Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
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.
Thru-hiking is different from backpacking in that you have to manage your finances for longer periods of time, usually while not working. I’m expecting to be away from home for 6 months. What do newbie thru-hikers need to know about managing their bank accounts?
Running out of money is one of the most common reasons thru-hikers quit a trail. It’s one thing to pay for the day-to-day of hiking—transportation to the trailhead, occasional hotels and meals, and replacement gear. But the real costs of a thru-hike come from having to keep up with any unavoidable bills back at home.
Well before you go, look at your credit card bills for the last few months to figure out recurring charges. (We’re assuming here that you’ve already saved up enough money in your bank account to pay for the necessities of a thru-hike in the first place.) Here’s tips on how to manage the drain.
Make a plan for housing, car costs, student loan payments: Do you have a mortgage? Car payment? Car insurance? Student loans? The same major expenses that you pay at home may be the biggest expenses of your thru-hike. Think about what you can do to make these bills hurt less. Can you rent out your home for the period of your hike? Start your hike after a lease or rental period is over? Cancel car insurance while you’re hiking? Come up with a plan for alleviating (or better yet, eliminating) these costs.
Cancel monthly subscriptions: You won’t need your gym membership, TV subscription services, meal planning service, photo editing apps, coffee-of-the-month club, movie-of-the-month tickets, or Zoom account when you’re on trail. By canceling these charges–even if there is an activation fee to restart–you’re also signaling to yourself and others how seriously you’re taking your thru-hiking plans. In most cases, you’ll make out way ahead by ending these services. But if you’re worried about fees to restart, know that some gyms (and other services) may let you pay a nominal fee to pause your account. Remember that many services require you to cancel more than a month before your last billing cycle, and that the wine-of-the-month on your porch won’t do anything for you once you’ve left.
What about utilities? If you’re renting or subletting your place out, think about the costs of recurring utilities and decide who will pay for them. Transfer any billing to the new tenant’s name, if needed. Don’t forget things like cable and internet.
Watch out for auto-renew services, especially annual renewals: If you’re budgeting $1,000 a month on trail, it can be a big shock to see a $200 annual fee hit your account for a service you don’t need while hiking. If you have a service whose annual fee renews while you’re on trail, consider switching to manual renewal before you leave. If you’ve paid for a year of services, you’ll still be able to take advantage of the benefits until the auto-renew date. This could apply for things like car registration (you won’t be driving your car while on trail), Amazon Prime, or credit card annual fees.
Figure out what services you will really need on trail. Some hikers watch downloaded episodes of Netflix in their tent at night. Others may use their Amazon Prime service to quickly ship shoes to themselves. However, chances are you won’t be using these services as much as you would at home. Consider canceling them altogether and renewing when you get back from the trail. Even if you have to pay a little extra once or twice on overnight shipping gear, it’s still likely not worth staying subscribed to these services. One exception may be music or audiobook services, as many hikers find they spend more time listening to their phone on trail than they may during “real life.” However, many libraries offer free e-books or audiobooks (check out the Libby app!), and many podcasts are free, so there are ways to avoid spending money on those services, too.
Switch to paperless, or get the app: If you’re still getting bills mailed to your home, consider transferring to paperless billing–or at least know how to log-in to accounts for credit cards and banks before you go. Many banks and credit cards use apps and these can make it easy to check on your finances.
Designate a home person: Find a trusted family member or friend who can watch your mail. They can keep an eye out for things like jury duty letters, but also manage any bills that show up in the mail.
Don’t forget about pets: If you’ve got a trusted family member or friend caring for a pet while you are gone, be sure to budget for pet sitting, food, grooming, and veterinary care while you are gone.
Figure out shared costs in advance. If you live in a home with a partner who will not be hiking, your financial planning for your hike will likely be very different than if you are a single person whose apartment contract ends right before you leave. Some of the services above won’t be easy to cancel because you may share them with others. Whatever happens, make sure you have a conversation early with those who may share your services and decide what is fair for you to continue to contribute (or not contribute) while you are gone. There isn’t one right answer–but a lack of communication about your group plan may cost you in either dollars or strained friendships.
Put it all together. Reassess your hiking budget, adding those unavoidable recurring expenses to your gear, food, and trail town expenses. How will this impact how much money you need to save for your hike? For example, if you’ve saved a respectable $1,000 per month for your hike, that can quickly get eaten away by expenses that have nothing to do with hiking, like student loans. Remember that unlike “real life,” you likely won’t be drawing an income while you’re hiking.
No one hits the trail to worry about expenses and bills. By budgeting well and being aware of all expenses that can come up, you’ll put yourself in a better position to thrive on your thru-hike—and reduce the chances of you having to end it early because your bank account zeroed out.