Budgeting Time and Money for a Transcontinental Run

Even if your big run starts on the first day of your retirement at no day or time in particular, with ballcap and water bottle in hand, sooner or later you’re going to have to deal with the fact that it will take many days to travel almost 3000 miles, and you’ll have to eat, gas up the van or RV or repair your supply stroller, and bathe and sleep somewhere.

Which means budgeting time and money.

Budgeting Time

Planning days

Technically these happen before you start your run. That said, before you plan on setting foot outside the door, make sure you’ve set aside time to:

  • Plan your route
  • Scout the route for road closures, detours, dangerous sections or hazards
  • Check historical weather to make sure you won’t freeze or bake!
  • Train for your Big Run
  • Do dry runs along the route in the environment you’ll face on the run
  • Modify your route based on scouting and dry runs

Speaking strictly for my own effort, this took me almost a year. The good news was that during that year, I could badger away on the route at night without sacrificing my work output during the day.

sure, you can skip some of these, but that comes with a cost: having to reroute, buy supplies you didn’t think you needed, or add days because you either didn’t realize how tough your route was or you just plain wore out your feet.

Running days

You’ll want to consider how long it will take you to cross the country, if for no other reason than planning to meet someone on the opposite coast. That could be friends and acquaintances or even a news crew. It’s a big finish! Expect at least a few people.

You’ve got to be able to tell those people when to anticipate you, so let’s start with some simple math.

  • If you’re walking across the USA, not counting rest days, injury days, speaking engagements, or stops to visit friends, you’re talking about maybe 20 miles a day. To go 3000 miles, that means about 150 days.
  • If you’re running across the USA at a back-of-the-pack pace like me, you’ll cover about 30-40 miles a day. Sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the time of year and your tolerance for running in the cold and dark.
  • If you’re an elite (in which case you’re probably not reading this post) or just have a high pain tolerance, perhaps you’ll get in maybe 45 miles a day. At higher daily mileage totals, your opportunity to get sufficient rest to rebuild muscle tissue for the next day starts to go down, and you’ll find yourself taking more rest days or treating injury more often. So let’s not go too far about that. At 45 miles a day, it will take you about 66 days to run across the USA.

Unless you’re Pete Kostelnick or Marshall Ulrich, you can pretty much rule out finishing any faster than that.

Getting to the start and from the finish

Count on an extra week or so if you’re driving. If you’re flying, plan on time to send the equipment you need ahead of you.

Rest days

If you don’t plan to rest (which you should), you should at least plan to resupply. Either way, you’ll end up taking a day off every so often.

For multi-hundred-mile runs, including transcontinental runs, there’s no universal standard for when to take a rest day. I take one every 10 days or 300 miles, whichever comes first, sometimes stretching that time a little if it means I’ll end up in a town big enough for us to have an opportunity to restock the crew van.

My own personal experience from two runs across Texas has been that if you don’t take a rest day after 350 miles, you will take a rest day when you don’t plan to. Discomfort and fatigue accumulate over the miles of hard pavement, road debris and camber and make you prone to actual injuries such as blisters, swollen ankles, bulging discs, or something more serious, especially if you are carrying or pulling your own supplies on foot.

Even if you’re lucky enough to not suffer an injury, sooner or later you’ll run out of food or supplies and need to stop anyway–unless of course you’ve got some hotshot big-budget sponsor paying for a support team ferrying you hot burgers from Wendy’s every hour while you and your other crew van do the 6-mile Meetup Tango out on the road. The point is, you’ll have to pause every so often, so budget time for it.

I asked around a bit on the USA Crossers Facebook group about when people take rest days, and there was some consensus that about every 10 days seemed right.

So for a 3000 mile run at a back-of-the-pack running pace, count on around 10 rest days.

Meetups, interviews, speaking engagements, and more

Unless your run is some sort of private soul-searching journey of discovery, chances are good that you’re doing it to meet people and share your story, raise awareness, funds, or attention to something. That means media and community engagement. Sometimes it will just be sharing a meal, walking together for a few miles, or sometimes you’ll be invited into the studio or to an auditorium or classroom somewhere to talk about your run.

Count on some time off running to meet people and talk with them, to tell your story and listen to theirs. Even better, plan for it.

Even if it’s just an hour on the side of the road walking with a reporter with a mic and camcorder, you’re not moving at your normal pace, so you’re covering fewer miles and taking longer to do it. One way or another this translates into short mileage days and lost time that you have to count into your total transit time.

