Where the budget starts for most hikers.
From and article I prepared for the Appalachian Trail Expert Advice Facebook page, January 5, 2018.
Running out of money is one of the primary reasons hikers do not finish their thru hikes. A realistic budget, understanding where the money goes, and a little self-discipline can help ensure your hike goes all the way.
What a previous hike may have cost any single individual is relevant to your planning, but not definitive because everybody is unique. But, if you know what drives costs, you can develop a budget that will help you succeed at a price you can afford.
So, this post isn’t going to tell you now much money you need. Instead, it seeks to help you think through how to develop your budget by looking at where costs come from and offering a sense of what average hikers spend.
The irony is that while you’re actually hiking, you aren’t spending money. You may be eating, wearing or carrying what money bought, but unless you’re shopping on line from mountaintops, you’re not actually burning cash while you are on the trail itself.
Being that we’re discussing on-trail expenses, we will not include the cost of gear or equipment purchased prior departure or your transportation home.
Towns are money sumps. Some expenses are undeniably necessary while others are optional, but for the most part, how much you spend is purely up to you.
At this point human nature is worth noting. By the time a thru hiker gets to town, s/he has been on the trail for approximately five days. In addition to the big four: groceries, laundry, fuel, and a shower, most hikers want to sleep in a bed. Those five usually cost less than number six.
Number six. Being people, we’re hungry for restaurant food and maybe a beer or two. You guessed right. That’s where the real money goes. A restaurant/bar stop can cost more than the big five all together. Stay for a zero and a second night and you can easily double that.
So let’s talk about town stops.
First, how do you get to town?
Some hostels shuttle for free and some do not.
With the exception of the few times the trail actually runs down Main Street, you’ll need to hitch or shuttle. Hitching is free, but sometimes difficult or sketchy. It’s also against the law in New York, New Jersey, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, in and around Harpers Ferry, and possibly more places. Weather and time of year also can be factors in this decision.
Shuttles usually cost around $2 per mile. Be sure you understand the cost before asking the driver to meet you at the trailhead. Shuttle drivers also expect cash payment.
With a growing number of hikers attempting to duck payment, some drivers are asking for payment up front, so be prepared.
Some hostels shuttle for free; some don’t. Sometimes you can spit costs with other hikers or get a group discount. If the guidebook doesn’t say, be sure and ask up front.
The average one-way shuttle cost is around $10 – $20 or $20 – $40 per town stop.
Once in town, expect to walk where you need to go. Hostels located outside a nearby town generally will offer free daily shuttles to town at designated times.
The big five:
Grocery costs depend on menu. The menu includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Also, most hikers change tastes over the course of their hike. So, that energy bar you love today may be the one you gag on three months in.
Shopping at Ingles in Hiawassee, GA. Taken from the in-store Starbucks.
As for entrées, on the high end is freeze dried food. You can save a little by buying freeze dry food in bulk, and use resupply boxes, but your tastes may change. On trail, freeze dry meals are available at Walmart and at most outfitters. Depending where they’re bought and the specific meal, freeze dry food costs, on average, between $6 and $10 per meal, bending toward the higher number.
Among the more affordable prepared foods are Knorr sides and Ramen which can be supplemented with tuna or chicken packets and much more. Hikers also favor instant oatmeal, granola bars, energy bars, candy bars, jerky, instant coffee, cured sausage, cream and block cheese, hardboiled eggs, crackers of all kinds, olive oil, peanut butter, tortillas, snack cakes, sticky buns, and cookies just to mention a few. Consider taking a multivitamin if you eat too much of your diet in refined sugar and salt.
Of course there are vegan diets and those who love fresh food. Also, some cook and some don’t. Choosing not to cook can save $3 – $8 per week in fuel costs depending on fuel type.
Your menu choices will determine food costs.
Don’t forget you’ll not be very hungry but will transition to eating much more after hiker hunger kicks in.
Your grocery bill will depend on what you eat. Between $30 – $50 per resupply stop seems to be around average.
Your trip to town subtotal is now $50 – $90 and you still have to shower and do laundry. There’s also a place to stay.
No two hostels are the same. Costs can vary dramatically.
Let’s say you’re sleeping in town. Hostels are cheaper than motels. The cost of hostels can vary widely depending on amenities – platform bunks vs. mattresses and pillows, tenting, private rooms, etc. Some hostels include laundry in their total price while others offer a la carte pricing for laundry, showers, snacks, meals or offer use of a kitchen to cook your own meals and save money.
Laundry and showers, without stay, at most hostels average around $5 each.
The cost of a hostel stay can vary a lot. The prices have been recently increasing due to supply and demand, the short season, and growing overhead costs. While one may be as low as $25, another can be more than $50, with some considerably more. An up to date guidebook will have the details.
At this point your plan may be to stay only at the least expensive hostels, and at that tent whenever possible to save money. Unfortunately no plan ever survives contact with reality.
Severe weather can change your plans. Photo by Warren Fewtrell
Your spreadsheet may say so many miles per day and specify town stops. However, weather, illness, frame of mind, trail family companions, injury, fatigue and a host of other issues may alter that planning and add considerable unexpected expense.
For planning purposes, it’s generally safer to round up. So let’s average $50 per hostel stay even though that may be slightly on the high side.
Your bare bones town stop is now up to $100 – $140 and you haven’t even had a hamburger yet.
Remember the reference to human nature. It takes a strong will to forego at least one restaurant stop while you’re in town.
