How I Make a Living as a Professional Adventurer

“Hi, Peter. What’s happening? We need to talk about your TPS reports.”

When I began long-distance backpacking, I neverthought 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.

1. Lectures and clinics

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’s, 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.

3. Content

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.

29 Responses to How I Make a Living as a Professional Adventurer

  1. Sam Larson January 11, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    Thanks for your honesty! It’s awesome to hear how someone can live their dream, even when so many people arrogantly look down upon their career path!

  2. goSonja January 11, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    “And I have intentionally avoided costly “grown up” responsibilities like mortgages, a spouse, kids, and pets.”

    Hahaha, that one kinda cracked me up. I think it’s good to put out there the lack of sponsorship money. That’s something that I think people assume you survive on. This also helps people understand where you make your living, and thus if they want to support you in their own way they know how to do so…attend a class…buy a map set..etc.

  3. John Tommervik January 11, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    Great read. Thanks for sharing how you make a living as an adventurer. It’s always interesting to learn this type of stuff when it involves an “untraditional” occupation.

  4. Nicolas January 11, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    Your life is awesome but you deserve it, you work hard to accomplish your goals, you truly are an inspiration, thx for that…

  5. Erin January 11, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

    As a fellow adventurer, it’s interesting to see someone else’s strategy. I’m totally with you on the cheap living, the books, etc… revenue stream, and the gear only sponsorships. Instead of presentations (don’t want to travel that much), or guiding, I go with the “sporadic consulting work” approach for most of the rest of my $. (I also run a small nonprofit that I work my butt off for, but usually for free).

    But I feel I have to correct one HUGE misconception in your post. Spouse and kids are NOT necessarily high-cost, and do NOT prevent adventures. (the mortgage thing I agree with). Bringing kids means we may go slower than you do (I was slower than you before kids too!), but having a two toddlers doesn’t prevent me from getting out for months-long expeditions into remote wilderness where few people ever set foot. I hate it when people perpetuate the misconception that a family means the end of a fun and adventurous lifestyle!

    • Damien Tougas January 23, 2012 at 5:58 am #

      Here here Erin! I agree 100% I think that kids can actually be an asset to adventuring. When people see a family out doing expeditions, it says something different, and potentially speaks to people in a different way than when a single person is doing it.

      I have nothing against being single and adventuring. But as you, I also think that it is a myth that having a family prevents you from living frugally and having an adventurous life.

    • Andrew Skurka January 23, 2012 at 8:31 am #

      My comments re spouse and kids pertained only to their expense, not to their affect on one’s adventuring.

      If I were to get married, my expenses would absolutely increase, especially since I always have been attracted to women who are not as frugal as me, and who are less footloose. No longer is it acceptable to rent month-to-month, to go without health or life insurance, to never go out for nice dinners or a performance at the theater, etc. Sure, I suppose I could find a sugar momma, but I wasn’t raised in such a way to be okay with that.

      Kids, I think we would all agree, are a significant expense. (And, unlike a spouse, they never will bring their own income to the table.) I could easily see my adventuring funds erased entirely by their medical, education, clothing, food and housing expenses.

      • Sara January 26, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

        Too bad you cannot train yourself to be attracted to a different type of woman! Throughout our relationship, my fiancé and I have spent our hard-earned cash on adventures or gear. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Greg adamson July 30, 2013 at 1:53 pm #

      I agree that spouse and kids do not prevent adventures but they do prevent total freedom. I have both and have had to be patient and flexible in my plans. often times i will suggest to my wife what date i’m planning to head out. Many times we negotiate and come up with a better date that works with kids ball games, cheerleading practices and what not. Spouse and/kids can work if you dont mind bending a little.

  6. Brian January 11, 2012 at 7:22 pm #

    “And, third, frankly I’m proud of my success—which I credit to hard work, good planning, intense focus, and some audacity..” – you should be very proud of your success.

    Your living the dream (for many of us), but it’s very interesting and refreshing to read about the things that you have gone without, even though it sounds as though you are more than happy with you decisions.

    Thank you for putting this out there for us to read and, as you say, use it as a model for those of us that want to follow in your footsteps. I have to ask though, do your foresee a time when this lifestyle will change and your take on the very trappings that you’ve managed to avoid?

    Eagerly looking forward to the new book, thanks!

