DIY Freeze-Dried Backpacking Meals: Pros & Cons of Freeze-Dried Food + DIY Menu Ideas

The countdown for our summer trip is on! Adding to our excitement, we recently learned that we were granted a 4-night permit to backpack 41-mile Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park. After visiting Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Yosemite in 2014, we’d hoped to return to explore the beauty of the High Sierra someday. We’re thrilled to finally have the opportunity to backpack both Rae Lakes and a 31-mile segment of the John Muir Trail this summer! Wilderness permits were even more competitive than I’d anticipated: with only 40 people allowed to enter the trail per day, we emailed our application in one second after the 12 am opening for permit applications for the season and didn’t receive our first choice route. It’ll mean hiking Glen Pass and Rae Lakes in a steeper counter-clockwise direction, but I have no doubt that the achy quads will be well worth the pain.

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Yosemite Valley, as seen from Glacier Point 2014
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View from atop Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park–can’t wait to explore Kings Canyon’s beautiful backcountry this summer!

With wilderness permits and campsite reservations out of the way, our focus has shifted to food. Namely, how do we plan and execute meals for a 7,000-mile road trip with 20 nights of backpacking and 20 nights of car camping? Factor in 1) flying in from Hawaii with backpacking gear and 2) renting a compact car, and the challenge becomes clear. Space and weight are at a premium, as are time and money. Throw in food preferences and dietary sensitivities, and the challenge compounds. Your food considerations may differ, and that’s okay. My intent is not to push some personal agenda, but rather to consider the factors driving our decision and share some food ideas that I hope you might find useful wherever your travels may lead you.  

Space: With backpacks holding our clothes, tents, and camping gear, any remaining items must fit into 2 carry-on suitcases when we fly. Are additional or larger suitcases options? Sure. But each additional suitcase means less space in an already compact trunk and more luggage to keep track of at the airport and on the road. In an effort to keep our packs manageable, we’ve streamlined our travel wardrobes: 3 short-sleeved tech/merino tops, 1 long-sleeved performance top, 2 pairs hiking pants, 2 pairs of sock liners, 3 pairs of socks, 1 thermal base layer set, 1 fleece pullover, 1 rain jacket, and 1 puffy per person. I realize this list may sound austere for 45 days, but handwashing clothes nightly saves us space and weight, enabling us to dedicate 2 carry-on suitcases to food…which brings us to factor #2. 

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The view from Glacier Point, Yosemite…this time from a slightly different angle. We’re excited to hike to Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness this year!

Whole Food/Dietary Preferences: Could we exclusively purchase fresh whole food on the road and keep everything chilled in a cooler? In theory, yes. But experience has taught us (and again, this is just us) that buying a hard-sided cooler upon arrival means spending inordinate amounts of time and money on ice maintenance. Our itinerary has us in the desert for three weeks, and keeping raw chicken and eggs cold in triple-digit heat is a tough proposition without a Yeti (it’s on our wish list, though!). Entirely possible–but not something I’m keen on focusing my energy on.

Without refrigeration, our food options are limited. There’s processed/canned food, oft vilified but not without its merits: shelf-stable, convenient, and imminently available. This is not insignificant considering that the bulk of our itinerary will take us through small towns with limited grocery availability. But while I’m not opposed to an occasional processed meal (I crave junk with the best of ‘em!), I know from experience that extended junk consumption affects my mood, performance, and morale. Similarly, our standard salami and cheese hiking fare tends to weigh me down after 2 weeks. For an extended 45-day trip, I wanted to stick closer to our everyday protein staples–nuts, beans, hummus, chicken, fish, and tofu. I also wanted to maintain our veggie and fruit intake and limit MSG and processed items.  

But how to circumvent the lack of refrigeration? DIY dehydrated meals sounded ideal, but with zero backpacking opportunities here on Oahu, the investment vs. return in terms of startup costs (dehydrator, vacuum sealer, O2 absorbers, mylar bags, etc) would leave us in the red for a few years. Freeze-dried food began to pique my interest.

