The Expedition: Two Parents Risk Life and Family in an Extraordinary Quest to the South Pole, by Chris Fagan, September 2019, 272 pages, published by She Writes Press
Through Boldly Went, travel, trail running and hiking we've gotten to know a lot of remarkable people, but Chris and Marty Fagan are definitely some of the most impressive. We met Chris originally through the trail running community in the Seattle area, and since the Fagans have shared at one of our original Boldly Went proto-events - "Grit and Grace", been featured on our podcast about the 2019 Race to Alaska, and most recently shared a story live at one of our Tacoma events.
Chris recently completed a book called "The Expedition" about maybe their biggest adventure - when she and her husband Marty became the first American married couple to ski unsupported and unguided to the South Pole. If you like Boldly Went, I'm confident you're going to like this book.
In November 2013, Chris and Marty Fagan were dropped off on an ice shelf on the edge of Antarctica, put on their skis, and spent 48 days dragging themselves and all of their supplies across 500 miles of ice and snow to the South Pole, becoming the first American married couple to have done so without a guide or support. Her book, "The Expedition," is a well-written and well-paced chronicle of that experience that starts in the beginning - from the time she and Marty first met while climbing Denali in treacherous conditions, through their subsequent marriage and adventure life together in the ultra-running and mountaineering worlds, on to this specific quest itself.
The description of the 48 days they spent in Antarctica is an enjoyable and interesting read, and does a great job of describing the challenges of just existing in Antarctica - how do you take a leak when you'll get frostbite on any exposed skin in minutes, for instance, and how do you manage if you can't wash clothes or shower on an almost two month adventure? It also does a great job of describing the physical and psychological challenges associated with 48 straight 8 - 10 hour days of maximum effort in an unforgiving environment where there are literally no other people (or any other kind of mammal, for that matter) for hundreds of miles. Chris captures some of the small moments along the way - their first Ramen meal on the ice, struggles with dealing with navigation in white out conditions, managing early signs of frost bite - in a way that brings you into the experience in a relatable way. The most striking physical challenge beyond the expected cold and isolation were the miles of "sastrugi" that they had to contend with - imagine trying to cross country ski over frozen waves of varying heights - from speed bumps to rollers taller than they were.
Reading about the physical challenges of the adventure was interesting, but for me what sets this book apart as one to pick up when there are hundreds of adventure chronicles out there is the perspective that Chris gives into what this experience was like for her as a mother and a member of a family.
The book spends a lot of time on the lead up to the expedition, so readers get the sense of how big this thing actually was. Chris and Marty spent a small mortgage worth of personal money on the expedition, and devoted their life to it for several years. They focused their physical energy on it, Marty left a long time job, and you get the sense that their entire community was involved in the expedition in some way or another. While they were in Antarctica for under two months, everything in their life had to center on preparations for the year prior.
Chris doesn't necessarily play up the fact that this is a book about adventure from a wife and mother's perspective, but it is, and that's one of the things that makes it particularly interesting. The husband-wife dynamic day after day on the ice and in the tent is interesting, and navigating life and death and exhaustion of every type with a spouse was a big theme in the book. There were anecdotes in the lead up to the trip about family and friends who questioned their responsibility as parents leaving a child behind to risk their lives on something like this, and as someone who loves big travel and outdoor adventures, that was relatable.
Chris wrestles with those types of questions extensively as a theme throughout the book, and to me the most intriguing moments were when she wrote about how the trip was impacting her relationship with her son Keenan - in both challenging and inspiring ways. The most striking moment in the whole book, in my opinion, was when Chris shared a letter she wrote to Keenan to be given to him if she didn't come back - essentially a goodbye letter on the occasion of her death. The letter brought the seriousness of the experience into focus, and her reflection on the experience of writing the letter produced, to me, the most memorable quote in the book:
“My conversation with death prepared me to live.”
One of the big takeaways of an adventure like this one is that we're all mortal, and it's only when we come to terms with death that we can put our lives in their proper context - whether or not we're choosing the risks we take consciously.
In the end the book flips the script on the narrative that adventure is selfish. I don't want to reveal too much about one of the central tensions in the book, but I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that in the end, as a reader I felt that the positives for their family in the experience far outweighed the negatives.
Taken as a whole, the book does a great job of showing how optimism, planning, sheer toughness, commitment, and a little bit of a “haters gonna hate” attitude got Chris and Marty through not just Antarctica but the social and emotional challenges that come along with a big, scary expedition. It's a book that's satisfying as a chronicle of a massive, record setting expedition, but in the bigger picture was a great read because it dealt in interesting ways with social and relational issues that often are only peripheral in adventure literature.
If you want to buy the book, predictably enough, it's for sale on Amazon, but also look out for it at REI stores and other purveyors of fine adventure literature.
And if you're a fan of adventure and reading, pick up a copy of our book, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life: Eternal Truth for Hiker Trash, Ski Bums, and Vagabonds.
Wes Ritner is an accomplished ultra runner who won the 2018 Bigfoot 200 and tied for 2nd in the 2018 Moab 240, and he's shared several stories from his 200 mile experiences with Boldly Went. He's also a West Point grad and a veteran, and this Veteran's Day we're excited to highlight some of the cool things vets are doing in the adventure community by sharing this moving story from his experience during the 2019 Moab 240.
On October 14, I completed the Moab 240, a 240-mile running race near Moab, Utah involving 115 runners from 15 different countries. The course was a single loop that took the runners across vast deserts and atop 10,000-foot mountains. This was my eighth 200+ mile race since 2015, and it was arguably my worst performance in any of them.
Initially, I thought I’d write a more thorough, traditional narrative of the race, like I’ve done for some of my other events. But since this race had been different for me, I decided to write a different kind of recap, one that focused solely on what became, for me, the defining moment of the race. Everything else during those countless hours on the trail was either a precursor to that moment or a result of the decision made in that same moment.
The first 20 miles of the race went well. I cruised along somewhere around 9th place at an easy pace, and I chatted with the other runners nearby. The early miles of most ultramarathons are like this. The pack hasn’t completely fragmented into front-runners, mid-packers and back-of-the-packers, so everyone takes advantage of having friendly company around them to take their minds off the long trail ahead.
It was somewhere around mile 25 that I started having difficulty getting calories and fluids in without feeling queasy. The problem might have been caused by the fact that my body hadn’t fully recovered from running another 200-mile race three weeks earlier, in addition to the slowly rising temperatures and the relentless exposure to the sun in the treeless, desert environment. Regardless, the temporary inability to absorb nutrients wasn’t new to me. I’d faced similar problems many times before. In such situations, I typically forced myself to eat more or drink more or to take fewer electrolyte tablets…whatever I needed to do to solve the problem. It was odd that it was hitting me so early in the race, but I figured this would pass in 10 or 20 miles, as it typically had before. When I arrived at the mile-32 aid station I made a point of taking the time to eat something other than the snacks and fruit I’d been consuming on the trail, and to drink plenty of fluids. I left that aid station thinking I would soon be feeling better.
But nothing changed. In fact, it gradually became more difficult to eat, drink, or run without feeling nauseous. I attempted to make adjustments to my diet but, strangely, nothing was working. Soon I realized that there was a good chance I would not turn this around for a long time. A very long time. It was unlikely I would even come close to hitting the most modest of my goals for the race. I would be suffering for another 205 miles to achieve a result that I wouldn’t be proud of.
With my body chemically out of balance—fluids, electrolytes and calories out of synch—the core of my thought processes was impacted. Normally, I consider myself a very driven, positive, goal-oriented person. But my mind had reacted to the imbalance by going in a very different direction. I saw only barriers and roadblocks. I saw no meaningful path through the pain. I could only see that the results I wanted to achieve in this race were impossible, and that the amount of time which I would be suffering to achieve mediocre results was going to be much longer than I’d planned. I could find no reason to continue trying.
The next aid station, positioned at mile 57 of the race, was still another 10 miles away.
I wanted to give up. Why should I continue suffering? This was just a silly race, after all. I wasn’t saving lives here. I wasn’t feeding the homeless or rescuing the helpless. I was running through the desert and having a miserable time of it. There was no reason to keep pushing forward. Such was my mindset as I slowly knocked off the next few miles. Dropping from the race at the next aid station started looking like the only reasonable action to take. Why should I suffer when there was no purpose to the suffering?
But a shred of the person who is the best of me remained engaged in the moment despite the pain. And that shred remained engaged even though I knew how bad 190 more miles of this pain could be. I knew that if I didn’t change the nature of the thoughts going through my mind, I would arrive at the next aid station and announce that I was dropping. I at least wanted to leave the door open to the possibility of a different outcome. And to do that, I needed to somehow step back from what I was going through, and evaluate why I was running this race. I needed to decide what the race really meant to me. I knew I might make the decision to drop anyway, but, if I didn’t try to change something in my mind, then my path was already decided and it was the path to dropping out.
