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How To Save Money While Thru-Hiking The Appalachian Trail

Updated on January 29, 2015

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail can be a memorable, worthwhile adventure. However, a hiker’s thru-hike can be cut short if he or she runs out of funds before reaching the end. A hiker’s funds will occasionally run out due to a medical emergency, though more often the case the hiker wasn’t as aware how easily and quickly his or her trail expenses would add up once on the trail. While having $6,000 or more (and, quite possibly, less) in the bank when you start hiking north from Springer Mountain, Georgia or south from Mount Katahdin, Maine may seem like plenty of money, a hiker needs to be remain mindful of how quickly on-trail expenses add up.

The Appalachian Trail in Vermont near Woodstock

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It’s generally wise to weigh all major unplanned expenses. These would include unexpected hotel stays and/or gear replacements. There are circumstances—such as if an ice storm is forecasted for that night—where an unplanned hotel stay may be a life-saving move. In addition, fixing a gear malfunction may also make your hike more safe and enjoyable. However, an unexpected hotel stay just because you are feeling lazy and don’t want to return to the trail is not necessarily the wisest move. One problem with this attitude is that you must realize early on in your thru-hike that it may be self-defeating to indulge yourself every time you simply “don’t feel like hiking.” That is, unless, you have a very padded budget and plenty of time to finish the trail (circumstances which don’t apply to most aspiring thru-hikers). Again, though, there is an enormous difference between the day you “don’t feel like hiking” and a day when severe weather is expected and you want to be safe. Also, sometimes an unexpected town stay is required because of injury or illness. This is perhaps my overriding point: unexpected town stays are likely to happen for reasons such as illness, injury, or severe weather, and therefore you should aim to eliminate most other unexpected and unplanned town stays if you want to keep from burning away too much of your thru-hike budget before you are even halfway done.

Town stays are often used to take a zero, a day with no miles hiked, and this turns into two nights in a row in a hostel or hotel (unless you have the good fortune of having a friend or relative to stay with). While zero days are necessary to let your body recover and to add some variety to your days, there is no rule you have to take a zero in town. In fact, a zero out on the trail, whether enjoyed at a shelter or in your campsite, might be more relaxing (and MUCH cheaper) than a zero in town. If this idea doesn’t appeal to you, one option for saving money is to camp only a couple miles from town the night before and then walk into town the next morning and enjoy almost a full day off in town without paying for two nights in a hotel or hostel.

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If a thru-hiker is using a credit card to pay for trail expenses, he or she should pay off the balance of this card—this task can be accomplished online in most cases; or, if it cannot, a phone call should do the trick—at least twice a month. In addition, checking the status of one’s bank accounts more than once a month will help a hiker remain aware of approximately how much of their thru-hike budget remains. This may seem overly cautious, yet keeping frequent tabs on your spending and remaining savings for the trip may prompt a thru-hiker to make more prudent spending decisions in town.

Speaking of town, the A.T. crosses enough roads that you often have the option of going to town three or more times a week. Try to resist the urge to automatically try to visit town whenever you have the option, as this will limit your available time to hike and put a big dent in your budget. Like the rest of life, the habits you develop early on in your thru-hike will either help you finish the hike with money still in the bank (and before winter arrives), or they will hinder you. Again, I am not recommending any hikers return to the trail when severe weather is expected or that you should never pay for an unexpected hotel stay. Nonetheless, be careful not to get in the habit of always going to town to give yourself a “morale boost” whenever you are frustrated with the trail.

Sunrise on the Appalachian Trail in Maine

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Another way to save money is to plan to stay in the towns which offer a full service grocery store where you can buy food for your next section of trail. While it is possible to replenish your food supply in a gas station, doing so often costs more and there are much fewer options. When shopping for food, pay attention to inexpensive options such as Ramen noodles, peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, and Pop Tarts. Also, you may want to shop with a basket instead of a shopping cart to help prevent you from buying more food than you need or can carry.

Grocery store food options while thru-hiking

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For anyone who enjoys beer, drinking too much beer—even where the beer seems relatively cheap—is another way to deplete your trail budget too quickly. One way to save money in this area is to buy a six-pack at a liquor store and split it with another hiker. Or else you can plan to splurge on beer during a future town stop instead of purchasing beer at every opportunity.

A thru-hiker can also save money on the trail by limiting the eating out they do in town. This can be challenging to do after days of eating “trail food,” yet it can be done. If you feel you must eat out while in town, look for cheaper options like McDonalds instead of dining at a sit-down restaurant.

The Appalachian Trail is relatively close enough to Washington D.C. and New York City, and, not surprisingly, many thru-hikers hope to visit these two locations. If you have cheap lodging options, and especially if you have a friend or family member to stay with, this may be worth including in your A.T. plans. However, be aware of how quickly money can be spent in these cities on food and transportation.

Appalachian Trail near Roan Mountain, Tennessee

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Splitting hotel rooms between several hikers is another way to save money. Hotel rooms are generally cheaper in the southern states on the A.T., and for this reason and others you should anticipate spending more money as you hike through the northern states. This is one reason to be extra fiscally conservative in the early miles of your hike. In addition, it is helpful to establish prudent financial habits during the early miles of your thru-hike to ensure you have enough money to finish your hike.

Thankfully, there are several cheap or even free hostel options on the trail. Consider staying at Kinkora, a hostel near Hampton, Tennessee run on donations by trail legend Bob Peoples. In Hampshire, Connecticut you can stay for free at a Catholic church in town. There are other inexpensive lodging options along the trail, and you should be able to find information about these online or in David “Awol” Miller’s “The A.T. Guide.”

Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire

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Finally, you should have a backup financial plan in place before you start hiking in case you run into financial problems on the trail. This may mean anything from knowing you can borrow money from your sister or having a spare credit card on hand for emergencies only. With a little extra planning and restraint in town, there are many ways to save money while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail while still enjoying the experience.

Watch the A.T. journey of ManCub and KitFox

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    • Julie K Henderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Julie K Henderson 

      3 years ago

      Thank you.

    • profile image

      Dan C 

      3 years ago

      Fabulous. HighLiner!

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