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Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park 2014

Time and Money: For better or worse, being a compulsive itinerary-crammer means we’re often scrambling to find grocery stores and shopping under the gun in order to maximize time at destinations. And while I’ve mentioned that it’s important for us to limit expenses by cooking meals on vacation, what I didn’t mention is this: I enjoy cooking at home, but I don’t love cooking on vacation, especially after a long day of hiking. I love that other people enjoy gourmet experiences in the backcountry, but I’m not fond of fiddling with ingredients and spices on the trail. Chopping and cooking when tired is a surefire recipe for one hangry mom!

Fortunately, companies like Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry offer delicious freeze-dried meals with just-add-boiling-water convenience and significant time and fuel savings. They’re shelf-stable, lightweight, and compressible, making them ideal for bear canister storage as well. However, that convenience comes with a hefty price tag. At over $6 per person, I couldn’t justify the cost for 20 nights, let alone 45. I wasn’t keen on the high sodium content and additives, either. DIY freeze-dried meals started sounding like a more viable option for us.           

Backpack Space and Weight: Finally, we have several 3-5 day treks that require bear canisters (space). Given the base weight of packs and gear (20 lbs for adults, 10 for kids), we anticipate 20-35 pounds per person with food. With the kids under 90 lbs each, we wanted to keep our food as light as possible. DIY freeze-dried meals seemed to offer the best opportunity for lightweight, shelf-stable, mostly healthy food with time and money savings.

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We absolutely loved Yosemite Valley and can’t wait to hike a portion of the JMT near Tuolumne Meadows!

Luckily for us, there’s a wealth of DIY freeze-dried meal information to be found online! Most sites recommend assembling freeze-dried/powdered ingredients in freezer bags for ease of “cooking” (add boiling water and seal for 5-10 mins), so we’ll likely be going that route in addition to simply rehydrating meals in a communal pot.

Are there drawbacks to freeze-dried food? Absolutely. For one, freeze-dried ingredients are not readily available in retail stores. For us, this meant having to plan and order 6.5 weeks worth of food months in advance. The upside, however, is that I was able to scour Amazon and wait on the best deals. Ordering food in advance also gave me an accurate handle on our food costs–a budget area that’s generally grayer than I’d like for trips. Also, there’s no denying that freeze-drying is a type of processing in and of itself, and natural/organic options are limited. The whole grains and fiber we crave don’t always translate, either, but I’m okay with these tradeoffs. Will we still be stopping to pick up fresh fruits and veggies weekly? Definitely. Will we break down and buy a cooler at some point? Very probably. Does our menu include processed food? Some. But I feel satisfied knowing that the bulk of our food needs are covered in a way I’m mostly comfortable with.

Road Trip 2017 includes menu items like: (* indicates freeze-dried/powdered items)

  • BREAKFAST
    • Granola, blueberries, and powdered milk/soy milk*
    • Oatmeal with blueberries, walnuts, and chia seeds*
    • Scrambled eggs*
    • Tortillas with eggs, bacon and cheese*
    • KIND bars, Larabars, ProBars and the like

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      A sample of our breakfast items: cheese powder, egg powder, peanut butter powder, powdered milk, freeze-dried blueberries, single-serve SPAM and Nature’s Path Oatmeal. We also ordered powdered soy milk and will buy granola once we arrive.
  • LUNCH (we prefer not to cook at lunch; when we’re not backpacking, lunch also includes whole fruit)
    • Whole wheat/spinach tortillas or bagels with pouch tuna or chicken
    • Seeded crackers with pouch tuna or chicken
    • Pita and hummus with cucumber, carrots, bell peppers
    • Whole banana rolled in PB whole wheat tortilla
    • PB with seeded crackers/pita/tortilla* and veggie sticks
    • Hummus and seeded crackers with veggie sticks
    • Bagel with pouch salmon and cream cheese
    • Pita with tomato paste, pepperoni, and cheese
    • Trail mix alone or eaten with PB, Honey Stinger waffles

