For the purpose of background information, my primary job before the trail was teaching in an art studio. In preparation for my hike, I also picked up jobs in a coffee shop and a yoga studio to save. When I finished my hike, I was able to return to the art studio and the coffee shop- I chose not to overload myself by picking back up all three jobs.
I’ve heard the estimates for the cost of a thru-hike at $1000 per month, and also at $2 per mile, and also anywhere between $600 and $10,000 (true stories – I have a friend who spent $600 and a friend who spent $10,000). The bad news is, whatever you think you’ll spend, you should save a lot more – whether you end up needing it or not, you don’t want to be one of the hundreds of people who abandon their hike every year because they’ve run out of money. The good news is, it’s usually up to you how much you spend. Barring serious injury, you can make decisions that save you money or cost you money – it’s in your hands!
My thru-hike took 5 months, and in that time, I spent $3,699… but the actual cost of my hike was $2,533.
Let’s start with the $1,166 that I didn’t include as actual hike expenses:
-$653 to student loans. I had to make 4 student loan payments while I was hiking. Maybe I could have deferred, but I didn’t want to totally shirk my responsibilities (besides, those things are still accruing interest if you defer).
-$278 to bills and utilities. My husband paid the rent while I was gone, so literally the least I could do was keep paying the gas bill back home. Five gas bills = $130. Five months of cell phone bill = $148.
-$235 in personal auto and transport. I took a break at the halfway point to go home (NJ) for a few days and also drive up to visit my sister in upstate NY for one night. This expense includes my gas, tolls, and train and bus tickets to get home and then get back to the trail. If you were wondering, going roundtrip from Harper’s Ferry to DC (Amtrak), DC to NYC (MegaBus), and NYC to Morristown, NJ (NJ Transit) and back costs almost exactly $100.
-Shuttles and Transport: $90
Dining – $1015. This includes meals, snacks, drinks, etc. that were purchased and immediately consumed, like in a restaurant, or like buying ice cream, beer, or a frozen pizza at a grocery store to eat back at the hotel. Basically, this is all “luxury food”. Although a restaurant meal replaces some need for resupply, it’s way more expensive. If you were to replace all Dining expenses with Resupply expenses, you could spend half as much or even less, especially if you exclude alcohol.
-There’s a huge range in amount here – from $1.08 for a gas station coffee to $50 for a night on the town.
-The amount is made up of lots of little expenses – out of 98 transactions, 68 are under $10 – probably a single drink, a sandwich, a small meal in a cafe or diner, that kind of thing. A full sit-down meal in a restaurant didn’t happen often, partially because it’s the most expensive way to eat so I avoided it if I wasn’t dying for it.
Five most expensive meals:
-$50 in Roanoke, Virginia – dinner, drinks, shots, and treating for Hatman’s dad, who was kind enough to pick us up, take us to Roanoke, and pay for our hotel.
-$30 at the Inn at the Long Trail in Vermont – this was probably just 3 beers plus tip; it’s a touristy place.
-$27 at the Falls Village Inn in Connecticut – we were camping at Toymaker’s Cafe, and this was the only place in town for dinner, and it was kinda fancy. I think this was just a dinner entree and one drink.
-$25 at the Northern Restaurant in Millinocket, Maine – this is the restaurant when you pop out of the Hundred Mile Wilderness just before entering Baxter State Park. We were in a celebratory mood and splurged on lunch and drinks here
-$24 at the Kennebec Brew Pub in Maine – the kind owner of the Caratunk B&B drove us here for dinner and drinks and picked us up afterward.
You may notice most of the pricier meals are in New England. I don’t know if this is actually indicative of anything, but many hikers will tell you that meals and amenities get more expensive as you get further north.
-Total cost divided by 27 nights = $22/night average.
-Range: $8 for a motel room split 7 ways to $38.50 at the Green Mountain House hostel.
Just like with dining, you have a lot of personal flexibility in choosing to pay for lodging. It’s nice to have a shower and a soft bed now and then, but some places will also just let you pay something like $5 for a shower and then hike onward if you’re on a budget. Unfortunately, while you can split a hotel room more ways, there isn’t often a way to reduce the cost of a hostel, which is a per-person charge. If finances are tight, you’d just have to avoid hostels entirely.
