How to Finance a Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike
One of life’s biggest stressors—both on and off the trail—is money. Don’t bring that stress with you during a thru-hike, or at least try to minimize the impact. Running out of money will end your adventure, so read on for our guide to financing a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike.
How Much Does Hiking the PCT Cost?
This most frequently asked question is also one of the hardest to answer. Running out of money is one of the leading reasons people cite for not completing the trail. But how much a thru-hike costs is hugely dependent on the choices you make both before and during your hike. Gear choices, transportation to the trail, lodging options, and food choices can vary greatly in cost. Most hikers report about $1,000 per month of on-trail costs, and on average hikers take five to six months to hike the PCT, so it’s probably a good idea to save at least $5,000 to ensure you have enough money to complete the trail. Keep in mind this is just an average. It’s not unheard of to spend over $10,000, nor is it unheard of to hike on under $3,000. And it’s a lot easier to spend more money than it is to spend less.
I highly recommend making and following a budget for your hike. This way, no matter what you’ve saved, you have a plan to make your money last. When my husband and I hiked the Appalachian Trail, we had no budget, and we spent about $7,500 per person. On the PCT and CDT, we followed a budget and tracked every expense. We spent less than $3,500 per person on the PCT and even less than that on the CDT. To put it another way, we hiked BOTH the PCT AND the CDT for less money combined than we spent on the AT alone. This is why I recommend a budget.
Saving Money Before the Trail
Saving money can be hard, but with a little discipline and a lot of frugality, you can do it. By tracking your expenses, you can evaluate where you can cut costs in your daily life. I recommend making a budget to help you stay on track, set goals, and watch your progress. There are lot of online tools that can help you, like this one.
Probably the easiest thing you can do to start saving money is to make your savings automatic. Take a certain percentage or dollar amount from your paycheck and have it direct-deposited to a savings account. Because you never even see the money, it’s as if you never had it and it’s a lot easier not to touch it. Online savings accounts typically also have much better interest rates than most (all) brick-and -mortar banks.
Make Your Own Food and Coffee
With a little bit of planning, you can save tons of money making your own food and coffee. I recommend using a day off to make a few big batches of food for the week and divide them up so you can grab-and-go. Taking your lunch to work can save anywhere from $5-$10 per day, if not more. Purchasing a cup of coffee every day is also a huge drain on your finances. Just a $2 cup of coffee five days a week adds up to over $500 over the course of a year. $500 goes a LONG way on the trail.
Ride Your Bike
If you’ve got a bike around, use it. Not only will you save gas money, you’ll be getting some physical training in during your commute as well. Or walk to work, ride the bus, or find a carpool. All of these things aren’t just good for your wallet. They also help the environment, traffic, and your mental health.
Buy your booze at the grocery store and have your friends over for board games and nachos. Better yet, cut down on drinking overall.
Reduce Unnecessary Bills
Cable is an unnecessary bill for a person trying to save money. Switch to a streaming service for a fraction of the cost. Better yet, find someone who loves you enough to let you share their account. Insulate your windows to cut heating costs. Turn off the lights. Unplug appliances that are not in use. Planning a year or more out? Find a cheaper place to live. Move closer to work. Research internet and mobile phone plans to see if you can cut costs with a new provider or different plan.
Increase Your Income
Pick up some extra shifts. Get a side hustle. Sell your crap. Check out r/beermoney for ways to make a little side cash online.
The trail itself is cheap (towns are the real money-suck), and it only costs about $10-$15 per day to stay fed out there. So, every time you spend $10, you’re losing a day on the trail. Remember this next time you’re tempted to swing by Starbucks or hit the bar after work.
Saving Money During Your Hike
Saving money isn’t just an exercise for before your hike. If you’re serious about finishing, you need to stay frugal the entire trip. You never know what unexpected costs may pop up, and you want to be prepared. Plus, your life after the trail will be a lot less stressful if you have money left over when you get home. Here are some tips to help you save money while on the trail.
There are many trail angels on the PCT, and they want to help you. While you’ll surely encounter many trail angels in spontaneous moments along the trail, many of these angels are part of a Facebook Group called PCT Trail Angels. Join the group, and you can reach out when you need assistance such as a ride or a place to stay. You’ll probably get what you need there. There is also a list of PCT angels online, found here. Remember that when you are with a trail angel, you are representing all the hikers on the trail. Complete strangers are being generous for no other reason than they think you’re pretty cool. Be respectful. Be thankful. Don’t take advantage of people and don’t ask trail angels for money (see above for tips on saving money). Also, be safe.
