The Case for Being Frugal on Trail

Obviously, I’m not encouraging stealing—just taking advantage of free things when you find them.

In a word—resourcefulness. Being resourceful will be your friend when saving for your thru-hike, and will likely teach you some great lessons for the actual trail as well. The following list offers some suggestions (emphasis on suggestion—I’m no financial expert) on ways to save for a thru-hike and some examples of things that have worked for me (and also given me tiny bits of satisfaction for being frugal AF). It’s little day-to-day victories that will add up over several months of preparation to make a real difference for your eventual endeavor.

Practice Minimalism

I will write a full blog post on this in the future, but in the meantime consider checking out Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things on Netflix. The creators, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, also have a podcast. They’re all about helping people live meaningful lives with less stuff. Obviously, the less stuff you have/buy, the more money you’ll save. Plus, the lifestyle itself sort of embodies exactly how people live on trail. Only keep things that you need or are of huge importance to you; everything else can go (and is a useless addition to your base weight).

Get Those Giveaways

Take advantage of free sh*t! It’s everywhere. There are countless Instagram giveaways, sponsorships, etc. Apply for/enter them all. The more you enter, the better the odds. If it’s something you don’t need, sell it or regift and save when birthdays/holidays come around.

Be Your Own Personal Chef

Buying groceries and cooking them is almost always cheaper than eating out (unless your diet consists exclusively of ice cubes and water with the occasional lemon slice). You don’t have to tip yourself, and you can consider the additional culinary skills you’ll inevitably learn a nice bonus.

Take Advantage of Credit Card Rewards

When considering your credit card choices, think about what would be most useful to you for thru-hike savings. I’ve earned enough through Discover Cashback Match to use almost only rewards to pay for trail clothes from Amazon and REI. There are also several travel-focused credit cards that might help you pay for your transportation to and from trail.

Establish Passive Income

Find a way to make some passive income while on trail. Amazon affiliate links, Patreon (not totally passive but you would ideally be posting trail specific content), and creating e-books are all great options. Find something that fits your style and take a whack at it. If you have a talent for investing (or know more about it than me), consider making your money work for you. If not, look into diversified portfolios (apps like Acorns and Robinhood make it very easy) or a CD (if you plan far enough ahead).

Earn Part-time Income

Turn your hobbies into side hustles or find something you can dedicate a few hours a week to and make some extra cash. I started charging for Bird and threw myself into a ton of freelance writing gigs. Start driving Uber one night a week, or if you prefer a solitary side hustle—Uber eats. If you are spending a ton of money on fitness memberships (yoga will be the death of my budget), see if they have a work trade program or instructor training. That way you can train for free or even make money for working out.

Slash Your Car Insurance

If you have a fairly old car, consider reducing your coverage. If you have enough emergency funds, increase your deductible. Only do what you’re comfortable with but definitely examine your options. Also, cancel that sh*t while you’re on trail. We’re walking now folks; no driving for six months (except for the occasional hitch).

Acquire/Use Alternative Transportation

If you live close enough to work (or wherever you need to be), consider dropping a car altogether. Start biking. You’ll save money on gas, insurance, car payments, and get that cardio training in for trail.

Slum It Early (Sacrifice Living Location)

Alternatively, if you’re planning far enough in advance consider living somewhere where the cost of living is low. Save money on virtually everything before embarking on the journey of a lifetime.

Use Your Resources (Work, Etc.)

Do you work at an office that is constantly catering in lunches then putting out free leftovers? Are there free tampons in the bathrooms? Do you have benefits you aren’t taking advantage of? Use every little thing to your advantage. Pick up that free food, take it home, and you’ve got a free meal.

Sell What You Don’t Need

This goes along with practicing minimalism. Take a long, hard look at all the stuff in your life. Have you touched it or even thought about it within the last three months? The last year? If not, there’s a good chance you really don’t need it. Consider listing it on ebay (I sold a bunch of old college textbooks and surprisingly it’s super easy). Go through your clothes and take them to Plato’s or another resale place—get cash for what they want and take the rest to Goodwill.

Ask for Help

If you’re the type of person who wants to thru-hike you might have the type of people in your life who think that’s super dope. Swallow your pride and consider asking for small donations to your journey, maybe offering a small service in return. For example, if you can draw (or even if you can’t), offer small commissions in exchange for what they can give.

Discounts (Student, Military, Etc.)

Use those discounts. Check Groupon religiously for things you need, take advantage of sales, and most importantly, any discount you’re automatically qualified for. Honey is a great Chrome extension that will search discount codes for you when shopping online (the other day it took $11 off my laundry detergent, what???). I haven’t been in school for two years but I still whip out my student ID when it’s going to save me money.

Cord Cut/Streamline Subscriptions

In the day of streaming services, consider reducing your monthly utilities by getting rid of cable. On top of that, see if there are people in your life also trying to save money and share streaming accounts with them. I’ve been on a family Spotify account with five friends for two years now ($2.50/month instead of $10/ month over two years= $180 saved).

