Part 2: Planning an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike – Devising a Budget

“Take half the clothes and twice the money” is the age-old advice on packing for a long trip, and it’s particularly valid for planning a thru-hike along the Appalachian Trail. As I stated in my first post on the subject earlier this month, running out of money is one of the most common reasons for abandoning a hike. I’ve literally seen broke hikers leave the trail in Maine – a mere two or three weeks from the end.

There’s still four or five months to stash away funds, and that should be your top priority now to ensure a successful hike – above buying gear, exercising, or planning food and re-supply. I’ve seen folks hike on $1,500, and I’ve seen folks spend $20,000 to $25,000– and obviously anywhere in between. Personally, I would be uncomfortable leaving for the trail with less than $12,000 saved for the trip, assuming you have already purchased the gear you need at the start of the trail.

Planning finances for the trail can be summed up by the dreaded “B” word­ – you need to develop a BUDGET. Since no two hikes are exactly alike, I’ll try to reduce all hikes to commonalities and then talk in general about other factors to consider in budgeting.

On-Trail Expenses

This is an estimation of every dollar you spend directly related to hiking from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Kathadin, Maine, along the Appalachian Trail route. We’ll break these expenses into two types: trail and town expenses.

Of your trail expenses, food is far and away your biggest expense, as this is the primary good you are consuming on a typical day. I would recommend budgeting about $12 per hiking day to feed yourself, and then bump that figure up by 20 percent to handle other secondary consumables (stove fuel, toilet paper, occasional campsite fee, etc.). If we assume you’ll travel, on average, 15 miles per day, that’s 146 days of hiking. This equates to about $2,1000 (145 days @ $12/day + 20%).

Town expenses are where you can really lose control on the trail. I’d recommend budgeting at least $100 per town day. The $100/day figure allows $40 for lodging (most trail towns feature suitable economy lodging); $50 for food (indulge your trail appetite on restaurant food whenever you get a chance); and $10 for miscellaneous items (quarters at the laundromat, an occasional movie, snacks).

It’s good practice to take a day off each week, and you’re apt to stay in town an extra day or two along the route (sick, wanting to let the rain pass, needing extra rest and so on). This comes to 30 days on a typical six-month hike: $3,000 at $100/day. While building your budget, you can adjust the $100/day estimate up or down depending on your tastes, but do not underestimate from the comforts of your living room the desire for a real bed, an indulgent restaurant meal, and a cold beer once you hit the trail.

To sum up, when you include all of these elements, your on-trail budget should probably run in the $5,000-$6,000 range.

Transportation Costs

Getting to the beginning and back home from the end of the trail can be a significant cost.  This figure can vary wildly depending on where you live, crazy airfares and fees, and the price of gas. Budget at least $300 one-way for air or train fare, $100 for buses, and obviously a lot less if you have a friend or family member taking you to and from the trail.

If you take a shuttle/bus/taxi to reach either endpoint of the trail, you can spend another $100. Whatever the case, $600 should cover most transportation expenses to and from the trail. Also consider any trips (home or otherwise) you may want to take during the hike.

Off-Trail Costs 

Also consider some provision for putting your life on hold for six-plus months while you’re out of touch. Account for both your loans (school, mortgage, credit cards, car, etc.), and your bills (cell phone, storage unit, etc.). There’s no way to determine a general amount here, as each is case dependent. Simply estimate your monthly obligations and multiply by six. One off-trail cost everyone should have is medical insurance. Temporary six-month policies with high deductibles are actually quite affordable for most.

Other Costs

You’ll have gear (most notably shoes and socks) that will have to be replaced, so budget $500 to $1,000 for replacements. Another prospect to consider – do you want to finish the trail broke, and headed straight from Katahdin to work the next day? It’s wise to account for four to six weeks of expenses to decompress, as it’s tougher to adjust back to the “real world” than it is to adjust to thru-hiking.

Finally, consider adding a week’s “emergency fund” to cover an on-trail sickness or injury. This should include your $100/day, plus $500 in doctor’s fees.

As the military saying goes, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” While the same can be said for trail budgets, this exercise is vital to give you a solid idea of how much you’ll need to finish a thru-hike. Be sure you have on hand, or access to, the cash to meet your budget, and preferably more. In the end, stockpile as much cash as possible, and simplify both your hike and your mothballed life at home, too. I cannot emphasize enough how important finances are on the trail.

Don’t miss Part 3 of our continuing series, which will focus on Gear and Gear Lists.

Andy Somers lives in Huntsville, Alabama, with his wife Karen and two daughters, and works there as a civil engineer. Andy has hiked the full length of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, and has ridden a bicycle across the United States. In addition to his long distance hiking and cycling pursuits, he’s climbed the highest mountain in 39 of the 50 United States, including Washington’s Mount Rainier.

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