I’ve caught up with lots of people about their sabbatical stories, and this one is a great example of taking a break to pursue a passion
Emily and Ian are a thirty-something couple from Boulder, Colorado. They love exploring new places, ideally on two feet or two wheels, and they based their sabbatical around famous hiking routes in Europe, combining their love for travel with their love of hiking.
When they’re not on the trail, they enjoy dabbling in a variety of side hustles and hobbies, including boarding dogs in their home, learning Spanish, cooking, bike tinkering, and gardening.
In addition to their day jobs, they run tmbtent.com, a website that provides adventure travel guides and camping know-how.
In this post, I caught up with them to learn more about their motivations for taking a sabbatical, how they planned it and how they kept going with all those miles in their legs!
Why We Took a Sabbatical (and how we landed on hiking trips)
It’s hard to say exactly when we got the idea for our five-month sabbatical. The notion really started picking up momentum after we got engaged, but was the result of seeds that had been planted years earlier. We always knew that we wanted to live our lives a little differently, experiencing more than just the daily 9-5 and getting out of our comfort zones.
We spent six years getting established in our careers (Ian as a project manager and Emily as a teacher), building up our resumes, saving money, and growing our relationship. All the while, that dream of experiencing more and living unconventionally remained as the undercurrent of all the decisions we made.
There were a few other things really impacted us during this time.
First, we discovered the financial independence movement, which showed us that with a little bit of frugality and intentionality, we could use our money to buy freedom and flexibility from work.
We also fell in love with thru-hiking as a form of travel during that time. It all started with the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), a 100-mile hiking trail around the Mont Blanc Massif that passes through France, Italy, and Switzerland and allows walkers to experience picturesque villages, natural beauty, and excellent food along the way.
We were hooked.
Travelling by foot allowed us to mix our passion for hiking and the outdoors with our love of international travel. It allowed us to visit remote places that aren’t on the typical tourist circuit. Plus, camping and hiking is a very budget-friendly form of travel!
After hiking the TMB we were inspired to start our website, a passion project where we share adventure travel guides and information about hiking and camping. We wanted to explore more international treks to be able to share first-hand experiences and help others have similar adventures.
As we were getting married, the timing felt right to make some big life changes. Instead of a honeymoon, we decided to take a five-month sabbatical to explore Europe’s best long-distance hiking trails.
Arranging the Sabbatical With Work
Even though we took a five-month sabbatical, we saved up enough money so that we could get by for at least a year without working. We were ready for a change, so we both initially planned to leave our jobs and find new ones when we returned.
However, in the months leading up to our trip, Ian was recruited by another organisation. The position would include a significant raise and some nice additional benefits. Since we had nothing to lose, Ian took a chance and asked if they could include a five-month sabbatical in the offer, and they said yes! He ended up working there for the three months leading up to our sabbatical and then returning afterwards. Even though we didn’t plan for it, it was an added bonus to know that we had a financial cushion when we returned.
Since Emily is a teacher, we arranged the sabbatical to begin on her summer break. That way, she would continue to receive paychecks and health insurance for the first couple months. We returned mid-way through the school year, which actually ended up with her finding a great position that she may not have otherwise gotten.
Having enough savings gave us the peace of mind to leave our jobs and actually allowed us to find better career opportunities as a result.
Where We Hiked
We created our itinerary around a number of factors.
Firstly, there were a handful of amazing hikes that we really wanted to experience, and we needed to plan around the seasons to ensure good trekking conditions. We also tried to string them together, so we could minimise transit in between hikes.
Finally, we built in some non-hiking time for resting and exploring. We camped as much as possible while hiking, and stayed in hotels and AirBnBs when we weren’t on the trail. Our itinerary went like this:
- Laugavegur Trail (Iceland): IcelandAir allows free week-long stopovers in Iceland on flights from the U.S to Europe, which we used to hike this otherworldly 3-day trek in some of Iceland’s most dramatic scenery.
- Walker’s Haute Route (France and Switzerland): We flew into Geneva and spent a few days in the charming town of Les Houches before completing the 12-day trek from Chamonix to Zermatt. We started at Mount Blanc and finished at the Matterhorn, enjoying the best of the Alps along the way (cows with bells on their necks, delicious cheese, quaint chalets…the works).
- Lechweg Trail (Austria and Germany): From Zermatt, we used trains and buses to work our way to Lech, Austria, where we spent a few rainy days before beginning the Lechweg, a mellow walk that follows the Lech River from its origins in the Austrian Alps to the charming town of Füssen in Bavarian Germany. From Füssen, we took a bus to Munich where we spent a week relaxing, exploring, and visiting friends.