So I did something different. I stopped running. I stepped to the side and I sat down at the edge of the trail. Runners passed by, and they asked if I was okay. I told most of them I was doing fine, of course, which was a lie. I forced myself to nibble on some of the food in my pack, and I forced myself to take small sips of water. I forced myself to take my time and allow the race to continue without me. Once I felt at peace with what I was doing, I tipped over to my side in the rocky soil, and I closed my eyes. Rocks probably jutted into my shoulder, but I didn’t feel them. I lay there silently.
Last year I’d finished this race in a little over 62 hours in a tie for second place. Based upon how it was going, I couldn’t imagine finishing it in less than 90 hours this year. I thought again about the fact that this truly was just another silly race, just like every other race out there. It was artificially constructed adversity. I knew I’d feel great if the misery ended early and abruptly at the next aid station. And I knew that I would feel a tremendous sense of relief at having avoided 190 more miles of needless, voluntary suffering.
But I also knew that such relief would quickly turn to disappointment. Disappointment in my unwillingness to finish something I’d started. Disappointment in taking the easy path of escape instead of facing the demons that I knew were still to come. This race was a task I’d chosen. It was mine to finish. Was I here to feel the fleeting success of being a top finisher at the end of the race? Was I here to hit some arbitrary finishing time goal? Granted, I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment of a strong finishing position. But that wasn’t why I’d started running these races, and it wasn’t why I continued running them. I was here to face a tough mental and physical challenge and to overcome it. To quit merely because the race wasn’t going as well as I wanted it to ran contrary to who I am.
And that was enough.
I pushed myself back into a sitting position. Where I finished in the pack of runners no longer mattered to me. I could be first or I could be last. I might suffer through nausea for the next 190 miles or I might come out of it in 20 miles…either way I was going to conquer this thing. This race would not beat me.
I started moving again, walking first, then transitioning to a slow jog. The finish line was a few steps closer.
My inability to eat and drink without feeling nauseous continued until mile 120, a total of about 90 miles of sickness. During this time, my running was essentially a slow jog, and when I was at aid stations I sat for as many as three hours trying to get food to stay in my belly, vomiting, and then starting the cycle again so I could leave the station with at least some small amount of calories in my stomach. Never in my race experience had these kinds of problems gone on for so long.
I seemed to finally turn a corner standing atop Shay Mountain at the mile 121 aid station. I was able to consume several cups of tomato soup, and it felt amazing to feel those calories flooding my veins. This trend continued when I hit Dry Valley at mile 140: more food and more energy. And from there things only got better. I’d dropped to 50th place when I was going through the worst of it, but after my turnaround at Shay Mountain, I progressed slowly up the field until I was running alongside Ryan Fecteau about twelve miles from the finish.
Some part of the competitive side of me reared its head as I pulled up beside Ryan….the part that wanted me to push harder and improve my meaningless statistics. But the part of me that had made a single decision in a long moment of despair almost 200 miles ago reminded me what this race was about. It was about overcoming adversity. And it was about overcoming that adversity whether it was alone or with others. Today, it would be with others. Ryan and I hiked and ran those last twelve miles, getting to know each other and appreciating each other’s stories.
We stopped just short of the finish line in a gesture of non-competitiveness, playing rock-paper-scissors to see who would cross the finish line first. It took three rounds, but, in the end, Ryan was victorious. His rock crushed my scissors. He raised his arms and crossed the line in 10th place. I followed a few seconds later in 11th. We’d finished in 80 hours and 48 minutes….more than 18 hours later than my 2018 finish. Somehow, that didn’t matter.
Looking back at the race, I attribute my finish to the moment when I realized that the morass of negativity that had drowned my mind was a result of external conditions and was not indicative of who I was. I attribute my finish to that same moment when I decided to just stop, when I decided to do something different, and when I decided to realign my thoughts with the person I knew myself to be. It was at that moment that victory became possible once again. Victory, not over other competitors, but over the obstacles that were preventing me from finishing what I knew I could finish.
Running a 240-mile race was a small price to pay for the opportunity to experience that single moment. I will gladly pay it again.
If you like reading about adventure, or probably more importantly actually going on adventures, we're confident that you'll like our guide to developing the life you want, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life: Eternal Truth for Hiker Trash, Ski Bums, and Vagabonds.
I haven't seen all the mountains, but of the ones I have, the Canadian Rockies are solidly in the top 3 ranges for spectacular-ness (with New Zealand's Southern Alps and Patagonia, if you're wondering). They are so freaking pretty - a seemingly endless sea of hanging glaciers and turquoise lakes and snow capped peaks. To me, the Canadian Rockies look like what I imagined mountains would look like as a kid growing up among the corn fields of Ohio.
They also are no secret. Visit during the relatively short summer and at the most popular spots you'll be joined by tens of thousands of others, to the point that parking and road infrastructure in Banff and Jasper is swamped beyond its ability to cope. An average hotel room in the Banff/Jasper corridor can easily cost $300 per night, and national park camp sites get booked up months in advance. It's an easy place to have your experience destroyed by the crowds and cost of travel.
Thankfully though, those types of crowds and costs are for less savvy travelers than yourselves, and you can absolutely figure out how to hang out in the Rockies during the high season without breaking the bank, and even find some solitude. I know, because we just did.
Finding ourselves without a place to stay for the month of August, this year Angel and I decided to fulfill a long-time ambition by spending a big hunk of summer in the Rockies. Being the people we are, we did almost zero pre-planning, threw our kayaks and tent in the Element, and figured things out as we went. In the end our experience took the form of an extended road trip loop punctuated by multiple kayaking and hiking excursions, with a few town days, some wine tasting, and a few too many brewery stops. We spent a week in Canmore to do some work online, but mostly we slept outside in either provincial or national parks.
For some rough logistics, we started our trip in Tacoma, WA, drove north through Vancouver (to meet up with a friend), then up through Whistler and Pemberton. We drove to Bowron Lakes Provincial Park on the western edge of the Rockies, then drove east to Mt Robson Provincial Park, south through Jasper and Banff, crashed in Canmore, went south to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, west to Yoho, Glacier, and Mt Revelstoke National Parks, then south through Kelowna and Penticton before heading back through Eastern Washington to home.
I haven't done exact calculations, but I just scrolled back through our accounts and we spent less than $3000 for the month. That's not nothing, but to me it's pretty darn good for two people to have seen all that we saw. It was definitely worth it for a month-long bucket list trip.
Here's what we learned that you should know. This might be a little bit "what I did on my summer vacation"-ish, but I'm writing with the intention of helping you do the same.
First, 9 general rules...
...and now the specifics.
While I can't give you a full Canadian Rockies guidebook, I can give you a decent introduction by talking about the places we went and the stuff we did. After spending a bit of time before the trip looking at the options of awesome places to spend a month, they're the areas we settled on, as well as a couple of surprise gems that we found along the way. These are the things we learned, a few crucial hot tips, and some photos of pretty places.
While it wasn't the most spectacular mountain scenery we saw, paddling a portion of the Bowron Lakes Circuit was maybe my personal favorite part of the whole month - it was relaxing, beautiful, and felt like a real wilderness experience. For a short orientation, the Bowron Lakes are a 116 km (or 72 mile) chain of lakes and streams that, unusually, form a square shaped circuit that hundreds of hearty Canadians visit time and time again to canoe or kayak, usually across about a week, during the nice parts of summer. The circuit is frequently compared to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, but with mountains. I can confirm that it's SO nice - remote, beautiful, peaceful, the very picture of idyllic wilderness lake paddling despite the fact that it's a popular destination.
You can take trips of theoretically any length in the park, from day trips up to the full circuit, but because of the flow of the lakes and the system of permitting, most people either do the full circuit, or an out and back on the Western side of the circuit. We were worried we couldn't fit the whole thing in, and we were in folding kayaks so not the best tool for the job, so we spent four days doing the Western circuit. In retrospect, it probably would have been possible to fit the whole thing in, but we still loved it.
Key things to know if you want to take a stunning multi-day paddling excursion in the Bowron Lakes surrounded by moose and bear and idyllic scenery, which you might not find on the website.
