The True Cost of Living Your Dream: How Much Does Thru-Hiking Really Cost?

Dreaming of thru-hiking the AT, PCT or CDT? Find out the real costs of gear, food, lodging and more so you can budget and plan to turn your hiking dreams into reality.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

hiker silhouetted against the setting sun hiking uphill
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There are indeed many costs associated with thru-hiking. Depending on the length of your hike, you may struggle to pay for food and shelter while out in nature.

This article will discuss what it takes to get started as a thru-hiker, along with how much does thru hiking costs.

The consistent average for a thru-hike from actual completions tends to work out to around $1000 per month in thru-hike expenses, this covers rooms, food, and miscellaneous needs along the trail. In addition, gear can come in from $1000 on a super budget gear to $3000+ for gear to drop pounds.

The question itself will sit and stew in most hikers’ minds long before they set out on the long, arduous, and exciting journey.

It’s not an easy task, but with careful planning and budgeting, you can successfully hike the entire trail without going broke . Let’s jump into how much it costs to go hiking.

In this blog post, we will explore how much hiking costs so you can make sure your money lasts and your experience is as enjoyable as possible!

Is Thru-Hiking Really That Expensive?

This question leads many hikers to the beginning of their planning; they get it from friends, family, and maybe even from themselves, and then you have to think about how much hiking gear costs.

While $1000+ a month sounds pretty expensive when viewed upfront for most, this would be their cost for rent at home alone.

When you adjust for this change in standard bills, your cost of living on the thru-hike is immensely lower than your normal month at home as long as you aren’t paying rent any longer.

The part that will vary greatly from hiker to hiker will be in what they bring for gear. This is due to the gigantic range of different options that are available for each person and their preference; let’s take a deeper look at this.

Travel & Home Expenses

When preparing for your thru-hike, you need to also think about any costs you will incur to reach your starting point along with any charges that are monthly and re-occurring like cell phone and similar bills.

This will include things like:

  • House Payment or Rent – If plausible and no one else will be there then consider selling, or on renting something like subleasing.
  • Monthly Bills – If you have a house you keep this is things like your utilities and then other bills like your cellphone.
  • Loans –  Most loans won’t have an option to defer payments, like car or student loans.
  • Insurance Premiums – You want to make sure you maintain health by having access to medical services so insurance is something to continue paying for, if you quit you may want to look into travel insurance through a service like World Nomads, or feel free to learn more on thru hike health insurance by reading my post here.
  • Transportation Costs – How you get to the trail and back, flights to and from the trail, plus any meals, accommodations and ground transportation before and after your thru hike.

How Much Does Thru-Hiking Gear Cost

Expect to spend around $2,000 on gear for a thru-hike. Buying the most dirt-cheap gear won’t help you if it falls apart in as little as 100 miles of hiking.

If you focus on looking for deals you can easily cut this down closer to $1000 but will gain some weight and bulk.

For your gear, your biggest investment will be in the big three (backpack, shelter, and sleep system) as they will offer the best value for your dollars, if you have extra to spend you should focus it on these items for the real value.

Focusing Your Budget On the Big Three Essentials

The big three are super important to your overall comfort and warmth while out on the trail for months your big three are basically your house on your back with your home (shelter), bed (sleep system), and backpack (transportation).

These will consume a large chunk of your gear budget and each plays a part in the next one’s purchase, once you know your shelter, you can figure out your sleep system, and once you have a sleep system you will know how big a backpack you need.

Shelter Decisions

You need to know what kind of shelter you want to live in while on your thru-hike. The most common form of shelter is a tent, much due to comfort and solid walls and space.

Tents though come in many forms and you can find some that use your trekking poles or you can purchase a tent that has poles that go with it, the downside being that poles add weight to your gear.

The other most popular way to shelter is using a hammock, which is strung most typically between two trees and gets you up off the ground and can lead to much-improved sleep.

The last option is not for the faint of heart, the tarp, basically removing loads of weight by providing just a tarp that has to be setup just right to cover you from the elements means expertly understanding how to place for maximum benefits.

You want to start here first though as choosing your shelter leads you to what kind of sleep system you will need to purchase as each shelter has some minor differences in the best sleeping options.

Sleep System Decisions

Next up will be your sleep system, this is what you will use to stay warm and toasty during those cold nights out on the trail, many seem to think that your shelter’s job is to keep you warm but this is incorrect.

