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Thru-Hiking: Learning Gear and Not Breaking the Bank

Read Time: Approximately 17 minutes

How much does hiking gear cost for a thru-hike? This is a question that many people ask before they take up a long-distance hike. The answer, of course, depends on your available budget and how well you can plan and limit duplicate purchases.

It’s important to remember that you don’t need the most expensive gear, worth thousands of dollars to have a successful hike. This blog post will discuss how to manage the cost of backpacking for your hike without breaking the bank!

Average gear costs for those looking to thru-hike is approximately $2000. These prices can escalate to a much higher overall cost on longer trails, where weight is more critical than almost anything to succeed. Some people complete long-distance thru-hikes each year using very low-cost items.

Of course, owning gear before can help to lower costs by hundreds of dollars but starting from scratch cutting much lower than this $2000 figure means working on finding more gear that is multi-purpose in nature and can fill multiple needs.

This would then help cut down on additional purchases, buying something just because someone talked it up on Youtube or a blog post isn’t always optimal, gear can and will be vastly different for any two hikers on the trail.

Minimal Gear Needs for Thru-Hiking

Backpacking gear lists are usually pretty long, but most people don’t actually need everything listed. This is a short discussion of gears and some links to helpful resources I have written to help you learn more.

Below are some core parts that you can’t skip to be safe out on the trail:

Big Three (Core Gear)

These are the main primary parts of your gear, they will almost always be the most expensive gear you will carry and be the highest quality gear if you are planned well for a thru-hike.

The big three are your shelter, sleep system, and backpack which are the staple of a backpacking gear set up and due to this they are typically the most frequently discussed and swapped out gear for new thru-hikers.

Shelter

The shelter used will be very personal, though the vast portion of thru-hikers will choose a tent as their shelter there are some who use hammocks, like this amazing kit on Hammock Gear, or tarps.

Your shelter will change some of the other gear choices you will want to make so for now I will assume that the shelter you are choosing to use is a tent, these can come in a few different setups: freestanding, semi-freestanding, or non-freestanding using your trekking poles.

After this, you need to choose some materials for the tent which will directly impact the cost of your shelter choice, the most common is SilNylon for its cost, durability, and size though DCF has become a thru-hiker favorite the costs double for this material.

Since we have the types and materials covered the last big choice is the space you will want to have inside, for a thru-hiker most will choose a two-person tent as this provides more space to you while at camp, a huge benefit on long rainy days and to work out muscle aches and stretch.

Sleep System

Your sleep system is compromised of two core parts which will be your sleeping pad, as a ground-based insulation layer, and your quilt or sleeping bag as an insulation layer from the air, we will start by talking about sleeping pads in more detail first.

The biggest complaint from thru-hikers is that they get cold at night and blame their bag or quilt, in large part, this is a bad assumption or belief that the gear is failing in performing.

But, this typically is far more likely due to an incorrect choice in a sleeping pad for the temperatures in the area you will be camping allowing the ground to steal your body heat.

The ground in effect fully leeches out the heat from the body through the pad as it slowly loses retention when the air inside cools. This can then slowly be felt regardless of drafts and the air has far less ability to extract out heat as the insulation can protect.

When looking at a sleeping pad you want to make sure the R-Value isn’t just a pretty wrapped fib, some manufacturers will list a non-tested “we feel like” number in place of an R-Value which can lead to improper choices in pads when trying to cut costs this is NOT the place.

If you are trying to find high-quality options the overall thru-hiker favorite is the NeoAir XLITE, which does feature a men’s and women’s option. If you sleep cold then the women’s version features more insulation and a much higher R-Value versus the men’s version so always check men’s vs women’s sleeping pads.

Now that we have covered this base ground insulation we can talk about sleeping bags and sleeping quilts, while sleeping bags are the old fashion “normal” quilts that have been taking over due to less weight and without winter you don’t need a full enclosure and hood to stay warm.

As you read above there is no heat retention under you from a sleeping bag, sleeping quilts basically use this to remove that extra fabric and zippered area which helps to drop some serious weight along with providing much more compressibility making it much more friendly for long-distance hiking.

What you need in a sleeping bag or quilt is to know if their quoted “temperature rating” is based on “comfort” which is relaxed and legs extended and you being relaxed or the more common listing of “limit” temperature which is typically fetally in a ball able to maintain but not comfortable.