To net it out, your 30-mile-a-day, 100-day transcon will almost certainly turn into a 110-day affair, your 150-day event into a 165-day one, and even your 66-day run into a 72-day journey. If you plan that time, it won’t sneak up on you as accidental delays that you have to explain to others.

For every one of those days, you will have to eat and sleep, and that costs money.

Budgeting Money

The amount of money to budget for your transcontinental run depends on a number of factors:

  • Cost of lodging for every day you’re out there
  • Cost of meals for every day you’re out there
  • Cost of transportation / crew vehicle, regardless of whether that’s a backpack, rickshaw, baby carriage, or crew van
  • Cost of gas (if you have a crew vehicle)
  • Cost of consumable supplies
  • Cost of gear

Lodging

Lodging is what and where you make it.

If it’s your goal to sleep cheap, you can always duck behind a cactus off road, roll yourself up in a blanket, and sleep under the stars. Depending on what part of the country you’re in, you may encounter wildlife during the night that are attracted to the scent of your food…or not. You may encounter cops who don’t think too kindly of your overnighting it behind the 7-11 and ask you to move on. You may encounter Border Patrol agents who’d rather you didn’t overnight it on known human trafficking routes next to NM-9. One option is packing a lightweight tent (which adds to your gear weight) or tent-poncho or cloak tent, some of which you can get for about $35 at a military surplus store. But at least you’ll wake up on your route.

Or you can beg your friends to put you up for the night. The only problem is finding roughly 100 friends for accommodations during the whole journey, or 30 friends who’ll put you up for several days and don’t mind driving you out to your start point early each morning and back from your end point each night, which takes time and cuts the days a bit shorter in terms of achievable mileage.

A step up from that is looking for picnic areas, rest stops, or at least wide spots on the side of the road where you can at least catch a catnap. Full-on rest stops have restrooms with flush toilets and running water, but are usually not found on the backroads of America. That means possibly altering your route to stay on US Highways (such as US-180, which spans nearly all of Texas) or on the two-way frontage roads of Interstates (it’s not safe to run one-way frontage with traffic at your back!), since frontage is legal to run on despite the fact that the actual Interstate itself is not. You’ll usually come up on the back side of such rest stops, and parking and access to facilities may be a little more difficult. But they’re there, they don’t cost anything, and aside from altering your route slightly, don’t directly cause major delays that would add expense to your run.

One step up from that is finding an RV park or cheap motel along the route, and / or adjusting the route so that there is one nearby. This can run you $30-$50 a night but it’s a step up from a rest area. The really cheap motels are pretty nasty and have pests, drug usage, and bedbug problems. But at least they’re often next to civilization and sometimes it can save you time getting a hot meal. If you have a crew van, RV parks are a better bet, and most have not only power hookups you can use to recharge your RV batteries, but hot showers, a common area you can use to plan the next day, and a decent amount of overhead light for you to enjoy dinner cooked over a camp stove.

Which brings us to the last “level” of lodging: hotels and B&Bs, typically priced anywhere from $75-$150 a night. This doesn’t have to be a hotel–it can be an Air B&B, which is often just someone’s house. That house may be closer to your route. You’ll have 120V current, multiple outlets, and temperature controlled environment. You may have a microwave if it’s a hotel, or even a stove / oven if it’s an actual house. You’ll also be able to get a good night’s sleep without insects or curious wildlife.

Either way, you’ll be spending something on lodging. As a middle-ground between “hoboing” your way across the US and staying at the Ritz-Carlton, let’s assume it’ll cost you from $30-$100 a night. For 110 nights, unless you do a lot of your sleeping onroadsides and rest stops, that’s anywhere from $3,300 to $11,000 in lodging.

Previously, I wrote in detail about lodging and sleeping arrangements.

I’d say it’s a wise decision to expect your lodging budget for a transcon to be at least $3000 and probably as much as $5000. Or else make a lot of friends.

Meals

Meals are extremely important in a transcontinental run. If you’re running 30 miles a day, 10 hours a day, burning 500-600 calories an hour, you’re talking about consuming 5000-6000 calories a day just to avoid losing weight as your body over-burns what you eat and starts to catabolize (cannibalize) its limited glycogen store and onboard fat and muscles for energy.

You may or may not be a “morning” person, but either way you’re looking at two “major” meals during the day, plus something every hour or two to keep your going. Your options are:

  • Bring energy-dense food with you: for instance, shelf-stable fat and sugar sources like cookies, trail mix, etc. If you’re clever, you can find decent bulk pricing on energy dense, shelf-stable food that stores well in a backpack or baby carriage and buy in advance.
  • Grab something at convenience stores as you pass them. This food will almost always be more expensive than the same thing bought at Wal-Mart.
  • Stock a crew van with food just like you’d normally eat. In this case, it’s not the food that’s expensive, but the transport.
  • Stop at restaurants, diners, etc., at key times of the day to get your one or two hot meals. Even if it’s fast food, it’s still not cheap.

