Budgeting for Your Next Thru-Hike

By Trevor Thomas

It goes without saying that tackling a long-distance thru-hike is a prodigious endeavor. And the harsh reality is, the majority of hikers who make an attempt, will fail. Statistics show that for any given trail, the dropout rate is between 60% to 90%. But of the many reasons hikers give for abandoning their thru-hike, running out of money should not be one of them. Knowing how to properly budget for your trek and sticking to it can mean the difference between crossing the finish line and miserably hitch hiking home.

Many inexperienced hikers run out of money due to lack of research—they’re simply not aware of how much a thru-hike could really cost. Here is a good rule of thumb: When everything is added up, my research found that the average cost for a thru-hike is between $3.69 and $4.28 per mile. That might seem very high, but it takes into account meticulous scrutiny of every little line item–except gear. I calculated these numbers based off my actual thru-hike receipts and those of others. (Most hikers can outfit themselves for around $2,000, but that figure can vary greatly depending on your preferences.)

After you have a basic idea of how much your thru-hike will cost, you still need to budget your money and stick to it. Most hikers who run into financial problems, spent frivolously toward the beginning of their trek, then realized they lacked the funds to go the distance.

You can categorize your budget any way you want, but here are some typical categories to consider:

  • Transportation
  • Food on trail
  • Food in town
  • Lodging
  • Replacement gear and consumables
  • Postage
  • Medical
  • Emergencies
  • Discretionary funds

Transportation should include all costs associated with getting to the trailhead and home again. For many trails, these expenses can be costly, and since you will have to book your return trip on short notice, prices can vary and most likely, will be higher. Allow extra in your budget to account for this.

Food-on-trail expenses can vary greatly depending on how you plan to resupply. If you choose to resupply using mail drop locations exclusively, your food cost will be fixed, but your postage costs will be high, making the overall cost of food greater.

Mail-drop resupplies are typically the most expensive way to resupply and can be limiting because many post offices in small towns have closed up shop or have severely limited hours of operation. Many hostels and other places will accept packages for hikers, but you should confirm with them before mailing to a location mentioned in a guide book. Some will charge a fee for this service, so be prepared for that.

If you choose to resupply this way, you may find it necessary to supplement your food as you go, so allow for that in your budget. Boxes can and do get lost—anyone who has hiked for any length of time has had a resupply box lost or stolen. In addition, making it to the post office or other receiving establishment before it closes can be tricky. If this happens, be prepared for an unexpected stay in town and allow for this in your lodging or emergency fund.

Photo: The Comfort Theory

Buying food as you go is another popular way to resupply, but is the hardest to budget around because food costs and availability vary in different areas of any country. Undisciplined hikers get into trouble by choosing to resupply this way. Allow yourself a weekly budget for food and stick to it. You may have to become creative with what you eat on the trail depending on what’s available to buy. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to purchase my entire resupply from a convenience store where there was little to choose from and prices were very high.

Consider combining mail drops with buy-as-you-go. Use mail drops as often as you can to help control your food costs and buy-as-you-go when necessary. Using mail drops for the essentials, while buying from local suppliers for any supplemental food will help ensure you get the food you want and need without going over budget.

Food in town: Trail towns are an opportunity to spend money. If you are not careful, they can be your financial downfall, so budget wisely and stick to it. The food-in-town category of your budget should include meals in restaurants, bars, coffee shops and all other incidentals from town. Small purchases might not seem like much at the time, but they all add up in the long run. Keep track of your town expenses and manage them wisely.

Lodging while on the trail is another cost that can get out of control very fast and can cause you to run out of money if you are not careful. Decide, in advance, where you anticipate taking zero days and try not to deviate from your plan. Unexpected stays will happen, so budget for several extra nights in a hotel or hostel over the length of your trek. One suggestion for reducing your lodging expense is to hike into town in the morning. This will give you an entire day in town and you can hike out the same day, avoiding the overnight expense.

Replacement gear: Even the best gear will break or wear out during a thru-hike. Other gear that seemed perfect for your needs before you started your trek may become less ideal than you had hoped. Other gear, such as fuel, is consumable and will need to be replaced. You must budget for all this. Set aside a portion of your budget to replace items such as fuel, socks, and shoes/boots, and to replace any gear that might not be working or has outlived its life.

Postage: If you plan to use mail drops for your resupply, allow for a generous postage budget. In many cases, the cost of shipping can be nearly equal to the cost of the items shipped. To save on this, ship only your essentials and supplement the remainder of your resupply by shopping locally. If you have a support person who will be handling your mail drops, consider letting them know what you need to have shipped and in what quantities.

Medical issues can arise while you are on the trail due to injury or illness. Though most will likely be minor, you need to be prepared for the occasional visit to a medical clinic, hospital, or doctor should things be more serious than you can handle with your first aid kit or a visit to a town pharmacy. Many of the medical facilities are small and may not take all insurance so it’s a good idea to set aside a portion of your budget for these instances. If you do not use your medical funds, simply move the money into your emergency or discretionary portion of your budget.

Discretionary and emergency funds: Allow yourself some money for fun and for emergencies. You should consider having access to cash for anything you may not have considered in your other categories. This could include a spontaneous side trip, festival, dinner in a nice restaurant, an extra night in town, or souvenirs. Being cash-strapped on the trail is no fun.  You will have plenty of other things to worry about, so budget for these types of inevitabilities.

Budgeting is not glamorous and may seem tedious, but it is a necessary part of any thru-hike. Done correctly, it can increase your chances for having a successful and a more enjoyable trek. Take the time to ensure that your finances are in order before leaving for the trailhead. The additional preparation will pay off in the long run.

Author: Trevor Thomas is the world’s only blind professional long distance hiker.  Throughout his career, he has trekked nearly 20,000 miles on America’s most rugged and remote long trails.  He gained notoriety in 2008 when he became the first blind person in history to complete a solo, unassisted thru hike of the 2,175 mile Appalachian Trail (AT).