Planning a Thru-Hike from Abroad: A Guide to Visas, Phones, and Food

Whether you’re hiking the PCT, AT, CDT or one of the other many trails in the U.S, there is a lot of research and planning that goes into it, especially when you are from different country. As an Aussie hiker who has lived in North America the last few years and has spent the last two Summers hiking the PCT, I’ve figured out a few things from how to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius to how to speak with an accent that people can understand. I’ve also been through the whole process of figuring out what needs to be done for a successful thru-hike so I’ve put together some hiking in America info for you, from important must-dos to the interesting and helpful.

First Things First

The first and possibly most important step in preparing for your hike is ensuring you have the correct visas and permits. Although confusing and frustrating at times, getting these out of the way as early as possible is way better than sitting in anxiety waiting for your visa to arrive in the mail with your flight only days away (like me) or worse, having to cancel your hike because your visa didn’t arrive in time.

The B2 Visa

Most countries are given a three-month tourist visa upon arrival but if you are planning on doing an entire thru-hike this is usually not long enough. The B2 visa is a six-month tourist visa which is valid for five years meaning you can enter the U.S for six months at a time for a period of five years. This visa costs $160 USD plus all the little extras of passport photos and travel costs of going to a major city for an interview (don’t worry-It’s not as scary as it sounds). Apply for this at least 3 months before your flight to be on the safe side. Each country has different requirements and you should check online for your eligibility and to begin the application process.

Entry to Canada via the PCT Permit

If you’re hiking the PCT and intend on going across the border into Canada, get this permit. Simply print out the form, fill it out, scan and email it back and you’re done. It is recommended to apply for it 8-10 weeks prior to your arrival in the U.S as you may need it when going through customs as proof you are leaving the country (if you haven’t got a return flight booked already). My permit only took one week to receive but I know of other peoples that took over one month so as always, earlier is better. Check out the PCTA’s advice here, and find the form here.

And obviously, make sure you have the permit(s) for the trail you are hiking. Here is the permitting info for the PCT, the AT, and the CDT.

Once You’ve Arrived

Congratulations! You made it to the US. Now you need to communicate, feed yourself, and get around.

Phones and Sim Cards

Typically, it is super expensive to use your own countries sim card overseas unless you have some amazing deal so you will probably have to buy a one. Firstly, make sure your phone is unlocked and if necessary pay to get it unlocked. Verizon is considered to have the best coverage in the U.S but it also the most expensive followed by AT&T, T- Mobile and Sprint. Look online at their plans, where they have the best coverage and work out what is best for your needs. Make sure they are single line plans (for one person) unless you are traveling with other people then you can get multiple lines which does bring the price down. Some carriers may not have sims that work with your international phone so be sure to check that before purchasing anything. This was a problem for me when I thru-hiked and I only could find one carrier that would work with my phone and it was going to cost $50 per month. On a budget, I decided it wasn’t worth the extra cost and just used my phone as a GPS and hooked up to wi-fi whenever I could. This website may be helpful in figuring out what works best for you https://www.whistleout.com/cellphones.

Food

When you first arrive in a new country it can be as overwhelming as it is exciting to go to the grocery store as everything is interesting and it can take hours and hours as you look at every product for the first time, especially if you are planning on buying weeks of food all at once. If you intend on mailing boxes ahead as soon as you arrive, here is a list of some places you might want to check out first to get the best deals or to find exactly what you are looking for.

If you are looking for bargains, look in the area for a grocery outlet or similar, which sells discontinued, overstocked, or almost-expired products for amazing deals. These are definitely where I shop first. And don’t forget to ask the locals, as they will know will know better than even Google.  

Walmart: Cheap and found almost everywhere

WinCo: Cheap and especially great for bulk foods. Carries everything from nuts to dried wasabi peas

CostcoLarge quantities at great prices, but you need a membership card to shop there.