Be the Cheap Friend

Obviously, don’t short your friends money. But if you are worried about sacrificing a social life for the trail because socializing tends to be expensive, fear no more. Here are a few hacks to prevent you from becoming a total hermit:

1) If your friends like to go out drinking, consider bringing a flask with you to the bar (still order a drink and tip the bartender because that’s the decent thing to do—but avoid buying three to four drinks and it will make a big difference)

2) Order water when you eat out. $2 on every meal adds up, people.

3) Eat at home before you eat out with friends, and then order something small like an appetizer (or share it) when you get there.

4) Stop buying coffee. In the age of caffeine addiction it’s easy to let $20+ dollars a week go to the sweet bean juice, but instead try making your coffee at home.

5) Be transparent with your homies. Not that you have to justify your lifestyle to anyone, but if they know why you’re being frugal (and they’re good friends) they’re more likely to understand why you want to have cheaper outings rather than VIP nights at the club.

Obviously, what works for me won’t work for everyone but I hope some of these tips lead to a few extra saved dollars. If you have enough determination and grit to even consider a thru-hike, I have faith that you will also be able to save for it. Be strong and remember the best things in life (PCT thru-hiking permits) are free.

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Comments 9

  • Darrell : Jan 12th

    Really. If you can’t afford toilet paper, maybe you aren’t ready for your thru-hike. As an experienced long distance hiker and someone who has completed several various thru-hikes and as a trail angel, “resourcefulness?” Maybe other hikers can save on their expenses by sharing or borrowing from your food bag while it is hanging. I mean, you have to admire them for being resourceful. After all, if you really didn’t mean to share, you would have locked it up.
    Right? It galls me that you are promoting and helping to perpetuate stereotypes and attitudes that make so many business and communities despise hikers.

    Reply
    • Elise : Jan 22nd

      Hi Darrell! I’m sorry if my humor wasn’t clear. As I replied to Gary below, the toilet paper was intended as a humorous exaggeration. It was intended to show how lots of little sacrifices add up over several months of time. Obviously, I would never encourage stealing from other hikers—or stealing at all. I was simply pointing out that if you are lucky enough to work somewhere that caters in free lunches, etc. to take advantage of that. Hope this helps to clarify any confusion.

      Reply
  • TicTac : Jan 12th

    Spoken like a true Millennial: “Obviously, I’m not encouraging actual stealing—just the kind of borrowing where it’s already been bought. Like, if your bathrooms at work always have a few extra rolls on hand, skip the trip to CVS and load up on toiletries there.” You call this being resourceful, but the truth is it is stealing, thieving, grifting, petty theft.

    Reply
  • RC : Jan 12th

    Resourceful yes, stealing is stealing, not ok 👎

    Reply
  • Gary L. Lockney : Jan 14th

    Ms. Ott makes some very good suggestions, including some that knowingly involve personal sacrifice (i.e. Shutting off cable, working part-time, etc.). However, I for one strongly disagree with her suggestion that you “load up on toiletries” from the restrooms of your employer because it’s just “borrowing where it’s already been bought.”

    Employee pilfering can be a major problem in many businesses. That TP Has been paid for, but not by you. Before you start loading up on toiletries from the company coffers, you might want to consider whether you want to keep your job while you do it, and whether you have any use for a positive recommendation when you search for a job after the hike.

    Just my opinion.

    Reply
    • Elise Ott : Jan 14th

      Thanks for the read, Gary! You’re right and I probably should have clarified—I definitely don’t recommend just pillaging your employer’s supplies (that does not lead to a good work place environment or good employer/employee relations). It was meant as a humorous exaggeration but I can see how it comes off literally. Rather than using your employer as a substitute for a grocery store, you’re definitely better off only taking advantage of things that they already intend to give away (ex: my company often has leftover things from events that they offer to employees). Thank you for the input and I hope this clarifies my intentions!

      Reply
    • Elise : Jan 22nd

      Thanks for the read, Gary! You’re right and I probably should have clarified—I definitely don’t recommend just pillaging your employer’s supplies (that does not lead to a good work place environment or good employer/employee relations). It was meant as a humorous exaggeration but I can see how it could be taken literally. Instead of using your employer as a substitute for a grocery store, you’re much better off simply taking advantage of anything they already intend to give away (for example, my company often puts out leftover supplies after events or shoots that they no longer need). Thanks for the input and I hope this clears up the confusion!

      Reply
  • Elise Ott : Jan 14th

    Thanks for the read, Gary! You’re right and I probably should have clarified—I definitely don’t recommend just pillaging your employer’s supplies (that does not lead to a good work place environment or good employer/employee relations). It was meant as a humorous exaggeration but I can see how it could be taken literally. Instead of using your employer as a substitute for a grocery store, you’re much better off simply taking advantage of anything they already intend to give away (for example, my company often puts out leftover supplies after events or shoots that they no longer need). Thanks for the input and I hope this clears up any confusion!

    Reply
  • Zahara : Feb 26th

    Love your writing! Feel these guys need to “lighten up”…

    Reply

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