to the questions I don't know to ask...

- What should I have and/or pack? I'm pretty sure a netbook and a camera are necessities, but what should I have in terms of food? Clothing? Should I carry a cell phone? CD player? [I haven't made the switch to mp3 players yet.] What should I pack these all in so that I can carry them?

- How can I finance this sort of expedition? I have a decent collection of Magic: the Gathering cards which I've made some money by selling off, but I don't want to be completely without a collection, either; plus, that can only get me so much. Would freelance photography be practical? Blogging? Could I make any money by writing about it?

- What sort of accommodations should I expect? Would CouchSurfing be a reasonable way to find place to stay, or should I expect to sleep in motels? How much would I expect to pay for sleeping in motels/hotels?

- How much should I expect to pay for food? How should I obtain food, and what food should I get?

- What method of locomotion should I use? I'm not particularly experienced with bikes, but I have one, and they're definitely faster than walking. On the other hand, having a bike would force me to use it the entire time, and that's not always conducive to exploring strange cities or uneven locales. Walking is easier, but slower. Driving is straight out - too expensive, and not at all the type of travel I want to do. Plus I don't have a car.
posted by LSK to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Let me be the first person to suggest you switch to an MP3 player. They come real cheap now - you can get a 2 GB player for as little as $40 and fill it up with new music every day. Your CD player will skip. A lot.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:43 PM on May 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, that's a pretty broad question. I recommend reading A Walk Across America, a memoir of a Christian dude who, well, walked across America.

Other than that, get an np3 player and some good boots. And a map.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:49 PM on May 2, 2010

This is a very big question. Having done a 2-month bike tour in the U.S. I guess I am narrowly qualified to offer a little bit of advice...

Bike touring and hiking are great ways to see a country, but they are slow and can be expensive. You will need a lot of food, and you will often have to pay for camping or hotels (unless you stealth-camp), and you will spend most of your time on the move. Many state parks have discounted hiker/biker campsites for under $5. Even with a very minimal $10 a day food budget, minimum expenses are $15/day * 30 = $450/month = $5400/yr. I'd expect a more realistic budget is two or three times that, especially if you want to do things in cities.

You'd have a hard time trying to make a living while travelling like this. Even blogging is quite a challenge on the road, where you're often away from electricity (let alone wifi), and you're too exhausted to write. And unless you are already a professional writer I have a tough time imagining anyone paying for your dispatches.

I think a better option for you might be to pick two or three cities, sublet an apartment, and try to get part-time work at a cafe or hostel for a few months at a time. This is the "working-holiday" type trip which is popular with Australians here in Canada, perhaps because the cost of airfare makes a shorter trip not worth it. Depending on your origin there might be a visa class that suits you. You can travel between cities by bus or train or plane quite inexpensively. While you're in a city you'll have lots of time to explore and get to know it, and you can make friends and meet people.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:18 PM on May 2, 2010

By the way the standard way touring expeditions are financed is through a few years of hard work and saving up at home. If this isn't an option then a working holiday is really the only viable way that I can see.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:20 PM on May 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm getting the impression that you think walking across the country will be much easier than it really is.
posted by reductiondesign at 10:23 PM on May 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

If you're thinking bike, get over to crazyguyonabike and start reading as many journals as possible to see what kinds of set ups people used, how they ate, where they slept, and the whole bit. Lots of journals have gear lists, some have budgets, all talk about sleeping and eating.

This journal is highly entertaining and informative, and I found it helpful as I planned my first cross-country trip. He was a college student doing things on the cheap, so that should help you with a lot of your questions. If you want to go the walking route instead, there's American Discovery Trail. Even if you don't do the trail, that site and the Trail Journals site can get you started. But take special note of how difficult either form of journey is. I'd say that the cycling is much easier than the walking in a lot of ways because the bike carries the weight of your gear and because it's easier to be in places where you don't have to carry more than a day's worth of food. Have you ever backpacked? I don't know any backpackers who carry laptops. Camped? If not, you need to try some shorter trips to get a feel for what to expect on a longer one and figure out your gear.

It sounds like you need to do a lot, a lot more online research to get a better sense of what you want to do and how as you sound really underprepared so far. I used libraries for internet access and didn't take a computer. Didn't do an mp3 player either--just a tiny radio and that mostly for weather updates. And the best way to get money, as usual, is to get a job and earn the money before you go. I worked at a nursing home for a year in addition to going to school full time and working at another job to get money for a trip. No one is going to pay to read a blog about your trip since there are so many out there for free. From my experience, 3 months on the road (about 4500 miles) was enough to learn a lot and see a lot and do a lot and much, much easier to finance than an entire year, so you might want to consider a shorter trip if $$ is tight.
posted by BlooPen at 10:39 PM on May 2, 2010

Oh, and crazyguy seems to be increasingly populated by crabby old dudes (especially on the forums), so look for the journals of younger people going on the cheap since that's the style you'd be doing.
posted by BlooPen at 10:42 PM on May 2, 2010

LSK: "- How much should I expect to pay for food? How should I obtain food, and what food should I get?"

Keep in mind that you'll probably find yourself eating much more if you're pedalling a bicycle (or walking) all day. Here's a sample menu from the Phonak team during the 2006 Tour de France.
posted by d. z. wang at 11:34 PM on May 2, 2010

One of the more epic rides (on cgoab) is Pete Gostelow's A Long Ride Home, which was what he decided to do instead of flying back to the UK from a stay in Japan. Currently, Pete is doing the Big Africa Cycle. Not to discourage you, he's currently in Dakar recovering from a machete attack during an apparent robbery which severed tendons in his wrist. He's determined to finish, though. His approach is about as serious and professional as I've seen, but he's still doing this all on a minimal budget. Part of his technique is similar to couchsurfing -- arranging host accomodation in advance.