Free and Cheap Camping
There are tons of options for free and donation-based camping in towns on the PCT. Always ask around before booking a hotel. Local campgrounds usually offer cheap camping with laundry and showers available.
Here are a few examples:
- In Wrightwood, CA, the local hardware store keeps a list of trail angels who are willing to host hikers.
- The Andersons at Casa de Luna and the Saufleys at Hiker Heaven offer a multitude of hiker services and free camping at their expense. You should stay at both, and you should also donate a few bucks.
- The local church in Chester, CA, allows camping in the backyard. They also provide a porta-potty, a charging station, and pretty nice hiker box. Donations are encouraged. Showers are available at the local laundromat.
- Shasta Base Camp in Mount Shasta allows free camping behind the store. There is a bathroom with outlets.
- Etna, CA, allows camping in the city park, which also has showers and outlets. Laundry is available in town.
- There are a multitude of lakeside resorts in Oregon that offer a variety of services, from holding resupply boxes, showers, bathrooms, swimming, camping, and more (not all services are free). Shelter Cove, Elk Lake, Big Lake Youth Camp, and Olallie Lake all provide hiker services.
Send Resupply Boxes to Washington
Most of the resupply points in Washington are close to the trail but groceries are typically limited and expensive. It will save a lot of money to send yourself resupply boxes through Washington. We took time off in Portland to go shopping and mail our boxes ahead. You could also do this from Bend or have someone from home send you some premade boxes.
Stock Your Resupply Boxes with Food to Eat in Town
It can save a lot of money to pack snacks in your resupply boxes to eat in town, especially in places like Kennedy Meadows or Shelter Cove, where food options are limited and expensive.
Don’t Forget About Hiker Boxes
Before you shop, always check the hiker boxes. If you want to go extreme, you could probably resupply entirely from the overloaded hiker boxes in places like Warner Springs and Kennedy Meadows, and even VVR or Muir Trail Ranch during the right season. You’ll be eating a lot of oatmeal and mashed potatoes if you go this route, though.
Yogi It Up!
There are a few spots on the PCT with tons of weekend backpackers. The Sierra (depending on the month and conditions), Oregon, and parts of Washington are very busy in the summertime. All of those backpackers with their huge packs would LOVE to offload some of their excess weight, and they’d also love to help out a thru-hiker. Mention you’re light on food, and chances are you’ll be offered more than you even want to carry. It’s a Yogi’s paradise out there.
Avoid Bars/Take Advantage of Kitchens
Remember how cooking at home and avoiding bars can help save money before the trail? It helps on the trail, too. If it is ever available, get a hotel room with a kitchenette and go to the grocery store. Use the kitchens at the hostels. And you can always get your beer at the market instead of the bar to save money on trail.
Check for a Thru-Hiker Discount
You never know. And don’t just presume they can tell you’re a hiker. It never hurts to ask for a hiker discount.
Nero In/Out of Town
Especially in towns where showers and laundry are available, it saves the most money to avoid staying overnight at all and just nero in and out of town. (Nero means “nearly zero” in trail lingo.) Camp a few miles out of town and hitch in in the morning. Charge your electronics, take a shower and do laundry, eat some town food and loiter around, then hike on a couple of miles and set up camp. It still feels like a rest day, but you save a lot of money.
Yes, it’s a pain in the ass (and the wallet), but you’re voluntarily embarking on a risky endeavor, so be an adult and get yourself insured. While I’ve been lucky enough to avoid trip-ending injuries along the Triple Crown, I’ve fallen more times than I can count, sprained my wrist, and gotten Giardia. Self-arresting down a steep snow slope, I got a terrible ice burn on my leg/butt. I’ve also sustained overuse injuries in my knee, hip, and ankle. I’ve suffered from altitude sickness. And one time, in a hitch with no seat belts, the driver ran off the road and nearly overturned the vehicle. My point is: you should have health insurance.
My husband and I were insured through the ACA marketplace for the entire Triple Crown. The enrollment process can be long, but subsidies are based on your expected income for the year. You should go through the entire enrollment process to see if you qualify for subsidies or Medicaid. If you live in a state that refused the ACA Medicaid expansion (mostly in the South), you might find yourself in the “coverage gap” and not qualify for either. Look into other insurance options if this is the case. For the rest of us, ACA plans can be quite reasonable.
