Dirtbag Economics: The Road Trip Budget

Many of our blog followers and friends have wondered about the finances regarding our most recent road trip. Now that I’m finally settling here in Colorado I decided to crunch the numbers from our road trip and share some of our money saving tips. We hope to post a few other posts in the near future that will provide good beta for any aspiring road trippers.

The whole reasoning of spending money is to gain a quality experience, and we did just that. The three of us spent about 56 days on the road together visiting 8 world-class rock climbing areas and 14 National Parks. Most importantly we had a good time, finished smiling, and finished friends.

Prep Work

To predict the cost of this madness I created a budget before we left, using estimates from Gas Buddy and Harris Teeter (grocery store with online shop). All three of us then contributed money to a new debit card that we set up using a local credit union. This way all of our money was in one place and we were all equally contributing. We dubbed our new credit card “The Green Card” due to its beautiful lime coloring.

Spending Breakdown

In total, we spent approximately $1,170 each (we each saved $133, thanks to our grant from the American Alpine Club!). Here’s a breakdown of per person expenditures per day:

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Food

We spent over $2,100 on food for the summer, well over half of our budget. This included groceries, eating out, and alcohol. To keep things cheap we visited a big box store before we left and purchased large quantities of items we used frequently including dry milk, energy bars, canned chicken & tuna, pasta, etc. We ate cheaply but frequently restocked on vegetables and fruits to ensure our goal of “NO SCURVY 2013.” ¬†We cooked a majority of our meals on our own, which helped keep costs low, but at certain times in the trip it was necessary to “Treat yo self” to a nice meal. We usually only drank when we were actually in towns or cities with good beer…another way to save.

Gas

Keeping the Subaru moving was our 2nd largest expense, costing over $1,200 over the trip. My Outback averaged around 27 miles to the gallon for the trip. We used the Gas Buddy App to find the cheapest gas around. We made sure to load up on gas in states with fewer gas taxes. We also were very lucky this summer that gas prices remained comparatively low and there were no major gas spikes. There were only a few places where we paid more than $4 a gallon, for the most part we paid somewhere in the $3.60-$3.80 range.

Camping

We were easily able to keep our budget low in this category, spending just over $310. A majority of our camping was done at primitive free camping sites. Usually we found existing sites on National Forest Lands right off a gravel road. We also did several nights of back-country camping in National Parks which required small fees. Most National Parks are surrounded by National Forests with free dispersed camping. In cities we stayed with friends and never splurged for a hotel room. When the focus of an area was rock climbing, we would try to stay at campsites located near the climbs which were usually between $5-$10 dollars a night. This category also includes most spent on showers since primitive camping doesn’t keep you clean…we showered anywhere we could find them….community pools, laundromats, outdoor showers at public beaches/hot springs.

Climbing and Other Expenses

Climbing is a cheap activity when you think user fees. In comparison to something like skiing where you have to have a lift ticket, once you have all the gear for climbing, you are usually good to go. We purchased and rented a few guidebooks along the way, but also relied on Mountain Project and local beta from climbing gear shops. Mountain Project has an app for the iPad where you can download all the information for an area and then access that information without using data/WiFi later on. This was very helpful when when were in remote areas with little or no service.

Other expenses included the America the Beautiful pass that allows access to all National Parks for one full year for $80. This was paid off just by visiting the popular parks of Yosemite, Zion, and the Grand Canyon. Plus we can use the pass until next summer at the local Colorado national parks. Excluded were our gear purchases made pre-trip which will hopefully be used again and again in the future for more adventures in Colorado and beyond.

Just Get in The Car!

Don’t let money get in your way, we were able to keep costs pretty low. Compare $23.34 per person per day on the road (about $700 a month) to your “real-world” average day-to-day living costs, and going on the road is a steal! Plus the benefits of the places you see, the people you met, and the time together are worth every swipe of the green card.

