Whenever I give a talk about a thru-hike or talk with people about all the various hikes I have done over the years, one question comes up time and again, “How can you afford to take off all that time to go hiking?” The answer is somewhat complicated. Because I don’t have a trust fund or someone else to pay for it, I have had to adopt a frugal lifestyle at home and then make sure to watch the spending while out on the trail.
I have seen more than a few thru-hikers have to leave trail and go home — not because they were injured, not because they weren’t enjoying the journey, but simply because they had run out of money.
Now one would think, hiking is cheap. Overall it can be a very inexpensive endeavor once you have your gear, but once on the trail the siren song of town often lures hikers into a spending free-for-all (think of miners in the 1890s). So here are some tips on how to afford that hiker lifestyle without breaking the bank.
Start by Saving at Home
It’s no secret that most hikers have one thing in common when they are working away at home — they tend to be CHEAP. Now I am not saying it’s the type of thing where they never offer to pick up the tab when you go out to eat; it's more adopting a frugal mindset to help save for adventure.
The first thing you have to do is decide what is more important to you, a luxurious lifestyle or traveling and adventuring? For me the adventure has often outweighed the luxury in life. So, while you are at home you can do things such thing as:
Avoid debt — the number one most important thing is to avoid credit card debt, as this is a never-ending cycle of payments that can take a lifetime to get out from underneath.
Buy a car with cash — I’m not saying drive a total beater, but buying a reliable car that you can afford instead of taking on a monthly payment is a sure-fire way to save some money.
- Limit unnecessary spending — this includes eating out everyday, drinking at bars, and buying frivolous items.
A great book to help you achieve your goals of being a lifetime adventurer is Your Money or Your Life by Joseph R. Dominguez, Monique Tilford, and Vicki Robin.
Remember to Budget for AFTER the Hike
Now that we’ve covered ways to save at home to afford your dreams of walking for months on end, let’s cover what you can do while on the trail to conserve cash and keep the dream alive.
First off, one important thing to remember is that when the hike is over you will need money to live off of while you experience the painful effects of re-entry. When I returned from my thru-hike of the CDT in 2016, I struggled to find a job and it took me nearly 6 months. Luckily, my wife was still employed, which helped, but also having a healthy nest egg when I returned home took a lot of pressure off me.
That time allowed me to sort out a new career path that would allow me to have a decent income and still get out enough to satisfy my itchy feet longing for a thru-hike.
Hiking on the Cheap — 7 Techniques to Save Serious Money!
Ask any thru-hiker how much a hike costs them and the answers can range from $2/mile all the way to $10/mile if sparing no expense. A good rule of thumb is to budget $1100/month for trail expenses. This excludes say the health insurance premium you are paying while on the hike, or any of the other expenses you already have in place, like a cell phone bill, etc. With $1100/month you should be able to have a great hike with just enough self-pampering to stay in the game mentally.
I can tell you that over the years I have blown more money on an impulse-driven resupply at a grocery store than I would like to admit. By taking the time to prep my own resupply boxes at home, I know exactly what I am getting for the next stretch and then can supplement that box with a few fresh items from the store, like cheese, avocados, bread, butter etc. Besides saving a pile of money on buying way too much food when I walk into the store, I also save myself the hassle of running all over town when I would rather be in a hotel room with my feet in the air watching TV and enjoying the AC.
Eat Before you go Shopping for the Resupply
Nothing adds up a bill on a resupply shopping run like hiker hunger. All that food you dreamed about during the previous week is suddenly right there in front of you, and your hunger is making you BUY IT! A very experienced long-distance hiker I know recommends going into the store, buying a can of beans or a sandwich, then going outside to eat said item, so that when you go back in to do your resupply shopping you will be satiated and not make buying mistakes.
Avoid the Bar and Brewery
Let’s face it, at 200+ lbs I love a cold brew almost as much as I love hiking. But after two beers my will power fades and all of a sudden spending hours at the bar with my trail pals, while fun, can also drain my bank account at an FKT pace. Plus, have you ever tried hiking with a hangover? I can tell you it sucks and oftentimes that pounding headache will make you decide to spend another expensive day in town … where you will probably make the same mistake once you feel better that afternoon.