  7. Caleb - aka Gonzan January 11, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

    Andrew, thank you so much for this amazing response to all those who were curious about the mechanics of your lifestyle! I have the highest regard and respect for you accomplishments; that you so honestly bare the bones of how you make it work only increases my admiration. Keep up the awesomeness :)

  8. Glacier Hiker January 12, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    Andrew, great article. Most people don’t realize how relatively easy it is to “free” themselves to live the outdoor dream. I’m not proposing that anyyone should pursue your lifestyle, but they can take steps to strip down their lifestyle in order to free up more of their time to enjoy the outdoors. First and foremost, stay out of debt! Do you really need a big house? Do you really need two brand new SUVs in the garage? Do you really need the latest IPhone, or all those cable channels? So many people waste so much money on status symbols, and then find themselves in debt, thus becoming slaves to their jobs. Start young and stay out of debt, save your money, and you’ll have the funds to pursue your adventures.

  9. Debolin Sen January 13, 2012 at 2:28 am #

    Andrew. Delightful read. Glad to know you are doing what you are and making a living of it. I tried. But was tough. So my corporate life funds my adventure life. Try and balance both as much as I can. But there’s always the yearning to head out more often to the Himalayas than I do, to gain the experience and indulge in the activities that you’ve mentioned. How I wish I had more time. : ) Keep it going mate. All the best.

  10. Jeremy January 14, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    Everyone knows that TPS reports need a cover sheet. I bet your spreadsheets have cover sheets. I like the scene where he guts the fish on his desk. I thought of that scene when we cleaned our trout this past summer. I still think you should actively solicit for a beer sponsor- that’s “core.” If Pontiac still existed, you would make a great Vibe spokesmodel. No one has gotten more out of that 39 mpg tomato can than you have:) Hope to see you soon, friend.

  11. Jolly Green Giant January 19, 2012 at 9:33 am #

    When I die, I want to come back as you. But if you ever want to try out having a spouse, mortgage, awful and stressful job, and more crap than you could put under a circus tent, let me know.

  12. Sam January 26, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    Andrew-

    Excellent blog post. It is awesome to see that you are able to make a career as an adventurer. I am striving to make a living as a part time adventurer, and so for me the first step was to leave corporate life and start my own company. For me, the goal is to display to my two boys (3rd on way) that life is what you make of it, not what is earned, or perceived by others whom are often misguided.

    http://www.heystac.com is the company that i started if you want to check it out.

  13. Glenn Charles January 27, 2012 at 1:42 am #

    Andrew,

    As a fellow full time adventure traveler who has also completely simplified my life, I thought this was an excellent post. I think the most often asked question I get is how do I afford my lifestyle. Most people naturally assume that you must have money to spend, while forgetting that the other side of the equation is to actually reduce and eliminate the need for large amounts of money. I am a huge fan of renting when necessary; making my own gear out of oddball things; and the occasional gear sponsor when it is a win/win situation for both of us.

    I am heading to the arctic this winter on Fat Bike and have been reading and re-reading your accounts of the last trip you took. It has been invaluable information and I greatly thank you for sharing.

    Best of luck with your future pursuits.

    Cheers,

    Glenn

  14. Jason March 30, 2012 at 10:29 pm #

    Good article. Your focus on core revenue streams is a wise one (that degree does come in handy, eh?!). Your focus on building a business model rather than depending on sponsorships is also good. Most of us dream of working for ourselves but very few of us do and even fewer do so in such a unique way. We are afraid of what we think is risk. Here is a quote on that from one of my favorite books, Crossing To Safety by Wallace Stegner:

    “What do we risk in a life of security and what do we secure in a life of risk?”

    You bypassed the world of cubicles and of politics-in-the-work place and I say well-done on that. There is no need to go down that path any more than you need to smash a hammer into your knee in order to know that it hurts.

    But in reading your blog I can safely say that you have not escaped hard work (I suspect not your intention anyways). If I even understand a fraction of what it takes for you to book and complete your presentations, let alone prepare and actually DO your adventures prior to those presentations, then I understand that you put more work into a day than most who sit in cubicles and endure TPS coversheet requests. You risk more and I hope that you reap more.

    I’ve never know a person who passed away who wished that they could live longer to get that corner office, or that bonus, or that new title. But I bet all of them wistfully dream of an adventure they did not take, or of one that they did, or of one that they hoped was yet to come.

    Happy trails.

    Jason

    • Andrew Skurka March 31, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

      I have indeed not escaped the need to work hard. I work very hard, as anyone around me will attest.

      Because I end up having to work very hard to make a living, I often debate the efficiency of my work, and whether I would be better off devoting my time and energy to another pursuit with greater outputs for my inputs. Right now I work X hours per year and make $Y. I think it is very likely that I could work $Y, if I took on a more conventional job.

      But I haven’t seriously considered changing tracks, for two reasons, First, I think I still have a lot of upside potential, so that one day I might be able to work $Y. Second, there’s intangible value in making an occupation out of your passion. Unlike other people I know well, I would never say that, “My job sucks the life out of me.”