Mt Robson Provincial Park
Mt Robson Provincial Park is just west of Jasper National Park, and for my money was just as beautiful. We hiked the Berg Lake Trail, and I would rate it as one of the most spectacular short backpacking trips I've ever been on. It's all glaciated peaks shooting out of turquoise lakes - exactly what I picture when I picture the Canadian Rockies. There are a variety of camping options, so there are a lot of possibilities here - you can do some amazing day hikes, or stretch it out into 2 - 4 days. We spent 3 days and 2 nights, and that allowed us to have a good experience of the area - enough to get out on some side trips and away from crowds, and to not feel too stressed that one of the days was interrupted by a bit of rain. Our hot tips for this trip:
Jasper and Banff are two large National Parks that interconnect and protect some of the most spectacular parts of the Canadian Rockies. They're also the belly of the beast when it comes to over-tourism in the area. You should absolutely go there, but also be prepared for what you'll find.
First things first, the core infrastructure of Banff/Jasper looks like two small namesake cities within the National Park with a 232 km busy tourist highway connecting them (the Icefields Parkway) and providing access to other areas of the park. These are all beautiful places, but they are also to some degree places that, if you go during the summer high season, will need to be endured as much as enjoyed. The towns of Banff and Jasper are both pleasant enough, and beautifully situated, but also good luck finding a hotel for less than $200/night or a reasonably priced meal. The Icefields Parkway is punctuated by places that you should totally visit - Bow Lake, the Columbia Icefield, Athabasca Falls, Lake Louise - but when you do be prepared to be surrounded by hoards of tourists pouring out of buses and stopping in inopportune places to take photos. Rest assured that if you hike out more than 5 km you will find relative solitude, but prepare for this crush of humanity and embrace it for what it is rather than allowing bitterness to creep in.
These NPs are highly developed and highly regulated, even more so than in most US NPs, if I can make that anecdotal assessment. Boondocking and free camping aren't really a thing, and hike in or paddle in camp sites will all be in designated spots that require getting permits. This is the only place on the entire trip where we got a little stressed about finding somewhere affordable to sleep without pre-planning, but to calm your worries we did still manage.
We've been to this area at least a half dozen times, usually in the shoulder season, and here are a few thoughts.
Our standard strategy when visiting the area is to stay in Canmore. Canmore is just outside of Banff NP, East towards Calgary, and compared to the town of Banff is just as beautiful, significantly cheaper, and similarly convenient. If I had to pick one mountain town to live in anywhere in the world, it would probably be there. I freaking love it. There's just as much to do as in Banff, and you don't even have to worry about a National Parks Permit. There are also a good number of places on the outskirts where you can park and free camp without hassle (which isn't going to happen in the NPs), and even though it's heavily touristed as well, the tourists here tend to be Canadian ski bums and dirtbags rather than scenic drivers and bus passengers, so you get good breweries and a few relatively affordable groceries and bars.
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is Southeast of Banff, and like Mt Robson and Bowron Lakes, is just as amazing, and slightly less busy than the adjacent National Parks. It's day-trippable from Canmore or Calgary, and it is also so freaking pretty with lots of options for hiking, climbing or paddling. On this trip, it's hard for me to decide whether the Berg Lake Trail or a hike we did in this park was more beautiful - the Northover Ridge Loop. Like Berg Lake, this loop could be taken on as one big day for a very strong hiker or trail runner, but the ridge is nothing to be trifled with if you have any doubts about your ability to complete 25 miles in a day with a significant amount of climbing, some exposure, and changeable weather. We enjoyed it as a one night overnight.
Yoho National Park is kind of Banff/Jasper's kid brother. It's contiguous with them, and just as pretty, but a bit smaller and less popular.
When you cross into Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks on the Trans-Canada, the mountains start to feel a bit less like the Rockies, and a bit more like the Cascades. They're both smaller, beautiful parks right along the highway where we stopped for just a day hike, and that's pretty appropriate, I think. They're both great, beautiful places, but relatively small and with fewer options for activities than the other, larger parks. They're also significantly less crowded, and free to cheap camping options exist near both. The town of Revelstoke itself is picking up in popularity as an outdoor town for a lot of really solid reasons, but it's still a relatively affordable place to base yourself. The city campground in town is a great, cheap place to post up for a few nights with wifi and laundry, right in the middle of town, and right on the Columbia River.
When we came through Revelstoke we were feeling a bit sad because the geography was definitely reminding us that we were getting closer to home, which meant that our trip was coming to an end. Kelowna and Penticton made for a nice, surprising transition back to "reality", whatever that is. Even if you're familiar with Canada, you could be forgiven for not knowing that the country has a small but fantastic wine region, centered here along the Columbia. It's a surprising place - high, sunny desert that feels about as Mediterranean as Canada possibly could. There are dozens of excellent wineries between Kelowna and Pemberton, as well as a ton of options for hiking, swimming, paddling, climbing or trail running. It definitely feels contiguous with the orchard and wine country regions stretching up from Oregon through Eastern Washington, which makes sense, because it is, and you could easily make a lovely week hanging out in this area enjoying the sun and water, and sampling local food and wine.
Once again, there were some free camping options in this area. Both towns are beautifully situated along Okanogan Lake. Kelowna itself is a relatively large city with all of the associated options for things to do, while Penticton had the feel of a family lake vacation spot. I personally preferred Kelowna, but travelers with kids would probably appreciate some of the possibilities beyond wine tasting in Penticton.
And those were our experiences of the Canadian Rockies! I hope you found this post useful. Also, wait a minute - hey buddy! If you like reading things about how to do more adventures, you'll definitely like our book, "The Dirtbag's Guide to Life: Eternal Truth for Hiker Trash, Ski Bums, and Vagabonds"! You should check that out too.
Travel in Scotland isn't cheap.
Unless you free camp.
Which you can because Scotland allows wild camping virtually anywhere that isn't fenced in or in a city. (Here's a handy guide to the rules.) What this means is that it can be extremely affordable to experience one of Europe's classic walking experiences, the 96 mile West Highland Way.
We completed this walk in 2019, and strangely enough we had a somewhat difficult time finding the information we needed on the route as people trying to do it on the cheap. So dear internet, this is the guide I wish we had before the trip - a dirtbag's guide to wild camping for free along the West Highland Way.
The West Highland Way is a really nice walk, and there are a lot of good reasons to approach it like most people do - booking accommodations ahead, walking about 10 miles a day, staying in inns, and paying someone to drive your gear between towns so you don't have to carry it. There are plenty of nice places to stay and eat, it's really great to have a dry room and a bed when the weather and midgies are inevitably terrible, and it's remarkably affordable to pay someone else to taxi your gear. I'm not against it. It's a nice way to live your life.
But accommodations book out months in advance, and they aren't cheap. If you're like us and prefer to both fly by the seat of your pants and travel on a budget, it is absolutely still possible to have a good full experience of the West Highland Way. Lots of people free camp the entire way (we did), and it is easy to resupply at groceries to keep your food costs down (we didn't) This requires zero pre-booking, and a frugal shopper could survive on $25 a day without much trouble, as long as they avoid booze and pubs.
If that's appealing to you, this is your guide.
If you want a comprehensive guide to the trail, this is not your guide. For that, go here, but read this post too, because it has a bunch of stuff that isn't on that official page, for some reason.
The only thing you need to know about free camping on the West Highland Way (but for some reason no one tells you).
First things first, there was really only one piece of information that we had trouble finding online before our hike, and it's the only thing that's really important: where are the no camping zones along the West Highland Way?
Most internet guides I found state that you can camp anywhere along the West Highland Way as long as you aren't in town, "with the exception of a section along the shores of Loch Lomond." This is true. You almost never have to think about where you're allowed to camp, because it's pretty much anywhere that isn't paved.
But for some reason, it is difficult to get internet WHW guides to give you complete information about that one important caveat - how long is that section along Loch Lomond where you can't camp, and at what point will you hit it on your hike?
First off, many guides make the blanket statement that "you can't camp along the shores of Loch Lomond." I am here to tell you that this is not true. Liars, they're all liars, and they clearly weren't free camping. The truth is that you can't camp along some of the shores of Loch Lomond that are in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, but you can camp for a fair amount of it. Here's a screenshot of the official National Park map. The little lined out portions of the map roughly between Drymen and Rowardennan show where you aren't allowed to camp.
For some reason there is no scale on this map, so for reference the stage of the WHW between Drymen and Rowardennan is typically listed as 14 miles, which would make you think that you will have to make a decently long push through this section if you want to free camp. But there are clear signs on the trail where the no camping zone begins and ends. It starts just north of Conic Hill, and ends just north of Rowardennan. By my estimate, the actual no camping zone was no more than 10 miles long (and likely significantly less - I believe it was about a 2.5 hour walk and our hiking pace is consistently about 3 miles an hour).
I don't know why this information doesn't seem to be prominently displayed anywhere else on the internet. Other than the standard Scotland wild camping rules linked above, this is literally the only unique thing you need to know about free camping on the West Highland Way!
