CASH RULES EVERY TRAIL AROUND ME: A GUIDE TO FINANCING A THRU HIKE
Words & Photos by Garrett "Pricepoint" Martin
Every year, bright-eyed hiker hopefuls set out on our long trails to conquer the beast and accomplish a thru hike. Some prepare for years, some prepare for months, and some don't prepare at all. By definition, a thru hike means completing a hiking trail from one terminus to the other, whether it be NOBO, SOBO, Flip-Flopped, Easted, or Wested. On the long end of things, we're talking about 4-6+ months of walking across the country. That's time spent away from friends and family, away from stable housing, and away from stable income. These challenges need to be considered when preparing oneself for such an endeavor.
There are only two things, in my opinion, that are acceptable reasons to stop a thru hike. The first is unavoidable personal injury. The other is an individual or family emergency that requires you to handle some real bonafide adult shit.
I see so many wishful champions call their time out in the wild short due to a shortage of funds. It is an easily avoidable outcome with the proper preparation. Taking time off from employed work takes planning and strategizing, so by the end of this, you should have a good understanding of what's required of your bank account before you leave it all behind and embark.
Disclaimer: This advice is a broad generalization of personal finance, and everyone’s socioeconomic status is different so take what you find useful and apply it to your goals. I am not a financial advisor, nor do I play one on TV. I will never encourage someone to liquidate their 401k, purge their life savings, or sell everything they own to make it work. A thru hike is a real challenge and part of that challenge is the management of finances while out there. This is one white dude’s opinion and life experience and does not take into account wealth disparity, intergenerational wealth, thru hiker sponsorships, or other socio-economic based programs to get lower income hikers out on trail. It is not meant to be demeaning or shaming of those that might not be in a position to have access to financial literacy and resources.
Now let's get into the nitty-gritty:
HOW MUCH DOES IT ACTUALLY COST TO THRU-HIKE?
Typically, the cost of a thru-hike is about one to two thousand dollars per month on top of other monthly "real life" expenditures like mortgage, phone bill, storage units, etc.
We'll put this into a more digestible way of understanding that range as follows:
- $1,000 is the ramen noodle budget
- $1,500 is the Knorr rice sides
- $2,000 is the Mountain House budget
On the lower end, you're going to have to be scrappy with your resupply, time in town, and overall expenditures. On the higher end, you afford yourself more luxuries like a nicer resupply, more zero days, more town food, and more amenities–overall less stress and more enjoyment of side quests.
So, if we look at a five-month thru hike, our trail expenses–excluding our "real life costs"–you're looking at about five to ten thousand dollars for the whole enchilada. When you hear this dollar range, it generally does not include personal monthly expenses. That number can be misleading if you don't have everything you're responsible for factored into your expenses during unemployment. Having a good savings as a backing is one of the most important things to account for when planning your time away.
Some things to consider while working on your savings goals:
WHAT TRAIL ARE YOU WANTING TO HIKE, AND HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE YOU?
Toying with the idea of a thru hike and knowing what it'd actually take to achieve it are vastly different things. This might seem obvious, but you don't have to do one of the big three trails like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or Continental Divide Trail. In their own right, each one of these is a four to six + month commitment.
It's easy to get caught up in the major trails, but alternatively, there are plenty of shorter trails like the John Muir Trail, the Long Trail, or the Colorado Trail, just to name a few. These routes are in the hundreds of miles range as opposed to the thousands. Maybe you don't have time for the triple crown, but you might have time for the triple tiara. Now we're talking only about a month to a month and a half of time out that you have to fund and plan for.
Less time on trail means less money needed to afford it. Variables such as hiking time, time in town, and time on trail all make up a hiker's budget. With more town layovers, the expenses add up. What seemed like an innocent dinner with new trail friends can end up being a burger and fries, ice cream, an appetizer, and whatever beer you can get your hands on. Hiker hunger is real, and you might underestimate your town appetite. Limiting your exposure to these will help you along the way.
FACTOR IN TRAVEL COSTS
Flights, transportation, hotels, food–all of these should play a part in your budgeting. For example, how will you get to the city with the closest trailhead access to your thru hike? How will you get from the city to the trailhead? Are you going to need to plan a layover at all in between these events?
HOW MUCH GEAR YOU'D NEED TO BUY
If you only have a few car camping essentials, it's likely you are quickly realizing the need for a kit change. Be sure to keep this in mind when considering your trip costs.
When doing so, be sure to:
Buy things on sale or used(duh)
- My wife and I bought five pairs of Altras each for our Pacific Crest Trail thru hike at the end of a style's cycle and saved 200 dollars on the total price.
- Buying used gear will always be the cheapest option. Make sure whoever you're buying from is a trusted seller online, be sure to protect yourself from potential scammers, and make sure that if the gear is well-loved, you have the ability to restore it.
- Most companies will have some sort of holiday sale, a scratch and dent section, or a returns section throughout the year. This might be a good time to pick up some of your needed gear items.
SAVE MONEY FOR RAINY DAY REPLACEMENTS
- When pushing your gear to its limits in varied terrain, something will inevitably cease to function at some point. Have this in mind before setting out and set a little aside.
- People get their gear stolen all the time. Whether it be animal interference like a stolen food bag, trekking pole handles chewed by a wild pony, or, more nefariously, through human actions, something could wind up unrecoverable. Same as before, set aside those funds!
SO, HOW CAN YOU PAY FOR THIS?
Create a budget plan to ensure you're saving instead of spending. There are plenty of templates online that can help you work out what your monthly expenses are if you don't keep track already. Running a budget might seem obvious, but it's only worth as much as the work put into it. Let's look at a one-year savings goal and what we could cut out. We'll consider these in the "Sin-tax" items and unnecessary expenditures.
