Budget for Success on the Appalachian Trail

People need to know how much it’s going to cost to successfully plan a through hike.  This requires a budget.

People frequently ask “how much does hiking the Appalachian Trail cost?”

There is no one answer to this question.  People’s monthly expenses are so varied, people’s tastes and personal needs have a big impact on how they spend on the trail.  Numbers we see frequently at $1,000/month or $2-3/mile.  But one of the biggest reasons people get off the trail is that they run out of funds.  So rather than talking about how much you need to hike the Appalachian Trail, I’m going to show you how to budget so you can hike the Appalachian Trail with the money you have.

One of the most common reasons people get off the trail is because they run out of money.

The first thing you should do is set aside an emergency fund, that you’re not going to touch unless you’re injured or until you’re ready to resume 9-5 life.  I recommend at least 3 months worth of your off-trail expenses.  For me, that’s $3,000 and includes things like dog food, food for me, an apartment deposit, and rent.  For some people, it may include things like monthly medications or student loan bills.  Determine what constitutes an actual emergency and only spend it if that occurs.

Overestimating expenses is better than underestimating.

Next, you’re going to actually build your budget, and I’m going to break it down for people who aren’t familiar with using a spreadsheet.  I’m using google sheets, but Excel’s coding is virtually identical.  Figure out how many months you’re likely to spend on the trail. Overestimating is better than underestimating.  If you know you’re a very slow hiker count on 7 months.   If you’ve successfully completed long distance hikes before I’d say 5 months.  Most people take 6 months to hike and if you’re not sure that’s the number I’d use.  Go ahead and set up your spreadsheet so the months you’ll be hiking head the columns, and your income and expenses lead the rows on the left.

Find ways to make money remotely.

Next go ahead and enter your income by source and month.  For the sake of this mockup budget, I assumed that their monthly income was regular.  Yours might not be, adjust your budget accordingly.  If you’re younger it’s likely that your budget will look like mine and you won’t have income on the trail, only the money you’ve already saved.  That’s fine too.  I am trying to find ways to make money while on the trail, whether through writing or occasionally stopping in a city to walk some dogs.

If you have multiple sources of income you’ll want to make a row to total them.  If you only have one source of income don’t worry about that bit of coding.  Go ahead and total your income for the entire row until your budget looks like this.

Now add another column titled totals and find out how much you’ll be getting from each income source for the duration of your hike.

Eliminate as many monthly expenses as possible.

Go through and put in your monthly expenses that are a fixed rate, like your car payment, insurance, cell phone bill, and mortgage.  These are the things that have the potential to make your hike unfeasibly expensive. I encourage you to eliminate as many of them as possible.  Next week I’ll have a follow-up post about achieving financial wellness before your hike.  For those of us who don’t have a source of income on the trail eliminating monthly costs is even more important.  As you can see in the budget below, the cost of the hike is already $4,700.  That’s without including the costs of the hike itself, yikes!

Add a total expenses column at the bottom of your budget.

Go ahead and add the expenses that are specific to your hike now, and that have a flexible cost.  Also, insert a difference column into the bottom of your budget.  In this hypothetical, they have $1,000 to spend per month so the difference should be $5,000 at the end of the first month.  Keep in mind that while I’ve allocated an equal amount of funds to each month in this budget I hear frequently that the north half of the trail is much more expensive than the south, and you may want to adjust your budget accordingly.

Estimate your on-trail expenses and adjust accordingly.

This is the most important and most revealing part of making your budget.  After you’ve filled in all your nonnegotiable expenses you see exactly how much money you have to divide up between eating, hostels, and travel.  If you know you only have enough money to spend $100 dollars on entertainment each month you’re less likely to eat out that 4th time because you know it would later mean you can’t finish the trail.  It’s helpful for me at least to know these things.  The budget I’ve created here is actually pretty generous in how much they can spend each month.  Personally, I don’t spend anywhere near $300 on entertainment a month in my regular life.

I like to have a row at the bottom called cumulative which show how much money I have left in my bank account at the end of the month.  You can update your budget as you go through the month to reflect money you’ve already spent and make sure you’re staying on track.

Practice maintaining a budget before your hike.

I’ll also include my personal budget for the Appalachian Trail.  This one looks a bit different because I’m starting halfway through March and expect to finish halfway through September.  Theoretically, I’ll spend half as much both of those months.  You can also see I have almost no off-trail expenses because I don’t have a car, I’m subleasing my apartment, and I have no debt.  Some people wouldn’t be able to comfortably hike the trail on this budget, but I live pretty frugally anyways.  Also, I have been keeping a budget for three years and know very well how much I can get by on.

Plan for your plans to fall apart.

Of course, there will always be unexpected costs on the trail, and that’s what my emergency fund is for.  I don’t spend much more than this in my regular life and it would be crazy if I was spending more on the trail than I do when I’m paying for an apartment monthly!  I have taken on a second job and am selling a lot of my possessions though because I would like to have more of a cushion.

Plans will always change on the trail.  The unexpected will happen.  Having a budget and not needing it is better than not having a budget and having to leave the trail.  No one will follow a plan like this to a T on the trail, but I hope this post will help at least a few people visualize how much they’ll need a bit better.  Happy Hiking.

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Comments 1

  • Michael Hejna : Nov 17th

    Thank you very much!
    First, I fear I am at the start of my midlife crisis 😀
    Seriously, since I was a teenager I dreamed of hiking through the wilderness. Many decades that meant picking a town in Canada and a second 1.000 miles away and Go For It!
    Then I watched a docu about the AT that is unknown in Germany. Well, it takes longer but is safer and more realistic (if something happens, like a broken leg, in the Canadian wilderness, no one will see me again 😉 )
    After spending lots of money for an unsuccessfull motorbike licence I realized that I can realize a REAL dream. Alas, I am hopping from job to job and right now, I am unemployed. So I wondered IF there is a chance of working for your hiking. You gave me the answer. I do Dogsitting right now and am able to do or learn a lot of things.

    Long story short: if you get your duties back home in order(monthly rent, flight to and back and gear), can you hike “self-suffenciently” by jobs?

    Reply

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