When I began long-distance backpacking, I never thought it would eventually become my occupation. To the contrary, I was simply drawn to the idea of hiking from Georgia to Maine—that, somehow, an effort on that scale probably was an experience worth having.
My motivations for taking on the Alaska-Yukon Expedition, my most recent adventure, were very similar to those from eight years earlier, despite having much more to gain from a successful finish. Again, I just believed that the experience would be worth the effort. I’d see amazing landscapes. I’d meet great people. I’d have an ambitious goal to pursue each day. And I’d be pushed far outside my comfort zone, which is when personal growth really starts to happen. The trip never could have been justified on the “fame and fortune” that might realistically result from it.
It’s great that my motivations have remained true, but that doesn’t necessarily help to address the economic realities of my trips, or of just breathing. So slowly and purposefully I have developed adventure-related income streams to enable my pursuits.
I have a few intentions in explaining how I make a living as an adventurer. First, I want it known, instead of just letting others speculate. Second, I want to offer a model for someone with similar aspirations to potentially replicate. And, third, frankly I’m proud of my success—which I credit to hard work, good planning, intense focus, and some audacity—and I’m comfortable sharing my secrets.
My first paid presentation was the ALDHA Gathering keynote in Fall 2005. I was stoked to make $200 even though my plane flight cost twice that. Since then I have given 234 presentations, including 56 in 2011. At the peak of last year’s speaking schedule, my life replicated Ryan Bingham, George Clooney’s character from Up in the Air. My parents have stopped trying to remember where I am. This year should be equally busy. The venues at which I present are usually outdoor-themed, like outdoor retail stores, university outdoor recreation programs, and trail association meetings. Now that I have a few wrinkles and gray hairs, I am doing more corporate presentations.
2. Guided trips
I started guiding for Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Trekking School in 2008. Now, I offer my own trips, guided by yours truly and world-class assistants. I am offering 15-18 trips in 2012, which will put me in the field for about 90 days. I have “a few” spreadsheets to track these trips’ infinite details like commercial permits, personal and group gear, route distances, breakfast and dinner menus, and accounting.
Since my personal trips are almost always solo and abide by the theme, “further, faster, and lighter,” initially it was tough to adjust to group objectives and a group travel style. But I learned to, and I now love guiding: by spending a few days or a week with someone in the field, I can help fuel their passion for the outdoors and empower them with wilderness travel know-how, which is good for them and good for our planet.
Books, photographs, mapsets, videos and website articles demand an upfront investment of time and resources, but after developing them they produce “fish wheel money”—24/7/365 these products are catching salmon for me, regardless of whether I’m around or not. It’s a perfect situation for someone who likes to completely and regularly check out like I do.
My most promising product is my forthcoming book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, which focuses on backpacking gear, supplies and skills. It will be released by National Geographic Books on February 21st, but you can pre-order a copy now. If you want to know how much work went into it, ask my girlfriend—she broke up with me at least twice while I was trying to reach deadlines because it completely took over my life.
How I do not make a living: Sponsorships
I have a handful of sponsors that make good products and that are owned and run by great people. But intentionally these are product-only relationships, as I’ve determined that my time is better spent on building a business that is independent of and more sustainable than marketing budgets, which are notoriously small in the outdoor industry.
If the right sponsor came along, I would certainly consider a relationship that included a financial component. But I wouldn’t let it distract me from my “core” revenue streams.
Q: What is just as effective as making money? A: Not spending money.
I live on little. When I first became a full-time adventurer, my finances dictated that I do. Now, I’m stuck firmly in my frugal ways. I only buy what I need, usually only when it’s on sale. I rent month-to-month so I can avoid paying rent when I’m gone for extended periods. All of my possessions can be transported in my Pontiac Vibe (with roof rack and box). And I have intentionally avoided costly “grown up” responsibilities like mortgages, a spouse, kids, and pets.
Because I don’t need much to be comfortable and happy, I don’t need to earn much either.