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Called to Colorado

Despite an empty Subaru seat and a Sara-sized hole in our lives, Tania and I left Salt Lake City on a mission. Inspired by our visit to the Mormon temple, we prepared for 2 years of…. wait no, a different kind of mission- to go to Colorado and find somewhere to live!

But first, a weekend in Denver to watch all of our friends from NC compete in an Ultimate tournament, the Colorado Cup. We stayed with a wonderful UNC/camp friend of mine, Robin, and made our way to the fields Saturday morning. It was the strangest & best reunion, to see our former teammates from all over the country. We hugged them all: Phoenix from NC, our bestie Wehlitz now playing with San Diego’s Safari, our favorites from Boston’s Brute Squad including Leila (Leila’s guest blog post), Kelly, Bitterman, and Julie. The guys from NC Cash Crop were also there, so Tania and I had an intense social agenda trying to catch up with so many friends. It was a whirlwind, but a great reminder of why we love the sport and community of Ultimate.

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Monday rolled around, triggering our drive an hour North, from Denver to Fort Collins. We decided to attack our housing search by driving to Colorado State University where I’ll be starting my grad school program, then exploring the rental options nearby. After 2 months in the road together, fortunately Sara & Tania also decided they could live in Fort Collins instead of Denver so it can be the launching point to our continued adventures.

Using both Craiglist and an iPhone app, Trulia for rent (thanks Raj!), Tania and I booked 5 viewings in no time. After seeing a few gross undergrad houses and meeting some frightening landlords, we needed some ice cream. Then, we changed our strategy and happened upon the most adorable home by simply driving around the best-looking neighborhoods. Jackpot! After a call to Sara across the pond in France, we moved on this awesome house. We’ll be creatively repurposing a breakfast nook into a 3rd room, but we’re less than a mile from Old Town, the CSU campus, and City Park. Our landlords are the friendliest retired couple who told us all about their grand kids and recommended lots of places to eat, drink, and hike.

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With our mission complete, Tania and I ran away to the woods for 2 days to climb before continuing on our adventure. Next up- getting on a plane to fly to Chicago!

Farewell French Toast

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After the epic hike of Mt. Timpanogos and a great home-cooked dinner in Park City with two of Sara’s friends, the farewell festivities commenced. Everyone know the best way to cope with one of your best friends flying to France is to eat lots of food and reminisce constantly. So, we ate breakfast at Salt Lake City’s delicious Park Cafe. Full of the most perfect french toast and egg-topped, kicked-up hash browns, we recuperated from hiking for 11 hours.

Since we were in Salt Lake and couldn’t muster the energy to go climbing, we opted to tour the Mormon temple grounds and the 4 related museums. Sufficiently educated, we made our way to our farewell dinner at the Red Iguana. Appearing to be an average Mexican restaurant, Tania ordered a cucumber margarita which was incredible, and I had the most delicious Enchiladas covered in a mango mole sauce. If you go to SLC, you have to try this place.

Another way to cope with a friend leaving is to stay up very late, pretending that the next morning will never arrive. Somehow, this plan is a bit flawed and the morning/plane flight tends to roll around before you’re ready. Nonetheless, we ditched Sara at the airport and sped away before we could get too emotional about leaving our extrovert behind.

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Mount Timp: “our biggest and least prepared trek.”

One of Tania’s major goals was to hike to the top of Mt Timpanogos just south of Salt Lake City. She had tried it a few years ago but was stopped by ice on the trail. For this trek we would be joined by Candy, Tania’s good friend who hikes the mountain every year. Candy first suggested that we hike the harder and steeper trail.

We’ve hiked half-dome, climbed mountains, forded rivers, etc. so we didn’t heed her advice to not to go on the 4 mile run the night before. Then another local friend told us that our planned 7am start time would be too late, storms and the afternoon sun could make us miserable. He suggested starting the trail at 3am. This meant leaving the house at 1:30 am and it was already 10pm. Tania and I decided to forego sleep and just stayed up watching more of the OC, while Janna took a nap.

