Mo Debt Mo Problems: Budgeting for the Triple Crown

Current events are bringing me down, so instead I’m focusing on one of our greatest achievements as a family: budgeting.

Stay Debt Free!

Our 17-year-old daughter, Sierra, recently wrote the following for a college essentials class she was taking: “To me ‘financial wellness’ means having freedom. If you budget wisely and save you are able to accomplish things that are not possible if you are in debt. There is correlation between financial wellness and academic success. Keeping to a budget and staying debt free allows for greater opportunities as they arise. If you lack the ability to pay for school upfront, then you should look at other means for paying for school: like working for companies that cover tuition, military, or a cheaper school. Henry David Thoreau said, ‘A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.’

My parents paid off their car the month I was born, leaving them with one debt: a mortgage for a duplex that we lived in. The rent from the other half was enough to cover the loan payment. My parents involve me and my siblings in their budgeting efforts as we prioritize season passes to go skiing over going out to dinner and movie, or renting out our house so we can hike the Pacific Crest Trail and save for the Appalachian and Continental Divide Trails. Hiking the Triple Crown will require 20 months out of 36 months when there will be no way to make an income. Currently my dad works a full-time job, is finishing his bachelor’s degree, and makes enough money for us to drive fuel efficient and reliable cars, and continue to stay debt free.”

We are very proud of Sierra.  She has been quick to catch on to the benefits of budgeting and has been accused of being “thrifty to a fault.”  Her three siblings are also on board, maybe because it is all they have ever known.

Food and Lodging

Sierra and Kaia are making a quick dinner from food found in a hiker box in Yosemite.

Once our gear was acquired, only food, lodging, and transportation remained as major contenders in our budget. We quickly learned that we didn’t enjoy spending money on hotels while we were on the PCT. After the freedom of sleeping outside, a hotel room just felt stuffy and cramped. We ended up averaging one hotel night per month in the nearly seven months on trail. There were two very memorable nights when we were in town, during Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, when we couldn’t have gotten a room if we wanted to. Allow me to elaborate:


The night we slept behind a dumpster (and ate Oreos for breakfast).

We got into Quincy, California, late on the evening of August 29, 2019. After eating  fried chicken, potato salad, and ice cream at the local grocery store, our thoughts turned to where we were going to sleep that night. We had to wait for the post office to open the next morning to get our resupply box. The sun was going down and our options were dwindling.

A kind man and his dog stopped to chat with us as we loitered outside the grocery store. He mentioned that he was a former thru-hiker on the PCT. We had a wonderful conversation, but in the end he kindly said he just didn’t have room to invite all of us to stay with him (or even to crash on his lawn). There was a church nearby, so we decided to sleep on their lawn. At 2 a.m. the sprinklers turned on, so we quickly moved the dumpster and set up our sleeping bags behind the walls. It ended up being a great night’s sleep, a funny memory/story from our trail life, and cost us nothing.

The following three photos are from the two nights we slept in a baseball dugout near Dunsmuir, California. Once again, we couldn’t find a place to stay in town because it was a holiday weekend. We were in limbo because we were waiting to hear from hikers ahead of us if it would be safe to take our family on the trail between here and Etna. Due to the extremely high snow year, we were doing our best to take precautions.  A storm was rolling in, and we knew we would be getting rain/snow the next two days. Thinking the dugout would be a safe place to hide from the elements, we hunkered down. Unfortunately, when the rain hit, the dugout flooded. We can look back now and laugh (Type 2 fun).

Budget for Trail Life

A common idea on the PCT is that a hiker will spend about $1,000 per month. Our goal was to spend half that, $500 per person/month; this included life and medical insurance. Planning a budget on paper before a hike is necessary, but one must also factor in uncertainties. When you are on the trail your ability to wait for a good deal or shop around for the best price can be limited.

Trekking poles break, tent zippers fail, shorts rip, shoe sizes change, and those backup pairs you had waiting back at home no longer fit. The trail does provide, though! We encountered hiker boxes with a much needed pair of gloves, or jar of Nutella, and even a backpack. There was one time the trail provided a live fish! Honestly, I have no clue how it got there but we picked it up and ran it about 300 feet back to the river and watched it swim away. We do not need the trail to provide fish unless it’s packaged, preferably in olive oil.

We liked hiking in Altra trail runners and found that the Olympus model lasted about 30% longer than the Lone Pine and Timp models. The soles are just that much thicker and adding a Superfeet insole was a great rock guard. Plus, it stretched the mileage just a little bit more. Companies like Big Agnes and Zpacks were great with warranties for some gear we had problems with. It is so nice working with people who understand the need for general delivery. Especially to some random town with a fairly specific time frame. Kudos to those guys!

Trail Angels of All Varieties

Finding bomber gear and buying food at the best prices helps keep the wallet from shrinking too fast. We feel fortunate that all six of us made it down the trail without having to visit a doctor. However, we did call a few. Many trail angels invited us to stay with them, offering rides, and providing meals. This was a huge blessing and a relief to the stretched budget.

We honestly thought we would try to hike the trail on our own and be as self-sufficient as possible. We had heard hikers were being needy and overly demanding and we didn’t want to be part of that problem. Instead we found some of the most amazing people, graciously, and selflessly offering help to us along the way. These amazing altruistic people were a highlight of our journey. I can’t imagine how much it would have cost us if every hitch was instead an Uber.  Or how many extra miles our kids happily and speedily hiked down the trail hearing there was trail magic ahead. Thank you trail angels!

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