How Can You Afford Time Off for a Thru-hike or Outdoor Adventure?

Words and photos by Steven Shattuck.

It was Spring of 2016. Grace and I were climbing the 2nd flatiron in Boulder, Colorado for the first time with our good friend and fellow thru-hiker, Eli. I was coming off consecutive summers taking sabbaticals to hike the long trails in 2014 & 2015. My then fiancé, Grace, and I had recently gotten engaged. As wescrambled upward to the top of the flatiron, Eli told us of his plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, again. I lamented, as I knew the next year or two would not be a good time for neither Grace nor I to take time off. We had just taken on new jobs after leaving our auditor roles at a Big 4 accounting firm. However, the desire to take an extended time off in the future was still there for me, big time. So I popped the second most impactful question in our relationship.

“How would you feel about taking a summer off?”

Her response was quick.

“Why just a summer?”

Confirmation that I was going to marry the right person.

You’re likely saying to yourself, “Sure, taking a year off is easy to dream about, and say you’ll do it, but how about making it happen?” And you’re exactly right! Taking extended time off to adventure takes a lot of planning, preparation, and execution. Below is the approach that worked well for my wife and me. I believe it is applicable to others, and can help in making your dreams a reality.

To succeed in taking a year off, I needed a calculated approach. The first thing Grace and I did when we got home was fire up the computer, and start looking at the numbers, asking ourselves the following questions:

  1. Roughly how much money would we need to take a full year off?
  2. How much money, in our current situation, can we realistically save each month?

If you’re wanting to do something big, I would suggest a similar approach:

  1. How much money do you anticipate you will need for your dream adventure?
  2. How much money can you realistically save on a monthly basis?

Obviously, not everyone needs to have an entire year for their adventures. You might only need a handful of months to hike the PCT. Maybe you want to take the summer to hike some of the shorter thru-hikes, like the JMT, or the Wonderland Trail. Regardless, keep in mind that you may not find employment immediately upon return, so build that into your budget, too.

Once you’ve answered those two questions above, you can easily back into a timeline for saving the money you’ll need. Once you have a timeline, you can begin planning accordingly. You’ll want to ensure that you will have minimal, if any, financial commitments (ie: Rent, Car Payment, etc.) past that date when you plan to leave your secure day job, and exchange it for days full of adventure.

The first question is a bit arbitrary and depends on a number of factors. Grace and I looked at a world map, and began pointing out areas we knew we wanted to visit, and trails we wanted to hike. We wanted to take advantage of the large amount of time off, and do things we could not do if we had kids, a dog, or a job. Trails that would take more than 2 weeks to hike, overseas adventures, and hard to reach (from the US) landscapes. Mostly hiking, some mountain climbing, and a little city hopping. We knew we wanted to go to Europe, Nepal, and South America. I also had my eye on the Hayduke Trail for several years. We started looking at estimated costs given the above, and came to a number we were comfortable with.

After determining the estimated cost, we looked at our current financial situation. We laid out our combined income and unavoidable expenses each month. We made an aggressive savings plan, but one that was attainable. Striking a balance between being aggressive, but not setting yourself up to fail in your savings goals is key. Your plan should have room for the unexpected built in.

We then opened a joint savings account (Discover offered the best interest rate at the time we were looking) and planned our contributions. Each month, after sharing our expenses, we each contributed our pre-set amount into this account, and enjoyed watching it grow.

However, things do not always go according to plan, and we soon found ourselves dropping monthly subscriptions, going out to eat far less, and choosing our travel more wisely. Rather than lavish vacations, we chose to recreate almost entirely in our home state of Colorado (I know, huge sacrifice). We spent much less on entertainment, choosing the cheaper options wherever we could. And determined we would travel for one week a year to Banff, where we would drive instead of fly/rent a car. In any situation where money was involved, we were conscious of our spending.

One thing we did not cut back on, however, was our contributions to retirement. As an accountant and avid planner, I cringe when I hear peers state that they aren’t contributing to a 401k, Roth IRA, or setting anything aside for retirement. If you are lucky enough to have a retirement savings account, try your best not to cut contributions while saving, as the year off will already negatively impact your savings. And let’s be honest: we all want to retire sooner than later so we can have even more outdoor adventures!

As the months went on, and we got closer to our goal, we got creative and started selling off many of our items. Bikes, furniture, and even Grace’s car. Get thrifty in your downsizing if you can!

With a goal in mind, we found it quite easy to cut back on discretionary spending. We’ll be starting our year off with the Hayduke Trail this spring, followed by a hike across Scotland from Mallaig to Dunottar Castle, with two friends as part of The Great Outdoors Challenge. We’ve got plans to peak bag in the Lofoton Islands, north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. We’ll be there for several weeks when the sun will not set (I’ll be on the tops of mountains at 3am where the sun is high noon)! We’ll spend a few months Trekking in Nepal, and head to South America for the winter (It’ll be their summer). It’s our dream trip, and we’ve both taken great pride in the fact that we worked hard to make it happen. I encourage you to start planning, whether your dream is big or small! Get the wheels in motion. You might struggle with pinching all those pennies, but you won’t remember choosing ramen at home instead of eating out when you’re breathing in the fresh air, and soaking in the midnight sun!