Paying for a Thru-Hike: How Do Those Crazy Kids Do It?

Another day, another thru-hiker hitting the trail. I’ve heard it said that there are generally two groups of people who can manage this: 20-somethings still riding the high of youth and retired 60-somethings who finally have the chance to follow their dreams. Regardless of their age, it is a curiosity as to how thru-hikers can afford to take five to six months off of work for this long-haul adventure.

While I do not know the universal secret to paying for a six-month escape to the woods, here’s how I am making it happen. First, I’d like to acknowledge the privilege it is to have the resources and time to pursue a dream like thru-hiking the AT. I have worked hard to make this dream a reality, but I am incredibly grateful for a supportive family and financial freedom. More on that later.

Indy KOA! My favorite seasonal job!!

How I’m Doing It

I graduated college in the spring of 2023 and immediately moved home, returning to my summer job. I worked at the Indianapolis KOA Holiday campground through to the end of the season (November). I loved this experience because I got to meet travelers every day. Hearing their stories has inspired me to get out and explore the country for myself. November-December I spent visiting friends and family in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. By the time January rolled around, I knew I only had a few months until I would be leaving the state for my thru-hike, so I wondered what employment could look like. Simply put, I asked God for work, and I started painting my parents’ house. Through a Facebook post, He provided two months of odd jobs, ranging from interior painting and housekeeping to dogsitting and babysitting. Still living at home with my family, I purchased gear and planned for my thru-hike between jobs. I also had time to put in some training hikes, including a five-day shakedown on the Knobstone Trail in southern Indiana.

Hiker by day, cleaner by night

Between working at the campground and odd jobs, I saved about $10,000. In preparation for the trail, I spent around $750 on gear. You can find my Gear List here. My planned budget includes a $1,200 emergency fund and $5,000 for town expenses, food, permits, etc.

Too Long, Didn’t Read

Long story short, here’s how I’m doing it:

  • seasonal, short-term jobs
  • cutting expenses by living with family
  • living frugally to preserve finances for the trail
  • purchasing used gear and using gear I already own

Is this an option for everyone? No. Is this one way to do it? Yes.

A Few Thoughts for Aspiring Thru-Hikers

Regardless of whether or not you find yourself in my position, here are a few parting thoughts.

Value and invest in relationships. These may be your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, caretakers, chosen family, or friends. Building a community is not only about ensuring that there are people in your corner, but valuing and cherishing others because they are beloved beings. Someday these people may serve as your ride to the trailhead, emergency contact, resupply package mailers, or short-term housing, but that shouldn’t even be your primary goal. We are relational creatures, made to live in community with one another. Even if you’re like me, always unsure of how long you’ll be in one place, the people you find in front of you are worth your time, attention, and love.

My biggest supporters!

Live frugally so you can afford the extreme. Over 75% of aspiring thru-hikers do not complete their trail as intended. While the reasons are vast, personal, and complicated, finances can be a factor. I am aware that I will not have any sources of income as I hike for the next six months. Planning ahead, creating a budget based on other thru-hiker estimates, and saving for an emergency fund are all steps I have taken to prevent finances from taking me off the trail. Every day, I make choices to limit my spending and consumption. When you know you need $400 for five pairs of trail shoes, it’s easier to forgo spending $5 a day on coffee (or in my case, matcha lattes). Turns out, I am willing to sacrifice the immediate-gratification purchases now to ensure that I can pay for this once in a lifetime adventure.

Good thing hiking is cheap… right?

Don’t write a thru-hike off as something you could never afford! Pursuing your dreams may be a slow, rocky road, but sacrifice, determination, and patience might just pay off in the end. Think long term and be willing to take the road less traveled.

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Comments 8

  • Homeward : Mar 22nd

    Emily, such wisdom you demonstrate! Life lessons all around! Looking forward to reliving my 2016 thruhike as I follow along.
    God bless!

    • Emilia Grunden : Apr 3rd

      Thank you, Homeward! I appreciate your support!

  • Бетон в Новоалтайске : Mar 22nd

    Nice article. You are a good author. It was a pleasure to read.

  • Business client relationship management : Mar 22nd

    Fantastic site A lot of helpful info here Im sending it to some buddies ans additionally sharing in delicious And naturally thanks on your sweat

  • Daniel Gensemer : Mar 24th

    Great post! It’s good to see how much thought you put into this! – Harmonica

  • Emilia Grunden : Apr 3rd

    It was great to meet you, Harmonica! Hope you’re enjoying the trail!!

  • Connie K : Apr 5th

    Go Emilia! Go God! Although just now getting to catch up with you, I am in awe of the adventure with God you are on! Btw – when you return I know Es will have coffee (or matcha) ready for you but so will we!! Proud of you! Praying for you!

  • Sherry Rouse : Apr 17th

    Great post! I think you’re going to do well!


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