Don’t forget you also need liquids. That can be anything from multiple 2-liter bottles of soda stuffed into your baby carriage, refilling your water bladder from bottled water at a gas station, or stocking your van with jerry cans full of clean water. Generally, the more convenient and lightweight it is, the more you’ll pay for it.

As one means of calculating cost, let’s assume you can run 12 miles on a 16-oz soft drink and a junior cheeseburger, plus a 16-oz water bottle and a packet of cookies bought at a convenience store. According to this source, the average cost of a fast food meal is about $5-$7. Add another $2 for the water bottle and another $1 for the cookies. Doubling that to figure for both lunch and dinner (skipping breakfast entirely), and add just a little extra cost for the water and Oreos comes to $15-$25 a day for meals.

Sometimes strangers offer you food and water. Take it, if for no reason other than to show gratitude for the kindness of strangers.

You can prepare your own meals and liquids for about a third of that, but you have to carry them with you. That means extra weight in your stroller or an area to stock food in your crew van. Adding weight to your stroller may slow you down and add costly days to your trip; buying a few bins for food storage in your crew van won’t cost nearly as much, but then you have to buy the crew van.

Either way, you’re not getting out of paying $10-$20 or so per day for food. Multiplied by 100 days, that’s $1000-$2000 total for food. And don’t forget rest days!

Transportation / crew vehicle

For “crewed” transcons

You can get a decent used cargo van for about $10,000. I highly recommend an actual cargo van. During my first multi-hundred-mile run, we tried to use a full-size SUV and it had much less cargo room than we thought because even when folded, the seats took up a lot of room.

Most cargo vans have places on the interior bulkheads (walls) where you can attach “lashing rail”, which is the same stuff airlines screw into the floors of airplanes to attach passenger seats. Lashing rail (also sometimes called L-track) is versatile, and depending on the brand you get, you can obtain attachments such as D-rings and mounting hardware that will help you securely fasten stuff like sleeping bags, food crates, water jugs, coolers, first aid kids, etc., to the walls or floor of your van. Many cargo vans come already equipped with D-rings in the floor, and depending on the seller, may be preconfigured with steel partitions between the passenger cabin and storage area, may have cabinets or other storage in the interior, and–especially if it’s a service van such as a plumber, electrician, or similar, a rooftop fan for ventilation, which is VERY important if you intend on sleeping inside the van without suffocating from your own carbon dioxide.

For “screwed” transcons

“Screwed” stands for Self-Crewed. But folks who don’t have crew know that the meaning runs deeper. If you can’t afford a crew van or even find a crew, you’re probably looking at a solo run with a baby carriage to hold your supplies.

Get a used “running” baby carriage with lots of storage. You’ll also need to visit a local bike shop and have the normal tires replaced with puncture resistant Gatorskins, Schwalbe Marathons, or a similar puncture resistant tire, or you’ll be in a world of hurt the first time you run over glass 100 miles from nowhere. Know ahead of time where you can get replacement tires and tubes (baby carriages are a bit of a non-standard size, so don’t always count on bike shops), and invest some money in day-glo yellow reflective tape to write on the side of the stroller “USA RUN – NO BABY.” If you don’t you’ll get pulled over by cops who want to know why you’re walking a baby on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere.

Also, count on paying for an Uber or Lyft to pick you up…except when they can’t. You may have to call your Air B&B host to come get you out of the desert, and it would be a kindness to offer to pay for that transportation. Otherwise, you’ll have to budget time to run off-route to your lodging, or you may have to call a friend to pick you up.

Every option that saves you money will cost you time. Or you can buy a vehicle and solve all of that.

For a decent baby carriage you’re looking at $150 new, $50 used. It’s a lot cheaper than a cargo van, but it doesn’t hold as much. You’ll need to get really good at packing and at picking routes that go near water sources, especially when you cross the western US. You’ll be crossing either mountains or desert, so be prepared and scout ahead in a car to make sure you know what you’re getting into.

Gas

Depending on your crew vehicle (if you have one), gasoline can be a significant cost. RVs get notoriously bad mileage (sometimes as low as 8 MPG). Some of the larger and more powerful class As run on diesel, which tends to cost more than gasoline.

