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4 Quest Expectations – Were We Right?

Our 4 month anniversary of this National Park Quest is around the corner – so far we’ve seen 12 parks out of 59 – and travelled through 13 states to see them. It all began with a lot of big expectations, some of which you might have raised your eyebrows at (storing your food in GLASS containers, are you crazy?).

As we begin a 5-day backpacking trip through Isle Royale NP (park #13), we thought to shine a light on this journey by looking back at four of our expectations and reveal how things are truly going. We hope this can help those of you planning your own big adventure.

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Our smaller tent is great for quick set-up and backpacking, we can assemble it in 5 minutes.
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The larger “Home” tent has a vestibule (front porch / wash room) that feels roomier for longer stays in a park. We use it if staying in one spot more than 3 nights (and if not too windy).

1. Camping over 500 nights. Is that a reality?

  • Yes, but not always in a tent. So far we’ve managed to camp in every park these past 121 nights! Our only hotel stay was at the very beginning when we spent a few days in Nashville after park #1. But that doesn’t really count, right, considering it was a 3 day time-out from the quest ;-).
  • Cost + time: We’ve spent anything from $10 to $33 per night on campgrounds (most are about $20), staying from 5 nights to 13 nights in each one.
  • Tent vs. car: Now, we HAVE NOT slept in a tent every single night.
    • Our Outback is pretty spacious once we move gear around, allowing for a snug night when the temperatures get below 45.
    • So far we’ve spent 75% of this journey in one of our two tents, the other 25% in the car.
The car bed, only works if we have a bear locker for the cooler or can keep it out of the car.
The car bed, only works if we can keep the cooler outside or in a bear locker.
  • Conditions: The campgrounds have been great. A handful haven’t had running water or flush toilets, but for the most part they all have potable water and modern amenities.
  • Showers: $3 – $5 per person for showers at surrounding private campgrounds, considering most national park facilities offer none. This may sound gross, but we only shower once a week! It’s amazing what you can do with a jug of water though, let me tell you.
  • Between parks:
    • We’ve camped in about 3 national forests between parks.
    • Overnighted in 3 Wal-Marts (in the car).
  • Almost stayed in a hotel? Yes, there have been times when we craved a hotel stay, but in the end our stubborn personalities saved the night and we never regretted it. Trust me, it’s hard to spend $80+ on a few hours of sleep. That’s at least 4 nights of camping.
  • Is it comfortable? Admittedly, it took some time getting used to. We weren’t super campers before this quest, though we always loved outdoor challenges. Now we’re both perfectly happy with a camp pad and sleeping bag. The best part is keeping the tent uncovered to gaze at the stars, and the worst part is hearing something rustle in the bushes when you get out to pee.
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From early on in the quest.

2. Camping without making trash. Is it possible?

FOOD ITEMS

Yes, it is possible. If you have a Whole Foods or other bulk foods store around the corner. This initiative, by far, has been the most challenging to uphold. Things were going well until we hit the more remote parks from about Rocky Mountain NP in late May to … now. It’s tough to find grocery stores with bulk food bins where you can use your own bags and containers, so we’ve had to buy packaged dry food items. Produce is easier, but…

There was that one time when something leaked in the cooler and soaked through all our cloth bags with food, making a big mess. And those times our glass containers broke. Definitely a harder route, but worth it to try, and I’m determined to figure this challenge out.

Cooking from Scratch on the Go = Big Challenge

However, it’s not always easy to cook from scratch when you’re living on the go. While most cook-from-scratch breakfasts and dinners are doable, lunch is challenging. Sometimes it’s easier to grab a box of crackers, some hummus, carrots, and call it a meal. Which means packaging.

Restaurants

We’ve also eaten at restaurants and lodges more often than expected, most often due to a strict time schedule and convenience. About 15% of our meals have been restaurant dinners, along with a few at breakfast. We’re happy to report that most of our meals are home-cooked again. We honestly went a little nuts with eating out in Wyoming and Montana.

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Glimpse into the bear locker during one of our most remote parks yet – Grand Teton.
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Saving water by reusing it for cooking.
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Cooking breakfast on the hood of the car in Yellowstone while watching bison.

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Restaurants can provide a nice break, especially in towns where we work in libraries and just want a quick meal.
Restaurants have provided a nice break, especially in towns where we work in libraries and just want a quick meal.

GEAR + MISC. ITEMS

It’s nearly impossible to re-stock on gear and miscellaneous camping items without producing trash. For these items we do our best to buy things with less packaging, and recyclable packaging if possible. We’ve enjoyed discovering the excellent recycling facilities in most of the parks.

Some point soon we’ll provide a more thorough update on how this is going, (with photos!) but to sum up:

I’ve been disappointed with our ability to camp and not make trash.

3. WIFI with a hotspot and working from libraries. Does it work?

Yes, we love discovering new libraries where we illustrate the latest posters and manage our shop. While the hotspot uses up our 12 GB shared data real quick, libraries have saved us each time. Even remote parks like Yellowstone and Badlands have tiny libraries in border towns, which means extra driving at times.

A few times I’ve lamented not having an RV to quickly pop the laptop open in, but for the duration of this quest we feel confident about the set-up. Typically we spend about 45% of our time working in a nearby library or at camp with the hotspot (wherever internet is available, really).

Can you guess how many libraries we’ve seen? Gosh, the number must be about 17 by now. My favorite has been the public library in Fargo, North Dakota. It’s truly modern and quiet. All the libraries have featured great internet and at least one plug-in for laptops. Better yet, they’ve welcomed us most graciously.

We've put a ton of miles on Oscar, not only driving to parks, but to towns nearby where we can work.
We’ve put a ton of miles on Oscar, not only driving to parks, but to towns nearby where we can work.

4. The Itinerary. Have you been able to stick to it?

We’re well on track with our original plans. The biggest change so far has been skipping Black Canyon of the Gunnison this past May in Colorado. We were chugging it to reach my Grand Teton half marathon in time, so had to pass right by it. Now it will most likely be park #59 on our way back east from Alaska and the northwest in fall, 2017. Skipping Black Canyon was a blessing in disguise, allowing us to spend a full two weeks in both Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Truly, you could spend lifetimes in each park.

While we haven’t shared the route ahead of time, you can follow along our current location by checking out the route here.

How have your expectations during long-term travel changed over time? We’d love to hear about it!

2 comments

  1. I’ve been following your journey with interest. It’s always hard to make a decision to skip a destination. I don’t think you will be disappointed in Black Canyon of the Gunnison if you get back that way. We are looking forward to hearing about your continuing adventures.

    1. That’s wonderful Marti, we are so happy you are following along! Yeah for sure, we can’t wait to see Black Canyon of the Gunnison, it seems like a special place :-).

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