How to Hike the PCT on a Budget
Hey there, I’m Zebra. I thru-hiked the PCT NOBO in 2017 and SOBO in 2018. And I am going to give you all my tips and tricks of how to hike the PCT on a budget and still have a kick-ass time doing so.
The average thru-hiker spends $1,000 per month while hiking the PCT. I have met hikers who have spent upwards of $10,000 for the entire trail and hikers who have only spent $1,000 during their whole hike. There is no right or wrong way to hike the trail. If you have the money to splurge on hotels and steak dinners in every town and to fill up your pack with gourmet dehydrated meals, more power to ya! But if you don’t have that kind of extra money lying around, don’t worry, you can still have a very successful thru-hike.
I am here to tell you first-hand that you don’t need to take out a second mortgage on your house, deplete your entire life savings, or rob a bank to hike the PCT. In February 2016, I came home to California completely broke after living in Thailand for nine months. I told myself that I was going to hike the PCT the following spring, and I spent the next year saving enough money to buy ALL of my backpacking gear and to hike the trail.
I successfully completed that PCT hike in October of 2017, once again completely broke, and then saved enough money to turn around and hike the trail again SOBO the following year, this time really honing in on my finances on the trail and finishing with plenty of money leftover.
I am not inherently wealthy and no, I didn’t win the Mega Lotto, but I did intentionally work to save money to live out my thru-hiking dreams.
Step one is to get into the saving mindset. The hiker trash mindset. Every day leading up to the trail you have the chance to save or spend money. If you can keep your goal of saving money at the forefront of your mind, it will remind you with every decision what is at stake. You are going to have to give up some things in order to get what you want, but believe me, if it’s worth it to you, you will make it happen. And believe me, it’s worth it.
Become Your Own Personal Chef
Limit eating out. Give yourself one or two meals a week to eat out and force yourself to eat at home or bring food to work the rest of the time. Ditch Starbucks or whatever your morning java joint is. Set your alarm five minutes earlier and save yourself $7 a day for something you can make for less than $1. Instead of expensive nights out with friends, throw a potluck. Find ways to have fun without spending money. Make it a game to see just how much money you can save and how creative you can get finding free or cheap activities to do.
You Better Work, Bitch
Get a second job if you need to. Not only will this help save you money since you won’t have any free time to spend it, but it will make you even more appreciative of the carefree life once you hit the trail and have all the time in the world to be your own boss.
If you don’t have a job, go hit up some of your favorite eating or drinking establishments. Not only do servers, waiters, waitresses, and bartenders make bank in tips, but after the pandemic, the service industry is struggling to find workers.
So many businesses have moved to remote work over the past couple years. Apply for online jobs where you won’t have to spend money commuting to work, eating out, and crying at your cubicle every day.
Ditch your memberships. I definitely think being physically prepared for a thru-hike helps a ton, but if you are really on a budget, ditch the gym and hit the trails with some weight in your backpack. And there are endless free YouTube workouts you can do at home. Do you really need every single TV and movie streaming service? Probably not. Saving money can be as simple as simply doing less. Start embracing the minimalist lifestyle now and the trail won’t come as quite a shock.
Besides trail clothes, stop buying new clothes. You’re going to be wearing the same clothes on the trail every day, so I bet you can survive the next few months or a year with what you have. Call it training.
Take your time and shop deals when you start looking for gear. There are many used gear sites where you can even find ultralight gear for much cheaper than paying full retail price (Facebook Marketplace, REI Re/Supply, etc.). You don’t have to have the lowest base weight or all ultralight or name-brand gear to complete a thru-hike. Give yourself a budget, decide what your top priorities are, and plan to save a little money for gear replacements and exchanges while on trail. At the very least, you will probably need to save a few hundred dollars for shoe replacements.
Here is a great article on how to go ultralight for under $1,000.