  15. Alastair Humphreys April 18, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    Good to hear some honest answers on this and debunking the myth that professional adventurers must have been born wealthy!

  16. synthasizer May 1, 2012 at 8:33 pm #

    People hate working a “normal job” but even tho everybody hates it, we haven’t changed it into a system that we all love. People need to develop a new system of trade with different currency or with no currency at all. People need to put their heads together and sell hugs instead, or something, i mean come on!! We are human and have unspeakable potential yet we are all slaves to a dollar bill? If we all hate working this system then why is it being done still? who is the puppet master? is social morality tripping out people so bad? People need to come together and create a paradise of endless potential for the human mind and body in equilibrium with nature. Own less, Be more!

  17. Zach Brown August 3, 2013 at 10:54 am #

    Back at the subject of family a while back, I think having a family can input more adventure ideas! You may not have a wife or husband who is as spontaneous as you are, but that can lead to their ideas of adventure such as wine testing in France or concerts. Those could be some things you may not consider “adventure”, but are definitely fun to do. Its hard to even get some people out of their house these days anyway, so I feel not being home can be an adventure as well! haha

  18. zoe November 11, 2013 at 10:35 pm #

    hehe, yes I found out too that I either pay a hostel for 1-3 months or live back home with folks cause renting a place with a contract is pure pain for someone who has no interest finding a job and making a life locally in a place

    People who do mortgages and sweat all their lives for bigger salaries should understand that some other people have less materialistic goals. But I personally see why such goals are good only in the case that someone has to feed their children and provide for their education etc (then its a sacrifice for a good cause). There are people out there who avoid both marriage and adventure, wanting a life of pure materialism and professional success. If you do have children, it would be nice to teach them more about self-reliance and nature and adventure than how to crave for the next cool toy.

  19. Daniel November 13, 2013 at 10:52 pm #

    Great Job
    I want to be an adventurer. I’m in high school and everybody else is becoming a lawer or a doctor, but that stuff isn’t for me I Want to see the world. I havea great Buizzness idea for that sort of thing you know what they say lead your dreams

  20. Draco November 26, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    Its happening..it all makes since now. Im 16 and in high school and my dream has been to capture the realms of fantasy and become a fantasy writer.

    I get ragged on constantly about my grades from my parents about me being lazy and that I wont get into college and become a doctor or some other generic boring human occupation. I want to be an author and that is where my soul and passion lies.

    but how can I write the story of a hero and a band of adventurers? what better way than to become an adventurer! and get a band of heroes!

    today I was talking to my friend in chemistry and I went on about how I hated how our society is structured and that it wasn’t for me. To my surprise she agreed and so did her boyfriend. After I got home I logged on and Googled “can I become an adventurer” of course I find it silly that I asked a machine whether I could be something or not but then I found your site!

    sir you have no idea but you have shown me that I can pursue this dream. Thank you so much for enlightening me on this career. Now granted I know the dangers and risk that this lifestyle contains but how I see it its either “try to write the best fantasy series and risk danger or spend the rest of my life hating my existence.”

    Remember the name Draco Vertolgr (my author alias) or my real one Kyle Lesperance

  21. Emily December 29, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    I’d be fine with a spouse, aslong as they can keep up :P

  22. Sam smith January 21, 2014 at 5:45 am #

    Great read ! Thumbs up for your courage !

  23. Lynx February 5, 2014 at 8:54 pm #

    Andrew, all props to ya for living as you wish, for helping others to get outside, and for using good sense to do these things.
    I will say, though, that it gets me when people say “Oh, do you really need the big house, the newest iPhone, the fancy car?”. I have a cheaper smartphone because I don’t have a computer. I don’t own a car, can’t afford one. I rent a crappy place with housemates because it’s what I can afford. I backpack whenever I can, I’m lucky enough to get vacation days, but a long term trek, or one on another continent is simply not in the picture for me. This is not to say cry me a river, I have it better than 2/3 of the planet. Just to say that the middle class is not most puerile anymore, so people, please don’t assume that someone who doesn’t have “spare” cash because they’re spending it on keeping up with the Joneses.
    Thanks for your time and enjoy… :-)

  24. Tara April 18, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    So.. uh… you don’t have a wife hmm? That’s funny, because I just saw another (granted, more recent) post about buying your wife skis!! ;)

    How do you handle being a pro adventurer now that you’ve got a partner? Do you ever plan to have kids, and if so, will you just not be around a lot to help raise them? No criticism, just curious. Thanks!

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