A Penny Saved Is a Penny Earned. Tips for Saving Money for a Thru-Hike.

Becoming a wandering vagabond is not cheap. I have realized this over the past two years of planning for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. While doing research online I found that the average cost is about $1,000 a month. So for me, planning to take about six months to complete I would need right around $6,000.  This amount does not include gear purchases prior to leaving. It also obviously does not include any outstanding debt or bills that you will be responsible for when you get home. Saving money is definitely hard for those who live paycheck to paycheck, but running out of money on the trail is one of the top reasons that people are forced to leave the trail earlier than they expected. In this post I will detail what I did to save money but obviously everyone’s financial situations are different.

Start Saving Early

I decided to give myself plenty of time to prepare for this hike. I was married in September 2016 and started saving in January 2017 for a planned start date of Feb. 28, 2018. This gave me 13 months to save as much money as possible. I went to my bank and set up a savings account and created a Google calendar that showed when all of my bills were due and when my paychecks were deposited. This allowed me to see exactly what bills were due with each paycheck and allowed me to set a realistic goal of how much I could save with each paycheck.  I made a goal of saving $800 a month – $300 with one paycheck, $500 with the other – which would accumulate to about $10,400 without any extra amounts of saving.

Accumulate Gear Slowly to Help Offset Cost

Having about two years to buy gear made it easier to deal with cost-wise. Backpacks, tents, sleeping bags; each is the cost of a monthly car payment and buying all of these things at once can be financially terrifying. I have spent around $2,000 on gear total but spreading that out over a long time made it easier for me to handle. Whenever I had some extra money left over after saving, paying bills, buying groceries, I would buy a piece of gear that I needed.  I would also google when REI had its yearly big sales (their anniversary sale is in May 2018, they also have sales around Memorial Day, 4th of July, and others) and wait for coupons in the mail and time out my big purchases to help save some money. Speaking of REI…

Become an REI Member

The first gear purchase I made was a co-op membership at REI. It is a one-time $20 fee but the perks are endless. I made $45 just by buying things at REI with my yearly member dividend, which I could use to buy more gear. I get several sets of coupons in the mail and via email throughout the year. I also was able to participate in the few garage sales that REI puts on during the year when it  sells used gear at a highly discounted price.  I also applied, and got approved for, the REI Mastercard, which immediately got me a $100 gift card and 5 percent more back on my gear purchases there.  REI is definitely the powerhouse company for purchasing gear. Even if you plan on getting some of your gear through smaller companies, the REI membership will pay for itself.

Make Your Trip Your No. 1  Priority

I love shopping for clothes, going out to eat, having drinks with friends, and going on weekend trips – but I put my thru-hike at the top of my list of priorities and that meant missing out on a few things. I haven’t bought non-hiking-related clothing since I started saving. I have had to ask friends if we could do drinks and dinner at home instead of at a restaurant or bar – because it is cheaper. I also brown bagged it to work every. single. day. so I wouldn’t be tempted to waste cash on ordering lunch.   All of my friends were very understanding of this because they knew how much this hike means to me. I would be more upset if I ran out of money 500 miles from finishing rather than not being able to buy a new dress for a friend’s wedding or not ordering a crafty cocktail at a bar. To accomplish a dream you must make sacrifices. So for me this meant sacrificing a few luxuries in order to have the luxury of quitting my job and venturing off into the mountains.

Know What Bills You Will Be Responsible for While You Are Away

I am in a two-income household and my husband relies on my income for our mortgage, gas, electric, water, cable, etc. We have an agreed amount that I give him each month for bills and although I will not be living at this home for six months the money I usually give to him is still needed to keep everything rolling. So I took that into consideration while saving.  I also have my own personal bills that will be auto-deducted from my checking account. Things such as YouTube Red, Audible, my Verizon bill. These bills are not included in the $1,000-a-month average cost of a thru-hike – so be mindful that these costs will need to be accounted for as well. It might help to list them all on a Google or word doc.  Things like car insurance could be discounted if you are storing or parking your car somewhere. My plan personally went from $70 to $11 a  month so this is additional money I get to include in my hiking budget. Go through your monthly bills and contact them because they may be able to freeze your account or give you discounts for services you are not or rarely using. It absolutely does no hurt to call and ask.

