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Thru-hiking is a life-changing experience and an incredible accomplishment that hikers worldwide aspire to, but many wonder how to afford it. In this post, we’ll break down the cost of thru-hiking and explain how much hikers spend on some of the most iconic long-distance trails. We’ll also share common ways people afford to thru-hike and offer tips on saving money while on the trail.
How Much Does It Cost to Thru-hike?
On average, thru-hikers can expect to spend about $1,000 per month or $2 per mile on the trail. The cost of thru-hiking varies significantly from one person to the next and depends on individual priorities, spending habits, planning, and hiking style. At a bare minimum, anyone planning a thru-hike will need to save $4,000, with most people needing $6,000-$8,000+ in total.
Thru-hiking Cost Breakdown
While there are long-distance hiking trails around the world, some of the most popular and widely recognized are located in the US. Known as the Big Three, the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) are often at the top of thru-hikers’ bucket lists. Each trail has its own set of costs and logistical challenges, but there are basic types of expenses you’ll need to plan for no matter which one you choose to thru-hike.
Cost Per Mile
A thru-hike costs around $2 per mile, not including gear purchases and transportation to and from the trailhead. Estimates range from $1 to $3 per mile depending on the person, although very few complete a thru-hike for less than $1.50 per mile. Running out of money is one of the most common reasons hikers leave the trail, so it’s best to save more than you think you’ll realistically need.
Thru-hiking gear expenses vary substantially based on how much you already own and the quality of the gear you purchase. Generally, people embarking on a thru-hike spend between $1,000 and $4,000 on equipment.
While backpackers already have a good portion of the gear for thru-hiking, they may need to upgrade some items since thru-hiking requires more durable and lightweight equipment than what you would pack on a typical backpacking trip.
The most expensive items you’ll need to thru-hike include a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and hiking boots or trail runners. These items range from around $100 to $400 each. It may be tempting to go for the cheaper option, but investing in high-quality gear before your thru-hike will make your experience much more comfortable and can even save you money in the long run. For example, ultralight backpacking gear costs more upfront, but with less weight in your pack, you can travel faster and farther each day and are less likely to get injured.
Food on the Trail
Food constitutes one of the largest expenses on the trail. Thru-hikers spend between $10 and $20 a day on food, with $15 a day being about average. If you spend five months thru-hiking, this amounts to $2,250 and $2,700 for six months. Strategic meal planning can significantly reduce your food costs. For some inspiration, check out our post with 25 Delicious Backpacking Food Ideas.
You should also factor in postage for your resupply boxes. These costs will depend on how much food you mail yourself and how far your packages have to travel. When planning your resupply strategy, check with your local post office to see if they have any suggestions or money-saving tips, such as using flat rate boxes. If you’re thru-hiking in the US, the USPS postage price calculator can give you a reasonable estimate of shipping expenses to include in your budget. Most people find that $10-$20 a week is sufficient.
Heading into town is a well-earned indulgence on the trail, but costs can quickly add up. The average stop costs thru-hikers $100 for each day they spend in town, not including groceries. Expenses include hotels, hostels, or other lodging, restaurant meals, alcohol, laundry, and showers.
If you have one town day each week, it equates to about 21 days and $2,100 for a five-month hike and 25 days or $2,500 for a six-month hike. When budgeting, allow for a few extra town days in case trail friends extend an unexpected invitation.
Gear Repairs and Replacements
Nearly every thru-hiker must repair or replace some of their gear while on the trail. Hiking boots and trail running shoes are the most commonly replaced item, with many people going through three or four pairs.
The cost of repairs and replacements will depend on your gear and how many issues you run into. At a bare minimum, you should allocate enough for three pairs of shoes and another $300 or so for other equipment and clothing.
Fuel, Batteries, and Other Supplies
Although they’re not a considerable expense, fuel, batteries, maps, guidebooks, and other supplies must be factored into your budget. You can expect to spend $20-30 a week on these expenses. You won’t be able to mail fuel for your stove, so you should plan on purchasing it from towns along the trail.
The AT and PCT require permits for thru-hikers, but they are free of charge and are meant to limit the daily amount of thru-hikers during high-season. The CDT doesn’t require a permit, but all three trails pass through areas that require entry fees or permits for wilderness access and camping. The Pacific Crest Trail Association has made it possible for thru-hikers to get a free permit valid for the whole trail, while the CDT requires various hiking, camping, and wilderness access permits. The AT requires only two permits – one when thru-hikers are in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and another in Shenandoah National Park.
Transportation to and from the Trail
Transportation costs will depend on how far away you live from your starting and ending points – these could be anywhere from almost nothing to over $1,000. Book your travel early to get a good price on any plane, bus, or train tickets you require.
Donations for Trail Angels
Trail angels are people who make a special effort to help thru-hikers. Whether it’s meeting backpackers with a hot meal at a campground, offering a free ride to town, or hosting hikers at their homes, trail angels are known for boosting morale and creating trail magic.