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      Some lunch protein options: dehydrated refried beans, peanut butter powder, shelf-stable hummus, PB/almond butter packets. We’ll pick up seeded crackers, tortillas, and tuna/chicken/pepperoni after we land
  • DINNER (based on personal taste preferences)
    • Parmesan couscous or cheesy polenta with chicken and veggies*
    • Refried beans, rice, and cheese (with/without tortillas)*
    • Angel hair pesto pasta with chicken and veggies*
    • Soba/udon noodles in miso broth with shiitake, shelf-stable tofu and wakame*
    • Mock fried rice with veggies and chicken*
    • Peanut rice noodles with chicken and veggies*
    • Jambalaya with chicken, rice, and summer sausage*
    • Curry couscous with chicken and veggies*
    • Thai/Japanese curry with shelf-stable tofu, veggies, and rice noodles*
    • Orzo n cheese with broccoli and tuna*
    • Chili chicken rice with veggies*
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      A sampling of our dinner ingredients: freeze-dried chicken, freeze-dried veggies, udon noodles, natural chicken base, freeze-dried cilantro, Sriracha, soy sauce, peanut butter, non-MSG fried rice seasoning blend, tonkatsu sauce for flavor

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      Also on the dinner menu are: refried beans, wakame, miso paste, and spring roll rice wrappers or rice noodles (whichever is available once we land). All starches, shelf-stable tofu, and summer sausage will also be purchased after we land

We’ll supplement daily with hardier veggies and fruits that can withstand backpack and car wear-and-tear sans refrigeration. Thankfully, carrots, sugar snap peas, celery, cucumbers, bell peppers, apples, oranges, pears, and bananas all fit the bill here. We’ll buy yogurt where available to keep our digestive tracts humming. Also, gross as it may seem, you know the menu has to include at least a little SPAM as an homage to our island roots. 😀 Fresh shrimp/sausage/corn hobo packets on market days and Idahoan Loaded Potatoes in the backcountry are also likely to make a dinner appearance or two. All things in moderation, right?

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We love fresh fruit on day hikes. Apples, pears, and oranges are especially hardy and do well without refrigeration. Bananas and grapes are a little more delicate but always appreciated.
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We stocked up on four bags each of these freeze-dried fruits and veggies as fresh produce is generally weight-prohibitive on multi-day treks. Freeze-dried produce is lightweight and fits easily into bear canisters if repackaged into Ziploc bags 

Many of our dinner recipes were inspired by freeze-dried meal recipes found on Pinterest. If you decide to go the DIY route, I highly recommend testing recipes at home first. Some ingredients and recipes took much longer to rehydrate than advertised–a definite problem at altitude with limited canister fuel. Others required flavor tweaking (again, just a matter of personal preference) or involved fiddly steps like mixing and frying dough (not my jam, but I bet a lot of people love it!). Testing recipes was also a tasty and fun solution for gauging proper portion sizes for our family. And for those who’d prefer to forgo freeze-dried ingredients altogether, substituting tuna or chicken pouches in place of freeze dried chicken is always an option, as is substituting pre-flavored sides, such as Near East Couscous, Annie’s Mac n Cheese, or Thai Kitchen noodles for any of the starches.     

My biggest food tip? Save condiment packets! They’re lightweight, easily packable, shelf-stable, and add infinite variety to your backpacking and camping meals. Here’s a short list to get you started:

Condiment Ideas:

  • Ketchup
  • Mustard
  • Relish
  • Salt and pepper (Available at diners, movie theaters, and gas station food marts)
  • Mayonnaise (Less readily available–I found these at theaters and gas station food marts)
  • Soy sauce (Chinese/Japanese takeout)
  • Hot sauce (Sriracha, Tapatio, Tabasco, etc.; I found Sriracha on Amazon, and minimus.biz is another good resource for condiments)
  • Taco sauce (think Taco Bell or Jack in the Box)
  • Salsa (sometimes served with breakfast burritos)
  • Tonkatsu sauce (sometimes available in Japanese bento)
  • Jam/jelly (many diners carry these; my sister found them consistently at Denny’s)
  • Honey (this one’s harder to find in packet form except for places like KFC or Popeye’s, but it’s readily available in organic straws off Amazon)
  • Sweet and sour sauce/ BBQ sauce/Ranch/Honey Mustard/Sweet Chili containers (this one’s pretty specific to McDonald’s and other fast food places that serve chicken nuggets)
  • Olive Oil (I ordered these off Amazon to boost calories as needed)
  • Syrup (fast food breakfast chains are your best bet)
  • Red pepper packets/parmesan cheese (pizza/Italian takeout)
  • Hot mustard (Chinese takeout; Panda Express has a lot of these)
  • Wasabi (from sushi or poke takeout)

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    Small sample of seasonings and condiments: non-MSG dashi powder, Creole seasoning, natural chicken base, tomato powder, freeze-dried cilantro, Sriracha, hot mustard, yellow mustard, jelly, ketchup, relish, soy sauce, mayo, and taco sauce. 