The good news is that this section will likely not cause most free campers any real inconvenience, unless you are taking things very slowly, or you plan a big first day out of Milngavie. By my estimate, the no camping zone started about 13 miles into the trail, and ended by 22 - 23 miles into the trail. To deal with it on our hike, we camped in the forest just South of Conic Hill on our first night, then walked all of the way through the restricted zone on day two before camping along the Loch on our second night. Not a big day - maybe 12 miles - and not that hard of hiking. There are several paid camp sites in the middle of the no free camping zone. If (for instance) you want to hike more than 13 miles on your first day, but don't want to hike 24, you can and should book those ahead.
So that's everything you need to know if you're free camping. Pre-plan for what will likely be day 2 of your trip, and after that you won't have to think about where you're allowed to camp, because the answer is "pretty much anywhere."
Everything you need to know about water
There are lots of natural water sources. There are sheep everywhere, so you should filter if you use them. But you will likely not need to use any of them as long as you fill up your bottles in towns or pubs. There are lots of towns and pubs. We did not use any natural water sources the entire way. And I'm happy with that decision, because even when you filter, you can't get rid of the taste of sheep shit.
Everything you need to know about food
If you're here, it's likely that you don't want to break the bank on this trail. It's relatively easy to spend it up on food and drinks, but the good news is that it's also easy not to. If you want to avoid restaurants altogether, it'll be sad, but you easily can. It's not that long of a hike. You could carry all of your food from Milngavie if you really wanted to. But no need - you will walk through (or near) towns with full groceries multiple times along the trail.
Full markets are available in the following towns, with mileage listed from South to North:
Of course, if you're like us, you will stop in a pub every time you get a chance and spend a ton of money on weird Scottish food and cold Scottish beer. We stopped into a pub or cafe at least once a day on our seven day hike, and often more. Food was almost as easy as camping, but we did typically think at least a couple of meals ahead so we wouldn't end up under-caffeinated or hangry between pubs.
Lots of sites give nice food recommendations and availability along the way, so I won't reinvent the wheel. I like this post from Mac's Adventures.
Our personal favorite restaurant was actually a small cafe that we passed on the first day around lunch time, called Turnip the Beet. Scottish pub food is decent, but gets a bit monotonous, and this place had delicious, fresh, and affordable food (and was owned by an ultra runner so it made us feel at home). The only place that stood out as pricey was the restaurant at Kingshouse, which was great, was in a spectacular location, and lets hikers sleep just outside the door, so we didn't feel too put out by the cost. Other than that, cool little pubs from the 18th and 19th centuries make for great ambiance for afternoon beers all along the way.
A Day in the Life of a Wild Camper: Our trip, for reference
The standard West Highland Way experience is to get up, have breakfast in town, pack out a lunch, hike about 10 - 15 miles between accommodation that's been booked ahead, eat dinner and drink a bunch of beer when you arrive at your destination. That routine fits well with a seven day/seven stage journey along the lines of the one outlined on the official WHW page, with stages broken up at Drymen, Rowardennan, Inverarnan, Tyndrum, Inveroran, and Kinlochleven. That leaves you with a shortest day of 9 miles hiking, and a longest of 19, with a hearty breakfast in town every morning, and beer, hot food and a warm bed at the end of every day.
Because you can't camp in town, free camping requires a little bit different of a routine, so It's worth talking a little about ours for reference.
We took the standard seven day routine and shifted it just a bit. We also took seven days, but we camped just after Drymen, a few miles after Rowardennan, Just after Inverarnan, in a field near Bridge of Orchy, outside the pub at the free public camping at Kingshouse, and in a field after Kinlochleven. Our days were actually closer to consistent mileage, with hikes between 12 - 18 miles a day.
We didn't have the luxury of a bed in town, so the routine that worked for us (with a few exceptions) would typically be to get up, make our own coffee and maybe have a snack, eat breakfast when we got to a village or pub, hike through the day until we hit another pub, and hang out there until after dinner. At that point we'd hike 1 - 3 more miles out of town and set up camp shortly before sunset, sleep, and repeat. We weren't staying in town at night, but we were enjoying its luxuries as we passed through. To me, the most pleasant time of the day to walk is dusk, and sunset over the Scottish countryside makes for a pretty damn pleasant ambiance when you're setting up your tent, so it made for a really nice experience. I'd recommend it.
A few other miscellaneous notes:
We hiked in May and had incredibly good weather - no rain at all until the last day, and very few midgies. This made the hiking experience really great. You will definitely not have the same experience. The biggest challenge for the average wild camper will likely be persistent rain and/or midgies, but I do think you can still have a really pleasant hike, because there are so many good places to stop and dry out. For us, pubs were nice because we like beer and sitting, but for an average soggy, midgie-tormented hiker, they will make great shelters to wait out the storms.
There are also two shelters along the way on Loch Lomond - called Bothies. We didn't stop at either, beyond peeking our heads in. They weren't that appealing on the hot, sunny days that we passed them, but they'd probably be nice places to stop and sleep if it were raining. They're first come, first served, and they do fill up, I hear.
You don't need a map. The trail is really well marked. I downloaded .gpx files for my smart phone, but I'm not sure that I ever used it other than for planning and general curiosity. There are lots available for free. Here's one. Probably not a bad idea to have if things somehow go sideways.
There are plenty of paid campsites along the way if you prefer that sort of thing (or if, unlike us, you decide to take a shower at any point.) This site runs through the options helpfully. Received wisdom is that it's better to pre-book these sites as well, but our experience was that they typically were taking walk ups.
We stayed in Airbnb's both before the hike (in Milngavie) and after (in Fort William). Milngavie is a suburb of Glasgow, and we found it relatively affordable. Fort William is a tourist and outdoor town, and we found it relatively expensive. You can definitely find free camping a mile or two outside of Fort William towards Ben Nevis, but it would be a bit harder to do the same in Milngavie as it is basically in the urban sprawl of Glasgow. It's worth noting that Fort William is a very easy place to spend money. It's a great little town, but also the most expensive stop on the trail if you're planning to spend time there recuperating afterwards.
This is clearly not a comprehensive guide to the West Highland Way, but it is, I hope, all of the peripheral information that is needed for someone who wants to free camp the whole way, and hike the trail on a budget. Google is full of more comprehensive guides - both paid and free. For some reason none of them contain some of the key information here, so I hope this helps all you internet readers. The West Highland Way is great. You're going to love it.
PS - If you like this post, you'll probably also like The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. It's our new book about living an adventurous life on the cheap and doing things like hiking around Scotland when you don't have much of a budget to work with.
It’s a hallmark strategy of budget travel to visit cheap places to stretch your money further, and that’s good advice. There are enough cheap, beautiful, interesting places in the world to spend your whole life exploring. But there are also a lot of places in the world that aren’t cheap, but are awesome. You'd be forgiven for wanting to visit those too, but making a small budget work in pricey places is higher level travel skill. In 2018 -19 we’ve spent about 4 months of the year doing just that - traveling in Europe, Alaska, Canada, New Caledonia and New Zealand. We haven’t had a big budget, and I want to talk through some of how we’ve made it work, so this is the first in a series of posts on cheap travel in expensive places. (We already wrote up a few posts on the topic in New Zealand and New Caledonia if you want to check them out!)
Before I start posting our own experiences though, we have a couple of friends who are expert at this stuff doing a round the world honeymoon trip on a budget. They're starting in Hawaii, and out of the blue the started sending budget travel advice about Hawaii via text. We asked if we can share, so that's what you'll find here.
On the ground advice from an expert.
Hawaii is among the last places you’d think of when you think of budget travel destinations. It's a beautiful group of islands that are a long way from anywhere, and a major tourist destination for Americans and Japanese vacationers. It's resorts and beautiful golf courses and helicopter tours and fancy restaurants.
But it's also lots of other things, and if you avoid the main money traps, it can be a better option than you’d think. If you're traveling on a budget, you're not going to be staying in resorts, most likely, but if you want a taste of the real place, and the way real people live, you don't have to break the bank. Real people don’t live in resorts, after all.
Six2’s practical tips.
I wrote a book on this stuff, but I have a friend who goes by Six2 (not his real name, obviously, but let's keep the mystery) who's the real deal. He's a budget travel goldmine, and the kind of guy who plans trips for years, builds spreadsheets, and stays up all hours of the night researching the best options. He's been living and travelling on like 10 hours a week of employment for years, and has been to dozens of countries and all fifty states, along with hiking about 2 1/3 of the 3 major American long trails. He's the kind of person you want to know if you can - an old school budget travel nerd who has reams of information stored away in his head and I'm guessing his Google Drive. He's not some hip fake travel influencer writing throwaway articles. He travels for the love of the game and has an engineer’s mind so does it in the most organized way possible.