Your sleep system is to insulate you against the cold and to help maximize heat retention while minimizing losses to the air and ground, so your gear needs to help maximize these for your expected conditions.

This is why you need to know your shelter first so that you can build you sleep system to be correct to the needs of the shelter.

Tent Sleep System

For a tent, you need to focus on heat loss to the ground with a good R-Value sleeping pad, preferably over 3-4 (or 30 degrees), like this Nemo, for example, are good to ensure you limit the loss of heat through the ground.

Next, you want to insulate yourself from the airside and to build that barrier to hold in all the warmth you create for this hikers have moved towards sleeping quilts over sleeping bags but both work with bags tending to be less expensive.

Sleeping quilts are open-back and tend to remove all excess fabric and zipper that would rest below you are those areas don’t benefit from down due to the compressions.

This helps a sleeping quilt cost less and weigh less, whereas sleeping bags are a full zipper and full enclosure, which leads to a heavier and larger piece of gear.

Hammock Sleep System

For hammocks, you are lifted up off the ground, so a sleeping pad isn’t necessarily the best option.

Though some people will still get one for insulation with a hammock , you can get an underquilt, which can be less weight and compress more while providing the same warmth.

From there, a hammock user will typically have a topquilt for the top of them, which gives them a perfect way to stay warm in their hammock with heat being managed on top and bottom.

Backpack Decisions

Once you have clearly established the above choices, you will have a better idea of what backpack you can purchase; since this is incredibly personal I will just say that most thru-hikers can do around a 40-liter pack of light or small gear, but many will reach up to the 60-liter size.

The right pack will depend on the type of use, how much gear you plan to carry, and your budget.

Additional Gear Considerations For Thru Hiking

Depending on where and when you are hiking you may have needs additional gear that is outside the normal; for example on the PCT, you will want at least microspikes for the Sierras and snow along with an Ice Axe.

You need to look at the trail you choose and figure out what additional gear is required to be safe while completing the trail.

Most trails are unique to their environments, don’t underestimate them and leave yourself at risk by shorting needed gear.

Saving Money By Finding Deals

For many of us without massive resources finding the best gear at the best price is important to be fully equipped for a thru-hike. I would suggest constantly keeping an eye out on sales in the area that will help to buy more for less.

  • REI Co-op & Garage Sale – REI has amazing sales and a one-time $20 membership gives you a portion of your purchases back to you at the end of the year that could be put back into more gear.
  • Facebook Groups – There is a large volume of groups available online on Facebook that are about gear buying, selling, and trading.
  • Craigslist – If you have a good Craigslist for your area you can score some pretty good deals from people who have bought new gear and are looking to liquidate older gear.
  • Reddit – There are lots of gear options on Reddit for ultralight to more normal gear if you are looking and prefer that site then there is choices available to acquire gear at less than full cost.
  • Consignment Shops – If you have consignment shops local to you that sell used hiking gear, then this could be a solid option, otherwise, you could look to military surplus stores for some options.

In the end, you need to focus on finding as high in quality gear for the best possible price. Finding something for dirt cheap won’t help you for 2000 miles if it busts or breaks by 100 miles.

Managing Costs Along the Trail

This is where costs can be managed more by some planning, knowledge, and set up before starting on the trail.

You will be spending less on food than if you were at home, so if you can build in savings, this drops costs.

This is especially true when you are in very small towns. The costs for inexpensive food will increase by 2-3x in some circumstances, especially when they know thru-hikers travel through the town.

  • Meals, Snacks, and Beverages – Prices vary, but you don’t want to rely on ramen the entire time to save a few bucks. You’ll want a variety of high-calorie meals and snacks to fuel your hike .
  • Shipping Costs on Resupply Boxes – Depending on where you live and how much you ship from home, this could be a big factor. Most thru-hikers resupply in town, especially because tastes and needs change along the way.
  • Fuel, Batteries, and Similar – These don’t cost too much, but they’re something to track.

Many post the expected costs come in at about $1 to $2 for every mile of trail. This would mean expenditure on the trail could be, on the AT for example,  anywhere from $2,​190 to $4,380!

Budget Busters in Town

Let’s be totally honest, after a long haul in the woods and becoming super stinky sometimes what you want is to just enjoy the town and all the benefits that come with a trip into town.