Unless you have some kind of dietary restrictions, don’t bother with sending yourself resupply boxes as it is almost always cheaper to resupply on trail. There is no reason to spend money to ship $0.25 Top Ramen packets. Most hikers who ship themselves food often end up giving away a portion of their boxes to other hikers, either because they either get sick of whatever they have been eating every day for the past couple months or because they end up with too much food.
When you are on the trail and get into town to resupply, always check the hiker box first. If you dig through all the town icons on the FarOut app, you can usually find out where the hiker box in town is. Hiker boxes are literally just boxes that hikers can leave their extra food and gear that they don’t want or need and that others can take from. Sometimes you can find a great assortment of items and other times they are mostly all trash, but it is always worth checking. If you are not picky about what you eat, you can usually find a few oatmeal packets and a bunch of random homemade dehydrated meals. I have definitely ended up with a few surprise meals from hiker boxes that I wasn’t even sure what I was eating even as I was eating it, but hey, free food is free food!
I met a fellow hiker on the PCT in Oregon who was amazed to discover how much food was being left in hiker boxes in the desert. He came to the realization that he only had enough money to buy town food or buy resupply food to finish his whole hike. From that point on, he stopped buying resupply food so that he could shove an entire pizza into his mouth every town he came to and committed to taking whatever he could from hiker boxes, no matter what it was. He was one of the happiest hikers I have ever met, despite living off cold-soaked mystery meals most days.
Find the Discount Stores
After you raid the hiker box, hit up the discount stores in town first. Dollar General. Grocery Outlet, Walmart, Family Dollar, etc. usually have much cheaper prices than normal grocery stores and a surprisingly good selection of food. And always check out the sale shelf that most stores have with items that are about to expire or are out of season. My go-to’s for cheap food items are ramen, Pop-Tarts, instant potatoes, tortillas, oatmeal, summer sausage and jerky, trail mix, instant rice, chips, crackers, peanut butter, cereal, and cheese. Always shop for the off-brand option. Try not to solely load up on candy, which usually lacks calories and will leave you hungry and needing even more food.
Go in with other hikers to buy bulk food and split it up between the group. It is usually cheaper to buy larger quantities compared to individual items.
Don’t stay in every trail town. Camp a few miles from town so you can hike in midday to resupply, buy one meal or pack one out, and hike out the same day. Staying in town is fun, but it can rack up a lot of money quickly when you are paying for multiple meals, drinks, and a place to stay.
When you decide to stay in town (because eventually, you might want to not smell like a 13-year old’s gym bag), check to see if there are any hostels. Not only are hostels ridiculously fun and a great place to meet fellow hikers and other wonderful people, but they usually have loaded hiker boxes and free (real!) food that others have left. Having the use of a full kitchen, I have been able to find leftover ingredients to make gourmet meals in many hostels.
The hostel workers and the other hikers staying there can usually point you in the right direction to find the cheapest or best food and gear stores in town too. And you can usually find a few other hikers to split a load of laundry with and sometimes it is even included in the price of the stay.
Sharing is Caring
Another way to save money if you are not going the hostel route is to split a motel room with a few other hikers. Some establishments will offer hiker discounts so it is always worth asking. And if you can find a hotel with a continental breakfast, this is a good way to stock up on calories and caffeine before you hit the trail.
Hiker hunger can take a few weeks to kick in, but once it does, you are going to want to eat literally everything you see in town, which is where a lot of hikers start to quickly widdle away their savings without realizing it until it is too late. I have met a few hikers who had to make the decision to get off the trail before finishing because they simply ran out of money. Don’t be that person.
If you are staying at a hostel and have already raided their hiker box and fridge, hit up the grocery store and make yourself a healthy gourmet meal for cheap! A box of noodles, a can of sauce, a few veggies, a loaf of bread, a carton of eggs, and a package of ground beef can go a long way to make a couple meals and can even be split with your whole Tramily. And after cooking everything in your Jetboil for weeks, a homecooked meal just tastes amazing.
