When hikers declare to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy that they are “2000-milers,” they are asked to complete a questionnaire and check boxes next to any special populations that they belong to. Did they hike as ethnic/racial/religious/sexual orientation/gender identification minorities? Did they hike as a couple? Did they hike on a budget?
As much as thru-hikers like to joke that they are “hikertrash” who are “homeless by choice,” being able to hike for 4-6 months requires a fair amount of privilege (even though it does save on rent and utilities costs). That said, I know some hikers who have walked from Georgia to Maine on as little as $5-6 per day, far less than the $2 per mile that most long distance hiking associations suggest. I’ve never hiked as inexpensively as some of my most frugal friends, but I have been budget conscious, as have many hikers. Unless you’ve got a well-padded savings account, it’s basically a necessity when you’re going to spend a summer walking rather than working.
There are two primary ways to spend money on a thru-hike: buying supplies ahead of time and buying supplies and comforts en route.
For my AT thru-hike, I was able to cheat in the pre-hike expenditure category, since I’d acquired most of my backpacking gear the year before. And, this year, when I needed to buy gear that wasn’t thoroughly worn out before I hit the PCT in April, I was lucky enough to have just come off a few months of full-time work. If you’re endeavoring to save money on your gear, be careful not to get wrapped up in ultralight ideals. (I’m not hating here; I’m a lightweight hiker myself.) Saving two pounds is worth a fair bit of money, but a savings of two ounces probably isn’t worth breaking the bank.
Then again, I’ve found that there’s a lot to be learned from the ultralight community. It seems that many of the ounce-counting hikers among us have made their own gear or otherwise been creative in gathering their supplies when they didn’t find something that met their needs. If you’re looking for a super-light sleeping bag, consider making your own. Homemade stoves, tents, and, surprisingly, backpacks are gaining in popularity these days.
If you are in the position of having at least six months before your hike, it’s a good idea to scour REI and EMS garage sales, online backpacking garage sales (such as several groups on Facebook), and even eBay. You’ll often find hikers ready to part with great equipment at good prices. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are also perfect times to shop for backpacking gear.
As you’re shopping, it might help to remember some oft-repeated advice: Save weight on your “big three” (e.g., sleeping bag, tent, backpack); save money on the rest of the items in your pack. I haven’t always followed this advice, but it can help to prioritize your sleep system over your water filter.
Once you have all your gear and set off on the trail, you’ll find yourself faced with a whole other set of financial dilemmas. Dozens (or hundreds?) of AT hikers get off trail each year citing financial issues. Obviously, emergencies happen that require alterations in plans and added expenditures; however, it seems that the easiest way not to spend money during a thru-hike is to avoid long town visits.
Many hikers find it all-to-simple to spent $100+ in each town they visit, staying in a hotel, eating at restaurants, and drinking some beers. Hitching into town mid-day and making it back to the trail to camp is a simple way to save money. Because of my love of good (non-gas-station-procured) food, I prefer to send myself resupply boxes along the trail; while this inevitably leads to greater upfront expenses, it enables me to save time and money in trail towns.
While I don’t always practice good restraint when buying gear, I honestly haven’t had a difficult time keeping my money in my pocket once I hit the trail. For the most part, I’ve found that saving money on a thru-hike comes down to a mental reframing of the experience. I see going to town as a chore — a fun chore during which I can eat veggies and write letters and wash my clothes, but a chore nonetheless. I consider town visits interruptions of the trail I’m working to experience, and I do my best not to stay in towns long enough so as to let them detract from that experience. Speaking of veggies, one of my favorite ways to save money on a long hike is by hitting the grocery store when I get to town, rather than a restaurant. I can pick up a whole bundle of veggies for the price of a non-hiker-portioned meal and tip.
As I mentioned before, not counting pre-hike expenses, hikers are often encouraged to budget roughly $2 for each mile of their hikes. While there seems to be a consensus that $5 per day is not very comfortable on a long hike, particularly when a hiker is resupplying at grocery stores along the trail, it seems that $9 per day isn’t too difficult. By that calculation, a five-month hike of the Appalachian Trail could be done for about $1400 in on-trail costs.
Have you gone on an extended backpacking trip on a budget? How have you saved money? What would you do differently if you were to hike again?