The only issue with the trip is that it can cause over extravagance and overindulgence. These are some of the more common ways people blow through their budgets while in town:

  • Hotels and Hostels – Hotels are the most expensive place per night; as you build a tramily, you can try to share a room to save costs.
  • Restaurants – If you avoid or limit your restaurants greatly, you can save a lot of money on your town times.
  • Alcohol – Thankfully, I don’t like to drink but if you do, purchase from a store instead of a bar to cut costs by upwards of 50%.
  • Donations – You should consider giving a decent tip to every trail angel who hosts you, as this will help them to offset the costs they incur for meals, beds, showers, and laundry services.

Spending one day in town each week while on a six-month hike leads to about 35 days in town.

Add to this if you have to deal with inclement weather or meet up with fellow hikers. Add an extra few days into the equation as well.

Building Your Thru-Hike Safety Net

This is more related to issues that come up on the trail like if you need to get an injury treated, you got issues with gear that require a different purchase, or a similar high expense that could tank your budget.

There are two ways typically to manage to build this budget, either using a fixed value (for example, $1500) or a percentage of the overall budget (like 10%).

This ensures you have money for these one-off issues that don’t take away from your main thru-hike budget.

Getting Back On Your Feet After the Trail

These are the costs once back home after you successfully complete your thru-hike, these expenses are for things like rent and money to help sustain you while you look to find employment.

It can be difficult to get back and organized right away, so it is best to have around a month’s worth of expenses saved to help begin your reintegration into the world once you finish your thru-hike.

Costs and Tips For Hiking’s Triple Crown

I wrote previously on the Triple Crown; each has some twists that are different from each other, each has twists that are different from each others, but they share in common the long distance of over 2000 miles each.

The Triple Crown is a collection of three well-known thru-hikes : The Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail.

I wrote before about the Triple Crown, so let’s focus on what is different in costs and how to lower costs as much as possible along with what kind of funds you need to have bankrolled before.

The Cost To Hike the Social AT

For hikers who have made their personal decision to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.

Understanding the costs explicitly associated with this trail may wonder, how much does it cost to hike the Appalachian Trail and just how much money do you need to hike the Appalachian Trail overall?

For an average thru-hike with standard stops every week for resupply, you are looking at around $1000 per month, typically $6000 total for six months. The AT is far more social which can lead to longer or extended time in towns and ballooning expenditures and costs if you lack discipline and self-control.

While the overall costs above show it is in line with other thru-hikes, there are issues with the Appalachian Trail and escalating costs for many thru-hikers though you want to understand at least prior.

Unlike the PCT and CDT, the AT runs through many populated areas with access to everything hikers love when they reach towns.

This can lead to more excessive ZEROs and NEROs, more food in town, and increasing costs where you wouldn’t spend as crazy with less town exposure cost to hike Appalachian Trail.

The PCT’s Remote Resupply Challenges

Choosing the Pacific Crest Trail is a different beast altogether from the Appalachian Trail, it spends a longer time away from civilization and traverses up into mountains far from the safety of the indoors, so how much does it cost to hike the PCT?

The average cost for a PCT hike is generally on track with the other hikes at roughly $1000 per month, your costs can increase though with additional equipment needs along with having to constantly change gear to deal with desert, to near alpine, and more environments.

This doesn’t mean it will be more expensive but many people will run very different gear for the desert start than they use for other sections which can lead to more gear changes and more gear expenses.

The Pacific Crest Trail has far fewer towns on the trail, and resupply will force more hitches to get to a town or resupplies from lower-class stores like gas stations and similar.

The CDT’s Special Gear Needs

If you are interested in a supreme hiking challenge then the Continental Divide Trail is a perfect match, unlike the AT and PCT it is still not completely signed and many places will require manual routing and pathfinding.

The Continental Divide Trail is a very complex trail where your costs may reach near $8000 for successful completion. This is due to a much longer trail length, and much fewer towns for resupply, meaning more expensive resupplies and more gear needs.

You will want to plan out how to manage the trip on the CDT as the start runs through a desert very similar to the PCT but with far fewer water options, so getting off on the right foot will pay dividends.

Final Thoughts on Thru-Hiking Costs

When you take on the decision to begin planning to start and complete a thru-hike you have many items to plan out and begin in earnest to start saving money as it isn’t inexpensive.

You are going to have to budget out savings versus gear acquisition as you need to get training time in with your gear before you start your thru-hike, and you can’t afford to test out gear before.

None of your savings will matter if you find out gear has failed your needs for the trail, so make sure to add those gear as soon as possible to start testing and building your confidence in them and yourself.

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