He recently got married, and left on a months-long round the world honeymoon, and randomly started sending us dispatches from their first stop in Hawaii, unsolicited. For a couple of days last week, Angel and I were receiving a barrage of texts with his dashed off thoughts, which were of course excellent budget travel advice, sent for no reason other than this is what he's interested in (maybe we did goad him along a bit...). The information was too good to keep to ourselves, so we asked to share the wealth with you. He said sure, why not, and here we are.
I've organized the texts he sent by locale and general topic, but I'm keeping them in their original dashed-off form. I could have cleaned things up, but I wanted you to have something of the pure, exhilarating and amusing experience of getting random texts from an expert with their offhand thoughts on the subject they're fluent in. So, the rest of what you'll find in this article are his unvarnished observations.
He and his wife spent time on Oahu and Big Island, and the first thing he said about the experience was:
It’s possible to do Hawaii relatively cheaply, but it’s a lot of effort.
The Big Island
I hope you found Six2's dispatches as amusing and helpful as I did. Some other general things to know about Hawaii: camping is cheap to free in many places. Freecampsites.net doesn’t show much, but hipcamp has a good number of private options, and check in with each individual island's State Park options, because there are a bunch! This article has more great camping advice. The weather’s always warm there. Why not? Beach bums are a thing. Other good news is that, unlike most of the US, Hostels are a thing in Hawaii, and can be a good budget option - especially for a solo traveler.
If you want a whole lot more wisdom gleaned from experts like Six2, check out my book The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. It's full of good ideas from people who've been living the dream.
Life takes you to unexpected places through unexpected means.
Angel and I met Ken Campbell through Boldly Went in 2017, and he's told multiple stories at our events in Tacoma. We got together with him over beers a few months ago to talk about putting together a fundraiser for his water plastics nonprofit, The Ikkatsu Project, and he mentioned that their biggest project for the year was a beach clean up and water sampling trip to the Cape Decision Lighthouse in remote Alaska.
The scene went something like this:
Ken: "Yep, that's where most of the money will go. We're getting together a group of volunteers and trying to help cover their costs. There are still a few spots. We want to make it cheap. Hey! You two should go!"
Angel and I: Look at each other, take a swig of beer, and simultaneously say "We're in!"
A few months later, we found ourselves as far from civilization as we've ever been, flying via pond hopper from Ketchikan to the tiny village of Wrangell, AK, then getting on a chartered jet boat 75 miles into the wild to the lighthouse, on the Southwestern tip of Kuiu Island. The lighthouse is a tiny outpost of human industry on an island mostly inhabited by bears, wolves, deer and slugs, all of which is part of Tongass National Forest. It's the largest National Forest in the country at 17 million acres, which for perspective is about three times as large as Vermont.
We didn't know this until we got there, but the lighthouse story itself is pretty crazy. it's been there since 1932 and it's still one of Southeast Alaska's most important. Cruise ships and fishing boats roll by regularly headed through the Inside Passage. Since 1997 it's been maintained by volunteers through a nonprofit called the Point Decision Lighthouse Society.
If you're asking yourself why an important piece of public infrastructure is maintained by a private group of volunteers, apparently this is a pretty common setup. In the 1970s, when technology began to allow for the remote operation of lighthouse beacons, it became unnecessary to station permanent staff to keep the lights in operation, and many of the physical structures were placed on offer as "government surplus" to nonprofits that would commit to maintain them. After several decades of nominal maintenance by a nearby historical society, in 1997, The Cape Decision Lighthouse Society was formed to "purchase" the structure for $1 and took on the responsibility to maintain it. (A longer account of the story was written by The Anchorage Daily News in 2016, and it's a great article.)
Aside from making sure that the light keeps working, the Society can do pretty much whatever it wants with the structure. While just keeping up with basic maintenance is a herculean effort for a volunteer organization with a tiny budget, Chris Brooks, who's been a part of the project from the beginning, told us that their bigger vision is to make the lighthouse available for education, environmental research, recreation, history, community, and art. Chris lives near Ken in Tacoma, and that's how Ikkatsu ended up bringing groups to the lighthouse. For the last several years, they've been doing organized beach cleanup for a few weeks a summer, gathering data about both visible plastics and microplastics in the water around the property.
People who come to Cape Decision from year to year get the place in their blood. A big part of that is the environment itself. This is remote, wild Alaska. Whales are visible feeding out the front door, all day, every day. Kuiu Island houses one of the densest populations of Black Bear anywhere in the world, and is part of North America's largest intact temperate rainforest. It's old growth and rugged coast and otters and sea lions surfing. Visiting there gives you a chance to hike or paddle through real wilderness, yards from humpbacks. It's not an easy experience to replicate or encapsulate in words.
Another part of the magic is the nature of the project itself. Imagine buying a 1930s industrial operation, with big machinery and systems, and crumbling infrastructure, 75 usually rough sea miles from anywhere, and trying to keep it running with a group of buddies. The task is daunting, but also intoxicating for a certain type of personality. It's adventure industry for intrepid outdoorists who love hard work and engineering challenges - the kind of thing Patagonia Workwear should scramble to work into their branding. I've personally never been in an environment quite like it.
Our experience incorporated a lot of what the Lighthouse has to offer. During our week there, we spent a few days paddling with humpbacks and sea otters. We spent a few days cleaning up trash - collecting and weighing it for data. We smashed rock to improve trail, organized and cleaned the lighthouse, relaxed and read some books. watched whales spout while drinking beer on the lighthouse lawn. We ate good food with good people, tramped through the woods, did some tidepooling, slept in a tent, and created some art. The experience was a unique combination a retreat and a work camp and an adventure outing.
The primary purpose of our own trip was focused on plastics cleanup and research, and that part of the experience is something I'll remember. There's something shocking about being in such a remote area, digging into the dirt, and finding masses of styrofoam. 75 miles from anything resembling civilization, we picked up more than 200 pounds of plastics, mostly in small bits, and most of the beaches we cleaned had already been picked over either this year or last. It was the hands on experience of a problem that I knew about intellectually, but hadn't fully internalized.
Being there, you can't help but see the difficulty of the task. This is a giant piece of public infrastructure that was built with government funding in mind, rather than non-profit donations. A fire in 1989 destroyed a large part of the pier, leaving thousands of pounds of wood and steel hanging precariously, fifty feet in the air, in need of removal. Imagine trying to figure out how to solve that problem, on a remote island, with no money and a couple of your friends, and you get a sense of what the society is up against. In an aging historical structure, solving those types of problems will be the ongoing challenge.
But at the same time, work is getting done, and the mission is developing in intriguing ways. The week that I'm writing, a group of local kids are camping out at the lighthouse to work on trails to local beaches, Ikkatsu has a deepening relationship with the place through year to year studies of trash accumulation and water quality, and there are an ever growing body of volunteers who feel connected to the place and the project. A film is being made about the project for the festival circuit, and educators, environmentalists, scientists, photographers, engineers, and recreationalists were part of our group. The Cape Decision story is filtering out from the literal wilderness into the wider world in a variety of ways.
The project is remarkable. The lighthouse needs a lot of things - finances, PR, press, volunteer support, word of mouth, connections to people who might be interested. But the volunteer experience was a real work camp for adventurers, and there's a sense that the overall project is for the public good. It was an experience that was different than any other we've had, and we feel lucky to have been a part.
To donate, learn more, become a member, or contact the Society about involvement, go to their website on https://www.capedecisionlight.org/.
In Memory of Michael McGuire
There are facts about Michael McGuire that mark the passage of his time on this earth. He was born in Portland, OR on April 24th, 1946. He was a veteran of the Vietnam War, married, had two children, divorced and remarried. He was in finance and banking by trade, and served on housing authorities as part of his community engagement. He was a 30 year resident of Santa Barbara.
Beyond fact and figures was the real Mikey. He thought deeply (and mostly privately) on a vast array of subject matters. From afar he might seem stoic and studious, and yet when he’d engage in a topic with others he’d reveal a connected, thoughtful man. He’d smile easily at his own stories and enjoyed a diverse spectrum of friends that helped him expand how he saw the world. He believed in others. He’d know your name, look you in the eye when he shook your hand or gave you a bear hug. He never stammered, except when his heart would fill with emotion and his eyes would reveal his vulnerabilities.
He was the kind of man, father, husband, mentor that was resilient beyond belief, but not hard or calloused. He’d cuddle his cat with affection, give you the shirt of his back and perhaps hold you somewhat close to the same elevated standards he held for himself. He saw patterns in numbers and could site a lot and draw a home in his mind, then convert that vision to reality in his spare time. He loved to cast a fly.
