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How To Save Money While Preparing To Thru-Hike The Appalachian Trail

Updated on February 2, 2017

Hiking the entire Appalachian Trail in a single season—referred to as a thru-hike in the long-distance hiker community—is a dream of a surprisingly large number of people. Some individuals wait until they are retired to hike the A.T., whereas other start a thru-hike mere weeks after graduating from high school. There is no perfect age to thru-hike the trail, and people from all walks of life have hiked from Georgia to Maine or Maine to Georgia in a single season.

Most aspiring thru-hikers don’t have an excessively padded budget for this journey. A few even mange to do it on a relative shoestring by rarely staying in town and preparing most of their food ahead of time and mailing it to them at various locations—usually post offices, hotels, and hostels—during their journey. If dehydrating and packaging food beforehand isn’t an option for you, however, rest assured there are other ways to save money before you attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

One way to save money is to not necessarily purchase the lightest backpacking gear you find. This may seem counterintuitive, as it is prudent to limit the amount of weight you carry. Nonetheless, especially if you are on a tight budget, you may need to purchase a slightly heavier piece of gear because you can afford it. For example, while the Big Agnes Fly Creek 1 Plantinum Tent is appealing because it weighs one pound, six ounces, the $499.95 price tag is rather steep. In contrast, the REI Quarter Dome 1 Tent costs $219.00 and has a minimum trail weight of two pounds, two ounces. Making comparisons such as this one will help you determine what gear you can afford, as well as how much weigh you are willing to carry. By doing comparisons you might determine that you want to save weight on your tent, but you are willing to have a slightly heavier rain jacket.

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Money can also be saved by not buying more than the pair of boots and/or trail runners you plan to start the trail with. While it may be tempting to purchase three pairs of your favorite trail runners before you head to the trail, you should resist because most hikers’ feet change and grow during the course of a thru-hike and therefore these pre-purchased shoes probably wouldn’t fit you after 500 miles of backpacking.

You should also consider purchasing slightly used gear. Online sites such as eBay or your local Craigslist are two places to start, though you may also find used camping gear listed on www.whiteblaze.net and other websites. In addition, you may have a friend or family member who is willing to borrow or give you their gently used hiking/backpacking gear. This gear may be heavier than what is available to buy new online, yet you should weigh the lower cost option against the extra weight before turning down free or inexpensive gear.

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Regardless if you buy your gear new online, in a store, or get slightly used gear, be careful to determine that all your gear is in good shape before you hit the trail. Limiting unexpected on-trail expenses starts with determining if the gear you have should hold up under the trail conditions.

It’s also essential to research the return policy and warranty options when you purchase new gear. If you have purchased two backpacks online to determine which one fits you the best, know when you have to return the backpack that didn’t work so you can get a full refund. In addition, be aware of which companies—such as Merrel, Solomon, and REI—who have the most generous return policies. Gear will occasionally malfunction for no discernable reason, and knowing you can get a free replacement rain jacket from REI if it leaks is one way to provide you financial peace of mind before you hit the trail.

Trail guides such as David “Awol” Miller’s “The A.T. Guide” and/or the “Thru-Hiker’s Companion” should be purchased at least two months before your being your thru-hike so you can look over these volumes to determine the towns you hope to stop in. While the prices listed in either volume are not guaranteed, this will at least give you a sense of which town stops may be more expensive than others so you can plan accordingly.

Gear You Will Need To Have For A Thru-hike

Clothing items
Cook set items
Camping items
Rain jacket
Stove
Tent or hammock
Long underwear
Pot
Sleeping Bag
Rain pants
Fuel source for stove
Sleeping pad or mattress

View of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail

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If you live far from where you will be starting your thru-hike, look into various options for getting to your starting point. A close friend may be able and willing to drive you down and join in the beginning of your adventure; it may also be possible that a one-way plane ticket is cheaper than a bus ticket. If you look into numerous options—taking the train may be another option—you are more likely to find the cheapest option.

If you have a car, and if no one else will be driving this car while you are hiking, it may be possible to temporarily suspend your current car insurance to save money. Or else you may be able to purchase cheaper insurance which will cover you in the somewhat unlikely chance you’ll drive a different vehicle while thru-hiking, as well as if your car gets stolen or damaged while you are hiking. Every insurance company is different, and therefore you will need to talk to your provider to determine your options.

The first white blaze for any hikers heading north from Georgia to Maine

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Many prospective thru-hikers will vacate their current residence before they begin hiking. If this is true for you, look into the option of leaving your belongings in the home of a friend or family member to save you the expensive of renting a storage unit.

While budgeting for your hike, sit down and make a list of all the non-hiking expenses you will pay every month while on your journey. These expenses may include a cell phone bill, health insurance premiums, car payments, student loan payments, and so forth. Remembering these expenses will remind you that perhaps you don’t have as much “fun money” for the hike as you originally believed. It’s essential to have all of these payments put on automatic payment while you are hiking to save you the hassle of trying to pay them while in transit.

The Appalachian Trail in Tennessee
The Appalachian Trail in Tennessee | Source
The Appalachian Trail near Hot Springs, North Carolina
The Appalachian Trail near Hot Springs, North Carolina | Source

During your budget planning you should also try to save, if possible, at least $500 or more than you think you will need. Some has estimated that the Appalachian Trail, which stretches 2,184 miles, costs anywhere between $2.0-3.0 a mile to hike. It can be done more cheaply, of course, yet you should never assume that your hike will go perfectly smoothly and that you will encounter no emergency or otherwise unexpected expenses. After all, getting injured on the trail may force you to spend extra time in town, or visit the doctor, or pay for an expensive shuttle to a nearby town to see a doctor. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst is a helpful motto when you are planning your thru-hike.

Compiling a list of your connections—relatives, friends of friends, and beyond—who live close to the trail is a wise pre-trip move. After all, spending a few days off the trail with your Uncle Jesse in Maryland is easy on your budget and a wonderful way to catch up with family. Having a list of potential connections—which you can store in your smartphone or in an email or even carry a printed copy of—as you hike is a way of reminding yourself that you have more options than you might think to save money and make off-trail connections.

The Appalachian Trail in Tennessee
The Appalachian Trail in Tennessee | Source

One final way you can usually save money before a hike is purchasing and/or dehydrating/preparing mails ahead of time and putting these in boxes, called mail drops in the thru-hiker community, to have sent to you at various points in the trail. The USPS offers one-rate boxes which can be used, and sending mail drops to yourself is a potentially life-saving option if you have unusual or complicated allergies or dietary needs. You will need to find a friend or family member to send these packages to you—since they aren’t supposed to sit at a post office, hostel, or hotel for more than a month if possible—and this must be considered before you starting putting together too many mail drops. While a few hikers will use mail drops for almost the entire hike, most hikers like to find a balance between using mail drops and purchasing food in town.

Planning for a thru-hike of the A.T. can be exciting and overwhelming. Try to allow yourself plenty of time to prepare for your journey, and remember that there are many other places online to find suggestions about how to best and most inexpensively prepare for this adventure.

More information when searching for a backpacking tent

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