As most of us have realized at one point or another, life often costs more than we think it’s going to. Thru-hiking is no exception.
In this installment of Planning a Thru-Hike, we’ll go over the basics of budgeting and finances. While this isn’t an exhaustive list of what needs to be accounted for, it should give you a decent starting point when planning the financial aspect of a thru-hike.
How Long is Your Trail?
Conventional thru-hiking wisdom says to budget $2 per mile, which includes a built-in safety net if something goes wrong. With that theory, an Appalachian Trail thru-hike might cost around $4,200. This includes food, town stays, replacement gear, and transport. Most people probably won’t need that much, but the extra cushion is nice.
Another way to tackle the overarching budget is to estimate how much time you have allotted for the hike, and how often you’ll be in town. One night in town can cost upwards of $100, including a motel stay, a meal or two at restaurants, and a resupply.
Each Trail is Different, Which Means the Cost Will Vary
While $2-per-mile is a safe starting point, the cost of each trail varies greatly. Considerations include frequency of town stops, if the region is pricier than others, and the cost/ availability of resupplies in big-box stores compared to more expensive options.
My Triple Crowner buddy was surprised at how relatively inexpensive the CDT was compared to the AT and PCT, even though the CDT was longer in both duration and miles. While the towns he stopped at were more expensive and remote than towns along the other two trails, the stops were less frequent, so he ended up spending less money. Additionally, he had been concerned about resources in some of the smaller towns, so had more mail drops. This meant he was able to buy in bulk before the trip, and the cost of shipping ended up being less than what he would have spent on the trail.
What’s Your Style of Hiking?
This is one of the most important considerations. Everyone hikes differently, and some people want more town comforts than others. Are you fine staying in a hostel bunkroom, or will you want a private motel room? Are you more apt to duck in and out of town for a resupply, or do you want to stay overnight? How many beers do you typically consume in town?
Your style of hiking will change along the trail too. Even over the course of one thru-hike, my needs and style changed in a big way. My partner and I were prone to “platinum blazing,” i.e. spending more money in towns than most of our hiking companions. This meant getting private rooms, staying overnight in motels, and going out to eat a lot during the southern half of the Appalachian Trail. By the end, we were zipping in and out of town to resupply, sending a lot fewer items home in the mail, and we had our gear honed. We spent a fraction of the cost for the northern half of the AT than we did for the southern half, and the towns up north are notoriously more expensive.
Factor in Hidden or Surprise Expenses
Some expenses are obvious, and the money-suck of town days is well documented. The hidden expenses shouldn’t be ignored though. No matter how perfect your gear system is before you leave, you’ll end up replacing at least something along the way. Gear will break or wear out, and you might just see something lighter, cooler, or more effective than what you’re carrying.
On top of replacing gear, the shipping costs for mailing items ahead, or sending things home can add up quickly. Even if you have health insurance or travel insurance for your hike, be prepared for medical expenses—anything from an Urgent Care visit to the cost of treatment for Lyme disease. Ideally, none of these will factor into your hike, but the surprise expenses can (and have) ended many thru-hikes.
Do You Have At-Home Expenses?
Many hikers have real-world expenses to take care of during a thru-hike, especially on hikes that extend for several months or more. When you’re figuring out your budget, don’t forget to factor in the bills that will continue in your absence. The most obvious are phone bills and insurance bills, but some people will still be on the hook for housing expenses, pet care, storage, student loans, etc. Multiply those monthly bills by how long you’ll be out for, and be sure to have enough in the bank to cover them, on top of your trail expenses. Also, set up your autopay so you don’t find yourself scrambling for a spot of data somewhere in the middle of the woods to make sure your payment goes through.
Finally, Lost Income is a Thing
Most people in the “real world” are gainfully employed (if not, what’s your secret?) but for most, that income disappears during a thru-hike. While we are used to spending money in the real world and expect a certain amount to replenish each month from paychecks, most thru-hikers should emotionally prepare for money leaving their account without it being replaced.
Along with this, don’t forget to plan for re-entering the real world after the hike. No one was ever mad they had a little bit of cushion to get back on their feet.
You might also find some relevant tips in our ‘How to Thru-Hike on a Budget’ article written by Six Moon Designs’ Whitney “Allgood” La Ruffa.
Maggie Slepian is a full-time freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana. She is the co-founder of BackpackingRoutes.com, and spends as much time outdoors as possible. You can follow her here, or find clips and contact info at Maggieslepian.com