There are so many stories, the ones we know intimately, the ones we half recall and the ones we’ve yet to hear. To that end, there will be a celebration of his life on January 19th, 2019, 1pm at the Santa Barbara Mission, Junipero Serra Hall. Brings your Mikey stories, see old friends and new. And most importantly, share in the love that he felt for so many and that so many felt for him. Because the most important part of his tale is that he was loved deeply. And he will be missed tremendously.
He is survived by the mother of his children, Marcia McGuire, daughter Kelli McGuire, son Scott McGuire, his six grandchildren and his beloved wife, Donna Christine McGuire.
A eulogy for my father by Scott McGuire
I was thinking last night about things that reminded me of my father. Not the general things, like sudoko books and how we shared the love of the numbers game. Or math problems in your head, as we would do on road trips (and now I see my son doing the same). But very specific, only tied to him items. For example, he embraced strangers, engaged everyone regardless of social status and was always willing to put ”another cup of water” in the soup when opening his door to others. There was always room at the table.
On Helping Others
I doubt I will ever look at graph paper and not think about my dad and house design. He did this his entire life, for places he would build, dream of or simply see if they were possible on paper as they were in his head. One of my most profound memories here was when I was perhaps 6 or 7 and had been drawing a van to live in well before #vanlife was a thing. He taught about scale and space and what was enough.
One day at his table, I remember watching him iterate over and over on a relatively simple design. When I asked what he was doing, he said he was trying to design the most efficient house from construction standpoint that he could come up with and still have it feel special and like a loving home. He had a passion for community housing and it was something that would be part of his life for decades.
I was I barely of remembering age, at the house he grew up in in Oregon. We were there to help my grandparents move and he and my grandfather took me for a walk along the “crick” as grandpa would call it, crossing a stream on a driftwood branch, my dad lot his balance and fell in. A few choice words later, he, grandpa and I had a good laugh. It stuck with me. And apparently him as well. Several decades later, we were driving to Washington to see my grandfather. We’d stopped for mass at Jesuit High School whet he attended in his you (another story there) and then went for hike in the old neighborhood. We found that same creek, talked about that old fall and both jumped in to the creek for no apparent reason. Splash!
On Teaching Others
Back to Jesuit High. We’d been telling jokes on that road trip, most not to be repeated here. But one, about an old women praying for salvation from a flood had us giggling. Imagine our surprise when at the service, the father starts telling the same joke, as a metaphor for faith and seeing it everywhere around you. We got a lot of sideways glances laughing as we were in the back of the church. That was until the punch line came from the pulpit. Then everyone understood we knew the joke.
On Being Observant
We were always around boats. But it was on sailboats that I learned something truly special about my father. In the dead of night, the twang of the rigging would change. A tone, a certain way they would strike and he’d bolt from his bunk. It wasn’t just that the wind had shifted, but that he could be asleep and still observe his world. He was always taking in and processing and using that information to better himself or protect those he cared about.
On Seeking Knowledge
So many memories involve construction sites. I remember our house in Parker, CO and working on the basement. We’d been hanging drywall and the cabinets in the shop. I was amazed that he knew how to do all theses things that were not part of his trade and I asked how he learned. He told be he’d started by being curious, then by trying, failing, improving, asking others, failing and trying again until it became reliable knowledge.
We didn’t speak for a year. There had been a fight, choice words, a disconnect. I’d later learn that he’d held his diagnosis from my sister and I for several months, knowing that our mother was in the midst of chemo and not wanting to overwhelm us. When I’d see him again for the first time after the diagnosis and we’d started talking, it was his last birthday. We’d gone for a walk along the river near the house in Idaho. We’d fallen back in to our patten of banter when there was an obvious and palpable break. I tried to bring up the past year, gutted that I’d lost the time, time I now saw was more finite than imagined. He wouldn’t let me go there. He interrupted, hugged me and said “we are here, right now, let’s enjoy this”
He used to say “Perfection is adequate” and as a child, I thought this some unachievable goal. But I learned as I grew, and knew him in a different way, that this was how he saw life. To be complete, to be perfect, was adequate. The true magic was in the journey there, to that adequate destination.
We each have those moments, those reminders of his life and ours. These are the reminders of shared life and love and friendship.
We were fortunate to be part of his journey and he along for ours. And in the pain of saying goodbye, let’s remember gratitude for what we had and the joy, learnings and love he brought to us.
In Episode 103 of the Boldly Went Podcast, "You Can Do(o) Better," we featured the humiliating and hilarious story by Dan Clem who learned the hard way about how to poop in the woods.
Dan's story was an honest, and unexpected, depiction of the trials that shitting outside can bring. After electing to poop under a rock, he came into contact with the famous, Bogachiel Beth. It only seems right to pay tribute to Bogachiel Beth, the longest serving National Park Service Volunteer Ranger (30+ years). Then, in our effort to make a wrong a right, we do our best to help you avoid unwelcome poo angels in the forest by teaching you proper technique for shitting in the woods.
Beth "Bogaciel Beth" Rossow
Beth is one of the world's best dirtbags... and get this... she's from Tacoma, the same gritty home of Boldly Went!
Beth's everything we aspire to be! Beth lived in a self-constructed treehouse made of styrofoam and managed to survive on only $2,000 per year while saving the rest of her income each year to fund her international trips!
Beth Rossow, or Bogachiel Beth, has become an almost legendary figure in the Bogachiel Valley where she has been living for 3 decades. She's said to be the longest serving National Park Service Volunteer Ranger (didn't fact check that because we're a storytelling platform, not a news source, but seems possible enough).
Beth saw the valley as an area that got little attention especially in comparison with the Olympic Peninsula’s other more famed attractions, so 30 years ago she reached out to the National Park Service to offer to maintain the valley. Beth defined the conditions for volunteering which were that she wouldn't be required to wear a park service uniform, and that she would be allowed to stay in the back country indefinitely. Since then, Beth has resided in the Bogachiel Valley for 100 consecutive days every year for 30 years!
The big doody no-no
In Episode 103, Dan described the emotions he had after received this reprimanding note from Bogaciel Beth after an admittedly poor decision about his wilderness waste disposal.
It remains a mystery about how Beth found the evidence. Was she watching? We don't know. Or was it actually possible that she noticed this trail disturbance? This option's more likely since Beth is intimately famililar with this trail that she has spent over 2500 days in the Bogachiel and hiked over 9000 miles on this 25 mile trail.
We can’t prevent shitting, but we can do better when trying to be less shitty to the environment. ~Ep. 103, You Can Do(o) Better
How to Shit In the Woods: An exhaustive explanation
For all you adventure buddies and dirtbags out there wondering about the correct way to poop in the woods, here are our practiced tips. First, make sure you know what the rules are in the area you will be hiking in and therefore what supplies you will need.
Here's a list of supplies to get you started shitting in the woods:
Doing the doody
Not an ad
This looks like an ad, but it isn't, it's an example of a bottle that you can fill with water then spray your butt off with. Boldly Went strives to be 100% listener supported, and we hope you'll be a supporter and join us on Patreon. Click on this butt sprayer to learn more....promise, it will take you to our Patreon Page!
Do not just lay that TP on top for it to poke out of the ground in an ugly little TP bloom later. Don’t do it!
What about pee?
If you’re just peeing, you don’t need to dig a hole, but if you are using toilet paper and deciding not to carry it out, you absolutely better dig a hole and bury that stuff deep so it doesn’t create nasty little TP blooms! Seriously, no one wants to see that. Our friends over at Wander Woman Gear have snapped these disgusting photos to prove that your nasty TP doesn't just disintegrate like you might think. Gross! Don't be that person!
Try a pee rag (good for use in the wild and at home too!)
If you can’t bare the thought of the shake it off method, also known as the drip dry method, but let’s be honest, no one ever sits there long enough to dry… then get yourself a re-usable pee rag. There’s some really awesome ones and the one I use every single day and love for it's soft inner and waterproof external shell is from Wander Woman Gear that's owned by Nurse Betty, a hard core, almost triple-crown thru-hiker who really knows what's up.
Go out and try it!
Now you’re ready to continue on your way! When you do, think of us, Bogaciel Beth, and, of course, Dan Clem!
When Dan heard his story was coming out in the podcast, he replied, "Woot woot! I just pooped myself with joy... and cleaned it up!"
Special thanks to Michaela Elias who co-wrote this piece.
Thanks for reading. Be sure to listen to Episode 103. And for more tips on how to be a responsible dirtbag, check out our book, "The Dirtbag's Guide to Life: Eternal Truth for Hiker Trash, Ski Bums, and Vagabonds."