We did managed to start around 3am, except on the wrong trail. A slight error that cost us 2 hrs and some of our energy. We started moving in the right direction, up, and continued to do so for several more hours. My pace slowed to a trudge and I wondered if I could fall asleep while hiking with the black night sky and only a headlamp guiding my way. At some point on this trip we’ve all taken a ride or two on the struggle bus and today I would be a passenger. It was hard to be upset though when we watched the sunrise over the mountains.

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At some point we thought we were getting close and our trusty guide, Candy, let us know that we couldn’t even see the summit yet and that we still were not even halfway. Candy said later that all of our faces dropped and she could visually see our spirits deflating. Tania and Janna trucked ahead while me and Candy slowly made our way higher. I convinced myself that would at least see the summit and then decide from there.

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Of course once I got to a pretty view, was reunited with Janna and Tania, and the summit looked like it was in reach I tapped into a new chakra and made it to the top with my buds at 11,752 ft. Tania was so excited about completing her bucket list hike that she napped supine on the highest rock.

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Unfortunately what comes up must go down and we begrudgingly made our way back down. Fatigued in so many ways, but we had done it, taking 11 hours. We’ve never deserved Taco Bell more! It was nice to save one of the most epic adventures for last on this trip.

Cobble Wrestlin’ in Maple Canyon

The drive from Capitol Reef to Salt Lake City took us through some very small Utah towns. Although we had only found a few cemeteries thus far in the trip for our favorite car game, the cow game, on this drive we (mostly Tania) found several cemeteries and cleared all of our scores to zero at some point. Tania went on to win the Cow game of the entire road trip with 13 points, just like she prophesied earlier in the trip. She laid low till the end of the trip and was the best at finding cemeteries. Way to be so patient for several weeks treitz!

The photo below, taken by Anna Thorn, represents our debut into Salt Lake City.

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After sleeping indoors for one night we were all anxious to get back into the wilderness, so the very next day we packed up and headed to Maple Canyon for some rock climbing. The climbing in Maple Canyon is by far the most bizarre I’ve seen. The rock is conglomerate, which means that somehow a bunch of pebbles and cobblestones were fused together vertically. It made for some really interesting climbing. The weather was wonderful and we all were able to get in several classic sends. It was a fun experience where we witnessed just how far we all have come in our climbing skills over the course of the trip. It made us all feel really excited about our future climbing adventures we can have together in Colorado.

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Anna joined us for the trip and provided us with great company and more climbing psych. Anna has admitted that when she is 25 years old she wants to being living out of her car just like us…dreams are important. At dinner that night Anna asked us some great questions about our trip that sparked a wonderful discussion expressing what the past several weeks had meant to all of us. All three of us admitted that there was little that we would change about our trip if we had the magical powers to do it over again.

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Back in Salt Lake we took a low key day by appearing on Anna’s radio show, watching the OC, and eating lots of food.

Space is the Place

Continuing our way through the beautiful national parks of Utah brought us to Bryce Canyon. Bryce is actually not a canyon, but instead has an ampetheatre of colorful and unique sandstone formations, hoodoos. We ate a dinner near the rim, including our most decadent desert thus far… No bake cheesecake with strawberries and Nutella!

Thanks to its isolation, Bryce Canyon has some of the best views of the night sky. We attended a ranger program that taught us all about stars, solar flares, black holes, and gamma death rays. After this we were able to view Saturn through the parks giant telescopes.

The next day we went for a 6 mile hike down through the amp. This hike allowed us to walk underneath and through the bizarre features of Bryce.

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Thanks to a solid tip from the park ranger we changed our route to Salt Lake City to drive down the scenic highway 12 and visit Capitol Reef National Park. Somehow all of these parks that feature dessert sandstone and water manage to each have something different to offer. Capitol Reef provided us with one of our favorite scenic drives into a canyon and a beautiful sunset.

