Do you dream about hitting the trail for a long—really long—hike? In Ask a Thru-Hiker, record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your burning questions about how to do it.
My thru-hike this summer changed my life. The bad news: Now I have to go back to work, and all I can think about is getting back on the trail. I’m thinking about a career change. What jobs are the best for funding my hiking habit while still giving me enough flexibility to hike?
Longing for the Long Trail
You’re not alone. Many thru-hikers find they enjoy the experience so much that they want to get out there year after year. It’s tricky enough to find time and money for one hike, let alone several, but there are ways to do it. Here are some tactics and career paths that make it easier to get back out there again:
First, Ask Your Current Employer
Depending on what kind of job you have, your seniority, and your relationship with your employer, they may be open to allowing you to take a sabbatical (usually unpaid) every so often. You might also be able to shift your commitments to get, say, a 9-month or 10-month contract instead of a 12-month one. Post-pandemic, more employers are looking for creative ways to show they appreciate their employees. Getting some time to thru-hike may just be how your boss chooses to keep you on their team.
Next, Consider a Career Change
If you’re willing to make the leap, there are lots of jobs that can help you create the hiking calendar of your dreams—but some take more training than others.
Teaching or other school-based work: Plenty of repeat thru-hikers are teachers. Some teach K-12 or college. Others work as staff at a school or college where they can get the summer off. Other hikers are tutors, which are often tied to a test-taking season.
Seasonal winter jobs: I’ve met a few hikers who work at a ski resort in the winter so they can hike all summer. Others may work in the ski industry in bars or restaurant jobs. When the snow melts, it’s time to go hiking
Bars and food service: This is the most common job among thru-hikers. Repeat thru-hikers often find jobs at upscale restaurants, where tips are high, to sustain their lifestyle. If you think this is the path you want to take, ask around the trail. Some restaurants in towns like Bend, Oregon and Golden, Colorado already employ thru-hikers and have a reputation of being willing to work with hikers’ schedules.
Travel nurses: Travel nursing is among the most popular professions for repeat thru-hikers. While it requires several years of schooling, it’s a job that allows you to make good money and still have time to hike. Many travel nurses work during the winter and then hike for several months during summer. Travel nursing requires you to go to whatever hospital needs a few months of additional help, so you’ll need to find temporary housing, and it’s more difficult to establish deep friend groups and relationships.
Skilled trades like plumbing, electrical work, and carpentry: I know several thru-hikers who chose to pursue plumbing and electrical work so they can have more time to hike. As with travel nursing, these trades require several years of schooling and apprenticeship. One benefit is that unlike travel nursing, you can stay in one community, providing more opportunities to form deep friendships and relationships.
The hikers I know who have the most flexibility to get on the trail are licensed journeymen. That allows them to set up their own shop or work for other companies. For example, a union electrician is dispatched out to shops who put out calls for help. After the project is over, the hiker can ask for a layoff or to stay on with that same shop. As my friend Trevor “Homework” McGee says, “I get weekends off, use my mind and body at work, have an incredible retirement and vacation plan and healthcare. For someone who isn’t independently wealthy through family or tech, it seems to be a good deal.”
Contract or project-based work: Many people find they can continue jobs similar to what they did before they thru-hiked, just as independent contractors or through project-based employers. Examples include IT contracting or project management. When the project is done, you’re done with work and can go hike.
Depending on your profession, you may need additional licensing and insurance as a contractor. Getting clients or responding to requests for proposals can also take a lot of resources early on as you’re getting started. Another trade-off, of course, is that independent contractors and some project-based employees don’t have the benefits associated with being a regular employee, notably health insurance.
100% commission-based sales: If your job relies on how much you sell, if you do well during the off-season, you can afford to walk away during prime hiking season. The downside: A slow period can throw off your planning.
Working at a gear shop: Thru-hikers love talking about gear. Working at a gear shop allows thru-hikers to share their expertise, relive trail tales, and inspire others to get out there. Shops benefit from having thru-hikers on staff, as they often are the best people to help future thru-hikers pick out their set-up. And when it’s time to set out, they’ll often understand.
One Thing You Shouldn’t Do
I would not recommend trying to work remotely from the trail. If you can ensure that you have internet access and can take a zero day (day off from hiking) 1-2 times per week to work, it may be tempting. In fact, remote work is common among climbers and van-lifers for this reason. But thru-hiking is different than other outdoor activities in that it’s something you do all day, every day. You don’t want to be thinking about work while you are hiking. Hiking is pretty exhausting and you’ll want to keep your rest days for R&R, not making money. Don’t fall into the trap of overestimating how much you can handle.
The hiking lifestyle can be hard, and not everyone ends up being able to hike year after year. But given how flexible the job market is after the pandemic, seeing if your employer is open to experimentation is worth a try.