18 Ways To Prepare Your Wallet For Your Thru-Hike
Everybody knows that hiking that AT is an expensive endeavor. I’m sure you’ve read the stories of people spending up to $10,000 on their trip. Hopefully you’ve also heard the motto “hike your own hike,” which is a beautiful reminder that you don’t have to have a lot of cash to get what you want out of your trip. That said, it can be tempting to splurge on fancy gear. It’s not actually impossible to hike ultralight on a budget, and if you’re not as worried about weight than you can save a pretty penny. It’s all about priorities and deciding where you want to have more comfort – on the trail, or in town.
The more money you have at the start of your hike, the less you have to worry about. You can splurge more freely in town to make your hike more comfortable, you won’t have to rush as much to finish by a certain date for fear of your bank account running dry, and you won’t have to panic when you get home with no job. A little cushion goes a long way.
This list won’t be as helpful for people leaving for their hike this spring or summer – these tips will work best with several months to a year of lead time. And of course not all tips are useful to all people, but regardless of your circumstances these ideas are a good starting point to help you hit the trail with enough cash to get you to Katahdin.
1. Enter contests.
In this weird, beautiful world we live in, people like to just give stuff away. They’re trying to collect Facebook likes and e-mail addresses, and YOU are the person who should give them all of that information. Enter every contest you find – the smaller, the better. Big contests offer big prizes, but the competition is stiff. You want to be a big fish in a tiny pond for this to work. Some people find entering contests to be a fruitless task, but the time investment is low and the payoffs can be big. I won a $300 down quilt just by answering a question on Facebook (thanks, American Hiking Society!). Somebody has to win, and it might as well be you.
2. Apply for sponsorships.
Sponsorships are just like contests except that you actually have to do stuff if you win them. Most sponsorships require a thorough application that you want to put significant time and effort into – you’re going to be up against some strong competition. But if you can win one, the result is usually some serious gear that will save you a ton of money. Alternatively, you can ask individual companies to sponsor you – but again, smaller is better. Big names don’t need as much press as small companies do, so dream small and keep it real. This is your chance to sell your story, so be genuine and open. Read “How To Get Sponsored For Your Thru-Hike” for more ideas.
3. Join mailing lists and like Facebook pages for every company you hear about.
Create a new e-mail address so the mailing lists don’t clutter your personal inbox. As you enter contests and sign up for mailing lists, you’ll find out about major sales and giveaways, and sometimes get important information before it’s released to the public (like when the next Badger Sponsorship goes live). Moosejaw recently sent out a $10 coupon for filling out a three-question survey. Most of the e-mails you get will be junk, but the deals you’ll find will make it worth it.
4. Get a job that gets you a sweet discount on gear.
Obviously, this isn’t an option for everyone. It might not even be an option for most people. But if you can swing yourself into a job at an outfitter, outdoor tourism company, gear creator or anything similar, you should go for it. Outdoor companies experience high turnover and weirdly expect it – they know you’re an adventurer, that’s part of why they hired you, so don’t feel guilty getting a job you know you’ll leave soon. I got a sales job at a local outfitter, scooped up a ridiculous discount, got free gear from sales reps and learned a ton about how products work and what I like about them. This allowed me to make more educated decisions about my gear and try stuff before I bought it. Plus I was making money, which I saved for the trail. If you can pull this one off, you’ll be doing well for yourself.
5. Never buy gear unless it’s at least 40% off of MSRP.
This is a tip for people looking at buying brand new, top-of-the-line gear. Things will always – ALWAYS – go on sale. If you have the time and can save the cash, wait for discounts. Shop on holidays. Hit the REI Garage Sale, notorious for having incredible steals. It’s worth a few hours in line to save a couple hundred dollars. 40% off is my rule, but set your own according to your budget and what you can find – if you can save more, by all means do it.
6. Get products that come with a lifetime warranty.
If you’re buying brand-new gear, be smart about it. A lot of high-end products are priced similarly, and warranties can make the difference in helping you decide which to splurge on. Osprey has their All-Mighty Guarantee. Darn Tough socks are guaranteed for life. Arc’Teryx is supposed to take pretty good care of you. Read all the fine print, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and if something happens to your gear, be sure to get in touch with the company that made it and see what they’ll do to help you out. They want you to like their business, and they’ll do a lot to try and impress you.
7. Shop against the seasons.
Retail has this weird “season” system, where they sell items for full price for a few months and then have to dramatically get rid of everything really quickly to make room for the next round of stuff. That’s when you want to strike. Buy winter stuff in February and summer stuff in September. It’s a tricky balance, because if you buy too early you miss the biggest deals, but if you buy too late they won’t have your size. The less common your size is, the longer you can wait. And once you’ve bought something…
8. Don’t be afraid to take stuff back.
Found a better item or cheaper price somewhere else? Buy the deal, take back the old. Keep track of return policies and take advantage of them. Try everything out at home and if it doesn’t do what you want, don’t wait around, just get rid of it. The price dropped after you bought something? Go back and ask for a refund of the difference. Literally, the worst thing they can do is say no and you feel awkward for a few minutes. Is that worth $10? Yes. Yes it is.
9. Purchase messed-up gear, discontinued gear or gear in weird colors.
When a company messes something up, they still need to make that money back. I bought a tent from Six Moon Designs in what they called a “lemons-to-lemonade” sale – the seal from the tent floor had stained the ceiling, so they couldn’t sell them as brand new even though they were. So I got a $160 tent for $60, and it works like a charm. Going for unpopular colors will also help you score some deals – I can’t fathom why companies haven’t learned yet that fluorescent yellow is a color nobody wants, but their poor decision is your lucky find. Many stores will also have “sample sales,” where they sell brand-new items that had been used by sales reps to show off products to retail buyers. Mike got most of his trail clothing at a sample sale, with deals better than my employee discount. This tip works especially well if you are an average sized human – most samples are mediums.
