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How to thru-hike on a budget

Hiking the CDT calls for some expensive appetizers in Lima, MT.
Hiking the CDT calls for some expensive appetizers in Lima, MT.

Although walking thousands of miles and living in the woods for weeks on end doesn’t rack up the bills like a six month trip to Paris, in my six consecutive summers of doing nothing but hiking, I’ve found that stops in town to resupply, feeding hiker hunger, and sleep on a mattress add up over time. Prospective hikers frequently ask me for tips on keeping the money flow low and the fun times high while on a thru-hike. These are a few cost saving tips that will keep the cash in your Tyvek wallet and still keep a smile on your face.

1)      Start the trail with the right gear I keep an expense journal for all my hikes and discovered that I spent almost $1000 on gear during my first thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail—in addition to the thousand I spent gearing up to start the trail! During my hike, I decided what I was carrying was no good, and then replaced it with new gear—essentially buying two of everything. If you start the trail with gear you love, you will be less inclined to buy something else. Do your research and ask other hikers what they’ve brought—it can pay off big time when you’re deciding between getting dinner or new socks.

2)      Share hotel rooms with other hikers It is almost inevitable to become friends with other long distance hikers during a thru-hike—so why not get a room together when you’re in town? Some trailside hotels will let you pack several hikers into a hotel room, allowing you to split the costs among many people. Make sure you check with hotel management and pay for all your extra people—failure to do so is considered stealing from an innkeeper and can get you kicked out of your room—and worse—give the hiking community a bad name to the small towns along the trail. But if you do it right, sharing a room with all your best trail friends can be a highlight of your hike.

Explosion of gear. Imagine this is in a hiker shared room.
Explosion of gear. Imagine this is in a hiker shared room.

 

3)      Or don’t get a hotel room at all  Many hikers like to hit town in the evening, catch a motel room, and spend the night partying, eating, and spending money senselessly. Yet, a night like this can lead a hiker to blow through more than $100. My friend Gantz who I met on the Pacific Crest Trail gave me the great money saving advice to avoid the hiker’s town night binge: arrive in town early.  By walking into civilization in the morning, hikers are less tempted to get a hotel room or hit up the bar. I like to take care of chores in town (resupplying on food for the next leg of the trip, shower and laundry), and then find my way back to the trail for a few more miles before camping time.

Town can wait for tomorrow.
Town can wait for tomorrow.

4)      Eat grocery store food before restaurant food After a week in the woods, hikers hallucinate about food. Yet, not all town food costs the same. My friend Lint, a backpacker with more than 15,000 miles on his tattooed legs, suggests eating a grocery store can of beans before going to the burger joint. Those 79 cent beans help meet the immediate hiker need for calories while telling the brain not to order a second $20 entrée when you get to the restaurant.

For thru-hikers, grocery shopping doubles as a way to dry out rain gear
For thru-hikers, grocery shopping doubles as a way to dry out rain gear

5)      Never grocery shop hungry Just like at home, when you buy groceries while hungry, you’re likely to come back with more than you need.  To avoid buying too much food for the next leg of the trail, I tend to eat first, and then make a second trip to the grocery store.

6)      Know hunger from thirst Many hikers can’t tell whether they are hungry or thirsty—and this misinterpretation leads to getting a second dish of pasta at the restaurant. I will often get a $1.79 electrolyte drink before going to a restaurant. If you’re still hungry after the can of beans and the expensive alfredo, ask the waiter/waitress for a refill of water. Sometimes, a belly full of water can save you the cost of ordering another entrée.

Liz "Snorkel" Thomas

Liz Thomas is a well-traveled adventure athlete most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has completed the Triple Crown of Hiking–the Appalachian Trail, the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail–and has backpacked over 15,000 miles across the United States. While not on trail, Liz lives in Denver, Colorado.

Comments

Dave

You know I’m toying with the idea of through hiking the PCT. I did the JMT with my brother, and loved the trail life.. I have also read a lot trail journals from through hikers, and I feel like more is written about what they did in town than what they did on the trail. Congratulations on your speed record and triple crown!

Dave

Rachel

Good tips. I have done some research, and the general consensus for cost seems to be $1,000 per month (minus the original cost of gear and travel, etc), but nobody seems keen to say HOW this money is spent (as you say, grocery store food is massively cheaper, and strictly camping is free).

I’m going to assume for the moment that people on such a budget are staying in trail towns whenever they encounter one, replacing gear through bad planning and generally eating expensive meals at rest stops.

I could be wrong, but if you plan carefully, avoid hotels/restaurants and buy store-brand budget food, I don’t see how you can rack up that kind of monthly bill.

Liz "Snorkel" Thomas

Thanks for asking, Rachel! I think $1,000 a month is what is needed to stay pretty comfortable and includes a couple hotel stops a long the way. A lot of going on the super cheap on trail is about willpower and avoiding peer pressure. It’s about camping just outside of town when your friends go into town to stay at a hotel and party. On the extreme end, it’s about eating ramen outside a restaurant when your friends go get a warm meal. As for replacing gear, everyone ends up replacing gear, even if they planned very well. Over the course of 5 months, stuff breaks and wears out. It’s just best to get stuff you like the first time around instead of constantly replacing.

If you haven’t heard it yet, the Trail Show bonus show dives into it a little more: http://www.cdbaby.com/artist/thetrailshow Disco and Pod talk about how they spent around $2,000 each on a 4-5 month hike of the PCT, so about $500 per month. They talk about some of the exact things you are mentioning. Worth a listen!

[…] was 18 Ways To Prepare Your Wallet For Your Thru-Hike, How to Thru Hike on a budget and The Frugal Backpacker – The $300 Gear […]