Create a Realistic Budget Guideline

Even if you have everything accounted for you may want to create a weekly budget to stick to while you are on the trail in order to help curb overspending. To do this you will need to decide on a few things. Will you resupply on the fly or send yourself resupply boxes? Do you like to have a beer or four while in town? How often do you plan on taking a zero or sleeping in a real bed? How much spending money do you give yourself in your real life back at home? Answering these questions honestly will help you in creating a budget. For me I will resupply on the fly, have a couple drinks here and there while in town, sleep in a hostel bunk once a week or every other and I am budgeting about $230 a week, with about $110 of that for food resupply. There are several great blog posts on this site that go into a budgeting plan in detail.  I also have extra cushion money for a flight home, emergencies, and money for when I return to hold me over before finding a new job.

Saving Can Be Stressful… But You Can Do It

Honestly, it can be a little overwhelming to plan for a trip like this. It was one of my biggest stressors while planning. But I really just did the basics and it has worked out great. I opened a savings account, created a Google calendar for my bills, made some trail decisions and made some sacrifices, listed my expenses, and saved some money. I did not create an elaborate spreadsheet to try to account for every aspect of my trip because there is no way for me to plan exactly what I will do or what will happen for the entire time frame of the hike – but hey, if spreadsheets are your thing, go for it. The bottom line is to obviously save as much money as possible and to make sure that your responsibilities are taken care of while you are gone.

Some people only bring $2,000, some bring $10,000. Some people have families, mortgages, and partners back at home that need extra saving for, others are straight out of college or living with parents.  No matter what you just have to be realistic about your spending habits while out there. Everyone’s financial situation is different but I hope that I was able to give you a tip or two for taking on the task of saving for your dream. Happy trails.


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Comments 3

  • Avatar
    Chris Guynn : Feb 10th

    making the list of bills really helped me a lot . I was able to eliminate some and reduce others before I went on my hike.

  • Avatar
    Dixie : Feb 17th

    Hi Rachel!

    I am a 57 year old happily married woman, recently unemployed. Our daughter and her two small children recently moved in with us. Needless to say, our money is stretched! I am going to hike the AT northbound, and solo, next Spring. Reading posts that say it will cost about $6,000 to hike it has me worried. I know the cost of returning home will be a big expense, but how can I reduce the cost of the hike itself? It will likely be my only hike that I will need “specialized” equipment, so it’s not like an investment for future hikes. Do I HAVE to get the best tent, backpack, etc.? I totally understand the importance of weight, but will cheaper equipment sustain me for the long haul? In other words, does it have to be REI equipment?


    • Avatar
      Rachael Upchurch : Feb 17th

      Hi Dixie! There will be alot of posts that say it costs $6000 mostly because that is the average that the AT conservancy says it costs, however, many have done it for alot less. You could absolutely do it for less if you have a weekly budget set up and track your expenses while you are out there. Stick to the budget and you will be able to go all the way to Maine with whatever money you have saved up. From my research going in to town and spending time in them is what sucks the money up, not the actual hiking or food resupply. So avoiding expensive zero days, not drinking in bars, and skipping eating some meals at restaurants are all ways to save money as well. As far as gear, the more expensive stuff is definitely lighter. Sometimes by pounds. But there are definitely other options to save some cash. Walmart has an excellent outdoor camping selection and getting things like stuff sacks, dry sacks, your water bladder, and your clothing from there instead of an expensive store won’t make much difference weight Wise and would be equally cheap to replace if it didn’t hold up. I got a few really great items at Walmart (3 pack of dry sacks for a quarter of the price of ONE sea to summit dry sack for example). Also check out eBay or put out posts on your social media to ask friends If they have any used gear you could purchase from them. You’d be surprised how many people have some lightweight tents or sleeping bags laying around. I hope this helps a little!


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