With the help of family and friends, we’ve been lucky to amass a nice condiment haul over the last few months. Fortunately, freeze dried food compacts well, leaving plenty of space for condiments in our 2 carry-ons. And anything that helps us stay on track for cooking our own meals helps to save time and money in the long run. For example, even though we’re fried rice fanatics, the mock fried rice we tested left us less than wowed. We found ourselves craving the oyster sauce umami punch that soy sauce alone lacks. Down the line, this might lead to abandoning the meal altogether for costlier restaurant fare or processed items. Adding hot mustard and soy sauce to the mix, however, instantly made the rice more interesting. And a packet of sriracha changed the flavor profile completely! With a few condiment packets and a little imagination, it’s possible to elevate any meal from ho-hum to crave-worthy. So, save those condiment packets–they definitely come in handy!
Do you have a favorite camping or backpacking meal? I’m always looking for new food ideas…I’d love to hear about your favorite food strategies and tips for camping and/or road trips!

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36 Hours On the Oregon Coast + Portland: 9 Free (or Almost Free!) Family-Friendly Activities

Oregon, let me start by saying this: I’m madly in love with your drive-thru espresso kiosks.

I’m all for perking coffee at camp or brewing a cup at a motel, but if you’re visiting the Pacific Northwest, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to one of the indie espresso kiosks you see on every corner. They’re everywhere–weirdly (perhaps especially), in the most rural of areas. And when you’re in a coffee mecca like Oregon? Every cup is guaranteed smooth and delicious. We loved the quirky vibe of these kiosks; we even saw a combo espresso/haircut drive-thru shop. Talk about multitasking! Once you’ve got your caffeine buzz on, it might be fun to consider any or all of the following:

  1. Three Capes Scenic Drive: Instead of taking the 101 inland, veer west and follow the 40-mile coastline for picturesque coastal views that just keep getting better and better. A timeline of an entire day would be ideal, but this scenic drive can also be squeezed into as little as two to three hours with shorter stops. From Newport, we traveled north to Cape Kiwanda in Pacific City, home to Haystack Rock–a less famous but larger iteration of its Cannon Beach counterpart. Cape Lookout State Park brought us to Anderson’s Viewpoint and a view of mysterious Netart’s Bay, framed by old-growth trees and shrouded in fog. Just a few miles away, nearby Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge offered blue skies and common murre sightings. It’s my understanding that you can even see tufted puffins here.
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    Haystack Rock, Cape Kiwanda
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    Anderson’s View Point of Netart’s Bay along Three Capes Scenic Drive
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    Three Arch Rocks–it’s amazing how much the weather changed along the coast in just a few short miles!
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    Cool and blustery morning on the OR coast, 2013
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    When in Oregon, give these espresso kiosks a try–so rich and delicious (and convenient!)

    Cape Meares completes the capes trio, affording stunning ocean views, a front-row seat to the state’s largest Sitka spruce–the Octopus Tree, and an historic lighthouse, which brings us to…

  2. Cape Meares Lighthouse: Located just 10 miles west of Tillamook, Cape Meares Lighthouse offers free daily tours between April and October, making for a satisfying conclusion to any Three Capes drive. Unfortunately,the lighthouse was closed for restoration when we visited. We were disappointed, as the 0.2 mile asphalt “trail” was perfect for little ones, and the kids were looking forward to touring the lighthouse. Still, we enjoyed wandering the mile-long scenic trail through old-growth spruce trees that eventually led us to the Octopus Tree. Barking sea lions provided the perfect soundtrack to this Oregon Coast experience.
  3. Tillamook Cheese Factory: As a family that eats our weight in Tillamook cheddar loaves annually (thank you, Costco!), a stop at Tillamook Cheese Factory was a must. What we didn’t expect was to have so much fun! With free admission, the tour itself was self-guided and family-friendly. There were cheesy (I hear you groaning!) cardboard cutouts, vantage points overlooking the entire production, and even a classic VW bus Loaf Love Tour display to goof around on. Our favorite part of the factory tour was the eating–Tillamook provides tons of delectable cheese samples, including cheese curds (a first for us…maybe an acquired texture?), aged white cheddar, and spicy jalapeno varieties, all undeniably delicious. Our favorite, favorite part, however, was the rich and luscious Tillamook ice cream. Almost free, and worth every penny.
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    Adventures of Five, coming straight to you from the Loaf Love Tour!