- One Starbucks per week is about five dollars, multiplied over 52 weeks = $260 dollars.
- One pack of cigarettes is about $8.10 after taxes here in Texas. Times by 52 weeks = $421.4 dollars
- One six-pack of beer per week is six to ten dollars depending on your poison. X 52 = $312 – $520 dollars
- Skipping one meal out per week; for this, I'm going to give an average of about $15-$20 dollars depending on restaurant and dine-in or drive-thru, x 52 = $780 – $1,040 dollars.
So, all told, just from these four items of reduction, we're talking about a $1,773.4 - $2,241.4 dollar savings amount over a year. Again, this is just an example to get you thinking about what you could cut out. If you don't make any of these purchases currently, think about other little things you might be buying but could go without.
AUDITING YOUR SERVICES AND MONTHLY FEES
Services like Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Zoom, Amazon Prime, etc. all sneakily add up over the year, especially if you don't even remember the subscription being active.
Let's say you've got a basic entertainment services package of Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Prime. Let's take a look at how these stack up as expenditures before tax.
- Netflix – A $8.99 per month subscription turns into about $107.88 annually
- Spotify – A $9.99 per month subscription turns into $119.88
- Amazon Prime – A $12.99 per month subscription turns into $155.88
Dropping these three services for a year would net you a little over $383 dollars which might not seem like much in regard to the amount of entertainment you're forfeiting, but that's about one to two weeks' worth of trail expenses.
REDUCING EXPENDITURES LEADING UP TO TRAIL AND COVERAGES WHILE ON TRAIL
- Car insurance can be lowered due to coverage type. If you're just going to have your car sitting idle, why pay full coverage on it? Try reaching out to your coverage provider and see if you can lower your coverages and payments. You can reduce your coverage and save some money while unemployed.
- Phone coverage can also be reduced. Since you will be out of a service area fairly often, lowering your phone coverages and bills might be a good idea. While on the Appalachian Trail, I switched to a limited data plan and was only paying about 30 dollars per month, nearly half of my current phone bill.
- Can you rent out your house or apartment if you own them to help cover those expenses while out on trail? Instead of the domicile sitting vacant and costing you money at the same time, consider renting it out.
- Can you get a cheaper rate for your current utilities or internet bills? Competitive shopping to drive down your overall monthly expenses might be worth the time it takes to figure this stuff out.
I would not advise quick stock returns, or stock flips due to the obvious risk of loss but also how the taxes on those earnings stack up.
- Long-term capital gains, those assets held for at least one year, are taxed anywhere from 10-20% when sold.
- Short-term capital gains, those assets held for less than one year, are taxed around 33-37%!
So, a hail Mary or purge of your short-held stocks as a means to get you out there might not be the best venture in the long run.
HOW TO PLAN WHILE ON TRAIL
Pre-plan for town days and services
- Make sure you are honest with the number of rest days you'll end up needing, and remember for every zero day, you typically need two nights in a room–one for the night you get into town and the second for the zero itself. Think of things like laundry, lodging, showering, resupply, etc.
Spend less time in town
- Town stops are the major bank breaker for thru-hikers. Lodging, food, gear replacement, shuttle costs, picking up a package, resupplying, food with friends–it adds up quick. Making sure you are comfortable in your efforts on trail to avoid needing zeros or double zeros is an easy way to pace your spending. I wrote an article about on trail efficiency, which you can read here to get an idea of some of the methodology of long-distance hiking and how to maximize your waking hours while minimizing needless stops.
Get your food rations dialed in
- Many are guilty of buying more than they need and carrying the unnecessary weight, but those leftover packs of ramen or whatever you bought are also unnecessary spending. Knowing exactly how much you need will help cut down on this. Counting calories is an easy way to do this.
Consider your resupply strategy; Are you going to send yourself boxes or be resupplying as you go?
- Shipping boxes might not really save you any money – you not only are paying for the in-store item, but you also have to pay for shipping on top of that, as well as the possibility of having to pay a hold charge to wherever you plan on picking it up. That resupply you bought back home with a great savings budget in mind, after all is said and done, could cost an extra $30 when shipping and picking up from a hostel or general store are concerned. Be sure to ship to a post office to avoid holding fees if this is a strategy you've already committed to.
- Resupplying in town is a good option for more convenience and taste bud change. But some towns have higher pricing and less desirable options than others. It's always an unfortunate experience having to buy ten winky-dinks from a gas station resupply only to find that by the third, you're sick of them and can't stand to stomach another, much less having to pay per-unit pricing on anything in there. Towns also tend to have hiker boxes where other hikers ditch extra food but don't rely on them as that could put you in a bad situation should it not pan out the way you thought it would.
RE-EMERGENCE INTO LIFE
Have money set aside for when you are done with trail so that you have some run-way room to get reestablished. This might not be as much of a concern for shorter trips, but if you're planning on returning from an extended time away to move cities, change jobs, or whatever you left before, you definitely should. You're absolutely going to need some fallback money. I'd recommend at least two to three months of living expenses as a re-settlement fund. Remember to consider any deposits you might need for a new place to live as well as the amount of time it takes to secure a new job, and acquire a receipt of the first payment from said job.
Garrett Martin is just a normal guy from Texas who takes on any opportunity that comes his way to do cool shit. From working a hot dog stand in Seattle after college, to summiting Mount Fuji while living abroad, to meeting his wife on The Appalachian Trail, his adult life has been a testament to following your own compass and making sure your obituary isn't a boring read. You can watch his PCT thru hike on his YouTube channel, "Some Dude Walking"