To make this happen, trail angels rely on donations from thru-hikers. You should always be respectful and considerate and plan to donate at least $20 to each trail angel who hosts you. While not all trail angels will accept donations, giving back however you can is a great way to spread magic along the trail. If they don’t take money, you can offer to assist with chores or buy them something like chocolate at the store when you resupply. All help from trail angels should be considered a bonus and not factored into your expectations.
Nearly every thru-hike includes some unexpected events. Severe weather could cause you to take an unplanned detour, or you could suffer injury or illness requiring you to rest in town for a few days or even weeks. Most hikers find that allocating around 15% of their total budget for emergency expenses is sufficient, while some opt to set aside a flat amount of about $1,500. If you don’t end up using it, you’ll have some extra cash to make your transition back into civilization a bit easier.
Costs at Home and Reentry
When planning your thru-hiking budget, don’t forget to account for existing bills, insurance, loan payments, storage costs, and other expenses that you’ll still be responsible for while you’re on the trail. You’ll also want to make sure to allocate enough funds to allow yourself a few weeks of downtime to readjust to “normal” life and look for a job (if you don’t have one lined up already). Many thru-hikers find the transition back into society to be a challenge, so it’s best to give yourself one less thing to worry about by planning for basic living expenses when you return home.
How Much Does It Cost to Hike the Big Three?
Overall, there are no major differences in cost between thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. The AT is a bit cheaper on average, but the most significant variations in thru-hiking expenses stem primarily from differences in hikers’ spending habits, physical abilities, and hiking style. The key factors affecting a person’s total thru-hiking budget are speed, lifestyle choices on the trail, and gear needs. For more details about the cost of thru-hiking the AT, the PCT, and the CDT, continue reading below.
How Much Does It Cost to Hike the Appalachian Trail?
Most people spend between $3,000 and $6,000 thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, but it’s easy to spend significantly more than that without thorough budgeting. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommends allocating around $1,000 a month for on-trail expenses. Since a typical thru-hiker will require about five to seven months to complete the AT, this equates to anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000.
Stretching 2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine, the AT intersects more than 500 public roads and is less remote than the PCT and CDT. Nearby towns are close to the trail, and there are many opportunities to hitchhike.
Trail magic is plentiful on the AT, and it is known as the most social of the Big Three. As a result, it’s easy to spend a lot of money on town time and socializing, but there are also more opportunities on the AT to get help from trail angels and other kind strangers nearby.
How Much Does It Cost to Hike the PCT?
Thru-hikers typically spend between $4,000 and $8,000 on the PCT. Thrifty hikers with carefully planned budgets have hiked the PCT for less than $3,000, including off-trail expenses like gear and transportation, while others have racked up costs of more than $10,000.
The PCT traverses 2,650 miles between Mexico and Canada and takes around four to six months to finish. The trail is not as wild and remote as the CDT, but less connected to society than the AT. A good resupply strategy is crucial to sticking to your budget on the PCT since towns tend to be further away, hitches are harder to come by, and trail magic is less common than on the AT.
How Much Does It Cost to Hike the CDT?
Most people report spending $5,000-$8,000+ thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail. On average, hiking the CDT requires about $1,000 a month, and the trail takes around five to six months to complete.
More frugal hikers can get away with spending $800 a month, while others may require more than $1,500, not including gear and transportation to and from the trailhead.
There are several variations of the CDT. The average route is 2,800 miles, with the longest spanning more than 3,100 miles between Mexico and Canada. The trail has a higher average elevation (11,500 feet above sea level) and is more remote than both the PCT and AT. There are fewer towns along the trail, and they tend to be farther away, so you can expect to spend less on town time than you would on one of the other major long-distance trails.
There are also fewer trail angels and other people on the trail – without many options to get a free ride or hitchhike, you may have more transportation expenses into town on your resupply days and higher on-trail food costs.
Ways to Afford Thru-hiking
Thru-hiking is a dream for many hikers, but one of the biggest obstacles preventing it from becoming a reality is the cost. This section explains how people afford to thru-hike and provides some money-saving tips.
Cut Costs Ahead of the Trip
Saving money in advance is one of the most common ways people afford to thru-hike. Living more simply is a great way to finance your trip and is excellent practice for life on the trail. Many people say that adopting a frugal lifestyle and putting a portion of each paycheck into savings were essential to affording a thru-hike.
Cancel any unnecessary subscriptions and services, such as gym memberships and streaming sites, to cut costs leading up to the trip and ensure you don’t forget to cancel any remaining services before you leave. You can reduce your housing expenses by moving back in with your parents or friends or getting a cheaper place. If you don’t want to give up your house or apartment, consider renting or subletting it (if your lease permits this) while you’re away to minimize at-home expenses.
Limit how much you go out and avoid eating at restaurants and drinking at bars. You can also cut down on your electricity bills by skipping the dryer when doing laundry and letting your clothes air dry instead.
Find Additional Work and Income
Do what you can to earn a little extra cash in the months leading up to your hike. Get a side gig, pick up some odd jobs or extra shifts at work, and sell old clothes or other stuff you no longer need.
