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If you've been paddling for a while, or even if you haven't, it would be hard to notice that while the east coast ain't a bad place at all to live, work and paddle day in and day out, there's no better vacation destination for kayaking in the world than the Western United States. To not get too sidetracked on this truth, which is easy to do, suffice it to say that if you want to really take a trip to just paddle the highest quality whitewater on earth, in the most dramatic of settings, with some of the most straightforward logistics and lowest dealing factor, the West Coast is simply unrivaled.
For a good many paddlers though, it seems too complicated and/or expensive to make the long trip west given the short window that most employers expect their subjects to work within. How can you fly across the country with a kayak, procure a car capable of carrying your stuff, have shuttle for every river sorted out, with consideration that you also aren't earning any money while out there, and not end up spending thousands of dollars? Most career professionals will find it difficult to break away from work for longer than a week or two at the most, which precludes driving 40 hours to the West Coast. With this consideration, many other paddlers simply don't have the budget for a trip like this.
After lots of trips west, I've adapted fairly well to a self-imposed challenge of seeing how low I can get the cost per day of a trip. Through this thrifty, but necessary approach, I've developed some creative ways of spending as little as possible so I can do as many trips like this as I can.
STEP 1: airline credit card
Of the last 12-15 flights or so that I've taken with a boat, I've only paid for one. This is because I use credit cards that give huge sign-up bonuses, usually worth at least a flight, if not TWO round-trip flights. Because they officially take kayaks on the plane, and fly to most of my favorite destinations, Southwest Airlines is the way to go. You'll still have to pay $75 each way for your boat, but you'll ride for free. It takes a few months to earn the points, and a few more to get them posted to your account, so you need to start this process at least 8 months before a trip. And if you have credit issues or lack the ability/means to play by the rules, this won't work for you. Still, if you're in the position to do this, it's a great way to essentially fly for free.
Other cards like Chase Sapphire or BarclayCard allow you to use your points on other purchases like rental cars or hotels. The more creative you get, the larger portion of your trip these card programs can end up subsidizing.
Step 2: minivan
Now there are some cases where you'll need a stouter rig, but I find these instances rarely preferential to a cheaper, more fuel efficient rental like a minivan. Most mini's actually have fairly good clearance. As long as you don't bust the oil pan, who's looking under the car when you turn it in anyways ;-)
The biggest sell on the minivan is that you can sleep two people in it with a level of comfort you're not going to find in any other vehicle. Modern stow seating allows for you to fold all the seats down, enabling a cargo-by-day, bed-by-night configuration that is pretty comfy. And the fact that you are IN the van sleeping unlocks a freedom-to-poach style range of camping locations you'll never get when you have to pitch a tent. From parking lots to logging roads, you can pitch it anywhere you park it.
You can also put boats IN the van, greatly simplifying transport if there's just two of you. However, I've found that once you get squared away, having the boats up top allows you to maintain your sleeping quarters during the trip so you don't have to constantly re-build the nighttime set-up. Which brings us to step 3:
step 3: rack system
I've brought kayaks on/in a variety of rental cars, from trucks, cars, SUV's and Minivans. My recommendation is to reserve an SUV or Minivan. These almost always come with rails, and sometimes racks. Rails are the long bars that parallel the roof on either side. As long as the car has rails, you're gold! The last thing you want to do is pay $18/day for them to have "racks" on the car. And remember, they're only going to be factory racks, which are sketchily inadequate for the weight of several boats, and also develop a scary bounce and sway when used. No, you want the rails, and you can attach racks of your own design to the top, by way of around $10-15 spent at a hardware store.
All you have to do is drop by your local Home Depot or mom 'n' pop hardware store, and get a 10 foot long 2x4. Have them cut it in half. Then while you're there buy 100 feet of paracord, which is cheap, compact, but strong enough to hold the 2x4's on the rails.
Then comes the part your inner boy scout has been waiting for -
I learned this trick from the Ace Kayaking School man and Eagle Scout himself, Joe Gudger, and it only took a few tries to dial in my technique. Yes, becoming a dirtbag also means you get to learn some new skills!
Furthermore, this really begs the question of why we need to spend $400-$700 for a rack system on our personal vehicles to carry boats around. Replace the lashings with U-bolts and you've circumvented the rack industry. Just think, saving $600 on a rack install frees up your hard-earned cash for other more enjoyable expenditures, like taking an extra trip out west to paddle! Spend less, experience more.
step 4: shuttle
Of course don't forget that you're going to need a way to run shuttle. Sometimes knowing someone who is local to your destination can be invaluable, or other times it's easy enough to hook up with other paddlers. However in general, it's hard to hook up with random trips out west. And of course it's quite an expense to rent two cars instead of one, just for shuttle. Some areas like the Sierra Nevada, almost mandate a second car, but the Northern California Coast Range, the Pacific Northwest, and much of the Rockies, have pretty simple shuttles that are often roadside or close to it. In these instances, you really just need a bicycle.
Simple enough, right? Just go to walmart, pick out a $100 or less bicycle and load up. Not so fast! I would avoid buying a cheap walmart bike like the plague. The one time I tried this route, I burned through 5 bicycles just riding through the toy aisle, with none of them lasting more than a few seconds before something dreadful happened in the drivetrain, or I noticed a flaw that was a dealbreaker. You're actually a lot better off going to either an antique shop or a pawn shop. Just ask a local where to go.
I've had luck buying used bikes several times now. In Redding, CA this summer, I picked up a sweet older bicycle that had 5 gears and a comfortable ride, for $40. That bike got us 5 shuttles, which is a pretty cheap rate per day. And even in the middle of nowhere in Walden, CO later this summer, I picked up a nice 21 speed for $60. After noticing a few nuts were loose, I got the guy at the outdoor flea market to throw in a crescent wrench to sweeten the deal. I won't get into those RPM's he was selling for $100, or the like-new Werner Player I snatched for another $20!
At the end of your trip, give your bike as a gift to someone who's helped you out on your journey, or as a random act of kindness for a perfect stranger. It's a fun way to say goodbye to your trusty shuttle steed.
So that does it for some tips on running a cheap West Coast trip. For reference, Laura and I spent 10 days in California this past June. We flew free, had a free rental minivan, and other than around $250 in gas, and $150 each roundtrip to get our boats out there, we didn't really spend much money. AND, I got to ride a rather classy bicycle on California's highways. Next time I'll find a good pennyfarthing! If you're gonna do it, you might as well do it right.
Immersion Research's Devil's Club Drysuit
Finally, I'd like to give a shout out to Immersion Research, for making the best drysuit I've ever owned. This season I crawled through the jungle in Mexico, explored the dark gorges of the Northwest, pushed through epic off-trail hike-ins to desert slot canyons, braved the frigid snowmelt of the Colorado Rockies, paddled subzero days in the Mid-atlantic and at home in the Southern Appalachians, and survived rainy overnighters in California/Oregon Coast Range thanks to this most important of river-garments. The Devil's Club drysuit, a new, incredibly durable and robust design by IR, not only kept me warm, dry, and comfortable on all these adventures, but promises to do so for some time to come, thanks to the tough build. Despite it's utilitarian appeal, comfort was not lost on IR during the development of the suit. It's a pleasure to wear, and I'm digging the new style as well. If I could think of a way to make it better, I'd bring it up, but I'm at a loss. Thanks to IR for making such quality gear and standing behind it. It's hard to find passionate folks who are as dedicated to supporting paddlers as IR, and their expertise in producing top-quality gear is unmatched.