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    Mint chip, pecan praline, and strawberry ice cream at Tillamook Cheese Factory
  4. Astoria Riverfront Trolley: From Tillamook, we drove an hour and a half through rolling hills and bucolic pastures to reach Astoria, a quaint little town on the northern reaches of the Oregon Coast. You may remember Astoria as the memorable town featured in the classic ‘80’s flick “The Goonies;” it’s also home to the Astoria-Megler Bridge, a 5-mile engineering marvel that spans the Columbia River, connecting Astoria to Point Ellice, Washington. While you could easily devote a day or more to exploration here, for those pressed for time, an Astoria Riverfront Trolley tour can’t be beat. For only $1 per person, you can hop on a trolley at any number of locations and see all of Astoria’s major sights in an hour, stress-free. Our conductor relayed fun Goonies trivia, elaborated on Astoria’s colorful maritime history, and entertained and educated us for the better part of an hour. Unfortunately, the younger two were wiped out from all of the day’s earlier fun and fell asleep, but that wasn’t such a bad way to spend an hour, either!
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    Astoria-Megler Bridge
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    Astoria Riverfront Trolley–at only $1 per person, there’s no better deal in Astoria

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    Ocean view from the trolley
  5. Fly a balsa airplane from Astoria Column: While in Astoria, we visited Astoria Column, a 125-foot light tower that overlooks the Columbia River and occupies a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The spiral frieze on the exterior pays tribute to Oregon’s early history and Astoria’s role therein; the interior features a steep spiral staircase to the top of the column. I’m already on record as being an acrophobe, but I’m thinking I should amend that to include a fear of falling–especially through stair holes! Neurotic but true. Still, the view at the top made it all worthwhile, though the descent was another story entirely (ie: freezing on a flight of stairs while kind strangers literally talked me down). Once at the top, the kids flew simple $2 balsa airplanes we’d purchased and assembled from the gift shop. Watching their planes sail on the wind was a thrill!
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    Ready to fly planes from Astoria Column
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    View of Astoria-Megler Bridge from the Column
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    $2 balsa planes worth their weight in gold

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    Astoria Column–don’t let a fear of stair holes hold you back. Wait, what do you mean, ‘that’s just me?’ 😀
  6. Doughnuts, Coffee, and Books: From Astoria, we drove 2 hours inland to our first City of Roses stop: Voodoo Doughnut. For anyone who watches shows on Food Network or Travel Channel, this doughnut institution needs no introduction. With a quirky and fun array of doughnut shapes, flavors, and toppings (Captain Crunch doughnuts, anyone? How about a Voodoo doll-shaped pastry with raspberry blood filling?), Voodoo Doughnut is sure to satisfy any craving. We enjoyed a box of bubble gum, lemon curd, and maple bacon offerings and were lucky to walk right in without any lines. I’ve heard the wait can sometimes span entire city blocks and several hours!

    Energized by sugar, we made the half-mile trek to Powell’s Books on foot. As a YA novelist, pilgrimaging to this book mecca was a must, and we happily wandered the aisles for several hours. The return trek to our car was made heavier by impulse book purchases (impossible to avoid at Powell’s!), but a stop at iconic Stumptown Coffee Roasters for afternoon espresso and hot chocolate fueled the walk back. I’m a huge fan of Seattle’s Storyville Coffee, but this rich and smooth espresso rivals the best. While the clientele here was younger and far hipper than we could ever hope to be, the set-up made for a very family-friendly stop.