A related blog post: How to Finance Long-Term Travel.

Another guy who knows how to travel on a shoestring is [Where the Hell is] Matt Harding, although he later found a sponsor in Stride gum.
posted by dhartung at 12:15 AM on May 3, 2010

Whether or not you decide to go on foot, I'd suggest you check out Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking -- a fantastic read.
posted by trip and a half at 1:49 AM on May 3, 2010

While I appreciate the idea of such a trip, I think you're biting off way too much at once. I don't mean to suggest that it's impossible to do such a trip (on the contrary, I'm sure it's quite possible), but you have so little travel experience that your conception of how it might go is very simplistic.

Take a week or two and attempt a mini-version of this trip, and you'll get some idea of what you're really facing. You'll realize, for example, that you have to physically carry everything that you have with you, for long distances. Anything that you can do without, you will prefer to do without. Any time you have a choice between something heavy and large (a CD player) and something small and light (an MP3 player), the right choice will become perfectly clear to you. Anything that costs money, you'll do in the cheapest way possible. You'll learn that electronics of any sort are challenging companions because they require either batteries or charging adapters (not to mention electrical outlets) and are generally vulnerable to moisture. Keeping your stuff dry in a sudden rainstorm will be hard. You'll get wet and dirty and smell quite often, and getting clean and dry again will be time-consuming and difficult.

You'll also learn something about the social aspects of such travel. In some places, strangers will be friendly and helpful, treating you as a fascinating visitor. In others, especially in areas of higher population density, you'll be avoided as a potential threat or burden. Either way, you will depend on the people you meet, for information or food or employment or a place to pitch a tent. It's not like surfing the net, where you can instantly skip out of one social network to another that's more your style; you will have to relate productively with the people you are physically near you, wherever you are. This will sometimes be uncomfortable.

Read a couple of relevant books, then take a brief trip to try out whatever you think you know. Expect it to be both more and less fun than you will have imagined.
posted by jon1270 at 4:38 AM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I suggest picking up some work skills. Be able to wash dishes, bus tables, wait tables and bartend. These skills are useful around the world. Carpentry and the building trades are also good employers of casual labor. If you have a college degree, you can teach english anywhere. Always be willing to work if you can. Especially when you are on the road.

I still practice my work hustling skills. I ask the cashier, the barrista, the bartender, the balloon vendor, the ice cream man. I go around to the back of the restaurant and talk to the guys on their breaks.

I do think this is an important thing you want to do. The walkabout teaches you so much about the world I won't even begin.

Bring half of what you think you need and twice as much money.

Oh, and $1300 is so much money that I think I'd spend half on a plane ticket and use the other half as my traveling money and GIT.


God Luck
posted by mearls at 5:43 AM on May 3, 2010

Have you thought about trying to find sponsorships? Or better yet, finding a charity or cause that you support, and using your trip to raise money and awareness for that cause?

Also, seconding the suggestion to try a mini-trip first. A heavy pack really will wear on you pretty quickly. If I had to do this myself, I probably wouldn't even take the netbook.
posted by goateebird at 5:44 AM on May 3, 2010

A netbook is definitely not a necessity, especially if you don't already own one and you're planning on financing this trip with the $1300 you have to your name. To echo others, I'm not sure you've thought this thing through, and I'm confident that it'll be a lot harder than you're imagining.

The advice to go on a shorter, exploratory/research kind of trip, maybe with another person, is excellent. And as others have noted, this kind of trip, like any big project, will probably be more expensive than you're estimating, and the usual way to finance these trips is to save up for a while. Not to sound like somebody's dad, but I think you should consider getting a job.
posted by box at 5:46 AM on May 3, 2010

Forget about something like an MP3 player, don't worry about taking food except maybe some power bars for emergency use and take enough clothes to fit in a small, small pack. An extra pair of jeans and shirt are about it. Don't take money or any valuables and get used to living on the cheap and making friends on the road to help take care of your needs. Take a phone card and credit card to use for emergencies and have a few people you can trust to wire you money you'll need along the road. You can wire money to yourself at points along the road so it will be there when you need it.

It also doesn't hurt to get friends either here or some other website you trust so that you have contacts across the country to stop and visit. I've heard about people on sites like SA who travelled the country and crashed at other users places. You can also finance the trip along the way by finding temp jobs. Getting around by catching rides from people you meet or by hitch-hiking can work. It takes some trust and wariness on your part but is an effective way to get around the states.
posted by JJ86 at 5:54 AM on May 3, 2010

How about hiking the AT? Check out Iron Toothpick to get the bug.
posted by bunny hugger at 6:47 AM on May 3, 2010

Please don't spend time looking for sponsors. Spend that time working for pay. The sponsorship thing for this is so overdone as to be distasteful for a lot of people in the cycling and hiking communities. Why should someone else pay for your vacation? This thread over at crazyguy has some advice on that along with some other shoestring budget advice and ideas for making money. The charity thing isn't much better unless you give 100% of proceeds to the charity. Again, if I really wanted to donate to that charity, why wouldn't I give the whole amount of my donation to them rather than give it to you and let you take a cut?
posted by BlooPen at 8:11 AM on May 3, 2010

Fat Man Walking can give you a start to finish look at someone who walked across the country, the problems he encountered, and the ways in which he wasn't prepared at the start.
posted by MsMolly at 8:52 AM on May 3, 2010

My brother walked from NY to California. He worked odd jobs and for the federal parks. He camped out and carried everything he needed in backpack. He is mentally ill and was able to do this in about 1.5 years. I think if he was not mentally ill it would have been a lot harder and he would have quit.

I suggest you start with short walks, like 10 or 15 miles. This will let you know if you really want to do this and what you need.
posted by fifilaru at 3:11 PM on May 3, 2010

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