The Time and Money Needed for a Thru-hike
The hardest part of thru-hiking, besides the actual act of hiking, is finding the time and money to make it happen. In this post, I will cover how much time and money my thru-hike required, as well as some methods I used to keep under budget.
Start date: March 21st
End date: September 17th
Time spent off-trail for surgery and recovery: 16 days
Total number of days on-trail (with zeros but excluding surgery): 165 days
Number of zeros: 12
Average miles/day with zeros: 13.3 mi/day
Shortest day: 3.5 miles (hiked on the day I had norovirus to get me to the nearest road)
Longest day: 26.7 miles (hiked in Virginia near Bear Garden Hostel where the owner baked a cake for anyone who hiked a marathon and stayed that night)
Thoughts On My Start Date
I intentionally chose my start date with the knowledge that I would be inside of a hiker bubble. I wanted to have other hikers around so I could begin to experience the hiker community as well as have people around in case I needed help.
In the beginning, I often camped at very crowded campsites and shelters, but once I reached Virginia, the bubble began to dilute and I was able to find more secluded campsites. I definitely got used to being around a very small group of people—when I began to hit a SOBO bubble and hikers of the Long Trail, I felt very overwhelmed despite there being fewer people than I encountered at the beginning of the trail.
I only arrived at a shelter or campsite to find it completely full twice—on Day Two at Gooch Mountain Shelter, and on Day 161 at Logan Brook Lean-to. I occasionally camped at very crowded sites, but these were the only occasions when I arrived to find it too full to set up my tent or sleeping pad in the shelter.
Despite being very busy, I would definitely recommend future aspiring thru-hikers to begin in March because, in my experience, it allows for the most ideal weather. I did encounter a non-continuous few weeks of 17-degree nights and did get lightly snowed on a few times, but with my gear, I never spent a night cold and was able to stay warm during the day by hiking for the most part. This start date also gave me plenty of time to finish before the cold returned up north, even with a few weeks off in the middle for surgery.
It’s not a race!
So many hikers get caught up in comparing daily milage on their way to Katahdin. They boast about doing lots of 25- and 30-mile days, and good for them. But that is not at ALL required to successfully thru-hike the AT.
I did exactly two 25+ mile days throughout my whole hike. I found that my happy pace was 18-22 mi/day for about 3-4 days in a row, followed by a shorter day of 12-16. This might sound like a lot, but when you’re hiking all day every day and that’s all you have to do that day, it’s really not. I know people who went much faster than me and finished. And I also know a lot of people who went much slower than me and finished.
Don’t get sucked into the idea that you have to hike huge 25-30 mile days to thru-hike.
Don’t let people convince you that you’ll never finish in time if you’re going at a slower pace.
Last one to Katahdin wins.
I’m not sure how much I spent on gear prior to my thru-hike, so those expenditures won’t be factored in here. But I will say that I didn’t pay full price for a single piece of gear. A few things I received as Christmas presents, and a few I’ve had for years. But for most of my gear–including my tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad–I got on sale at REI. Which helped me save A TON. But on to how I spent once I began my hike.
Before hitting the trail, my research indicated that once on trail (so excluding pre-trail gear purchases), most hikers spend about $2-4 per mile for a total of about $4400-8800. This is what I based my budget on.
While on trail, I spent money on many different things:
- Resupply about 1-2 times per week
- A restaurant meal about 2-6 times per week
- Lodging about 0-1 times per week
- A few small gear purchases
- 1 pair of socks
- 1 trekking pole
- CNOC water bag
- 2 pairs of shoes (I used 3 pairs total, one bought prior to the start of my hike)
In total, I spent $4090, for an average of about $740 per month. Which was well under my budget.
Five ways I found to save money:
- Do In-and-Outs. If you go in and out of town in one day, you can resupply and eat a restaurant meal without paying for lodging. Lots of town access points have places right before or after them where you can camp on trail, so you can go into town first thing in the morning or in the evening, giving you a whole day to hike.
- Stay at hostels when possible. Hostels become very scarce once you reach Maryland, and don’t return in high frequency until about Vermont. But they are pretty amazing places, so take advantage when you can. A cheap hotel room with two double beds is typically about $80-90 and doesn’t include laundry (most hotels have coin-operated laundry for about $5). A bunk at a hostel is usually $25-35, including laundry. Or for about $10 more you can usually get a private room.
- Split hotel rooms when hostels aren’t available. The mid-Atlantic and southern New England states don’t have many hostels, if any. But an $80-90 hotel room split four ways comes to about $20-25, so long as you’re cool sleeping in a bed with people you’ve known for a very short amount of time.
- Don’t buy alcohol. I know this is going to be an unpopular piece of advice. But alcohol is pricey. It’s also not great for your body’s recovery, but that’s beside the point. My dinner checks were typically MUCH cheaper than my friends simply because I didn’t buy alcohol.
- Do your gear research pre-trail. I replaced 2 pieces of gear while on trail. One was my trekking pole because Mt. Moosilauke killed it, and the other was my Sawyer Micro Squeeze filter system because I found the Sawyer Original + CNOC bag to be far superior. But I was completely satisfied with every other piece of gear because I did a ton of research. Some hikers have a higher budget on trail because they’re having to replace more gear as they go. Stuff is going to break, and there’s always going to be something you aren’t happy with. But you can minimize this by doing lots of research.
So those are my thoughts and experience on the time and money a thru-hike requires. I am only one hiker, so of course, my experience will not perfectly match anyone else’s. But I hope that my experience at least serves as a launching point for anyone planning their own hike. If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comments.
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