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Capitol Reef also is full of human history. Ancient Fremont tribes left behind Petroglyphs on the sandstone cliffs and Mormon settlers left behind homesteads and fruit orchards.

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We were just two days late from being able to pick fresh peaches from the trees, a huge bummer since the Ranger at Bryce had sold us on Capitol Reef based on the promise of fruit picking. Luckily the park sells fresh baked fruit pies and these were able to satisfy our fruit cravings (no scurvy 2013). From here we watched our last park movie and headed on our way to Salt Lake.

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The Monkey Wrench Gang

There’s a collection of 5 National parks in Utah and Arizona that are all within 3 hour drives. Naturally, we decided to visit them all. After leaving Zion in the afternoon we drove to find a free campsite near the north rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s tough to find roads when your map is drawn incorrectly, but a friendly employee at the Kaibab lodge directed us to a spot with a view of the Grand Canyon’s east rim. We promptly followed the advice, set up camp with an unreal view, and hopped back in the car to watch the sunset on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

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The next morning was scheduled to start at 5:10am. This isn’t my favorite time of day, but watching a Grand Canyon sunset was on our tick list of great things to experience. 5:10am rolls around, signaled by faint beeping of Tania’s watch. I groggily open my eyes, observe that it’s still pitch black outside and ignore the wake-up call.

10 minutes later, I hear the tent zip and Tania once again tries to wake the sleeping Janna and Sara. Finally, we give in and crawl out of our very cozy sleeping bags to be bombarded by freezing cold air. Okay, so maybe it was 45 degrees but we put on full pants and puffy warm jackets, even pulling out gloves and beanies to sit and wait for the sun to rise. We huddled for warmth and took pictures that couldn’t do justice to the scenery around us.

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At some point, we realized Arizona was on a different time zone and we actually woke up at 4:10. No worries though, we snuggled back into our tents and slept for 3.5 more hours. Thank goodness we set our own schedule!

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Our real wake-up was a mini workout led by Tania at our campsite, followed by a 5k run back at the north rim within Grand Canyon National Park. We were awestruck by free icemakers at the park, filling our cooler and Nalgenes upon this momentous discovery. We then took some timed 6 minute coin showers while we did our laundry and ate lunch. After a quick scenic drive to see the Colorado River and another perspective of the Grand Canyon, we cruised out of the park headed north toward Lake Powell to camp for the night.

Lake Powell is a really, really big lake created by damming the Colorado River with the feat that is Glen Canyon dam. They have a great visitor’s center and very helpful rangers- and an added bonus of 3 educational movies! The problem was that we really needed ice cream, so we restrained ourselves to one film, then rolled into Page, AZ to satisfy our craving at 10:30am. (Once again, a Utah/Arizona time snafu thinking it was 11:30.) Fully sated from our snack, we then checked out Horseshoe Bend with the whole country of France…or so it seemed.

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Next, we joined the flock of French tourists for a relaxing afternoon on the shore of Lake Powell at a spot called Lone Rock. Now, you can’t stick a giant rock in the middle of a lake and expect that I don’t see it as a challenge. So, Sara and I inflated our colorful tubes and confidently set out. 40 minutes later, success! But, you also can’t stick a giant rock in the middle of water and expect climbers to just look at it. So, Sara and I had to swim around it testing every possible hand and foothold in our efforts to climb it. About 90 minutes of treading water, pulling chunks of sand from the giant sandstone rock, and a few blisters later, we decided to end our deep water bouldering session. Boaters were amazed by our daunting trek, but we safely made it back to the shore to reunite with a happily sunbathing Tania.

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Some other highlights from our time around Glen Canyon include stargazing on the hood of the Subaru while eating pudding, hiking to see the “toadstools” in the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument, and opting to forego an overpriced Antelope Canyon trip to instead watch the other two movies at the visitor’s center. We left Glen Canyon Dam feeling quite knowledgable and energized to continue on our next adventure!