Failing to plan is planning to fail
Once we decided we were going to attempt a thru-hike of the AT our very first planning question we asked ourselves was what is the cost to hike the appalachian trail? The problem was the answers we found were platitudinous. We found answers like, you need $1 per mile (or $2), or $1,000 a month will get you there, or a multitude of other non-specific answers.
Granted, there is a reason there is such a broad range of budgets for thru-hiking the AT. Simply put, there are too many variables to be able to say, Your hike will cost XX much. It’s like asking, how much does it cost you to live for a month? You might have an answer, but it won’t be MY answer.
Because of this lack of information, we had to wing it. We made reasonable assumptions and added a bit of fluff. We budgeted $11,000 for our thru and spent $12,709 ($2.90 per person per mile). This amount did not include gear or getting to or from the trail. Ours was not a minimalist thru-hike and it can be done much cheaper, or much more expensive.
I decided I would document all of our expenses and provide them weekly on our YouTube channel as we hiked. That playlist is HERE, or if you just want a summary, click the video below as it is the last one I did and includes our entire “on trail” expenditures.
Cost to Hike the Appalachian Trail:
Getting to and Leaving the Trail
Costs On Trail
Costs In Town
Costs Back at Home
Advantage of Time
Cost of Gear for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike
Like the budget for the entire trail, how much your gear costs is subjective and is based on your preferences and what gear you already have. Chica and I spent about $1500 each (we did not have any gear to start). We bought the best gear we could find, but always bought on sale. I would estimate that we averaged saving 40 – 50% off retail for all the gear we purchased.
For example, the Big Agnes Copper Spur 3 retails for $500 and we bought ours on eBay for $300. We also found the previous year’s Leki Corklite trekking poles on Sierra Trading Post and paid $80 for them, instead of $140. One last example; my Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisper hooded puffy retails for $300. I only paid $150 but had to go with an ugly green color – It’s not a fashion show out there on the Appalachian Trail.
Getting to the Trail
One of the things you will have to work out is how you will get to and leave the trail, and how much this will cost. For us we took a Greyhound from central Wisconsin to Chattanooga, TN (23 hours on a bus, whew!) and then our friends drove us to Amicalola Falls Lodge where we stayed 2 nights before starting off on the approach trail.
If you are going SOBO you will probably fly into or bus into Bangor, Maine. At both terminus’ (Georgia and Maine) the trailhead is difficult to get to and you will either need a friend with a car or a shuttle service. You will most likely need a hotel stay at the beginning and end as well.
On Trail Costs
The great thing about being on trail and hiking is there is nothing to spend money on. Except of course in the Shenandoah’s with all the glorious waysides and camp-stores, and in New Jersey and New York with equally appealing deli’s. Even the most frugal of thru-hikers found it hard to resist a blackberry shake in the Shenny’s or a Taylor Ham and Cheese when the trail walked right by a deli in New York.
So, on trail costs are just daily food and food can be cheap. Typical hiker fare is pure junk, and junk food is cheap. Sure, there are those who really watched their diets on their thru, but one of the advantages to burning more calories than you can possibly consume is not having to be fussy about calories.
Popular inexpensive food items on the trail: Knorr Rice and Pasta Sides, Ramen Noodles, Spam … Yes, Spam, Pop-Tarts, all sorts of non-chocolate candies, Honey Buns, and beef jerky.
More expensive food choices: Mountain House and Back Country Meals, hard cheeses and meats, Deli and Sub sandwiches, or anything packed out from the pre-made food area at the grocery store or a fast food restaurant.
For resupply and on-trail necessities we spent $2,114.
In Town Cost
If a trail budget is going to go sideways it will happen because of fun had in trail towns. And, sometimes it’s not all fun. Trail towns have many things hikers crave after a several days or a week on the trail: beer, food that’s cooked for you and does not come in a bag, a hot shower, and a comfortable bed. That’s usually the order too!
All those things can really bust your budget, even if you have them in your budget. Remember, after about a month on the trail you will be a bottomless pit and trail towns are the one place you will be able to eat your fill.
In general, all expenses–on trail food and intown food, drink and accommodations–get more expensive the further north on the trail you go. For example, in the south typical hostel costs were $20-$25, by the time we were out of Virginia there were few (outside of donation only places) that were under $30.
So, how do you not bust your budget in towns? If you drink alcohol, grab a six-pack, your booze, or wine at a grocery store rather than at a pub or restaurant. If you are like me and are a craft beer snob a beer will cost $6 or more at a bar, but you could pick up a six-pack for just a buck or so more. If you just like beer in volume, you will not be alone in buying the much cheaper PBR or, further north, Yuengling. Most hostles and some hotels have a fridge where you can store beer and food. Be aware, some hostels do not allow alcohol on the premises.
For food volume to cost ratio nothing quite beats an AYCE (all you can eat) buffet. I’m not sure how some of these restaurants make a buck, especially the all you can eat places that don’t serve alcohol. In addition to the buffet, pizza is a boon to stave hiker hunger. In most places you can get a large pizza for about $10.