Resupply – $450. Food purchased to be eaten on trail (but since I didn’t always split my grocery bill for tracking purposes, this amount also includes things like toothpaste, toilet paper, contact solution, etc). I also received some care packages from family and friends, which are not necessary for a thru-hike, but were nice to receive (and reduced my grocery bill somewhat). If you plan to receive resupply boxes or care packages, try to have them sent to places with few or expensive shopping options, like Fontana Dam in NC or Hiker’s Welcome Hostel in Glencliff, NH right before the White Mountains. Also, keep in mind that paying for restaurant meals/convenience food reduces your resupply cost (though increases your overall cost), so if I’d spent less on Dining, my Resupply cost would have been higher.
-Total cost divided by 25 resupply transactions = $18.50 average.
-I was fully off-trail for 11 days, so 140 trail days divided by 25 resupplies = once every 5.5 days. I was usually only buying 3-4 days of food, but any restaurant/fast food stops I made let me stretch out my resupply.
Five most expensive resupplies:
-$31 at the Fontana Dam Resort, NC – the little camp store is the only resupply option before going into the Smokies, and it’s notoriously pricey. Definitely somewhere you should try to send a package.
-$30 at the Target in Roanoke, VA – I know I bought chia seeds at this store so maybe that accounts for the randomly higher bill. I don’t remember central Virginia being a difficult place to resupply.
-$30 at the Dollar General in Damascus, VA – I took two zero days in Damascus so it’s possible some of the resupply was actually for snacking at the hostel and I just didn’t categorize it properly. I was also one month into the hike and at my lowest body weight so I was making an effort to feed the hiker hunger and get more calories.
-$28 at the Walmart in Gorham, NH – stocking up to head into southern Maine!
-$26 at the Greasy Creek Friendly in NC – they have a small side room stocked with hiker food like ramen and Clif bars, with a considerable markup. It’s a remote location so there’s no other option around. This would be a great place to either avoid resupplying, or send yourself a package.
My four cheapest resupplies were all under $10 at gas stations – probably just nuts and crackers and bars.
When your soles look like the ones on the left, it’s time for new shoes.
Gear – $293. Some things are going to get worn out or lost or broken in the course of a thru-hike, or you might end up adding gear you didn’t think you needed in the beginning.
-$30 on trekking poles at Walmart in north Georgia. Four days into my thru-hike my knees decided I need trekking poles.
-$16 at Outdoor 76 in Franklin, NC – I think this was socks and postcards.
-$7 at the NOC – stove fuel.
-$15 at Mount Rogers Outfitter in Damascus, VA – more socks! I know I swapped my thick wool socks for some thinner liner socks here once the weather really warmed up.
-$22 on Amazon in southern VA – I needed a larger external battery so I had one shipped to Woods Hole Hostel.
-$80 on Body Glide and new shoes after Harper’s Ferry – both desperately needed.
-$52 at Dick’s in upstate NY – new t-shirt and sports bra. I’d been hiking in the same shirt and bra for 3 months at that point 🙂
-$14 at Eastern Mountain Sports in Manchester, VT – fuel, and I bought a small aluminum camp cup (similar) so I could start making hot chocolate in the evenings – it was starting to get chilly.
-$57 in Rangeley, ME – my feet were in constant pain at that point and I hoped some new Superfeet shoe inserts would help. They kinda did! Also, fuel.
Shuttles and transport – $90. As I mentioned above, a lot of hostels include a shuttle when you pay for a room, so I paid for surprisingly few shuttles or rides. I also did lots of hitchhiking!
-$10 to get into Franklin, NC – split a shuttle 6 ways from Moody Gap.
-$8 for the shuttle into Fontana Dam Resort.
-$42 to shuttle into Damascus when I lost half the skin off my toes… oops.
-$30 paid to Hiker’s Welcome Hostel in NH – I was waiting for a package so they drove me to the North side of Moosilauke and I hiked South back to the hostel. Then the next day once I’d received my package they drove me to the North side of Moosilauke and I hiked onwards.
Miscellaneous – $90.
$45 – gifts to various friends and family for hosting us (usually nice alcohol).
-$20 – Smokies permit.
-$19 – shipping. I sent home my cold-weather gear from Damascus, and a few more random items from Roanoke.
-$6 – ATM fees 🙁
Overall I actually spent a lot less than I thought I would, and as I said, I wasn’t making a special effort to be budget-conscious. I had saved up a certain amount of money before my hike and was mindful of that, but otherwise, any time I wanted a drink or a deli sandwich or a hot meal, I got one. I want to acknowledge again that the support of friends and family went a long way toward saving me some money. I hadn’t planned it that way, but it would be misleading and ungrateful not to mention it. I hope this is helpful in your planning!
Any money-saving tips for a thru-hike?
Questions about finances?
Let me know in the comments!