Seeking sponsorship from a company could reduce the amount you need to spend on gear and food or fund a portion of your thru-hike. Many brands have ambassador programs that support outdoor enthusiasts in their adventurous pursuits. Good places to start are smaller outdoor gear brands and food and snack companies. Some brands offer free or reduced-price products in exchange for sharing content on social media, while others help athletes meet their goals by financing some of their outdoor adventures.
Share Your Story
Hikers who are good writers or storytellers can sometimes offset thru-hiking costs by sharing their stories with media outlets. Many magazines and websites accept story idea pitches and will pay either a flat rate or per word for any articles they want to publish.
Create Passive Income Streams
The biggest financial hurdle thru-hikers usually encounter is the opportunity cost associated with not working while on the trail. Anything you can do ahead of time to bring in at least some income while you’re away will make it easier to afford the journey. Find passive income sources to continue earning money while you’re on the trail. For example, if you have a car, consider renting it out while you’re away. If you have a blog or are thinking of starting one, find ways to monetize it through tools like affiliate links.
Money-saving Tips for Thru-hiking
Invest in the Right Gear
Choosing the right gear for your hike can drastically cut down on overall costs. Many people purchase a sleeping bag that isn’t warm enough for the weather conditions or a backpack that doesn’t fit properly. These mistakes mean you’ll need to buy a new item, which increases total gear costs.
To protect yourself from these additional expenses, research your gear carefully before deciding what to purchase and get advice from experts when possible to ensure the item is right for you. Also, be sure to check the return policies and warranties in case you run into any issues with your gear.
People often have to replace socks and other clothing while thru-hiking. Choosing the right socks and investing in a high-quality pair like Silverlight socks will save you money by reducing replacement costs and potential for injury.
Silverlight socks are first class when it comes to durability and abrasion resistance. Even after many miles on the trail and numerous washes, the expertly blended merino wool fibers will remain hole-free and retain their shape. Silverlight socks come with a lifetime guarantee. If you ever run into any problems, you can return the socks, no questions asked, and we’ll get you a new pair.
Our socks also offer superior blister prevention and moisture control. These features lower your chances of developing problems that will slow you down and cost you money, like hot spots, blisters, and foot rot. You can read our blog post about Compression Socks for Hiking to learn more about why Silverlight socks perform better than the competition.
Buy Gear on Sale or Second Hand
Keep an eye out for sales on outdoor gear when you’re preparing for your thru-hike. Many retailers have sales around various holidays and offer membership discounts. You can also save money by buying second-hand gear. Numerous outdoor shops have gear exchange programs and sell used items on consignment. You can also find new or lightly used gear on sites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.
Resupply from Hiker Boxes and Weekend Backpackers
Towns near long-distance trails often have boxes where thru-hikers can unload extra weight from their packs and leave anything they don’t want. Other hikers can then take these items. Before you shop at a grocery store, check out the local hiker box to see if it contains anything you need.
Some areas, especially along the PCT and AT, are popular among weekend backpackers. If you ask, they may be happy to offer extra food and supplies to lighten their packs, thereby saving you money on resupply costs.
Research and Plan Ahead
Do your research beforehand to check which areas groceries are known to be expensive. You can then plan on shipping resupply boxes to those places and purchase groceries and other supplies in areas where they are cheaper.
Avoid Restaurants and Bars
When you’re in town, take advantage of hostel kitchens and hotel room kitchenettes. Cooking for yourself will cost significantly less than buying food at a restaurant. If you drink alcohol, buy it at the store rather than at a bar.
Ask About Thru-hiker Discounts
Some hostels, hotels, and restaurants offer thru-hikers a small discount. Keep an eye out for signs advertising these reduced rates, and feel free to ask if you don’t see any.
Always Ask Around Before You Book a Hotel
Check with the locals and other thru-hikers to see if there’s a budget-friendly camping option nearby. Some businesses and city parks near long-distance trails offer affordable, donation-based, or free camping. You’ll often find hiker services like showers and laundry available on site or nearby, although these services usually come at an additional fee.
Share Hotel Rooms
Sharing a hotel room with other hikers – whether they’re friends you came with or new buddies you met on the trail – can significantly cut down on your town time expenses. Ensure you’re not violating the hotel’s occupancy policies and always pay for each extra person in the room.
Don’t Do Your Resupply Shopping Hungry
It’s easy to overindulge and buy more than you need if you go grocery shopping hungry. Make sure to eat something first to resupply smartly.
So, how much does it cost to thru-hike? No matter which US trail you choose, it will set you back a minimum of $4,000 and more likely $6,000-$8,000 and up. These figures include on-trail expenses, upfront gear purchases, and transportation to and from the trailhead. Since running out of money is one of the most common reasons hikers leave the trail, you should always err on the side of caution and save more than you think you’ll need.
Thru-hiking can be the adventure of a lifetime, and those that do it say the experience is well worth the steep price tag. If you budget wisely, follow the money-saving tips in this article, and live frugally ahead of your trip, you should be able to finance a thru-hike.
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