Some restaurants are part of the trail tradition and are difficult to avoid.
Run into some trail friends you haven’t seen in awhile, here’s betting you can’t avoid the temptation to find a place to eat, grab at least one beer and catch up. What about if you’re hiking out of town after a zero and just happen to run into these same friends you haven’t seen in awhile? Bet you take a second zero. Kerching! It’s like lighting twenty dollar bills on fire.
Trail families form and dissolve. You’ll want to catch up with people you haven’t seen in awhile.
Beer and burgers/pizza cost more or less depending on where you are. Realistially, you probably won’t get out of most restaurant/bars, with the exception of fast food, for under $40 – $50. The cost of alcohol is expensive and most hikers don’t drink just one beer or eat one hamburger.
Restaurant food and alcohol can cost as much or more than the big five.
If you eat breakfast and lunch in restaurants, add more. The good news is that AT towns are so rural that there are only a couple of Starbucks on the trail, so your coffee habit won’t beak the bank!
There are excellent and not inexpensive coffee shops/restaurants along the way. Dalton, MA.
Subtotal: $140 – $190 per town stop. If you use resupply boxes, add around $15 for a medium size flat rate box, two-day delivery. A medium size Express Mail box will hold four days food.
Since town stops are so expensive, how many should you expect?
The average hiker goes to town every fifth or sixth day. The reason is that food is the single heaviest item – and one of the bulkiest – in their pack. Think weight and space. Five days is about what fits (in a bear canister, food bag or pack) at a weight hikers feel comfortable carrying. There are exceptions, but again we’re talking averages.
Divide the average time it takes for a thru hike, 180 days, by five and you get 36 before zeros. Believe it. You’ll want to zero from time to time. Let’s say you plan for 15, but due to circumstances actually take 20 under the round up principle. That’s 40 five-day hikes and 40 town stops.
Estimated rounded-up cost on the trail ranges between $6,000 and $7,200. Add $15 for each resupply box you expect to use. The author used about 15 of them, all in the north.
Resupply by mail is common. You can leave boxes open so the contents can be adjusted if necessary.
Can you thru hike for less? Absolutely.
Start with fewer zeros. If your body holds up, you may only need one zero per month. That’s six, not 15. Unfortunately, that’s not what most people need or do.
By increasing days between resupply you need fewer town stops at the price of a heavier pack. You can use the NERO (near zero) option to minimize your overnight stays in town. Above all, decrease eating in restaurants and alcohol consumption.
Hitch more if you’re comfortable doing that.
Work for stay also can reduce hostel costs. But remember that you won’t be the only one who wants work for stay and the opportunities are limited. There just isn’t enough work for everyone.
Be aware that hostel owners complain that a lot of work-for-stay hikers aren’t willing to work hard and do a good job. They have a list serve and communicate with one another. All the other hostels up the trail will know about shirkers or problem hikers. Do a good job and you’ll stand out from your competition.
One successful hiker was very smart about work for stay. He was a decent handyman who was able to do very useful work for hostel owners. When he completed his assignment, he’d ask the hostel owner to refer him up the trail. His lodging budget was $0 and he was successful. He even earned real money from time to time. The keys were his willingness to work very hard, do an excellent job, his useful skills, and being savvy enough to ask for help landing a gig at his next stop.
You’ll need a budget contingency for equipment you may have to replace. Whether a bear tears up your tent, you fall and bend your trekking poles, a boot fails, or you lose weight and need new pants, you may have to replace something along the way.
Gear breaks and hasty repairs don’t always hold.
Be aware that the southern end of the trail is very good at separating hikers from their money. The trail towns are friendly, the festivals frequent, and the hikers really want to be social.
You really have to watch your spend rate on the first half of your hike. Too many hikers spend way too much money in the south and have to go home early because they are dead broke.
Hiker feeds are found primarily in the southern half of the trail. Do not depend upon them to reduce costs.
Many hikers don’t realize how much more expensive the northern half of the trail is compared to the southern half. There also are far fewer hiker feeds that sometimes off set food costs in the south. Consider adding 15 percent to what you think the southern half will cost.
New England accounts for part of the northern cost increase. The area is unique with its fragile ecosystems that require management of very popular overnight sites. Trail/infrastructure costs are higher because human waste has to helicoptered out at the end of the season. The warm weather season is too short for it to compost. Caretakers must be paid. Campsite fees cover these extra expenses. They are listed in the trail guidebooks.
The huts in the White Mountains take only the first two thru hikers for work for stay requiring most hikers to either find a scarce place to stealth or go to a pay-for-stay campsite.
The crowding in New England at popular sites requires expensive management.
White Mountain Hut (Madison)
Hikers can avoid some of these sites by doing long (and hard) miles in tough terrain and unpredictable weather.
The Appalachian Mountain Club has tried to help hikers save money with this recently announced campsite deal: https://www.outdoors.org/articles/issues/2017/may-june-2017/amc-rolls-out-overnight-camping-deal-for-appalachian-trail-thru-hikers
Once you reach Baxter, there’s a $10 fee to camp at the Birches. After you’ve summited, the hitch to Millinocket is easy. There’s only one road in and out of Baxter State Park and it goes straight to Millinocket. Millinocket is usually another town stay to celebrate and recover before you head for home.
Last hostel in Millinocket, ME.
Your last budget item is off trail – the cost of transportation home.
Good luck. Sisu