10. Swap your gear.
There are swap groups online (look for Facebook groups in your area, you’ll have to ask to join), or you could invite all of your outdoorsy friends and acquaintances over to your place of residence and host a swap yourself. Have everybody bring old gear they don’t use, want or need and then everyone leaves with something they didn’t have before. It’s fun, social and a great way to get quality gear for free.
11. Thrift it up and buy secondhand.
Clothes are the easiest piece of gear to thrift. Watch the changing of the seasons and buy accordingly (this time, go with the seasons). Goodwill, Salvation Army and of course your local hometown thrift stores are all great places to bag a serious bargain. Always go to the richest part of town to raid their store first; you’ll often find name-brand items thrown out for ridiculously good deals. And search at high-traffic times, like when college students move out – perhaps you’ll score some Patagonia for cheap. Also see if you have a secondhand gear store in town, like Second Gear in Asheville, NC. Not only will you find awesome used items, you can also sell your old stuff and make some money in the process. Better yet, get store credit (you’ll usually get a higher percentage) and turn old gear into new gear. Magic!
12. Compare prices online before you buy.
Do this whether you’re getting new gear or old to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. My favorite site for this is the BC25 Outdoor Gear Price Checker. Just type in the item you’re interested in, and it will compare all the prices to show you who was the best deal right now. Just like shopping for hotels! You can also create an Amazon.com wishlist and fill item with items you’re considering purchasing. Mike tipped me off to a site that allows you to track the price history for different items and will even notify you by e-mail when the price drops so you can strike while the iron is hot.
13. Make it yourself.
Brand-name gear is a nice idea, but it’s far from necessary – in fact, it’s more of a luxury. If you are crafty or simply determined, this is the step for you (note: this was not the step for me). There are all sorts of tutorials you can follow to make everything from your sleeping bag to your tent to your stove. Make everything. You’ll save money, build confidence and be able to hike with pride knowing that the biggest sponsor of your thru-hike was yourself.
14. Break down your travel plans.
This is one of the biggest expenses in your AT journey, and it’s weirdly skipped over by most articles. You’re going to need to get from your current place of residence to the start of the trail, and then at the end you’ll probably need to get off that mountain and somewhere else. Arrange rides in advance, book flights or bus tickets when there are sales (Megabus and similar lines do $1 tickets) and anticipate those costs. Also consider what happens to your stuff when you’re not there. Are you still paying rent for a place you’re not living? Are you paying for a storage space? Selling unnecessary belongings not only frees up space but also gives you extra cash for your trip. Minimize your belongings, and see if your friends or family can store them for free while you’re gone.
15. Mail some trail magic… to yourself.
People have a variety of opinions on mail drops. Some love them, some hate them. But if you’re a big forward thinker, planning just a couple of mail drops can save you some cash. Purchase items you know you’ll need in advance, like a second pair of shoes (go a half-size up) and some bulk food items (been to Costco lately?). Pack it all up nice and tight and leave it with a reliable friend or family member to send to you when the time is right. If you can convince them to pay for shipping and call it a care package, even better! Check out this guide for tips on when and where to send them.
16. Don’t ask for anything non-trail-related for holidays.
People love giving presents. It’s an awesome feeling. People also want to help you on your journey – that’s another awesome feeling. Give them the chance to do both at once and ONLY ask for trail items (or cash or gift cards) for the holidays. Be specific and feel no guilt. Your aunt could buy you a book you’ll never read, or you could ask for a trail guide and both of you will be happier. The trail is your life now. Ask for nothing else.
17. Create stashes of “secret money.”
In college, I referred to my meal plan as “invisible money.” It was money I couldn’t see or touch but could spend like hell. More oreo cream pie, please! Find a mental way to separate some of your money from your responsible bank accounts. Buy a cash gift card, create a savings account you only put money into and never touch, or turn all of your coins into crisp dollar bills right before you leave for the trail. Consider using a rewards credit card and saving the points for trip-related purchases. Just think of how excited you’ll be when you’re at Harper’s Ferry and realize you have an extra $150 you forgot about. That’s going to get you a lot of pizza and beer.
18. Take advantage of free money incentives.
You’ve probably seen this promotion before: For every $50 you spend, get $10 in gift cards! Most often this deal occurs leading up to the winter holidays. It’s much more common in corporate chains and less common in outdoor stores, but if you see this offer at a place you shop then jump on it. Buy gift cards, not items, and then save the gift cards until the stuff you want goes on sale. This is literally stores handing you free money. Banks will also offer cash incentives if you open a new account with them – more free money! Target has a debit card that saves you 5% on every purchase. Many stores (and Amazon.com) will give you money off your purchase if you open a credit card with them – but be careful with that, if you’re a person who might easily fall into debt. Remember this is about saving money, not convincing yourself to spend more.
And the bonus final point: Remember… less is more.
People go kind of crazy getting all of the stuff for their thru-hike. We’re part of a consumer culture, and it’s easy to get caught up in wanting the best and lightest items for your hike. The reality is, you won’t really know what you need until you get out there, so don’t stress it too much in the interim. Spend your spare time getting outdoors, training and exploring and loving your awesome life. You’re about to do something really cool, so when you start to spend money on non-trail-related expenses, remind yourself of your priorities and honor the adventure you’re about to undertake. Save up, be thoughtful, and have fun.
Have some ideas I didn’t think of? Share them in the comments and help your fellow hiker hit the trail with a wallet that’s flush with cash. And find even more tips here: A Guide for Cheap and Affordable Hiking Gear.
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