As you can tell by reading this there is a HUGE difference between a limit-based gear temperature and a comfort-based temperature, so this is very KEY to your knowledge on purchasing the right sleeping gear for your trip and your comfort level.

I have an example here on why I prefer UGQ as they rate to comfort as opposed to Enlightened Equipment rates to limit. This can leave many very cold on trail and with a bad experience if not experienced when making this choice!

Then if you are facing limit temperature gear then make sure to get a 10 degrees cooler version to be close proximity to the higher temperature as comfort, so selecting a 10-degree bag when you are expecting 20-degree temperatures.

In addition, if you deem yourself a “cold sleeper”, which is traditionally females or those with less overall muscle mass, then look to go another 10 degrees cooler to ensure warmth and comfort. This would mean using the above example that to be at comfort at 20 degrees you would need a 0 degree rated bag or quilt.

Personally, I am a quilt lover, I need the freedom to move my legs around and a quilt has become a godsend as I always hated sleeping bags and the confined feeling they give me, over on my backpack gear page you will see I use an OV Stormloft 15 degree quilt currently.

Backpack

Your backpack decision can’t be made until you have made your shelter and sleep system choices as they will take up the bulk of the space within your backpack and how they fit will directly influence the size and weight needed for your backpack.

You will see two primary measurements for backpacks for what they can hold, the weight, and the liters. Weight is the amount of pure weight the pack can hold while still fitting right and being comfortable whereas the liters rating is the actual fillable space within the pack, the pouches, brain, and other external spots.

Your next choice will be on whether you need or want a frame on your pack, a frame helps distribute weight more to your hips but is less needed the less weight you carry in your pack but for most new hikers a frame is a good way to start even though the pack may weigh more.

After this, there is more you can dig into as there are many hip belt styles with thinner web style belts supporting less weight and also having no hip pockets which is when people look to add fanny packs.

Then you have J straps and S straps which can change how the backpack sits and how the shoulder straps sit on your body which can increase comfort for some.

Clothing

For clothing, you will want to focus on layers to maximize performance with the lowest weight possible as you have to carry it all as you go, washing once in town so minimization and performance are vital in these pieces of gear.

You will want to have a layered system starting with your base, clothing for a mid-layer, and then outer layers would be insulation and rain protection allowing for a complete temperature management system.

Base Layers

These clothes sit next to your skin and help wick moisture away from your body, keeping you dry while also being thermal regulating to keep you warm or cool as needed.

A good base layer should be made of synthetic fabric such as polyester, nylon, or more natural with merino wool which will help it stay dry longer and not absorb odors over time.

Over time synthetics get very gross as they don’t absorb odors which leads to super stench which is hard to remove from clothing no matter how much you wash them.

Mid Layers

Your mid-layer is an important piece of gear in your clothing as it sits between your base layer and your outer waterproof or water-resistant clothing.

These are typically made of fleece, wool, or a synthetic-fleece blend and help keep you warm by trapping air next to your body while also being able to breathe and not let sweat build up.

I personally bring an Outdoor Vitals Ventus Active Hoodie as my mid-layer, it’s blended fabric that does a great job at not absorbing smells and keeping me warm on the coldest days with enough ventilation to work on cold to hot days.

Puffy Jacket

This is critically important to thru-hikers as it is the main source of warmth on the trail when not in camp and many become fully attached to it wearing it every day, one of the most efficient in weight to heat is the Zpacks Goose Down Jacket.

Down is the most common method to insulate a puffy jacket, this type of insulation compresses well and can last a long time if well taken care of, making it perfect to fit and fill space within a backpack.

Many people who have down allergies or look to shave some costs will choose to go with synthetic fillings which still offer good warmth, this can make them beneficial on a humid trail like the Appalachian Trail, this is why the Enlightened Equipment Torrid is popular with thru-hikers.

If you need to keep to a budget then a super value for the performance is the Decathlon Trek 100 which is available at Walmart online for easy delivery.

Rain Gear (Pants and Jacket)

On a thru-hike there is near no chance that you won’t encounter poor weather including massive rainstorms, this is why it’s important to have a good set of rain gear that will keep you as dry as possible.

A good jacket and pants should be made of a waterproof or water-resistant fabric that has its seams sealed to prevent water from sneaking in through the stitching.

Rain jackets are typically not very heavy but can vary in price and quality, for a good jacket that will keep you dry two of the most popular are the Zpacks Vertice rain jacket and the Enlightened Equipment Visp.

