The Frugal Thru Hiker: A Few Tips on How to Stretch the Dollar on the Trail

Just to get this off the table, this isn’t an article about budgeting before hitting the trail. I would be absolutely horrible in providing such advice since I invest a good amount of green in most of my gear. It’s just how I roll! Light and sturdy are my personal preferences which usually costs more, but I digress. If you’re looking into how to pinch pennies while you are actually on the trail, I can be of better service! Here are just a few tips on saving some loot during your thru hike.

CLEANLINESS

  • Utilize Nature – Bring some Eco-Friendly soap (ie. Dr. Bronner’s) for occasionally washing your clothes (and yourself) on the trail. Just make sure you use all soap products at least 200 feet from a water source.
  • Take a Sink – Not advised since it may piss off some motel/hotel staff, but you can wash clothes in the sink. The downfall is it will take a while to dry if you don’t have access to sunlight and air flow. You can also do a little “self cleansing” so to speak in public restrooms.
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Behold!

  • Lower Your Standards – This is something that many people worry about prior to thru hiking, but most of those individuals quickly learn it’s part of the experience to just not shower all that often. You stink, but so does everyone else, so who cares! Embrace that Stank! It’s the hiker trash way.

FOOD

  • Grocery Food Over Restaurant Food – Stick to eating out of your food bag and getting your fill of fresh goodies from the grocery store rather than splurging at restaurants, which will likely be more expensive.
  • Hiker Boxes – You will find these throughout hiker towns, especially at motels/hostels and outfitters. Dig through those suckers to snag that re-supply people didn’t feel like carrying or got extremely sick of eating.
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“WHAT’S IN THE BOX?!!”

  • Hiker Feeds – Some communities near the trail offer you free grub simply for being a hiker. You likely will see flyers for hiker feeds along the trail, and can partake if you time it wisely. Churches in trail towns also frequently advertise hiker feeds in high season (Oh Franklin, my Franklin, and your glorious pancake breakfast!).
  • Trail Magic – You will be exposed to a lot of free food and drinks, especially in the South along the A.T. Embrace this! Eat plenty, perhaps even take some to go. Your food in your food bag can wait ‘weight’.
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Wonderful food from some fantastic “Trail Magicians” at Shook Branch Rec. Area, TN. Thank you Granny and Old Goat, wherever you are!

  • Be “Drop Box” Wise – If you have a special diet, or are just picky and proud, hats off to you! Food drops include postage though, and like most people, you may realize you’re sick of what you mailed yourself and/or realized you mailed ahead too much. If you send it to post offices, rather than hostels and outfitters, and use priority mail, you can bump the box ahead to another post office for free.
  • Lower Your Standards – I get it! I eat really, really healthy when I’m at home, and wouldn’t dare think about stepping foot inside a McDonald’s or eating loads of processed foods while I’m there. In the name of the all mighty dollar, however, junk is king and far cheaper. Besides, you’re gonna be burning calories faster than a fat kid on a water slide (apologies to fat children everywhere)!

GEAR

  • Raid Hiker Boxes – Your gear will likely break, wear in, and/or get damaged along the way. Some people ditch unwanted gear (not just food), in hiker boxes, and you can adopt lonely gear in need. Note: sometimes people ditch broken/damaged gear, so proceed with caution, unless you’re the fixer upper type.
  • Trail Days – If hiking the A.T., try to make it to Damascus, Virginia for their annual celebration in mid-May. You can likely get your gear repaired rather than buying new machinery. There are also gear representatives for many brands who may be able to cut you a deal, or possibly even exchange damaged belongings for grand spanking new swag at no cost to you. There are also raffles for gear to be won if you were born lucky. Also worth noting, you can likely get free laundry done, free showers, free haircuts, and free food during Trail Days too.
  • Lower Your Standards – Two words, “Duct Tape.”
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“Yep, that’ll do!” (credit: Thirteen of Clubs)

SHELTER

  • Neros over Zeros – Limit your days off. Instead of staying in town, do what you got to do and get out of there before those creature comforts get too tempting.
  • Zero in a Shelter – Body feeling battered? Instead of taking a day of rest in town, stay for free in a shelter. Some shelters are near roads to town so you can do what you got to do, then crash as soon as you return.
  • Make Like a Sardine – Split rooms with several other hikers and cram in that sucker in order to get the cheapest rate. Modesty is dead. Just make sure you have permission by the motel/hotel owner; respect that you’re paying for their services. You’re not the first one to try to pull a fast one on them; they are watching you.
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Delicious trail food I might add. Just kidding. Gross.

  • Free Places to Stay – Some towns may provide free camping areas strictly for hikers to set up shop. You may also be lucky enough to be offered a free place to stay the night if you’re friendly with the locals.
  • Work for Stay – Some hostel owners will let you stay for free if you lend a helping hand.
  • Lower Your Standards – “Roach Class” over “First Class” is one way to budget, although not necessarily the popular choice for everyone.
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“Come along, Gary! We’re going on an adventure!”

OTHER TIPS

  • Hitch Hike or Use Free Shuttles – The cheapest way to get in town is in your hands, literally. Shuttles will usually cost you, but sometimes hostels will provide free shuttle services if you stay a night with them.
  • Bank Wisely – An awesome budget trick I learned while traveling abroad is that some big banks and investment companies will waive ATM fees (usually due to the fact that they don’t have any ATMs available to use), when you open a checking account through them. Do your homework on this, since different companies have different policies. In my super biased opinion, Charles Schwab is my boy!
  • Location Matters on the A.T. – The further north you go; the more expensive things will cost you. Keep this in mind. This is one benefit for SOBOers.
  • Stay Focused – Don’t get too caught up in the party atmosphere. Along the A.T. in high season, Georgia to Virginia can feel like it’s one big moving party at times and it’s easy to overdo it. I learned this the hard way!

Got any additional tips for hiking on the cheap? Feel free to leave a comment below!

 

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Comments 4

  • mike : Dec 6th

    Frugality is a worthy goal, but please follow LNT. Eco friendly soaps like Dr. Bronners or Camp Suds should not be used in creeks and streams. LNT principle #3 “Dispose of Waste Properly: To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.”

    https://lnt.org/learn/7-principles

    Reply
    • Sean : Dec 6th

      Thank you for calling that out about doing laundry in a stream. The nitrogen in the soap can screw with the water quality as it encourages an algae bloom. Use a Nalgene or a dry sack, dig a hole, and pour the water in a hole 200 feet or more away from a water source.

      Reply
  • 7-11 : Dec 7th

    Glad to hear from ya Stubbs!! sucks about the injury, wish you and frisbee all the best next year!!

    Reply
  • SQUAREPEG : Dec 7th

    All good advice. As to the grocery store, buy in bulk. Buy large containers of oatmeal and add your own flavors. I’d add trailmix that I blended myself that included among other things dehydrated fruit, cranberries, sunflour seeds and Sourpatch Kids. I would forego instant coffee packets for the smallest bottle of instant coffee I could find and the same with Gatorade, I got the small tub of Gatorade instead of the packets.
    If you use a cannister stove get the 16oz size to save money. I only used 2 x 16oz and 1 x 8oz cannister for my entire thru-hike this year cooking twice a day utilizing freezer bag cooking with my Jetboil Stove.
    ☆ For more of my hiking advice, tips and hacks gained from back to back thru-hikes of the A.T. check out my facebook page…
    => Squarepeg’s Trail Talk <=

    Reply

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