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Learn Spanish. Build connections, not walls.
Our friend Vicente just opened a Spanish school in Sucre, Bolivia, which got me thinking about Latin America.
Which also got me thinking, if you haven't already, I highly recommend learning Spanish, especially if you’re American.
Even just a little.
If you learn even enough to muddle through signs at museums, basic conversations, and the signs at bus stations, the door will be cracked open on a beautiful, interesting, previously inaccessible world populated by 500 million people. You'll be able to interact at a basic level and travel confidently in an entire, spectacular, continent (and a half) of people a few hours flight from the US. It'll change conversations with the 41 million Spanish speakers in the US from a daunting, awkward task to a learning and connecting experience, and will help you understand the culture of the country of 130 million people living right across the border from you that, admit it, you know almost nothing about. There are bilingual people all over the world. There's no reason you can't or shouldn't be one of them.
The more Americans that know Spanish, the better off the world will be. And personally, knowing a bit will totally make your life more rich and interesting. It's entirely worth it, and the initial time investment is not that significant. If you go and immerse yourself you can get to a level of basic functionality in three weeks - which will give you a fantastic base to learn more. I know, because we did. And if you go to the right place, you can manage the whole thing, from classes to transportation to food, on about $1000. I also know, because we did. (Volunteer somewhere, and you might be able to figure it out for even less!)
This post is designed to give you a big picture understanding of how to make it happen.
How to learn Spanish in Latin America
You can learn Spanish in community colleges or with local or online tutors from where ever you happen to be at the moment. That's good (DO IT IF YOU CAN!), but this is a post about learning in Latin America specifically. Because learning abroad is a genuinely life changing experience, and in many cases (I know it's hard to believe this), it can be even cheaper than hiring a tutor and learning at home in the US, even factoring in travel costs. It is definitely cheaper than learning in a university, so skip Spanish 101 and buy that ticket to Costa Rica.
There are some daunting aspects of learning abroad - I get it, I was stressed about the idea before we did it - but the things that I can absolutely assure you are that it is doable! It's affordable, safe, and manageable even on a week-long vacation, and definitely if you're someone with a bit of flexible time - between semesters, jobs, or contracts. Got three weeks of vacation time this year? Those 3 weeks could open up the world.
Here are the steps to take, and the order to take them.
1) Pick a country and town.
To tell you a little bit of our story, a few years back, in 2016, Angel (my wife) and I spent 4 months in Latin America on a self-organized trip, and we spent the first three weeks in San Pedro, a small town in Guatemala on Lake Atitlan, in structured classes (20 hours a week) and a homestay organized through Guatemaya Spanish School.
Our choice to go to Guatemala - and San Pedro specifically - was largely based on word of mouth recommendations. We had two friends who'd studied there on different occasions, and both of them felt like it was the right choice. They said it was a beautiful, friendly town, where quality of instruction was high and cost was as low as you'll find anywhere. And it was true. $200/week got us 20 hours of 1:1 instruction from university trained educators in an open air school with a beautiful view of Lake Atitlan, a homestay with a local family, and 3 meals a day. The three week cost, including flights (we caught a deal), was a little over $1000 total for both of us.
After Guatemala, we traveled for two months independently - El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina - and then ended our trip with another three weeks of instruction, in Sucre, Bolivia (which is where we met the aforementioned Vicente, who was my instructor). Budget was a major factor in our decision again. Courses there were $130/week for group instruction with 3 - 4 other people. We covered our own accommodation and food this time because we wanted the privacy after a lot of time in hostels and homestays. But beyond just budget, word of mouth and environment were also major factors in our decision making. We talked with friends who'd studied in South America, and Sucre was one of the top choices for culture and scenery. We'd visited Bolivia after Central America, and it was frankly one of the most stunning places we'd ever been. It wasn't hard to convince us to go back to study. We definitely didn't regret it.
Cost, word of mouth, and scenery are all important factors that influenced our decisions on where to go.
Another thing to consider is ease of access, depending on your time frame. Latin America is full of great places to visit that have Spanish language schools, but not all are easy to get to. If you want to study in Peru, you'll have no issue getting to Lima or Cuzco on an easy, frequent flight. But if you want to be near the Cordillera Blanca in Huaraz, you'll need to navigate 8 hour bus rides or infrequent flights. Similarly, if you want to study in Bolivia, lots of people fly into La Paz, but Sucre flights were expensive so we spent an overnight on a bus to get there. Central America obviously is easier to access from the US, but some locations require long bus connections. If I'd been staying in Guatemala for just a week, I likely would have studied in Antigua, which is easier to access than Atitlan as it's just outside of Guatemala City, where the main airport is located.
Factors like geography, climate, culture, and style of Spanish also are considerations. If you're looking for a big, metropolitan experience, and budget isn't your number one consideration, it might make sense to pay the premium to study in a place like Mexico City, Buenos Aires, or Santiago. If you want to learn to surf while you learn Spanish, it might tip the scales in favor of a place like Costa Rica, Peru, or even Uruguay - which are pricier than some other options. Or if you want to climb mountains on your weekends off, it might make sense to sacrifice the time needed to get to Huaraz or La Paz. Spanish in Chile and Argentina are idiosyncratic, and may be harder to learn if you already have a little bit of a base because you'll have to change your listening patterns and accent (Chile is to Spanish as Scotland is to English, roughly speaking. It's the same language, but only sort of.)
Affordable, beautiful options that come highly recommended include Peru, Mexico (my personal all around favorite Latin American country), Columbia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador.
Pricier countries are Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.
This article is a decent review of some of the pros and cons of different countries. The site is ugly but it is pretty useful as a starting point (scroll to the bottom for the pros and cons list).
2) Pick a School
There are about a billion options, ranging from one person who takes on a couple students when they feel like it to big programs that cycle through dozens of students per week. Most towns of any size in Latin America will have someone who will teach you Spanish. But there are definitely some places where Spanish students congregate more than others.
My recommendation is to use Google to research the country you want to go to, then drill down to the city or area, and then drill down to the school to see if you can find a fit. Googling a “Latin American Spanish School” will be like trying to pick where you’ll have dinner by googling “restaurant North America”.
We studied at Guatemaya, a small school with just a few other students in Guatemala, and Me Gusta, a larger school with about 20 other students in Bolivia. Both were good experiences. We got to know our instructors really well in Guatemala, which was great, but we also came away with a few lifelong friends in Bolivia, so were happy with both decisions and would recommend either. The small school with 1:1 coaching meant we could ask whatever we wanted to know, but the large school offered specialized classes covering medical and other types of Spanish, so this was a perk of a larger environment.
For us the option to include a homestay was really valuable in Guatemala, because full immersion makes for a much deeper, if slightly exhausting, learning experience. By the end of our homestay, we were attempting (and failing) to explain group games in Spanish at a birthday party for the daughter in our host family, and that type of real world experience is hard to duplicate in a school environment.
But Airbnb is a way that you can replicate the experience all over, even if it isn't offered by your school. Some of our best personal connections in Latin America are with people who hosted us in Airbnb's, and it forces you, similarly to a homestay, to use Spanish practically. And costs are very frequently remarkably low. In Mexico we usually budget $20 - 30/night for two people, and in Bolivia it’s easy to find a nice room in someone’s house for $15 - 20/night.
To save yourself some research, you could just make it easy and go study with our friend Vicente in Sucre at El Camino, or our friend Javier on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala at Guatemaya. You have my word that they're both amazing options!
3) Pick a timeframe, but pay by the week.
3 weeks was a great amount of time for our purposes, starting mostly from scratch (Angel had never had classes, I took a bit of Spanish in college 15 year prior), to pick up enough to travel on. It gave us a base to learn more and travel functionally before sandwiching on another 3 weeks at the end of our trip. In that time frame we were confident in our ability to communicate our basic needs, and even speak one on one a little bit conversationally. I can figure out how to read the majority of signs and understand basic instructions. I still have no idea what people are saying if they’re speaking at a normal rate in long sentences, or conversing with each other in a conversation that I don't have context for.
Whatever your time frame though, pay week to week for classes. This is a standard approach so most schools will be happy to work with you on it, and it will give you the option to re-up if you like a place, or switch schools or locations if it isn't working for some reason. Booking ahead for your first week is a smart idea if you're making an international trip, but we showed up at the door in Sucre and everything worked out to start classes the next day.
4) Figure out how to get there.
