What hiking 700 miles taught me about money and life

As seen on Reach Financial Independence

There are a few things I am passionate about, and while they’re completely unrelated, finance and the outdoors happen to be two of them.

It wasn’t until college that I developed either one of these passions but once I found them I was hooked. The summer after my freshman year at James Madison University in Virginia, I drove across the country to work for the summer in Yellowstone National Park. With abundant wild life, endless hiking trails, and breathtaking views all around, it was easy to be amazed. I then spent my next summer studying abroad in South Africa and backpacking Europe. After my junior year, instead of taking an internship, I drove to Wisconsin to live in a tent and get paid to be a whitewater rafting guide. Coming up on graduation, I wasn’t even thinking about working. I wanted the most badass adventure I could find. I would have an unlimited amount of time, but I was low on money so I wanted to pick something that would stretch out what I had for as long as possible. So a week after officially graduating from college, I flew to California to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a hiking trail that begins at the US/Mexico border and finishes at the US/Canada border, 2650 miles away. The landscape changes from desert, to mountains, to forest, and just about everything in between. In early May of 2016, I took my first step of this journey.

The first day, in fact within the first few hours, I realized this endeavor was not going to be like anything I had imagined, expected, or experienced before. And while I had been hiking and camping a lot throughout college, I never had been on a trip longer than 3 days. If I was to make it to the end, it would take me about 5-6 months to complete.

Every day I would get up around 6am, have some breakfast, hike until noon, eat lunch, hike until 3 or 4pm, set up camp, eat dinner, and relax. After about a week of hiking, I’d have to get to the nearest town to resupply my food stash. Often, this involved hitchhiking. Never in my life would I have imagined myself as a hitchhiker, and here I was doing it regularly. It’s funny, when the options are hitchhike or starve you tend get over the idea quickly and surprise yourself at what you can do.

A little over a month into the journey, I began to wear down mentally. The initial thrill had worn off and I began to consider if I wanted to spend 5 more months doing this. My parents decided to come out and visit which I gratefully welcomed. Instead of the reboot I was expecting this to give me, it ended up giving me too much time to think off the trail and I couldn’t get myself to go back. This ended up being just shy of Yosemite National Park. My trip had taken me just over 700 miles in about 5 weeks. Every day at my current job, I have flashbacks of the trail and can’t believe I willingly stopped. I would take the trail over work any day.

So what does any of this have to do with money? I’m glad you asked.

The greatest lesson I learned on the trail is appreciation. Appreciation for water, for people, for heat and air conditioning, for cars, for everything. In “the real world” we often grow up feeling entitled to so much of this and take much of what we have for granted. I was able to live an amazing life out on the trail with only the 25 pounds of gear on my back and spent next to nothing along the way. My only expense was food.

So often we become attached to material things that don’t make our life any better, or make us any happier. We easily forget the difference between what we need and what we want. The fact is, you can live a good life with a lot less than you have.

I think the most important lesson that I learned from all of my outdoor adventures so far, which was reiterated on the trail, is that the people we surround ourselves with have incredibly profound impacts on our lives. The great thing is, friendships are free.

The less we can live on and the more awesome people we can surround ourselves with, the better. Your life will be less cluttered by stuff, you’ll make more meaningful memories, and ultimately the closer you will be to financial independence. After all, if you can live on $10,000 a year you’d only need something like $250,000 to retire. If you insist on $100,000 a year, you’re looking at more like $2,500,000. On an average salary of $50,000/year that’s the difference between retiring at 30 and retiring at 65. I know I value freedom much higher than my possessions, do you?

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2 Responses

  1. Matt Warnert says:

    Hi Brian, I read your article over at Pauline’s site. Nice blog you’ve got going here. I enjoy your writing style. Let me know if there is anything I can help you with.

  2. ChrisCD says:

    I’m a friend from POF. You and are a bit removed via age and life experiences, but I appreciate your gusto for life. Keep up on this mindset and you should do fine.

    700 miles and hitchhiking are really impressive. I wouldn’t feel comfortable hitchhiking, but I’m sure I would pick it over starving to death, too.

    Try not to regret not finishing too much. Which it doesn’t seem like you are, but there was a hint of that in our post. You can’t change it so move forward. After you FI, maybe you can attempt it again. I would try to plan it out so that folks met me at different points and avoid the hitchhiking though. :O)

    Keep it up.

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