AdviceSan FranciscoTravel Writings

7 Bay Area Adventures on a Budget

Updated: Sep 08, 2015 22:29
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Remember that ad for herpes medication with the woman in a canoe announcing ‘I have genital herpes’ on a mountain lake? Or this CITI Bank ad where professional climbers put their gear on a credit card? We’re supposed to believe that these are the faces of adventure: good looking white people (some of whom may have herpes) with plenty of free time and disposable income. The image of the ‘outdoorsy type’ is a powerful one. It helps sell all kinds of shit, and it lulls many of us into a sedentary life where we watch outdoorsy types have adventures on our screens.

It’s a shame, because the outdoors is free and the gear to explore it can be cheaper than you think. You don’t even have to go into the wilderness, as the myth of the ‘outdoorsy type’ suggests.

From Oakland to Big Sur, San Francisco is one of the world’s great base camps for urban and natural adventure. Here are a few cheap ways to explore the Bay on land and sea.


COST TO GET INTO IT: $20 (+ $120 for a wetsuit)

Image: Flickr

You really don’t need to splurge. For years I made do with a kit I bought at a toy store in Ireland. U.S Divers and Speedo make decent beginners kits for around $20.

That’s a bargain considering it’s the price of admission to another world.

The waters around San Francisco are littered with wrecks. Northern California’s kelp forests are a natural treasure worth the brain-freeze and risk of shark encounters.

Checkout California Diver and San Francisco Reef Divers for information on diving in the bay area and to find a dive buddy.

You can even put food on your table by learning to spearfish and dive for abalone. Have a look at the regulations first over at California Fish & Wildlife.

San Francisco has an underwater hockey club, news to me. Here’s how they describe the sport on their website:

“Underwater Hockey is a fast, action-packed (non-contact) sport played on the bottom of a pool by teams of 6 players with masks, snorkels, fins and short sticks. Players move the puck by pushing it or passing it, trying to get the puck into the opposing team’s goal.”

Leave a comment if you happen to give it a try.


COST TO GET INTO IT: Around $40 for men, a little more for women. Look for ‘grab bag’ suits.

Image: the Dolphin Club

All you need–all you’re aloud to wear in a race–is a swimsuit, cap, and goggles. There’s no real advantage to buying high-end gear. You see plenty of $5 goggles in the Olympics. Some shops have bargain bins with misprinted swim caps.

San Francisco is a training playground for ocean swimmers of all levels. Whether you’re taking a running dive, Baywatch style, into the surf on a dare, or training for the English Channel, the year-round chill of the Pacific is a challenge to anyone.

The aquatic park, at the end of Fisherman’s Warf, has a protected swimming area (FREE.) For $6 you can use the lockers sauna at the Dolphin Club . Their neighbor, the South End Rowing Club does sunrise swims at 6am on weekdays and 7am on weekends.

It’s not cheap, but this year’s Alcatraz Invitational is set for September 13th.



Image: SF Examiner

If you’re lucky enough to live near warm water, all you need to bodysurf is a swimsuit (guys, that means a speedo) and a pair of fins. In San Francisco, you have to wear thick rubber all year. Use the same wetsuit for snorkeling and get more use out of it. You can snorkel with your bodysurfing fins, but don’t try to bodysurf with snorkeling fins.

Besides cost, a big advantage over surfing is that you can bodysurf a truly crummy wave. The ones that just thump on the shore, like at Baker Beach, are ideal.

The Best spots in SF are:

Baker Beach

Ocean Beach (Advanced. Don’t even think about it if you’re not a beast.)

Fort Point (Advanced. Watch the rocks.)

San Diegans, check out my guide to bodysurfing in sunny S.D County over at Action Life Magazine.


COST TO GET INTO IT: FREE (assuming you have shoes.)

Everytrail lists trails all around the city. The Bold Italic has a guide to the 7 Best Waterfall Hikes Near San Francisco.

When it comes to urban trekking, good things happen when you throw out the map. Find alternative ways to navigate the city: collect the color red, see how many foreign languages you can identify, take your next right every time you see a blatant tourist. Get lost.


COST TO GET INTO IT: FREE (if you have a GPS enabled smartphone)

A global scavenger hunt for grownups. Use a handheld GPS, or the one on your phone, to find a Geocache. Take something from the cache and leave something of your own.

Get started at

Here’s a list of Geocaches in San Francisco.

This video explains it all in seventy-five seconds.


COST TO GET Into it: Around $100, less for used shoes.

Image: Flickr

To rock climb you need:

climbing shoes, a rope, a harness, carabiners, quick draws, daisy chains, a chalk bag and chalk, a belay device, a PAS, a helmet, tape, approach shoes, more carabiners, more quick draws, a first aid kit, layers, and if you get into trad. climbing the list never ends.

To boulder you need:

Climbing shoes and chalk.

Gym fees add up:

A day pass at Dogpatch Boulders is $20

An early bird pass at Mission Cliffs is $15

Mountain Project is a guide to outdoor climbing (FREE) in and around the city.

You’ll still need to get a crash pad (around $200-300) if you plan to boulder outside. As with all these sports, you save big by immersing yourself in the community. Instead of buying a crash pad, find a climbing buddy who has one.


COST TO GET INTO IT: Free (on a park bench) to very very expensive.

The cool thing about camping and backpacking on a budget is that you learn more and have a purer experience than if you splurge on nice-to-haves. The trade off is weight, what’s light on your wallet tends to be heavy on your back. If you want to travel light, it’s gonna cost you. That couple in the herpes commercial recently spent over a grand to cut just 3 pounds off their packs.

Image: Flickr

Since you don’t have to worry about mosquitos in the Bay Area you can sleep under a tarp (those start at around $15) like in the setup pictured above. Hammocks are cool too.

Army surplus stores have insane deals on camping basics. The quality isn’t anything like the kit you’ll find at REI, it’s obsolete by definition, but it’s cheap.

Camouflaging yourself is a good idea when you’re camping near civilization. The neon tones of civilian tents and packs advertise your expensive shit to thieving meth freaks. In San Francisco, military gear not only helps you blend in with the surroundings but with the homeless population as well. This video explains the art of ‘stealth camping.’

Steep and Cheap is an app that connects you with clearance sales on camping and climbing gear.

Gizmodo has an article on how to assemble a complete camping kit for $100.  They suggest using a wool army blanket instead of a sleeping bag.

Here’s a list of the 7 best camping beaches in SF. Your closest option is probably Angel Island.


Images: Flickr, SwimTrek

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