While Frogg Toggs are frequently spoken about they have some serious flaws as they tear easily and this can lead to serious life-endangering problems out on the trail if you have no way to deflect rain.

Pants are often more difficult to find a good affordable option, as they need to be made of waterproof or water-resistant material with taped seams, both the Zpacks Vertice rain pants and Visp offer pant options also.

The last thing to understand about any rain gear is that they are never fully waterproof, being out in rain for long enough will always result in a wet out so understand anything you buy will eventually fail.

Shoes & Feet (Trail and Camp)

Your feet are your biggest concern on the trail, they can make or break your thru-hike if they get too beat up and damaged you may have to temporarily stop or permanently stop your attempt.

That being said, this is why shoes and socks matter so much in a thru-hike and why choosing them correctly will help you to get through the entire trek without additional pain and suffering.

There are two camps of people with socks, those who wear a liner along with a sock, which is shown time and again to cut down on blisters due to having a layer in between to take that friction instead, or to hikers who choose to go single sock.

I always wear two socks, a thin Injinji liner toe sock and then merino wool Darn Tough socks over the top which has always left me without a single blister.

For hiking shoes, most will have grown up with the traditional “hiking boots” as what should be worn out on a long-distance hike and while this is viable it is not necessary nor vital and maybe more exhausting to your legs overall.

Hiking boots have long been favored as they provide traction, and support, and are very sturdy which then could also help support the much heavier weight of older packs, some of which could be upwards of 50-90 pounds in the older times.

Well, with the incredible transformation in hiking and backpacking gear becoming incredibly lightweight, this additional weight is much less a requirement which has opened up shoes to the trail runner generation.

Trail runners are built to grab the ground, drain well so they dry very fast, and are very comfortable, and all these combined with lighter gear means they have become the go-to shoe, with the Altra’s being the bigger but others catching on who create trail runners.

In addition to your shoes, I would suggest looking at getting gaiters that help keep rocks and sticks from getting into your shoes and causing discomfort. They are inexpensive, and many have native hooks into shoes like Altra latching.

Now once you reach camp, you need to get your feet out of those sweat-filled shoes. You want to let them air out more and let your feet air out. This is where you want those nice open camp shoes so you can still walk around without injury.

Currently, I have a pair of Xero sandals and Crocs depending on where I hike.

Food and Water Storage

Most food carry will be done using a bear bag as they are super lightweight and durable yet much less expensive than a bear canister or similar protective bag and can typically fit up to seven days of food for the trail.

These foods will vary in weight and space needs, this would be dinners, lunches, breakfast, and then snacks like trail mix, snickers, or other trail favorites that are simple to eat on the go.

Cook Kit or Cold Soaking

For cooking, you need to carry some more additional gear that a hiker who cold soaks won’t, the biggest being fuel canisters and backpacking stoves to cook food while out on the trail as you don’t want to rely on making fires when you are there for a night to get a hot meal.

The other option would be to choose to cold soak, this is my personal preference for it is much more simple and it keeps me focused on moving as it doesn’t require setting up and taking out fuel, stove, setting up and boiling then waiting to eat.

For cold-soaking, I start my food soaking 30 minutes to an hour beforehand and then eat when I find the best place to stop and eat, clean, and move off down the trail with little fussing about.

If you want to read more on cold-soaking I have a useful guide to understanding it in more detail over here.

Water Filtration

You should always carry a water filter on the trail as you never know the quality of the water you will find and a “spring” isn’t always safe to drink and you should always question the quality of water to avoid sickness.

Some will bring along Aquamira or something similar to treat water as well, while it may seem silly bringing along some treatments in case your filter should fail is a smart idea for very little additional weight.

I bring a Katadyn BeFree and a Hydrapak which gives me the ability to carry 2L in the Hydrapak and then I carry a liter SmartWater water bottle for easy drinking on the hike as they can be replaced at nearly any store.

Good Options to Find a Deal

There are many ways to find deals on backpacking gear, the best way is to look frequently as many times good items will be bought very fast due to the better prices than off the shelf from a store.

Craigslist

Choosing to check Craigslist is a simple process and there are so many people and locations that you can search through, I have found many of my items this way for a fraction of the cost of new gear.

eBay

Similar to Craigslist, eBay is another great resource for gear and you can find some amazing deals if you are patient in searching, I have also found good deals on eBay but typically not as good as what I’ve seen on Craigslist due to bidding wars exploding prices.

