Friday, January 7, 2011

How Much Money to Hike a Long Trail

It used to be figured at $2 a mile for hiking a long trail, like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail.
I always found that amusing.
Does it include transportation?
Does it include gear? Post office, motels?

There are so many variables that quoting a dollar amount is very difficult.
Lets address some of those variables.
First, if you live on the same side of the country, and can get a ride, or take a bus, the transportation is cheap. Stay on the trail, without taking breaks into nearby tourist centers and you'll keep costs down. I met some guys from N.Carolina who rented a car when they got up north just to sight see Washington D.C. Another couple had never been to New York, so took a week off to tour that.
If you're flying across the country to San Diego, then getting a bus to the Mexican Border, that's going to add up.
So, lets not add the price of transportation into these final estimated figures.

Then, there's buying gear. If you already have a good selection of backpacking gear, can make or modify existing equipment, will utilize suggestions from the alternative gear section, or can beg, borrow or be gifted good stuff, gear will not cost too much. We'll talk about gear in the week ahead, but for now, lets take gear out of the equation as well.

What is left? Food, housing, laundry and drop boxes/bounce boxes. You may also have some medical issues, but that's fairly rare if you take care of yourself and do some preventative work.

Logically, we know that hiking ten miles a day, or twenty miles a day will cost nearly the same amount. You'll wake up, eat breakfast, hike, eat a snack, some lunch, a snack, supper and then maybe bedtime munchies. You may be a bit hungrier with more miles, but the bottom line is you'll spend about the same.
Once you hit town, you'll eat a decent meal. The cost there depends on what is available in restaurants, deli style food, or cooking in the local park. Most people will buy a good meal. We were eating in a nice restaurant when the scroungy looking guy sitting at the next table ordered a second complete meal. I glanced over to see a trail guide of the Pacific Crest Trail. He was another long distance hiker.
Buffets are good for long distance hikers in town. For one price you can really fill up the nearly bottomless pit.
I've met hikers on budgets who never spent a night in a motel. They'd simply buy a large pizza and coke, shop for the next resupply, visit the post office, and head out of town.
Check the post office before resupplying in case there is a hiker box, filled with stuff abandoned or donated by other hikers. The freebies help you save money, too.

Shipping is getting so expensive, many experienced hikers forgo the drop box filled with food and necessities and opt for either a bounce box (parcel post to trail towns 300-400 miles up trail, insured) or buying local. More about that later, for now, we're just talking about money.

You can not count on ATM machines, being able to use a check or credit card in small trail towns. Having cash is essential. I started with $400 to begin a trail. Whenever possible, I used the credit card, and paid once a month by phone. Keeping the cash for those times when nothing else works is important.

If you go bare bones, you can get by on about $7 a day. A five month hike, 150 days would add up to $1050. This is food, laundry and stove fuel. If you plan on a motel night once a week, add $50 per night, to start. Some trails have hostels, sometimes you can split the cost of a motel room with a trail friend. The longer you stay in town, the more money you'll spend. A movie, a couple restaurant meals, laundry, sightseeing, it all adds up.

Wear flip flops when taking a shower at hostels or public bathrooms. Save yourself a doctors visit with a bad case of foot fungus. Go to the dentist and get your teeth checked, and save an expensive dentist bill while on the trail. Watch out for shared gorp bags which may harbor Giardia. Exposure to Lyme disease can be reduced by sitting on a tarp or rock at rest stops, using bug repellent, and checking for ticks daily. All of these incidents happened to trail friends of mine. Prevention is cheap, the cure is costly.

There's no accounting for the huge outlay of cash by those who go ill prepared. Many trail towns and online or catalogue outfitters make a lot of money from hikers replacing heavy or ill performing gear. Hikers will notice new friends with ultralight sleeping bags, new stoves, hiking poles, and vow to buy some asap. Research at home, gear up with the best you can afford, and save this huge expense as well.


  1. Good food for thought! I've been keeping track of stats on my last few long distance hikes, and it's interesting to me to see how different factors influence things. For instance, the PCT in 2010, I did almost no mail drops, just shopped along the way, but lived a pretty cushy life when I got into towns. Totals: 2650 miles, 157 total days, 36 zero days, $2.12/mile. On the New England Trail in 2009, with only staying with friends in town rather than hotels, and using mail drops for all my food, totals were 517 miles, 35 days, 3 zero days, $1.53/mile. Those totals don't include gear, but do include travel to the trail, stays in town, food purchased before and during. Bottom line... there are a lot of ways to hike a trail :)

  2. So true, Ryan, thanks for giving us some numbers.
    Tomorrow I'll be sharing my budget strategies. Long distance hikers must either earn a ton of money to support lavish hiking styles, or like many of us, learn to save where we can.

    I'm throwing a lot of ideas onto this blog for people to pick and choose as they like.
    best wishes

  3. And, of course, it can't hurt to do both (earn a ton, AND save while on the trail). Cheers!