Ask a Thru-Hiker: How Much Does a Thru-Hike Cost?

Sure, you'd like to take half a year off to hike a long trail. But how do you pay for it? Our resident thru-hiker answers.
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Sure, you'd like to take half a year off to hike a long trail. But how do you pay for it? Our resident thru-hiker answers.
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Dear Snorkel,

I love the idea of going on a thru-hike, but I have no idea how people afford it. How much does a thru-hike cost, and what suggestions do you have for doing on the cheap?

Poor Richard

Dear Richard,

For many people, the biggest obstacle to a thru-hike is getting the money and time to do it. As a result, I discuss money saving tips and budgeting a lot in Thru-hiking 101. But here’s a quick summary of what I’ve found.

We interviewed a dozen different thru-hikers for their tips and tricks on funding long hikes. There’s not one single best solution to financing a thru-hike—it depends on your career and where you are in life. But there are a few common themes.

Most people find that a thru-hike will cost, at the bare minimum, $2 per mile, plus the cost of gear and travel to and from the trailhead. Another calculation puts it at $1,200 per month, plus travel and gear. Obviously, it varies a lot depending on what trail you are on, your hiking style and fitness level, and your level of hiking experience.

While this budget initially sounds like a lot, the cost of a thru-hike is comparable to a fairly minimal life in the “real world.” As one of the thru-hikers we interviewed explains, though, the biggest financial hit of a thru-hike is the opportunity cost of not working. Unless you get your money through investments or a trust fund, you’ll be missing out on at least a few months’ worth of income while you’re out hiking.

Gear is often the biggest expense of a thru-hike. The good news is that this is a one-time expense; if you become a repeat-thru-hiker (and chances are good that you will), once the gear is paid for, you won’t have to worry about it again unless you want to upgrade. Many thru-hikers find that one reason that gear is such a huge expense is because they often buy multiple pieces of the same gear item. A backpack doesn’t fit right, so they buy another one. A sleeping bag isn’t warm enough, so they drop more cash on a new one. So if you can get your gear right the first time (and better yet—find it used), you’ll save a lot of money. Plus, there’s plenty of budget gear—sometimes made from trash—that works just as well as pricier name-brand stuff.

Another big expense is travel to and from the trailhead. Just like planning a family trip to Hawaii, if you buy your airfare, bus, or train tickets very early, you can significantly reduce the cost.

Once on the trail, many hikers like to stop at hotels to get a shower, catch up on some TV, and eat dinner at a restaurant. Many cheapo hikers instead opt to camp just a few miles from the trailhead near a town. The next morning, they’ll eat breakfast (the least expensive of meals to eat out), watch the game at a sports bar, and pay for a shower at an RV camp before heading back to the trail to camp at the end of the day. This plan gives you almost all the luxury of a night in town at a fraction of the cost.

The topic of saving money for a hike is a big one, but one thing is for sure: Hikers often spend a lot of money to make up for mistakes in gear, injuries, and discomfort on trail. The more time you invest in planning, the less money you’ll have to shell out down the line.

—Snorkel