  7. International Rose Test Garden: After an action-packed day, our final stop for the evening was the International Rose Test Garden for a beautiful and fragrant sunset stroll. Admission was free, but I would’ve gladly paid to see these rose beauties in a city renown for them. Lovely gazebos, pathways, and benches enhanced the experience, and the kids enjoyed the sheer variety of blooms, from jumbo-sized varieties to the smallest miniatures in every color of the rainbow. Plus, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to stop and smell the roses. 🙂
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    International Rose Test Garden Portland, OR
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    Stopping to smell the roses after a long day

  8. Historic Columbia River Highway and Multnomah Falls: The next morning, we drove half an hour from Portland along Historic Columbia River Highway to spectacular Multnomah Falls, the tallest waterfall in Oregon. At a height of 620 feet, the falls are divided into an upper and lower section, with a footbridge spanning the lower cascade. Unfortunately, we were pressed for time and had to stop at the footbridge overlook, where we reveled in the falls’ powerful spray and the lush greenery of the gorge. A return trip is in order to venture to the top of the falls for a bird’s eye view.
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    Spectacular Multnomah Falls
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    I wish my little camera phone could do Multnomah justice, but it just doesn’t

    A previous winter solo trip to the Columbia Gorge led me to 2.4-mile Lautorell Falls Loop and half-mile Bridal Veil Falls loop, another stunner in a region of exquisite beauty. Combining Lautorell and Bridal Veil Falls with Multnomah would make for a particularly lovely morning of waterfall exploration.

  9. U-Pick Strawberries at Bella Organic Farm: We ended our time in Portland picking strawberries at Bella Organic Farm on Sauvie Island. Living in the tropics, pineapples and sugarcane mark the extent of our fruit experience, so picking strawberries at Bella Organic Farm was a treat for all of us! There’s no cost for admission, and all seasonal u-pick fruit is sold by the pound. We foraged for the brightest, juiciest sun-ripened strawberries we could find, quickly filling three buckets and then some. We devoured 6 pounds of berries on the drive over to Seattle, and though there were several “Pull over, I’m going to puke!” false alarms, everyone kept their cookies (and berries) in check. We absolutely loved picking our own fruit and can’t recommend the experience enough.
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They picked 8 pounds of strawberries…
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…and ate 6 pounds en route to Seattle…
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Between carsickness and berry-sickness, it was quite a memorable ride!

36 hours on the Oregon Coast and Portland was not nearly enough, but it was certainly long enough to whet our appetite for more! With an abundance of outdoor and city-centric attractions, the coast and Portland offer so many budget and family-friendly opportunities that we’d love to try someday, especially now that the kids are older. Even so, we loved that these nine activities were accessible to the littlest of littles, making our 2013 road trip memorable for both the grownups and little ones enjoying the ride–a special and gratifying mix, courtesy of Oregon.

Saving Money for Travel: 6 Practical Tips We Follow

Before we continue with Road Trip 2013, I want to get serious for a moment about a touchy subject: money.

Growing up, my family didn’t have a ton of money. I had the best childhood, absolutely, but making ends meet was always a struggle. Free bus program, reduced lunch fare, and hand-me-downs were part of the norm; dinners out and interisland vacations to Honolulu were a huge treat. Like a lot of kids in the state, flying to the Mainland wasn’t something we could afford. My first trip to the Mainland didn’t happen until I graduated from high school–and only because we’d won a free family trip to Disneyland.

To be honest, our financial situation isn’t very different today, albeit for different reasons–tuition, mainly. To be clear: this is our own doing; we’ve chosen the school situation our children are in, and we’re equally aware that riding the tuition carousel is also a choice. And while we’re fortunate not to carry credit card debt, the monthly budget struggle? Very real.

Why do I mention this? Well, mostly because it’s true, I guess. And also because I don’t believe we’re the only family in this situation. Browsing through blogs and social media, it’s easy to assume others’ situations. I know I’m guilty of this. The thing is, online presences are filtered; they provide rosy glimpses into small facets of people’s lives. The same is often true of real life–I have friends who believe we have endless discretionary income given our summer trips.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Everything we do is done on a strict budget; we simply don’t have the means to afford travel on a whim. With little to no discretionary income, we make everyday frugal choices in order to be able to pay for travel out-of-pocket. Some might equate frugality with sacrifice, but frugal living is a lifestyle that affords us travel opportunities–opportunities which enrich us in ways that material items cannot. There are two general areas where we try to save–pre-travel and during-travel–and while most of these tips are common-sense, I hope that being honest here might be helpful to you, wherever you may be in your journey.