If you want to go out, pizza is always a good choice because you can always pack out wherever is left and most pizza places usually have some kind of deal going on if you ask. Mexican food is also a great choice because you can usually load up on tons of free chips and salsa and still get a massive meal for around $10. Buffets can be a good way to calorie-load for cheap, but don’t plan on hiking out after indulging in one.
A lot of fast food places have apps to get you freebies. My mom would cringe if she knew how many BOGO McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches I have ingested while thru-hiking, but there is always some kind of freebie available on their app.
Trail Magic is Your Best Friend
Hopefully, you don’t need an incentive to be a nice person, but putting a smile on your face and talking to people really does go a long way. I can’t tell you how many times people in town have offered me rides, a place to stay, free food, beers, and so many other things out of the blue upon striking up a conversation and talking about the trek I am on.
Speaking of trail magic… TRAIL MAGIC!!! Take advantage of all of it. People love thru-hikers. It still baffles my mind how many generous people I have met in all of my hiking who have gone out of their way to help me out and ultimately save me money and stress, expecting nothing in return. People who are doing trail magic WANT to help you. Let them. It will make their day. Load up on food and save your stale tortillas for the next day. Take them up on a shower or free place to stay and I guarantee you will make some new friends and memories in the process and save a hundred dollars on a hotel. You can pay it forward when you are done hiking.
Some towns even have lists of trail angels that will put you up in their homes for free or give rides. Ask around at the local gear store or check the PCT Facebook pages to see if the town you are about to hit has a trail angel list.
Work That Thumb Muscle
Hitchhike. I have probably hitch-hiked hundreds of times and while I have definitely had a few rides that I was a little skeptical of, I have never felt like I was in any danger. Use your head and hitchhike with another hiker if you are nervous, but overall hitchhiking on the PCT is very safe.
Most of the towns you will be hitchhiking to and from are small, hiker-friendly, trail towns that cater to thru-hikers and ultimately rely on us for a portion of their summer income. They know we aren’t bums and are usually more than happy to pick us up, hear about our adventure so far, and give us the low-down on the town.
Hitchhiking used to be the norm for thru-hikers. Over the past couple years, shuttles and Uber have become popular alternatives and you might hear talk of people worrying about getting rides into and out of towns. I have never had a problem getting a ride and that includes thru-hiking through two years of the Pandemic. Save money by treating Uber rides and shuttles as a last resort after giving your thumb a chance to win you a ride.
Hit up restaurants before they close. They might just load you up with food that is going to be thrown out.
Ask hostels if they do work-for-stay. Usually, you only have to work for a couple hours in exchange for a free bunk and shower.
Ask for help. No one wants to see your thru-hike end. If you get in a pinch, ask your family for a loan in exchange for some crazy trail stories and a deep clean of their house upon your return.
Get creative. Where there is a will, there is a way. I met one hiker who started in Campo with zero gear and made it to Canada. I met another hiker who bought all his gear and clothes at Walmart. Another guy would dumpster dive at grocery stores after hours and was able to score fresh fruits and veggies and eat better than anyone else in our group.
Enjoy a couple beers in town, but give your body the rest it needs instead of closing down the bar every chance you get. We all know how quickly money starts to disappear on those types of nights and having to double zero because you are too hungover to hike out can eat up those green bills pretty quickly.
Become a social butterfly. Not only will talking to everyone you meet award you with countless amazing friends and memories, but it is guaranteed to provide you with loads of trail magic. You don’t have to carry every little piece of gear. There’s bound to be another hiker to help you out if your yardsale-score trekking poles break or your second-hand stove stops working.
Ultimately, you’re going to have to save money to do a thru-hike. But if you are smart about how you spend your money, you don’t have to wait years to save enough money to do so or miss out on all the fun experiences along the way. Get creative and find a way to make it happen and just start the damn thing and I bet you will be surprised just how the trail always provides.
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