Thru-hiking on the Cheap
Let's face it—taking several months off to hike the Appalachian Trail can be an expensive proposition. Your trip of a lifetime can easily cost thousands of dollars, so here are some of the most effective ways I've found to help ease the bite. Some of these require a little planning and discipline, but the financial rewards are well worth it.
Planning for a Thru-hike
Take less stuff: Before you leave, split your gear into three piles - Essential (sleeping bag, toothbrush), Might Want (camp chair, extra towel), and Nice To Have (radio, espresso mug). Get rid of the last two piles—you’ll never miss them. Less gear means less to buy, less to carry, less to keep dry, and less to repair.
Make your own gear. There is a wealth of information available on making stoves, backpacks, clothing, and other gear. You can easily make an alcohol stove in about ten minutes from materials found in any recycling bin. The Wings homemade stove archive, thru-hiker.com (materials and patterns), and the Homemade Gear forum at Backpacking.net are all great places to start.
Buy only the gear you need. Every year thousands of pounds of equipment are shipped home from the Mountain Crossing at Neel's Gap after being used for a matter of days. The money used to buy that gear, and the postage to send it home, could be spent in much better ways.
Get as many days of hiking in before your thru-hike as possible. This allows you to fine-tune what you are carrying, so you can avoid buying replacement gear on the trail.
Don't start too early. The traditional day for a northbound thru-hike is April 1st. Starting around that time, you will typically have much better weather than your fellow hikers who have started a month earlier. All the hostels will be open, and there might me less temptation to stay in town because of better weather conditions.
Purchase "rechargeable" phone cards at home rather than from convenience stores on the trail. Using a calling card from a payphone eats your minutes at an alarming rate, so use a regular landline if possible.
Send maildrops to places you plan to stay rather than the post office. If you arrive in town on a Saturday afternoon, you would have to either skip your maildrop or wait in town until the following Monday to pick up your supplies.
Consider purchasing a Pocketmail email device. We used one during our Mississippi River Expedition with great results. You can send and receive email from any phone, eliminating the need to chase down (and sometimes pay for) Internet access.
Cut all unnecessary expenses and impulse purchases. Cable TV, magazines, coffee, candy bars, and other small expenses easily add up.
Shop around. SierraTradingPost.comand REI-OUTLET.com often have gear for sale at tremendous discounts.
During Your Thru-hike
Minimize the amount of time spent in towns. This is the single best way to save money during your trip. You're not going to spend any money while actually on the trail, but once you walk into town, your money flies away. Eating out, motels, laundry, supplies, postage, and other expenses quickly add up. A good strategy is to camp near town the evening before, walk or hitch into town in the morning, run your errands, then leave in the afternoon to a nearby campsite. It doesn't matter how far you get out of town, just get out of town.
Minimize or eliminate smoking, sodas, and alcohol. These non-essentials can easily add up to a few hundred dollars over the course of six months.
Make a list before going into town of all your errands and supplies to buy.
Make your camping comfortable. It is much easier to skip a motel room if you get good night's sleep outside. If you need something extra to make camping more enjoyable, take it (within reason.) An extra five ounces for different a sleeping pad or hammock can pay great dividends for comfort.
Eat at All-You-Can-Eat buffets whenever possible.
Get cash back at grocery stores and post offices to avoid ATM fees.
Buy from grocery stores instead of convenience stores whenever possible.
Eliminate town stops by carrying an extra day or two of food. This can also allow you to hike at a more moderate pace because you are spending your time on the trail instead of in town.
Carry less gear, so you can carry more food.
Work for stay at hostels.
Split the cost of motel rooms and other accommodations with other hikers.
Visit the hiker boxes before you go to the store for supplies.
Take days off on the trail rather than in town. Carry an extra day of supplies and enjoy resting at a great campsite. You can do laundry, wash off, and sleep the day away for free. Remember, many people would love to have the view you're having instead of being stuck at home.
For more tips and tricks about thru-hiking, be sure to check out our Mississippi and Appalachian Trail Blog.