Step 1: Quit your job
You can’t be free to roam from river to river if you are encumbered by the daily 9-5 grind. It may be a good idea however to plan a quitting date a little way out. This will afford you the opportunity to stash some cash during your final months and give you a nice little bank roll to get started.
Step 2: Sell your things
You will most likely be living in your vehicle (Van, truck, or some sort of wagon are recommended.) so you won’t have a lot of space for things you don’t need every day. Try to limit yourself to essential gear for your sports and a few clothing items. Don’t forget to keep some warm things also. Sleeping next to the river is amazing on a warm clear night in July. In January however, it can become more a game of survival depending on where you are.
Step 3: Make friends
You will want to make as many new friends as you can early on. A piece of floor, a couch or even a spare bed are synonymous with heaven after a few cold rainy nights sleeping in the back of your less than water proof truck. Don’t over stay your welcome in one place. Try to avoid asking to use the shower and then staying for 6 weeks. Also, it is a good idea to be helpful while you are bumming a roof to sleep under. Doing some simple household chores and cooking a few meals will make your presence less of a burden on your host.
Step 4: Look for random tasks
You don’t want to be stuck at a long term job if your goal is to be able to go where ever the water is, but lets face it, if you’re in CA and the water is in NC you will need some funds to get there. Keep you eyes open for short term work opportunities that may arise. Ideally having a trust fund or winning the lottery will best suit your river bum lifestyle, but unless you have one of these it is a good idea to take small jobs where you can get them.
Step 5: Learn to fix your gear
Hopefully you used your last months of income to make sure you were starting your trip with some top notch equipment. However, you are going to break things and your days of just ordering replacements are behind you. Replacing broken paddles will crack your piggy bank in a hurry. Instead, try learning to do some glass work to get your gear going again. Aqua Seal can turn a 4 year old skirt into a brand new one for only $10 or so. A roll of gorilla tape can turn a cracked kayak into a new one in just a few minutes and for much much less than a replacement. Use good judgement on fixing your boat though. Don’t be so cheap that you try to fix a boat that has a been compromised structurally. Small cracks in the ends are usually no problem but having a large crack in the hull could compromise your safety. Sometimes you are going to have to bite the bullet and get new stuff, another reason why odd jobs come in handy.
Step 6: Get creative with your food
You are going to need to eat, and eating well can be pricey. Check out some recipes that are healthy, tasty, and cheap. Rice and quinoa can fill your belly pretty good for a very small price. Find a good sauce you really like and you can have meals of rice and beans taste like whatever you want. Eat less meat. Squash and cabbage are much cheaper than steak and lobster. You don’t have to be vegan but cutting back on burgers and bacon is a fast way to trim down the grocery bill. Oatmeal and fresh fruit make a great breakfast on a cold morning and will cost you less than a dollar for that meal. Be on the look out for local produce stands too. These can be good places to score a lot of fresh foods for a little dinero.
Step 7: Make a plan
Ok, this is the tricky one. You don’t want to have commitments and obligations that are getting in the way of you running off to the south east on a whim. You also don’t want to be so committed to having no plan that you just sit in one place forever passing up every potential opportunity that comes your way. How do you achieve this most delicate balance, you ask? Here’s what you do. First, make a tentative plan for what you will do and when you will do it. Then stick to that plan until some other opportunity arises. Be flexible in your planning. Plan a few weeks or even a month or so out but don’t treat it as your absolute destiny just because you planned it. If your plan changes a little bit every 5 to 7 days you are probably doing just fine. If you have been going exactly to plan for the last several weeks, stop and seize the very next random unplanned opportunity that you get.
Step 8: Leave no trace
This step is especially important for future river bums to follow in your footsteps. You will be looking for places that you can camp for a few nights for free. These places are already becoming more and more scarce. Land owners have become more vigilant at keeping out uninvited squatters and so has the forest service and BLM. One sure way to find yourself locked out by a fence the next time you revisit and old favorite camp spot is to leave a bunch of garbage behind when you go. Use your head, be considerate, and never leave anything behind. If you find the signs left behind by others before you, clean it up. No, it isn’t your responsibility. No, there is no reason why you should have to pick up other peoples mess. Yes, it is in your interest to do so any way. Quit whining. Pull out a bag and take a walk around your area making sure there is moop (matter out of place) left behind. Doesn’t matter if it is true, the next person to be there will assume all the mess came from you.
Follow these few guidelines and you will be on your way to days of adventure in the great outdoors. One more thing to remember, it isn’t always easy. There will be days spent focussed on nothing but trying to get warm and dry or get your vehicle running again. Like any occupation, being a river bum has its good days and bad days. It is important to keep in mind that the bad days you encounter are all part of the adventure. If every day was sunny warm and easy it really wouldn’t be much of an adventure at all. Looking back it will be the tough times that you will have the fondest memories of. It is really the triumph over the struggles that brings that feeling of satisfaction at the end of the day. Now you know the way. Get out there and start living your adventure one day at a time. See you on the river!