Hiker Boxes and Dollar Stores
Whenever I hit town, I always make sure to check the hiker box, if there’s one around. Oftentimes you can get a decent resupply from it. Tastes change while on trail, so other hikers’ trash may become your treasure. Granted you may also eat some gnarly mystery food, but hey you’re on an adventure, so embrace it.
When you have exhausted the scraps from fellow hikers, a great place to resupply is the local Dollar Store. On the CDT, my hiking partner in Montana swore by their Honey Buns. At 2 for a dollar and 650 calories a pop, they suited his needs. While not the healthiest of items, they did fuel him for the last 900 miles just fine.
Split a Hotel Room
Let’s be clear here. I’m not saying, “Hey, let’s cram 8 of us in a room and only pay for 2 people.” What I am saying is get a room with 2 queen beds and split it with 3 friends. While I’m all about saving money, I’m also all about treating towns and business owners with respect. I realize that every extra body in a room is taking money away from that business. Even with the standard $8 extra per person hotels charge, oftentimes 4 to a room is still less than some hostels.
Oh, and as far as sharing beds, this for the bro-hikers out there, get over the whole ‘I don’t want to sleep with another guy’ issues you have. If you can snuggle up in a shelter with a bunch of randos on the AT, I think you can survive a night or two with your hiking partner in a hotel bed.
Perfect the Art of the Nearo
I saved the best for last! This one technique is the best I have utilized for saving money while on the trail. I do need a zero day here and there, so I budget for that, but by utilizing the nearo, I get all the benefits of a zero without all the extra costs.
The nearo for me starts by camping somewhere around 8 miles from the town stop. On town day, I get up early, have a cup of coffee and breakfast and then head out before the sun is up. By the time I hit town, it’s generally about 8 am or 9 am, so I start off with a second breakfast, ply myself with food and then head out for my chores. My first stop is the post office for my resupply box. Then I head to the laundry mat or a truck stop, depending on who has showers and clothes washing facilities on site.
After I clean up, I sort my resupply box, and make a list of items I need to pick up. While the laundry is going, I charge my devices and by the time I’m all set there, I head out for lunch. After lunch, I hit the grocery store, buy a sub or two for dinner in camp, and before I know it, I’m headed back out on the trail. Now granted, after gorging myself on town food, I don’t usually make too many miles. But I do make sure to get at least 3 miles away from the road to ensure I am well outside the town vortex that could suck me back in.
A pro-grade nearo will sometimes include a night in town. When I do that, I use the same daytime routine, but will typically eat dinner out, then prep my pack before bed, so that I can get up early the next day, eat breakfast and then hit the trail.
A few final thoughts
While I enjoy saving money as much as the next hiker, I also realize that when in town, I am a visitor on a vacation and that businesses need our support. I also realize the impact that a few bad apples can have on those thru-hikers arriving after them, so please if you are going to utilize a service in town, pay for it! This includes:
- Offering gas money to people when you hitch hike, or paying the required shuttle fee or suggested donation for a ride.
- Always, and I mean this, always leave money for the trail angels where you stay; $20 is the standard, but if you can swing more, do so.
- Offer to pay for a shower if you are taking one at a friend's hotel room.
- Wear your rain gear while doing laundry. No hiker peep shows for the town folks.
- Do not stack hotel rooms and offer to pay for extra guests.
- Ask if it's OK before plugging into an outlet, and if it’s a small business, offer a few bucks to use their electricity.
- Don’t be a drunk party animal while in town.
- Respect the community you pass through.
- Always say please, thank you, and I’m sorry I smell so bad.
Whitney “Allgood” La Ruffa is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Six Moon Designs. Known to wear many hats in the hiking world, “Allgood” is the past president of the American Long Distance Hiking Association-West, the owner/author of his blog The Dago Diaries, and director of the board for Atlas Guides. When he is not working away, he can be found walking around the US on various long trails in need of a shower, a pint of ice cream and an ice-cold beer.