Aside from fear, one of the most common reasons people never embark on a thru hike, or end up not completing one is… money. When in trail towns, or while browsing internet forums, I’ve found the question of “How much does it cost to do a thru hike?” to be one of the most recurring. I would say it’s in the top five questions people ask about thru hiking.
While the question of how much a thru hike costs is usually what people say out loud, what they are really thinking is, “How cheaply can I get away with doing this?” and “Can I afford that cheapest estimate?” I know it was on my mind when I first began research into thru hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2013-2014. I’m sure many of you have heard the “average” figures thrown out for all the trails. Most will say you need between $3,000 and $5,000 minimum to comfortably thru hike; 3k being a safe, but very low average of that minimum. To some this may seem like a small fortune that will take years to save up for; while others may view it as a drop in the proverbial bucket.
Fortunately, I’m not here to debate average costs, maximum costs, or my own personal costs. No, we’re going to discuss what would have to be done in order to do a thru hike for the absolute lowest cost possible. While most people would only attempt a thru hike for less than a thousand bucks out of necessity, and not because they think it would be fun (maybe it would be for some); we’re going to examine exactly how you would accomplish this goal. For reasons of simplicity, we’re not going to factor in any possible bills, expenses back home, or the cost of your gear. I’m only going to examine “on trail” expenses. I’ll do a separate post eventually about outfitting yourself for as cheap as possible for a thru hike without compromising safety, but not in this post. For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to assume you already have all your gear and all expenses back home are covered.
So, when you’re on a thru hike, what are the major expenses while on trail? They are: Food (for the trail), Lodging, Restaurants, Transportation, and Gear Replacement. Some extras might be Alcohol, Cigarettes, Drugs, and Entertainment (movies, etc.). Now, how many of those potential expenses can we eliminate without them affecting your physical chances of completing your thru? The answer is all of them except Food, some Gear Replacement (think mainly shoes and stove fuel), and MAYBE some transportation. Everything else would be considered a non essential luxury. They may contribute to your happiness, which can also be a major factor in your success, but when looked at objectively, they are not physically necessary to the completion of your thru hike (all other arguments aside).
The question now is, “How do you eat for months on end for less than $1,000?” and “What sort of hiking style will support that?” You need cheap food that’s easy to find anywhere, but also gives you the energy you need to hike every day (possibly a little harder and faster than most). What types of food meet these criteria? Grains, Starches, and Lentils is the answer. So what are those? Think: Rice, Instant Rice, Instant Mash Potatoes, Pasta Sides, Top Ramen, various types of Dried Beans, Grits, Various Oats (oatmeal), Couscous, Quinoa, and other cheap pasta in bulk. All of these items can cost well under a dollar for multiple servings, especially when bought in packages instead of individually. Even when purchased as individual servings they are still extremely cheap (usually no more than a dollar at most). They key would be to buy boxes, bags, or bundles of these items to avoid the individual packages; then measure and separate the servings out yourself. Case and point, I once hiked for ten days and nearly 200 miles on what amounted to $3 worth of instant rice. Was I bored out of my mind with rice? Oh god yes. Did I go hungry or without energy? No. Another example would be the time I hiked for eight days and 180 miles straight while eating only Top Ramen for every meal (not snacks). What does a 12 pack of Ramen cost? The answer is less than three dollars. Here’s a pro tip: If you crush all of the packages up and dump them into a single container; you can fit 14 packs of ramen into a one gallon Ziploc bag, and it still weighs next to nothing. These are just ideas to put into perspective how much you can carry for next to nothing.
Some cheap food items that don’t fall within these food group categories would be: pouch or canned tuna, pouch spam, many types of bagels and pastries, many types of junk food (think oatmeal cream pies or cosmic brownies), tortillas, and other breads. Obviously all those bread products are grains, but I would consider them more of a “bonus” grain item that doesn’t go as far in weight, calories, and price as say… a bag of rice. Also, you can find tons of discarded foods within “Hiker Boxes” on just about every long trail. I wouldn’t tell you to completely resupply from a hiker box (bad manners), but you could easily supplement yourself with just about any type of food you can think of. One man’s exhausted food item is another man’s unique feast. Some hiker boxes are so vast with discarded food; multiple people could resupply themselves with plenty left over. Take what you need/want, but make sure you’re not messing it up for someone behind you who might be in the same food situation as you…
So that is the template for what your diet is going to consist of, and I promise it will get boring. You wouldn’t think mental toughness would have to play a factor in the food you eat, but it certainly does when it comes to eating as cheaply as possible. So how do you make some of these foods more interesting and flavorful? Hot sauces, various cheap seasonings (salts, peppers, etc.), Bouillon Cubes (to flavor the water you cook in), and mixing certain main ingredients (think putting a pouch tuna in your ramen or instant mash potatoes). Also, you can acquire almost all of your condiments for free by getting them from fast food restaurants. It’ll take a lot of discipline and an iron will (for most people), but this is the type of diet you’ll need to adopt in order to keep costs as low as possible.
One other technique you could apply to this food strategy is utilizing mail drops, or having your food mailed out to you. Obviously the postage is going to cost extra money, but if you can find someone back home to cover postage, or budget for the cost of flat rate shipping ahead of time…then you could pull off the mail drops with fantastic results. Before even setting foot on the trail, you cold bulk-buy all of those food items online or at the cheapest store near you. This will eliminate having to find them on trail for whatever price the seller is charging. The money saved might actually justify the extra cost of flat rate shipping; but it would be ideal if you could find a friend, spouse, parent, or family member to cover the shipping cost. If applied correctly, then in theory you would have to take almost no money with you on trail. Another beautiful perk to this strategy would be you could buy all your food for the hike while still working and drawing a paycheck back home. Having the flexibility and certainty of what you’re buying and how much you’re spending back home Vs improvising while on trail will save you extra money right then and there.
