I gaze out on the Atacama Desert, the clouds red with the fire of sunset, and I have to pinch myself… how is this real?
This time last year I was making less than $30,000. But with a meager income I still managed to quit my job, fly to South America, and have the year of my life trekking and exploring the Andes.
You don’t need to wait until you are swimming in money to have the most adventurous year of your life. Here are ten things to do so you can live epically on a budget.
1) Plan ahead: Set a goal. Set a date. Keep it specific, as in, “I’ll save $5,000 by September 1st and fly to Turkmenistan on my birthday.” Avoid, “I’ll travel when I have enough money saved up.” Rarely is there a “perfect time” to quit your job and leave it all behind. There are many excuses that could keep you from living your dream. Having a concrete goal helps you keep on track.
2) Live intentionally with your goal in mind: Cut unnecessary expenses like big bar tabs, expensive meals, and shopping sprees. When tempted to buy something extraneous, it can be helpful to think “I could buy this shirt, or have five days in India.” Set the table for your big adventure by living beneath your means and saving.
3) Lighten your load: Sell your car. Have a garage sale. Put the rest of your stuff in storage. The fewer possessions you have, the more mobile you are. It is a pretty great feeling to have your only monthly expense be a $30 storage unit.
4) Breathe deep and congratulate yourself: When you are on the road, make tentative, loose plans. Leave room for serendipity, a traveler and adventurer’s best friend. There’s no way to plan for all the fun surprises you will experience along the way. Often the most memorable experiences are the ones that seem to happen by chance. There is a surefire way to minimize spontaneity and reduce the likelihood of surprise adventures, and that is to plan too much in advance.
5) Use tools that make life easier and cheaper: For example, Couchsurfing.com is a world-wide network of travelers that allows you to stay for free with locals all over the world. This is great for the budget and offers a truly unique and fun way to experience new places (and it is much safer than you might think). Also, join a traveler’s club, such as South America Explorer’s Club. This can be really helpful for finding information on adventures without being sold a tour. It gets you off the gringo trail and networks you with other travelers.
6) Avoid hotels: Regularly staying in hotels is the fastest way to drain your budget. But what’s worse, hotels isolate you. While you might be cozy in that fancy bathrobe, you will be insulated from the best parts of travel — the locals, the culture, the way of life of real people, and other travelers. Many hostels provide comfortable places to sleep, shower, and use Internet, while allowing for genuine interactions with locals and other travelers. Camping in the wild is always great, and really makes your budget go a long way. But camping is a great option in many urban locations as well. Campgrounds are common even in the world’s busiest cities, and many hostels have space for campers, too.
7) Go opposite of tourist season: Prices will be lower. You’ll have more lodging and transportation options, and more negotiating power in the markets. Being in places that are not flooded with tourists makes it easier to experience a place and live like the locals. Plus, locals are usually happy to see you in the low season.
8) Go slow and pace yourself: Long term adventure is a marathon, not a sprint. You do not need to see everything noteworthy. It is okay to skip things. Have lots of down time buffering your treks, climbs, and “wild days.” Cramming in too much is a good way to burn out.
9) Include a cause into your adventure: Sightseeing gets surprisingly monotonous. Include an element of personal meaning. That could be volunteering for an organization or finding the inspiration for that book you have been dreaming about writing. Having a purpose for your time can create a backbone to your adventures and keep you motivated on the days when you miss your own bed and a juicy cheeseburger.
10) Be willing to be uncomfortable: Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Embrace 24-hour bus rides, explosive diarrhea, dirtbag hostels, and sharing your bus seat with a farm animal. It is all part of the fun. Be willing to go into the unknown. That is usually where the best, most memorable stuff is. That is what makes it an adventure.
Eric Hanson is a landscape and adventure photographer, filmmaker and host of Backpacking TV currently trekking the Andes … indefinitely. Follow him on Instagram, ericrhanson