Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
How | Changing Expectations | The unexpected | Working along the trail | How much? | Avoiding disappointment
The Appalachian Trail and other long-distance hiking trails can be done inexpensively. Whether or not you want to do it that way may change when you get out on the trail. Giving yourself the option to spend more than you plan can mean the difference between completing your hike and running out of money short of your goal. It's frustrating for those hikers forced off the trail due to unforeseen circumstances such as injury or family emergency; it's even more so when it's just money that forces you off the trail.
To thruhike as inexpensively as possible: make do with the equipment you have or buy the most appropriate gear to begin with; take care of your equipment so it lasts as long as possible; take care of yourself and hike carefully to avoid unnecessary medical expenses; stay on the trail as much as possible, reducing town time; and when in town, share hotel rooms or stay in hostels, eat from supermarkets rather than restaurants, and avoid alcoholic beverages.
During your planning stages, the Appalachian Trail may seem like a six-month wilderness walk, full of solitude and communing with nature, interrupted by infrequent town visits. It's only when we get out on the trail that most of us realize how important the other people on the trail are to us. Even southbounders, relatively rare as they may be, develop friendships with others on the trail. It's these friends from the trail that become your trail family.
While many hikers advocate you to "hike your own hike", the reality is that the definition of "your own hike" is likely to change over time. We are influenced by others on the trail, in town, weather, family, and our own changing priorities.
If you start out wanting to limit town visits and hike on the cheap, you may find that your preferences change when you realize the really cool group of people you've been hiking with for the last week are all going into town to spend the night, shower, do laundry, and hit the local AYCE (all you can eat) restaurant. If you don't go into town, you can either hang out in the woods waiting for your friends or hike ahead. To do this every now and then is one thing. To do this frequently, can be demoralizing.
Allow for significant unexpected expenses. Experienced backpackers with all the equipment they need, often change equipment along the way. Equipment breaks or becomes inappropriate for your style of hiking which also changes over time. Many of us learn that our gear is more substantial than we need and start buying lighter options as we go. Be sure to allow finances for any changes of equipment.
Health insurance may pay for unexpected hospital or clinic visits but even if your injury or illness isn't enough to keep you from completing your hike, an extra week in town or an unexpected visit home while recuperating from a short-term illness usually costs more than the equivalent time spent on the trail. Those without health insurance should have a larger financial cushion so that a short-term setback doesn't completely derail your hike.
Working along the way
Some hikers plan to work along the trail but that does not work for most people. Opportunities to work are limited and nobody, whether those providing hiker services or otherwise, are obligated to give you work or work-for-stay.
Please do not approach potential employers with a sense of entitlement. You are no more entitled to any jobs, temporary or otherwise, than anyone else, hiker or townsfolk.
Once again, changing priorities may also mean you wish you could spend town time with friends rather than working.
Around 1999, the rule of thumb being bandied about was to plan about $2 for every trail mile on the Appalachian Trail for an average hike. It could obviously be done for less but even then you had to be careful in order to keep expenses down. Obviously, that number should be revised up to allow for inflation.
On other trails, you may find fewer opportunities to go into town, but those town visits are likely to be more expensive as there are generally fewer hiker services. Plan just as much for those trails.
Personal preferences will play a role. If you prefer your own hotel room, plan to party along the way, and prefer restaurants to the supermarket when eating in town, you'll need quite a bit more. Northbounders may find it easier to find the people to split a room five ways than southbounders. I've also noticed on my more recent section hikes that hikers seem less likely to share rooms as a group so town visits are getting more expensive.
To be sure, there are some hikers who each year manage to thruhike on the cheap. There are a larger number who go out planning to hike on the cheap who end up getting off the trail because they run out of money. To avoid disappointment, I recommend saving enough so that if your idea of how you want to hike changes along the way, you have the resources to finish the hike the way you want to, not the way you are forced to. Believe me, there's no problem finishing the trail with extra cash in your bank account, but you don't want to run out. Even if you have to wait another year, the trail will still be there and it could be the difference between completing that long dreamed about thruhike and frustrating disappointment.
Last updated, March 3, 2014.
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