The next possible expenses are Gear Replacements and Transportation. I’ll go over transportation first. Paying for transportation isn’t a “must” when you’re on a trail (due to hitchhiking and other avenues), but sometimes it can be more convenient to call and pay for a shuttle than to stand around with your thumb out. Maybe there is somewhere across town, or possibly in a nearby town that has better food options; like perhaps there is only a gas station where you’re at, but there is a Wal-Mart five miles up the road. If you’re hardcore you can obviously just wait on a potential hitch, or simply walk the distance. For the sake of convenience, most will pay for a shuttle (if one is available from a hostel), pay for public transportation (if available), or Uber (if available). Sometimes you luck out and hitchhiking is a very viable option, or public transportation is free. All of these factors are dependent on where you are, and how big the town/area is. You just never know, which is why I’m listing transportation as a potentially “needed” expense.
Gear is the next expense that’s almost guaranteed to rear its ugly head while on trail. Assuming nothing within your pack malfunctions, breaks, tears, or is found wholly inadequate; what sort of gear/supply expenses are nearly unavoidable? The answer is: replacing worn out shoes, fuel for your stove to cook all those boring foods (if you don’t cold soak them), toilet paper, and other hygiene products you might need or run low on. That’s about it. I would normally never condone stealing, but I personally don’t think it hurts to wrap a few extra yards of toilet paper around your hand while in a public restroom, or a fast food restroom. Sure it’s the principle, but who would actually miss or be offended by a little bit of toilet paper gone missing? Not I! Also, you can find many fuel canisters in hiker boxes pretty easily. Lots of people will discard them when they’re still a quarter full or more.
As far as Shoes go… it’s totally up to you where and how you get them. While most people are hiking in the latest and greatest trail runners, I’ve seen plenty of thrifty hikers re-outfit themselves with cheap Wal-Mart shoes, or second hand shoes from thrift stores, goodwill, or discarded pairs in hiker boxes. I’ve even used a pair of shoes I found in a hiker box, and have seen many others do it too. You can comfortably wear a pair of shoes that are several sizes too big for you; I’ve seen it done. Where there is a will, there is a way, and replacing worn out shoes is potentially the most expensive gear replacement almost guaranteed to happen at least a couple, if not more times during a thru hike. Any other possible gear replacements would fall within the realm of “unexpected,” or “unforeseeable,” so I won’t speculate on them here. Part of your fund should be allocated towards “emergency expenses.”
You may be thinking, “What about showers and laundry?” Well, sometimes you may get lucky and a hostel might offer it for free. Laundry is only a couple bucks at a laundromat, so maybe you just bite the bullet, or you split a load with other hikers. If you’re really determined, you can just wash them on trail in creeks and streams. No they wont be totally clean, but they won’t be crusty or intolerable. You can bathe this way too. Many times other hikers will let you use the showers in their motel rooms if they’re a friend of yours, or even if they’re not. Some towns have public showers as well. There are many ways to make due while spending little to no money; you just have to buckle down and do what has to be done. No one said it was easy.
Lastly, we have “hiking style.” We now know how to cut all essential expenses to an absolute bare minimum, but what sort of pace/style of hiking will help reinforce all those savings? Unfortunately, this is the aspect of thru hiking on the extreme cheap that requires the most discipline and mental toughness…
Every day you take to complete your thru hike, is a day in which you’re eating food; every extra day of eating food, is extra money that goes to paying for that food. If you’re going to stick to the “grains, starches, and lintels” model 100%, then you could potentially stretch out your hiking time quite a bit further than you think. However, life happens and you splurge a bit or spoil yourself a couple times (maybe). So to eat cheaply with possibly a few indulgences here and there, you’re going to have to keep up a pretty stringent hiking schedule. This means very little time in towns, almost no “zero days,” and no making short hiking days a habit. You’re going to have to make those miles! Sadly, this means it could be difficult to make/keep friends to hike with, unless they are following the same hiking style/model you are (regardless of their budget). When everyone else is taking a zero day in a motel or hostel, or going out to eat, or indulging in something that otherwise costs extra money… you probably won’t be joining in. As a result, you’ll end up hiking on ahead while others partake in extra break times, as well as pampering and/or indulging themselves with modern amenities and pleasures. This is simply the reality of it. Time is money, and if you’re taking extra time, then you’re spending extra money to feed yourself during that time; no matter where you are, or how long you’re there for.
Your hiking style and lifestyle will be pretty relentless under this budget, but only out of necessity. If you have the discipline to keep your food items restricted to what we’ve discussed, and utilize all the other practices mentioned… then you could potentially draw out the full $1,000 on mostly just food, while taking as long as you want to do your thru hike. You could even take zeros on trail and within towns, avoiding the prospect of abandoning any new friends you might make. You can achieve staying in towns for free by stealth camping on the outskirts, staying at private residences (assuming someone offers), or camping at designated parks, fields, or other locations within the towns for free. Who knows, maybe some of your new friends will pull together and spot you a meal or motel/hostel stay. Maybe when splitting a cost multiple ways you can get a room or share a large meal/appetizer for next to nothing. If you’re savvy and disciplined enough, you can make your thru hike experience whatever you want it to be, all for a thousand bucks or much less.
So now you know the secret; which is really more of savvy resourcefulness paired with common sense than a secret. Regardless, it’s not magic, and there is no “real secret” to thru hiking for less than a thousand dollars without making some major sacrifices. No magic, just reality. In fact, the sacrifices are the “magic secret” you have to conjure up on your own. If you are no stranger to sacrifice and hardship, then this could be easy, if not downright natural to you. For the most part, this will be an incredible challenge for the majority of people who attempt it. Do you think you could pull it off out of necessity or even just choice?