Make travel a priority

This isn’t a tip so much as a mindset. When you make travel a priority, you’re more inclined to make in-the-present sacrifices for delayed travel gratification. You learn to value experiences, not “stuff.” You’re also less likely to view sacrifices as deprivation; rather, they’re a way to fund those travel experiences you just can’t put a price tag on. Make travel non-negotiable, and you’re well on your way to finding the means and gumption to making it happen.

Make your credit card work for you

Financial advisors espouse a cash-only approach to purchases, but as a travel proponent, I’d argue just the opposite: get a credit card, and make it work for you. (The following is not sponsored in any way; it’s simply my humble opinion.) Alaska Airlines Visa Signature has been a game changer for us. For one, Alaska is a budget airline, making it the cheapest option (next to Allegiant) for travel to and from Honolulu and thus our airline choice, regardless. The fact that Alaska Visa Signature offers an annual $99 RT companion fare is icing on the cake. Spouses can apply for individual cards, meaning your family, like ours, could be eligible for two $99 round trip companion fares a year. That’s $200 for two round-trips to/from Hawaii! Alaska Visa Signature also offers a huge 30,000 miles bonus for spending $1,000 in 3 months. If you’re a family charging all of your expenses, this isn’t difficult to achieve. We charge everything–food, gas, utilities–and pay off the balance monthly with the end goal of annual travel. And 30,000 bonus miles may not sound like much, but for us, it translated to one free round trip from Hawaii to the Mainland this year, a $600 value. Factor in those two $99 companion fares, and you’re looking at paying only $200 for THREE round trips to/from Hawaii. Switching to Alaska Visa Signature has helped our family realize thousands of dollars in savings. Delta offers a similar program, and for those who travel internationally, Chase Sapphire Reserve also has an excellent rewards program. Another great perk of Alaska Visa Signature is free check-in baggage for 6 travelers. Though we’re all about limiting check-in bags, this perk alone easily translates to $100 savings for us annually.

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Breakfast at Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone NP–a budgeted treat
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Dinner at Roosevelt Lodge, Yellowstone NP–budgeted treat

Plan a monthly and annual budget

For those of us in denial about spending, getting nitty gritty with expenditures can be harrowing. Still, you can’t know where you’re headed until you know where you’ve been. Track spending for several months; track spending across an entire year. Break your spending down across categories and calculate monthly and annual expenditures for individual categories. Spreadsheets work well, but pen and paper work just as well (I’m old school when it comes to stuff like this). For categories, think mortgage; groceries; sundries; gas; home, health, and car insurance, taxes, and registration; birthday gifts for friends/family; “fun” money for eating out or leisure activities; and tuition. Now evaluate these expenses against your monthly income. The goal is to ensure your income is greater than your expenditures–in other words: to live within your means. If you’re spending more than you’re making, it’s time to take a hard look at expenditures to determine what can be reined in. If you’ve already determined that travel is a priority, your choices become clearer. Depending on your lifestyle, it might also be important to allot extra for holiday food and gifts (we do this), retirement, college, rainy day fund, and other expenditures that are seasonal in nature, thus requiring less frequent (but necessary) contributions. Find categories you can scale back on (see next tip), and funnel any savings into your travel fund. Set monthly and annual expenditure goals, and–this is key!–stick to them.

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Cooking dinner at camp; Rocky Mountain NP
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Camping and cooking are affordable travel options for our family

Rein expenses in

Easier said than done, I know. But also? Very doable. We try to keep our grocery expenses under $500 a month. Hawaii’s cost of living is among the highest in the nation, and as a family of five with two teens, we cook and eat a LOT. Still, groceries are infinitely cheaper than eating out. At our kids’ school, school lunch runs $5 a kid. That’s $15 per day, $75 per week, or $300 per month in school lunch alone! Instead, we pack a mostly organic lunch daily for under $100 a month. We save $200 a month–a savings of $1,800 a year–and we’re also able to ensure the kids get a good dose of fiber, veggies, and fruit daily. We also rarely eat out–three times or less per month. For our family, eating out often means a tab of $50 or more for one meal–$50 that could feed us three meals a day for the better part of a week. That’s not to say that we deprive ourselves or don’t have fun. We just try to choose wisely. Dinner out can be as inexpensive as $10 for a gigantic Costco pizza; breakfast and lunch are cheaper dining-out options than dinner. We stock our freezer with items like Kirkland lasagna and Aidells chicken meatballs for nights when busy schedules or laziness tempt us to order out. While more expensive than cooking, they’re a cheaper option than takeout. To keep our budget livable, we roll over savings from month to month. For example, if our dining out expenses come in under $150 in January, we roll over any savings to February. In this way, we are able to occasionally afford more expensive “treat” dinners several times a year. (Korean yakiniku BBQ is the kids’ favorite!) Only in December do we transfer any rollover to our travel account. The goal is a livable budget–not torture!