As far as accommodations go, the best way to save money is to go in with friends (or complete strangers) and get a hotel room instead of a hostel bunk. You will have a private bath and room and the cost will most likely be less if you have 4 people in the room.
Our budget entailed taking 1 “zero” (no miles hiked) a week. We would arrive in a town around 3 or 4 o’clock, find a room and then take the entire next day off (so 2 nights accommodations). We eventually figured out that a zero was too much time in town and changed our strategy to taking 2 neros (almost no miles hiked) every 4 or 5 days. On these days we would hike 2-10 miles getting into town before noon. This gave us plenty of time to do chores (laundry, shower, resupply, etc) as well as get in a lunch, dinner, and breakfast. This was almost 2 hostel/hotel stays a week, but it also allowed for 2 showers and two resupplies a week.
Actual money spent in town was $10,058 and is broken down like this: $5,189 for in-town food (dinners out and snacks at hostels/hotels). $4,095 for accommodations which included hotels, hostels, as well as campsites that charged a fee (mainly in New Hampshire and Maine). $416 for shuttles, taxis, slack packing, and trail angel tips. $190 for other items like a haircut, going to a movie in town, etc. $161 for postage, we used the post office to send ourselves stuff or to send items home.
Thru hiking the Appalachian Trail means you are climbing and descending mountains for 8 to 12 hours a day for around 6-months. There are bound to be costs associated with the strenuous and elongated nature of the feat.
These oops costs can include things like: a new tent because a branch fell on it in the middle of the night (always look up before pitching your tent looking for “Widow Makers”), or burning through multiple pairs of shoes if you are wearing trail runners, maybe even with boots. It is likely you will fall (a lot) and one of these falls might result in a serious injury, or you may pick up Lyme disease from a deer tick, or get the flu or noro-virus, or have some other malady that requires medical attention.
All of these things need to be considered and worked into a budget. We did not ever need to see doctor, although I did get what I think was food poisoning, which required an extra hotel stay. Chica and I each went through 3 pair of trail runners and Chica switched out her rain jacket. So, we spent a total of $518 for gear repair or replacement.
Back Home Costs
Another set of budgeting items a potential thru-hiker needs to consider is money to keep things going on the home front. This might be car insurance, a mortgage, home utilities, health insurance etc. Luckily for Chica and I, we were just transitioning back from living in Costa Rica. We literally only owned 9-suitcases worth stuff. No car, no house, no nada. So that made things easy.
Some people will rent out their homes while they are on the trek or get a house sitter. This helps keep utility expenses at bay and, for the former, can pay the mortgage or generate an income.
Healthcare is a big ‘o can of worms that is beyond the scope of this article, but it is wise to have a strategy for it. Also, consider rescue insurance should you need to be removed from a mountain. We did not carry rescue insurance and had no problems, though we did pass a woman once, who had a broken ankle waiting for EMT’s who were coming by ATV to bring her down off a mountain.
We also met quite a few thru-hikers without insurance of any kind.
The Advantage of Time
One last word on budgeting and planning your thru-hike, there is a huge benefit to be had from having ample time before an attempt at a thru-hike.
Running out of money is a common reason hikers terminate their trip. By giving yourself time you are giving yourself a better chance to succeed.
Time allows you to:
Budget your hike instead of hiking your budget
We had two years from the time we decided to hike to our start date. Since we had time to save we were able to put down on paper exactly what we wanted our hike to be like. For instance, we wanted to take a zero day a week, this necessitated two hostel/hotels stays. On those days we also wanted to feed… to eat until we were tired, not full. We wanted to enjoy a craft beer or three or a glass of wine.
So, when we set up our budget we included money to cover those things. The alternative is to say, I’ve got XX amount of money I need to make my hike fit that budget. This mindset often forces a hiker to make difficult choices. Like not being able to get off the trail after 4 days straight of rain, because it’s not time yet to stay in a hostel and there is no money for one. This then leads to misery and disenchantment with the trail, yet another reason hikers quit.
Having time also allows you to do more research. Watch more YouTube hikers, make more forum posts, gather more information. While it is near impossible to train for a thru-hike you can prepare. Time gives you the advantage of wearing your full pack often, of using your rain gear in the rain, and testing out all of your gear so you KNOW when you head out, it will do its job.
Time also allows you to practice needed backcountry skills, hanging your bear bag, cooking your food, and yes, pooping in the woods. All these things will lead to a less stressful start to your trek, maybe not as hilarious of a start, but less stressful.
Get Gear Deals
By giving yourself time before your thru-hike you can shop the best deals on gear. You can get previous years’ models, shop the REI Garage Sales, find the exact piece of gear you want in the size you need on a Facebook Gear Swap Group, or find a great deal on eBay.
I hope this recap is beneficial for you in your quest to plan for your thru-hike. The whole process can seem overwhelming, but it’s just like hiking the 2,190 miles of the AT you completed by taking one step at a time.