Our cargo van has a 4-cylinder engine that’s fuel-efficient (about 20 MPG), but due to the fact that it uses a turbocharger to give the engine more hauling and carrying power, requires ONLY 91+ octane gasoline. Its 16-gallon tank gets us about 300 miles. So that’s ten tanks of gas. Even if gas is $1.50 a gallon x 16 gallons, that’s 10 tanks at $24 a tank. And that’s the ideal case. In Vidal, CA, at the only gas station for nearly 100 miles, 91-octane gas was $5.00 / gallon.

Crew van or no crew van, figure paying no less than $250 for gas, more likely $300-$400, and for a large RV, close to $1000.

Supplies

Cost of supplies will vary depending on whether your USA run is self-crewed (sometimes abbreviated “s. crewed” or simply “screwed”) or crewed.

By supplies I mean anything you need but don’t eat and don’t wear. That includes first aid, hygiene, sunscreen, pain relief cream, prescriptions, and the like.

If you’re living with a chronic condition like Type 1 diabetes, these can get expensive. It can also be challenging to have to order 3 months of supplies in advance, possibly buying extra, and / or arranging for “drops” along the route where you can resupply. Since most of you do not have to deal with this, I consider supplies cost to be fairly nominal. Depending on your needs, though, it can add up.

Gear

Gear includes non-perishable goods like camp stoves, sleeping bags, tents, etc., as well as the clothes you’ll need for at least three separate seasons, since 100 days spans just under a third of the year. That means both cold and hot weather gear, including hat(s), socks, gloves, running shorts, tights, running shirts for all seasons, shoes (count on blowing out one pair of shoes about every 300-500 miles or so), rain gear, gaiters, sunglasses, and possibly neck buffs, arm coolers or warmers, and leggings. You’ll need gear to protect you from weather.

The cost of gear isn’t zero, but neither is the cost of poor gear choices. Some transconners wear gear they kept from their days in the service, or grab a pair of cheap sunglasses (cue up the ZZ Top!) and a straw hat. Whatever protects you from the weather–but don’t skip what you actually need. You’ll pay for it one way or another.

Previously, I wrote in detail about gear and supplies planning. Have a look…it might be helpful.

If you have gear sponsors that can offset the cost; otherwise plan on replacing your shoes every 300-500 miles. Figure that for about $300 to $600 even if you find decent lightly used shoes on eBay.

Dealing With Time and Money Obstacles

Here’s what I think is a realistic time and cost estimate for a typical transcon. Your mileage (literally) may vary:

  • Time: count on 70-150 days minimum, depending on your pain tolerance and need for rest
  • Lodging: $5,000-$10,000. Add extra time if it’s not close to your route.
  • Meals: $2000 and up
  • Transportation / crew vehicle: $150 for stroller and new tires / $10,000 for cargo van
  • Gas: $350 or so
  • Supplies and gear: Nominal; depends on your resourcefulness, but figure $500 at a minimum.

Even if you go cheap, you really need to set aside several thousand dollars for your Big Run. If you buy a crew vehicle, expect to pay serious money, regardless of whether you rent or buy, or how old the vehicle is.

It will cost more than you think. You don’t have to spend it all at once, but you need to be able to spend it or depend on the kindness of relative strangers. That may mean setting aside some of your “mad money” or retirement savings. It may mean saving up in anticipation of your big run.

It’s also a lot of time. You’ll probably be very challenged to find 3+ months you can take off from work unless your employer is very understanding.

If you’re hell-bent on getting it done all at once, you may want to consider “gig” work, contracts or some other flexible work-schedule arrangement; however, beaware that this may reduce your income just when you need to accumulate funds. Or you can stretch things out over 2-week vacations, running 30-miles a day and covering around 500 miles each time. Going like that, your Big Run will take about 6 years to complete. If you’re lucky enough to have a workplace that allows month-or-longer sabbaticals, you may want to take advantage of them.

Sometimes, life events force you to break your run up into pieces that you can accomplish it in chunks. For me, my dad’s funeral, followed by the 2020 pandemic, forced that. Sometimes it’s something more mundane, like a family reunion you don’t want to miss. Those are important, too, so don’t give them short shrift. Life is all of these things.

Which can sometimes make the Big Dream seem like just a dream.

It takes a lot of time and money. It’s physically and psychologically hard, not to mentioned spiritually transforming, and no one who has never run across the US (or crewed such a run) will ever understand that.

Don’t give up.

Be patient. Be tenacious. Save up, plan fiercely, and in the end, you will have the memory, not the dream.