The Sophisticated Dirtbag: Flying West to Kayak on a Budget - brought to you by Immersion Research

brought to you by IMMERSION RESEARCH

 The American Dream with a twist, swap the Leather and Harleys for Goose Down and a Minivan

The American Dream with a twist, swap the Leather and Harleys for Goose Down and a Minivan

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

 Free tour of Crater Lake, courtesy of Southwest 

Free tour of Crater Lake, courtesy of Southwest 

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

 The Nissan Inn & Suites offers a free night's stay for every day of your rental.

The Nissan Inn & Suites offers a free night's stay for every day of your rental.

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

 2x4 + paracord + adding a new skill to your portfolio = big savings on "rack rental"

2x4 + paracord + adding a new skill to your portfolio = big savings on "rack rental"

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 -

Lashing and Frapping!

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

 Lil' Red - I miss this sweet little bike.

Lil' Red - I miss this sweet little bike.

 The "Purpletrator" as we called it, was not without flaws, but it got me through some big Wyoming shuttles.

The "Purpletrator" as we called it, was not without flaws, but it got me through some big Wyoming shuttles.

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.

 Uh yeah, look at those handlebars.  I could seriously kill it at the local farmer's market with this thing.  Don't hurt your eyes.

Uh yeah, look at those handlebars.  I could seriously kill it at the local farmer's market with this thing.  Don't hurt your eyes.

 

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.

 Loving the Devils Club Drysuit.  I was a lot dryer than Laura on our multi-day trip down the Illinois River in Oregon.  She's up next for an upgrade!

Loving the Devils Club Drysuit.  I was a lot dryer than Laura on our multi-day trip down the Illinois River in Oregon.  She's up next for an upgrade!

The Sophisticated Dirtbag Defined

recognizing dirtbaggery as the philosophy it is; one based on the process of self-realization, personal adaptation, optimization, and ultimate freedom

 Ben sprinkled a little dirt on the roof to play by the rules.  Extra point for the pillow.

Ben sprinkled a little dirt on the roof to play by the rules.  Extra point for the pillow.

What does it mean to be a dirtbag?  Certainly one of the most socially relevant, but baggage-heavy terms in paddling, "dirtbag" seems to mean whatever folks want it to mean.  Can you be a dirtbag when your every move is funded by family trust?  Can you really be a dirtbag if you drive a $55,000 truck or Sprinter Van you paid for by working for the man?  Conversely, do you have to truly live at poverty level, or grovel and sleep in the dirt on a daily basis to keep your official dirt card?  

We've all seen folks at the river here and there that seem to do the term justice, easily woftable in their eschewance of proper hygiene, for example (It's possible I'm referring in the third person here)*.  And proud is the young soil-dweller who is riding in style behind the wheel of a metallic blue 1985 Mazda 626 with 461K miles on it - is it such a sin to be a single-feature auto buyer?  And what else really matters besides rain gutters anyway? 

Undeniably, "dirtbag" has even evolved into an identity itself - not just a style of doing certain things, or philosophy, but a fashion that has been processed and packaged into good honest product by our capitalist economy. Oh the irony, since this overstep betrays the ideals behind the very term itself. Good ideas become movements. Alas movements catch the all seeing eye of marketing experts, who then tap them for marketing plans, and thus the cycle repeats; ahem,  #vanlife.

So everyone's understanding of what it means to be dirtbag is going to vary of course.  To me, dirtbag describes a particular method of facilitating a desired behavior or circumstance. It's a way of getting what we want and to where we want to be that requires less participation in the excessive, materialistic, growth-at-any-costs consumer economy.  Now, no man/woman is an island, and as many already suspect, we have little wiggle room on how much we choose to participate in the economy that surrounds us. This is a zero-sum game, and you're going to spend all of your dollars at the company store whether you like it or not.  But it's not a matter of if, but how, you do so.  For example, the tendency for our economy to develop a product for every single little nuanced situation in our daily lives is a reality we have to step out of the box to notice (Note the Banana Slicer). 

The more the economy adapts to our needs, the less WE adapt, and the less creativity we use to overcome our own daily challenges.  If you have a device for slicing each little thing you might slice, how good at slicing are you going to be?  I'm probably preaching to the choir with many readers here, who have already taken steps well beyond those I have developed, in order to minimize their impact, lower their dependency on buying stuff, and live a more purpose-driven, intentional life.   

 Steel Reserve, West Coast style.  Back home these may not deliver, but out west, they run 24 ounces at 8.8% ABV for a buck eighty.  These men should be commended for their thrifty fix, even if it tastes nasty.

Steel Reserve, West Coast style.  Back home these may not deliver, but out west, they run 24 ounces at 8.8% ABV for a buck eighty.  These men should be commended for their thrifty fix, even if it tastes nasty.

I frankly don't have the real answers to the underlying questions behind our need to seek the inner dirtbag.  Yet we seek it, whether out of principle or sheer prudence.  I ashamedly admit that though I value the former, it is the latter that motivates change in my behavior.  We only have so much money and so much time.  Wasting either is one and the same.  

If you've got nothing, and are just getting by, you're already a dirtbag.  From Ketchup soup to hitching rides to the river, you're flying the flag.  If you're wealthy and don't have a worry in the world, it's easy enough to deck out a Sprinter and hit the road, with a romantic aire the likes of which may or may not be emulated within the pages of the latest Patagonia catalog, you dirtbag, you.  However, for the majority of us, who are somewhere in the middle, it can be pretty hard to live dirtbag by choice, even if under the most occasional, token circumstance. And it's at this surficial, first-step level, that I'd like to, on occasion, share some tricks I've picked up along the way that assist in the realization of personal goals, by way of taking a little less of the "bundle" that our corporate handlers would prefer us to take.  They just want us to be thoughtless, happy consumers, not self-realized, adaptable beings.  Not as a DIY guru, but as a fellow victim of the machine, I welcome you to use any or none of these silly little tricks to disentangle yourself, if only in spirit, a tad bit more from having all of your decisions made for you.  It is in this light that I present The Sophisticated Dirtbag.  

Stay tuned for the next post, where the Sophisticated Dirtbag takes a look at how we can embark upon a week-long paddling trip to the west coast on a budget, and some of the tricks that make it possible.