A rule in Latin America is that finding transportation literally anywhere is possible, but if you want to get somewhere out of the way, you might be in for a bit of an adventure. Lots of places have easy direct flights, but flights to less popular destinations can be infrequent, so also quite expensive. Lots of places also require a bus or cab connection, and if you're really clever you might find yourself in the back of some guy's cousin's truck in order to get where you're going. Research what your trip will look like beforehand to save yourself some trouble and anxiety.
Transportation to most of the heavily visited areas in Latin America will be easy enough to figure out without knowing any Spanish. There's something of a Gringo Trail of backpackers from all over the world that form a steady stream through any place you're likely to end up on a first trip to Latin America. As such, even if there's no direct flight, if you want to go there, you can probably find an English speaking bus driver to book online that will get you there. You'll pay a premium over the local public transit cost, but you'll be able to communicate.
Once you've picked up some Spanish, you'll learn that you can just do what the locals do and save yourself a lot of money if you want. Book your transport on the ground using local transportation options. In most cases, this is relatively straightforward, and dramatically cheaper than options you'll find advertised online.
Rome 2 Rio is the best online resource to piece together the various types of transportation you might need to utilize. Other tips for Latin American travel are in this post. It's about Mexico but applies pretty much universally (although bus costs in Chile and Argentina are much higher than other parts of Latin America.)
5) Get resources and prepare
Anything you can do to give yourself a base in the language before you go will be valuable. Most classes are going to be customized to your skill level, so don’t pay someone to teach you the alphabet or basic grammar when you're just going to have to memorize it anyway. The basics are easy to learn for free. We used Duo Lingo, which is an amazing free app, and practicing with it for a couple of months beforehand was really valuable when we flew to Latin America. It teaches basic vocabulary and grammar. It would be hard to get fluent when you're being taught by a robot, but it does give you a framework to build on later.
SpanishDict is a strange name choice, but to me it's the best, easy to use free dictionary app.
6) Go Learn and immerse yourself!
After all of that, it's really just a matter of diving in!
If you have other questions I haven't answered - please comment or contact us and ask them! I'll answer you and update the post! It's easy to forget the questions you have before you do something, and I want this to be valuable to newbies!
If you like this post, you'll probably also like The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. It's our new book about living an adventurous life on the cheap and doing things like spending four months in Latin America when you don't have much of a budget to work with.
And if you like what we're doing here, consider joining the legion of Boldly Went supporters on Patreon!
Angel and I go way back with "Team UltraPedestrian" Ras and Kathy Vaughan.
We ran a DIY race out of their back yard years ago, but one of the first times we really hung out was in 2012, when Ras was attempting a "Double Wonderland", completing the 94 mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier twice in one push. We went on a long run with Kathy, and mostly just sat around wondering if he was okay during big lightning storms. At the time it was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard of someone doing. (Now I'm aware of much worse.)
The thing we love about these two is that all of their outdoor projects are creative endeavors focused on inspiring other people to try new things. Ras threw down the Wonderland double because he loved the trail, and realized doing it twice in opposite directions was a different experience than just doing it once. He had an instinct that other people would want to follow him, and they did. Since then, several other friends have completed the double in one push, which is, to my mind, one of the most difficult trail challenges possible.
A year later, my first proper outdoor publication was an online interview with Ras for TrailRunner Magazine in 2013, after he complete a "Rim to Rim to Rim to Rim to Rim to Rim" - a sextuple crossing of the Grand Canyon. In that article, we referred to the attempt as an "Only Known Time" - a humorous play on the idea of a "Fastest Known Time," designed to show that no one else had been ridiculous enough to try it yet. The idea also contained the seeds of inspiration, because the reason to pursue an OKT, as we talked about it, isn't just so you can say you've done something no one else has. You do it because you think other people will be inspired to follow behind, either to emulate or to one up you. The term OKT now pops up from time to time in trail publications, and I just realized there's a guy making a film with the title. Coining the term is our crowning achievement together so far.
(Side note - the "OKT" inspiration worked with Ras' Grand Canyon endeavor - Portland trail beast Christof Teuscher later completed a 168 mile 8x crossing, which he talks about on this episode of Humans of Ultrarunning!)
In the spirit of inspiration Ras and Kathy have also gone on to found the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge, an "adventure blogging" contest that challenges individuals to try out a series of wilderness routes of various difficulties and distances and report back on how it went. It's kind of an un-race, and prizes are given for a variety of speed- and non-speed related achievements. You should really check it out. It's a genuinely clever take on organized trail pursuits that's different from anything else out there that I'm aware of.
Oh yeah, the point is, check them out because they're touring right now!
All these stories are really just by way of introduction. I really wanted to write here and now because Ras and Kathy are headed out on a six week speaking tour today, April 4, 2019, around WA and OR where they'll be presenting about their most recent OKT - the completion of the "UP North Loop" - a roughly 2600 Mile overland trail loop through the inland Pacific Northwest, which connects the Pacific Crest, Pacific Northwest, Idaho Centennial, and Oregon Desert Trails into one massive loop route spanning mountain and desert in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho (with a few steps into Montana and Nevada).
We attended their first presentation in Tacoma, and it was really inspiring. If there's one thing I love, it's people coming up with amazing things to do because they want other people to realize it's possible. This felt like that. It was, in ways, a massively difficult route with a lot of route finding and heavy carries involved, and a short weather window between snowfall in the spring and winter of the Northwestern mountains. But it was also just the kind of thing anyone can pull off if they want to. They planned the route by looking at a map, saying "that looks amazing, and possible", and then doing it before they were even really sure if it would "go", since large parts of the Centennial trail are unfinished, the Oregon Desert is largely an overland route, and there were several connectors between the two that no one had actually hiked yet. Spoiler alert - they figured it out, but like all good adventures, it didn't go to plan.
If you like what we do here at Boldly Went, I highly recommend checking them out when they come to your town (The schedule is linked here, but I also cut and pasted it below.) They're totally entertaining storytellers, and the UP North Project is the type of thing that the world needs more of - a real adventure created whole cloth out of a bit of inspiration that came from staring at some hiking maps. You should hear about it firsthand.
I'm also excited that they're going to be traveling sales-people for The Dirtbag's Guide to Life on this tour - they bought a bunch of wholesale copies and will be selling them at events along with their own book, 98 Days of Wind. We'll be selling that one at our upcoming events as well, because dirtbag authors gotta stick together. All proceeds will go to making sure we all keep doing ridiculous stuff in the hopes that it'll inspire you to do the same.
These guys are old school dirtbags, so another way to support is to host them when they come through town. Like us, they tour the punk rock way, sleeping on couches, camping out, and paying their way by selling merch from the back of their overpacked beat up old car. We can hook you up, or they're on social media on Facebook or Instagram.
If you want to support Team UltraPedestrian, or buy their book, but can't make an event, go to their website, Ultrapedestrian.com. For more on the UP North Loop, there's a website for that too. Check 'em out! You'll be inspired!
UP North Loop Tour Dates
April 4 - Seven Hills Running Shop, Seattle, WA - 7:00 PM
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April 5 - Mountain Shop, Portland, OR - 7:00 PM
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April 8 - Fleet Feet, Vancouver, WA - 6:00 PM
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April 9 - REI at WildCraft Cider Works, Eugene, OR - 7:00 PM
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April 11 - Footzone, Bend, OR - 7:00 PM
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April 15 - Tall Town Bikes, Lakeview, OR - 6:00 PM
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April 22 - Fleet Feet, Tacoma, WA - 6:00 PM
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April 23 - Fleet Feet, Seattle, WA - 8:00 PM
more details to come
April 24, Mountain Supply, Bend, OR - 7:00 PM
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April 25, Fleet Feet, Portland, OR - 6:oo PM
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April 26, Obsidians Lodge, Eugene, OR - 7:30 PM
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April 27, Peak Sports, Corvallis, OR - 3:00 PM
more details to come
April 29, Fleet Feet, Spokane, WA - 6:00 PM
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April 30- REI, Kennewick, WA - 7:15 PM
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May 1 - REI, Boise, ID - 7:00 PM
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May 2 - Fleet Feet, Meridian, ID 6:00 PM
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May 3 - BSU Trail Stewardship Club, Boise, ID
more details to come
May 6 - Mountain Shop, Portland, OR - 7:00 PM
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May 7 - Bend Library, OR - 6:00 PM
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May 9 - Christmas Valley Library, OR - 6:30 PM
more details to come
May 10 - Paisley Library, OR - 1:30 PM
more details to come
May 10 - Lakeview Library, OR - 6:30 PM
more details to come
Hey, did you know we wrote a book called "The Dirtbag's Guide to Life: Eternal Truth for Hiker Trash, Ski Bums, and Vagabonds"?! Of course you did. I won't shut up about it. But really, have a look. People like it. I think you'll like it.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.