Other ways we save? Limit Starbucks runs by brewing coffee at home for pennies per cup; watch Netflix and save yourself $15 per movie ticket. For the most part, we’ve stopped exchanging holiday gifts with friends and family. Instead, we plan holiday dates–beach days, evening drives to see holiday lights, and intimate dinners with those we love. These experiences have brought us more joy than material gifts. For what it’s worth, we also don’t spend on shoes, clothes, etc. beyond the bare essentials; we’re lucky to have cousins and friends who keep our hand-me-down supply well-equipped. If clothes and dining out are your thing, however, by all means, go for it! No judgment here. The point is to find target numbers and ways to scale back that work for your income and priorities.

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Holiday beach dates with family make a great alternative to gift exchanges
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Holiday appetizer party with family, local style
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Decorating cookies with friends and family is a fun and free alternative to gift exchanges
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Cookies and hot chocolate make for a memorable and inexpensive afternoon

Separate accounts for separate funds

As a family that used to keep savings and checking bundled together in one account, I know how impossible it can seem to realize any savings for travel. Any money we earmarked for travel always got absorbed by incidentals–tires blowing out, washing machine on the fritz, trips to the ER. You can’t predict the future, but you can and should plan on annual incidental expenses. Life happens–often inconveniently. Finances improved for us once we created separate accounts for separate expenses. In our new system, tuition, rainy day incidentals, and travel each get separate accounts. Once a month, we transfer a pre-budgeted amount from checking into our travel savings account. The act of funneling money into individual accounts is empowering, and separate funds means travel money doesn’t get inadvertently blown on towing or impulse purchases from REI (not that I’ve ever been guilty of this!) 😉 In creating your monthly/annual budget, decide how much you can/want to funnel toward travel. To determine this, ask yourself how much a prospective trip might cost. Research baseline prices for airfare, car rental, and lodging, and ask yourself: how important is luxury to you when you travel? For example, given the same dollar travel allowance of $3,000 per year, I would rather take a no-frills, bare bones trip annually than save for a luxury trip 3 years from now. Your family may feel differently, and that’s okay! The point is to be honest about your travel goals so you can stay within your means.

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Some years, vacations turn into staycations–Malaekahana Beach
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For $12 a night, you can’t beat fishing here at sunset
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Crabbing is our favorite night activity at Malaekahana
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$12 sunrise view from our tent, Malaekhana Beach

Planning affordable travel=recognizing your choices

An annual trip to Hawaii is something most would consider a splurge, and that’s exactly what we’re doing every time we embark on a Mainland road trip, flying to and from Hawaii. Since paying for airfare is non-negotiable for us, we minimize other travel expenses so we don’t incur debt. Aside from two or three dining-out experiences we budget for, we shop for groceries and cook 90% of our meals on vacation. We pack lunches on dayhikes and make Costco runs to keep our snack expenditures in-check. And while an SUV or minivan might be more comfortable than a compact car, they’re also more expensive–renting a minivan for a week costs the same as renting a compact car for a month. You might prefer a shorter trip in greater comfort, and that’s okay; recognizing the choice, though, is key. For example, we love amusement parks, but we also know it’d take us 3 years of no-travel to afford an amusement park trip out-of pocket. Similarly, we love nice hotels just as much as the next family, but for the price of a one night stay, we could also book two weeks worth of campgrounds. Neither option is inherently better than the other; the key is to see your choices for what they are instead of limiting yourself to some preconceived notion of travel. There are multiple options to suit different comfort levels for any given dollar amount. A 2-3 week trip can fit within your budget if you’re willing to forego creature comforts; a luxury trip can also fit within your budget if you’re willing to shorten your length of stay. Whatever you choose, finding ways to be able to pay for your dream trip out-of-pocket makes all the sacrifice worthwhile.