- Coast to Coast Walk (England): We flew from Munich to Manchester, where we caught the train to St Bees on the West coast of England. We spent a few weeks walking across the entire country (albeit the narrowest part), from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, passing through the Lakes District, the Yorkshire Dales, and the North York Moors along the way.
- GR20 (Corsica): Upon finishing the Coast to Coast Walk, we embarked on our most challenging and rewarding trek yet, the GR20 in Corsica. This rugged route stretches the length of the semi-autonomous French island and involves spectacular high mountain scenery and plenty of scrambling. We spent some time enjoying Corsica’s amazing beaches when we finished.
- Paris and Amsterdam: We spent a few weeks visiting these cities upon finishing our trekking and enjoyed a slower pace and meeting up with friends.
Budgeting for Our Sabbatical
Although we travelled through many expensive European countries, our trip was actually very affordable. All in all, we spent about 50 nights in our tent, and camping typically cost about 10 euros per person per night.
Since we were travelling with camping gear, we were able to self-cater many of our meals and save a lot on food. This allowed us to splurge on little indulgences, like a post-hike beer at a mountain refuge or visit to the Louvre in Paris.
The other thing that kept our costs low was leveraging credit card points. In the years leading up to our sabbatical, we had been strategically accruing credit card bonuses and frequent flyer miles to cover our flights and many of our hotel stays.
By our estimates, this covered about $5000 of our total trip costs, and we spent about $10,000 out of pocket for all of our expenses during the five months of our Sabbatical. This includes the monthly rent we continued to pay in order to keep our apartment while we were away (a luxury that made our post-sabbatical transition much easier).
What We Packed
We carried just our backpacking packs for the entirety of our five-month sabbatical. Once we loaded up our camping gear (tent, sleep system, cooking gear, etc) there was not a lot of space for much else.
We were able to get by with just two shirts each (one short sleeve and one long sleeve), shorts, pants, jackets and rain gear, and a few pairs of socks and underwear. The secret to this was to purchase good quality items (merino wool is perfect) that didn’t look too sporty (so they could be worn off the trail) and to wash things frequently in the sink. It’s amazing what a good sink washing can do!
Trail running shoes are also perfect for this type of travel, as they are functional for gnarly hiking as well as walking around a city. We also carried a laptop and bluetooth keyboard (paired with a phone) so that we could both work on our website while travelling. A battery backup was key for keeping our phones charged in remote places.
For some hikes, we stored extra items (like our laptop) at hotels or in train station lockers so we wouldn’t need to carry it on the trail. When hiking the Walker’s Haute Route, we actually shipped our extra items ahead of us, via Poste Restante.
Tips for Planning a Hiking Sabbatical
Slow down: The whole point of a sabbatical is to give yourself the gift of time. It’s okay to see or do less in order to fully be present and enjoy the experience. This applies when you’re out on the trail and to traveling in general.
Know thyself: Be honest about your likes and dislikes to set yourself for success. If sharing a tiny tent with your significant other doesn’t sound fun, opt for staying indoors. If you like to shower every day, choose hikes with more facilities along the route.
Put in the prep: Don’t wait until your sabbatical starts to get in shape for all the hiking you’ll be doing. Incorporate plenty of practice hikes ahead of time, including a few overnighters. Not only will this ensure your body is ready for the demands of a long-distance hike, but it will also help build the excitement for your adventure.
Leave room in your budget: Don’t plan a trip that will eat up every last cent in your budget. Leaving a little cushion will greatly reduce your stress when the (inevitable) unexpected expenses come up.
Be flexible: When you’re hiking, you’re truly at the mercy of mother nature. At one point or another, you’re going to be faced with inclement weather, injuries, busted gear, or any number of other things that can throw a wrench in your plans. Staying flexible allows you to keep having fun and adapt to challenges that come your way.
Throughout the entirety of our five-month trip, the magic of what we were doing never wore off. We’d frequently make remarks along the lines of, “Wow! It’s a random Tuesday afternoon, and we’re hiking in Corsica instead of sitting at a desk! This is amazing!” While certainly not without its challenges, our sabbatical was filled with wonder, joy, and self-discovery at every turn. There’s nothing quite like the personal reflection and depth of conversation that comes from walking for eight hours a day in nature.
We learned that we don’t need much to be happy. Just being healthy and together in the outdoors, watching sunsets, cracking jokes, meeting new people, and moving at a relaxed pace is more than enough to fill our buckets. Better yet, we’ve been able to bring those things back into our “normal” lives.
Still, it won’t be too long before we take another sabbatical. Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from our sabbatical was that we want to experience more in the future.
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