Whole Foods: Pricey, but ideal for the health-conscious individual

Trader Joe’s: Smaller range than Whole Foods, but has healthy options at reasonable prices

Dollar Tree/Family Dollar/Dollar General: Common, inexpensive stores that sell hiking snacks like freeze-dried fruit, nuts, candy, and shelf-stable meats,

Walgreens/ CVS/ Rite Aid: Common pharmacies

Popular American Trail Foods

Pop-Tarts: A dry pastry with not enough filling, often covered in a cakey icing. Better when toasted or hungry

Ramen: Wheat noodles with a variety of salty, MSG seasonings. Often can get a 5 pack for $1. Can be cold soaked

Snickers: High caloric chocolate bar

Clif Bars: Brand of protein bars with many flavors and types to choose from which are very commonly found. I love these even after 2000 + miles.

Anything with peanut butter. Really, anything. 

Postage

When mailing your resupply boxes, you can go to the Post Office, pick up the boxes you want free of charge, take them back to where you are staying, pack them and label them and then take them back to be mailed. This is what has worked for me best in the past instead of having to do it all in a crowded post office plus it always amazed me that the boxes are free (does this happen elsewhere?). Here is a USPS calculator that shows their postage options and costs, flat rate boxes start at $7.20. 

Tipping

Traveling in any country, no matter how similar they may seem there are always a few little differences, in the U.S tipping is one of those. When I first arrived here I had no idea who and how much I should be tipping people here are a few general rules to go by

15-20% is standard at restaurants where table service is provided.

$1 per drink at bars

Tipping is for service, so anything that is a service you can assume tipping is expected. E.g. Hairdresser (15-20%), Taxi drivers (15-20%), housekeepers in hotels ($1-2 per night).

Hitchhiking

I love hitchhiking. I have met some of the most amazing people hitchhiking that I would never have met otherwise. It is such a great way to meet locals, get good advice on an area and hopefully get to where you are going. Especially around trail towns, it is extremely common and often people are expecting it. If you’re worried, hitch in pairs, take a photo of the license plates and send it to a friend nearby and obviously, use your common sense. Offering a few dollars at the end of the ride never hurts either, some take it and some leave it but it shows your appreciation for them going out their way.

Did I forget anything? I would love to know the big differences you experienced when arriving in the U.S. Leave it in the comments below. By the way, subtract 30 and divide by 2 to convert (roughly) Fahrenheit to Celsius. Happy Hiking.

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Comments 11

  • Dirk Lemmens : Apr 27th

    thanks for this fantastic advice!

    Reply
    • Bridget Love : Apr 30th

      No worries! Glad you liked it

      Reply
  • Sara Unsworth : Apr 28th

    Very informative- thank you!

    Reply
    • Bridget Love : Apr 30th

      You’re welcome!

      Reply
  • Vers : Apr 28th

    Health insurance?

    Reply
    • Bridget Love : Apr 30th

      Good point. Very important!

      Reply
  • Alan WEBB Trail Name English Detective : Apr 28th

    Hi
    When I arrived in the States on Feb 6th 2017 I had a B 2 Visa which was extended,on request, at border control in Washington after I explained my mission to thru hike the AT. and I wished to take my time and enjoy the once in a lifetime experience. Having satisfied themselves that I had family & work to go back to my visa was extended to October 1st. I finished on September 2nd 2017 so no pressure but I met other overseas hikers who either did not ask or were refused.
    As far As insurance, I did not have any for the following reasons.
    I could not find an insurance company in the U K who dealt with people over the age of 65 ( I am 73 ) who wanted to backpack or those that were going to be out of the country for more than 90 days.

    Reply
    • Bridget Love : Apr 30th

      Too bad about the insurance but sounds like it all worked out for you 🙂

      Reply
  • Heather Kay : May 7th

    Another great store is Grocery Outlet. They have a great selection that many stores have – but at reduced prices. You can cover a lot of healthy items at TJ’s and GO.

    Reply
  • Y-von : May 15th

    Great article – thanks!
    One question I have is regarding needing to have a departure flight booked when entering the US. When I last visited the US backpacking on the 90 days tourist visa they wouldn’t allow me to enter without me having a flight booked to leave before the 90 days expired, and the flight had to be somewhere other than Mexico, Canada, etc.. It cost me quite a lot of money (I had to book it there and then at the airport) and really scuppered my flexibility in the final weeks. Does the same apply with the 6 month visa?

    Reply
  • Conner Wilkinson : Jul 9th

    So wat if a USA citizen wanted to stay for a little

    Reply

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