Saving on Gear
The latest and greatest pieces of gear are also usually the most expensive. Avoid these common pitfalls when researching and buying your gear.
Don’t Pay Top Dollar for High-Tech Clothing
You’ve probably noticed how expensive Merino wool is. And comfortable. You might not be aware of how quickly Merino gets holes. Like, first time in the dryer quickly. Or a few days of rubbing against your hipbelt quickly. Even synthetics can be overpriced. The $30 Under Armour shirt I started the AT with had holes by mile 200. The $5 Walmart shirt I replaced it with never got holes. You could also visit an outlet. I got a long-sleeved, hooded sun shirt for the CDT and spandex shorts with a long inseam at the Columbia and North Face outlets for a collective total of $25. They lasted the entire trail. Similarly, your rain jacket will eventually wet out whether it cost $20 or $200. Be smart about your purchases and do some research before you drop a bunch of cash.
Get Last Season’s Colors and Models on Sale
You’ll go through some shoes on your hike. If this is your first time, don’t buy a bunch of shoes ahead of time. Chances are very high that you’ll go up a size, or that you’ll want to try some different shoes. Many shoe companies release their shoe updates around early summer. This means that the old models go on sale. Always look for old models. You’ll save 30%-60% on the cost.
Use What You Have, and Don’t Replace Things Right Away
If you’ve got the gear, use it. Wait to upgrade until you’ve been on trail a few hundred miles. You’ll be more in tune with what features you want, you’ll be certain of your resolve to actually hike the whole trail, and you are less likely to make a purchase you’ll regret.
Reduce Your Gear First
If you’re trying to go ultralight, don’t just go out and buy the lightest everything. It’s crazy expensive and mostly unnecessary. The first and most important way to reduce the weight in your pack is to carry less. Getting rid of extraneous gear costs nothing. Then you can start shopping for lighter gear.
Make/Repair Your Own Gear
Start simple, with a project like gaiters or stuff sacks. Maybe try a tarp or go bold and make your own quilt or sleeping bag. Not only does making your own gear save money, but you’ll be really proud of yourself, too. Look online for free patterns, or pay a little extra for a kit. Also, performing quick repairs in the field can greatly increase the life of your gear. We always carry a needle and heavy-duty thread to patch holes in our packs and clothes, and a patch kit for our tent and sleeping pad. They work.
Financial Preparations Checklist
Don’t forget to get your ducks in a row before you depart for the trail. Here is a checklist to help you get started:
- Talk to your doctor and make a plan for getting your prescriptions.
- Cancel any subscriptions you won’t use. Netflix, gym membership, etc.
- Car insurance: Call your provider to look into cheaper coverage while your car is in storage.
- Call your bank to alert them you’ll be traveling. This way, the bank won’t freeze your cards due to suspicious activity.
- Check your cards and request a new one if any will expire while you’re on trail. Getting cards forwarded to you is a pain. Take care of it ahead of time.
- Keep a backup credit card for emergencies and use a credit card, not a debit card, for online purchases. (Credit cards have more consumer protections, not to mention rewards points.) When I had fraudulent activity on my card, I had to cancel it and wait for a new one. Having a backup card is important in a situation like that. But pay your card off each month. Don’t waste money paying interest.
- Set up auto-pay for any recurring bills. One less thing to worry about.
- Pay your taxes! #adulting. Plus, this is how you get health care subsidies through the ACA. You’ll probably get a refund, too. The deadline in mid-April, so get it done before you leave for the trail.
- Make arrangements with your home base point person. It’s a good idea to leave a person back home with a little money, any gear you think you might need sent to you, and your general itinerary. You’ll probably have to rely on them for help at some point or another.
There are hundreds of online articles out there with ideas for saving money, and you should look at some of them and take away what works for you. Some of my old favorites are Mr. Money Mustache and this Tedx Talk from Man v. Debt. A lot of people think that affording a thru-hike is unattainable, but it’s actually quite cheap compared to “normal” living. It just requires a reframing of priorities. If you make the hike your priority, you will make it happen. Make a few sacrifices now for the experience of a lifetime in the near future. It’s worth it.
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