Garage Sales

A garage sale is a great place to find deals, but you need to be careful that you know gear well before purchases as like with Craigslist there can and will be lemons people try to pawn off.

This means getting gear in good condition requires some basic understanding of the piece of gear for defects or damage so that you don’t get something that is broken and will cause more issues on the trail.

Gear Swaps

Gear swaps are another way to get good deals on gear, but typically the quality of the gear will vary based on the people who bring their gear, there will be some amazing gear and some out-of-date gear.

Facebook Gear Flea Markets

I belong to a few of these and there is some very good gear, currently, my wife uses an Osprey pack that was a super deal and she says it’s the most comfortable pack she’s had, this is also where I look to find good tents and quilt options.

Clearance Sales

Nearly all big box stores and manufacturers will have the gear they need to clear out for the next generation coming, in this case, you can score some major deals by biding your time if time isn’t the crunch to get huge deals.

Of note, sometimes these won’t be shown until you add the gear in question to your cart. So when you have an idea of the gear you are looking for adding it to your cart can give you a chance to see semi-secret unadvertised deals!

Gear Consignment Shops

Consignment shops will have gear that has been used and is typically in good condition, but it will be more expensive than some of the above options.

One downside to consignment shops is that you won’t always find what you are looking for and they don’t typically deal in as many large items like tents or backpacks.

Online Retailers

The biggest place to search, places like Garage Grown Gear offer a wide range of gear from many vendors all in a centralized place with there being some good deals at times.

Additional Gear Cost Common Questions

There are some frequent questions that come up when looking at gear and how much it costs, so I’ll try to address some here.

Do you need expensive hiking gear?

No, you don’t have to have expensive gear. While it’s true that the more expensive gear is nice and can definitely help drop additional pounds on your back it is by no means a requirement.

Additionally, for many, this would be an unwise way to start as you need to know if you enjoy a hobby before spending large amounts of money on them.

Why is hiking gear so expensive?

This is in large part due to very custom fabrics and materials that are used in tents, backpacks, and other gear to make them as light as possible.

Additionally, many of the big brands have a significant markup on their items which is how they can afford large marketing campaigns.

Even when small cottage companies don’t have the advertising budget the use. of skilled US labor is much more expensive than labor from China.

Are expensive tents worth it?

For most this is a yes, your tent is your home on the trail and your place of solitude but many materials, like SilNylon, absorb water and this makes them heavier and harder to keep dry day after day without stopping to sit them in the sun to dry.

While a DCF tent will be $600 or more, like the thru-hiker favorite Duplex here, the fabric doesn’t absorb water and is in many cases 1/2 the weight of a similar SilNylon tent.

This leads to easier times on the trail as your shelter is never a huge concern to dry out and less weight means less stress on your hips, shoulders, and feet.

Final Thoughts on Gear Costs for a Thru-Hike

Hiking gear can be expensive, but there are many ways to save money and find the perfect equipment for you.

From buying ahead of time or waiting until clearance sales to consignment shops and online retailers, how much do hiking costs depends on your own personal preferences.

We hope this article has answered some questions about how much does hiking cost so that you’re able to make an informed purchase no matter what option is best for you!

I have a huge selection of gear as I find and update the pages to assist in making decisions allowing you to look at what I feel are the best backpacking gear options here.

Let me know how I did in the comments below, and please let me know if I missed something that was vital to you as I may not have encountered it before or may need to learn myself!

Joshua Harrington

Friday 4th of March 2022

The picture of the lady hiker connected to this article is so much like a what not pack or wear while thru-hiking demo that experienced thrus like myself will find it comical! A legit hiker will find about 10 definte don'ts in the image: ancient leather boots, short socks, jeans, huge pack, dangling gear, no water bottles, cotton items including blanky, fleece, no poles, no hat. This person will overheat, sweat, dehydrate, get tired fast, get blisters, then get a chill, fall down, and then get hypothermia. This is how rookies die. Fact. Consider better clip art that isn't from a 1980's LL Bean catalog cover if you want to instruct would-be long-distance hikers. It could save lives. Thank you!

Josh

Saturday 5th of March 2022

Most of the point of the image in the first place, I was just out on the Lone Star Trail and came across people with stuff dangling and it's quite common for most new people to the trail, the people who would read this sometimes need to understand this and the image fits that need.