Thru-Hiking for Frugal Bastards

At first glance, spending the typical $5,000 for a posh-by-hiker-standards 6 month walking vacation is a steal compared to what TV commercials tell us we should want out of a vacation – fancy hotels, beaches, pools and booze.  You could easily spend $5k drinking yourself into oblivion on a two or three week trip to the Bahamas or 10 day cruise on a giant boat but if you’re like me, you realize that time is the real luxury, not fancy accommodations and martini’s.  Let’s not stop there though, what if you could get TWO thru-hikes for $5k?  Check out these tips to cut your budget and extend your hiking:

Check out the Thriftstore

Gear is one of your biggest expenses, right behind food, but it doesn’t have to be!  Check out your local Goodwill for cheap fleece, wind jackets, hats, gloves and synthetic blended hiking shirts.  The fancy stuff at REI looks nicer but functionally a $120 fleece isn’t that much better than the $10 one you either already have or could get at the local five and dime.  This can pay dividends when your stuff starts falling apart on trail.  Find the nearest thrift store and save yourself some cash-o-la. Paying a lot of money for gear fools us into thinking it must work really well but the differences are almost always minor.  On the PCT I destroyed 2 fancy button down hiking shirts in 1,000 miles but the $2 thrift store one my brother gave me lasted the next 1,600!

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Buy Used

Sometimes Goodwill just doesn’t have your size, so try buying used.  Since we live in a hyper-capitalist society, gear companies need to show “growth” or that they sell more crap this year than last year.  The most common strategy is to fool you into thinking you need the latest and greatest gear by making marginal improvements on last years gear every season.  The companies then cover the new stuff with fancy marketing spin that essentially means nothing in the real world.  This new jacket has 1,000mm/hg more of breathability!  This year’s tent has TWO zippers instead of just one!  Bullshit I say!   You’ll be fine with last years or even older gear that’s in decent shape.  After all, if this years stuff is so incredible how could people have done the AT ten years ago?  After all, the gear you choose will not make or break your hike – your mentality will!

Fortunately for us, there are lots of folks who eat this marketing mumbo-jumbo right up, or who dive in head first into a new found hobby like backpacking only to give it up later.  You can regularly find gear in great shape that someone bought, used twice and then sat on a shelf for a year.  Typical discounts range from 20 to 50% and you should be able to haggle the seller into paying for shipping.

Here’s a few places to look:

Don’t forget to sell the stuff you don’t want any more on those same sites!

Buy Last Year’s Stuff on Sale

Sometimes you can’t find what you need used or in the thrift store, or it would be weird – like underwear.  Yet again out evil marketing company exec’s come to the frugal bastards rescue!  Thanks to the standard retail model where every year all of their shit has to be updated in some tiny but marketable way, sometime towards the end of the season all of last year’s stuff has to be sold at cost to make room for next years!  Look for 30-40% off sales and buy extra!  If you are unusually tiny or unusually large you will have better luck than the rest of us, since XS and XL sizes generally take longer to sell.   Sierra Trading Post, Campmor and Backcountry.com seem to have the best sales.

Buy Consumables Ahead of Time

On a typical thru hike you can expect to destroy:

5 pairs of trail runners or 2-3 pairs of boots

4-6 pairs of socks

2-3 pairs of pants or shorts

2-3 hiking shirts

Buying all that discounted now will save you from getting hosed at the on-trail gear stores later.  Let’s say your trail runner of choice runs new at $110 but last year’s model is on sale for $65 – that’s a $45 savings times 5 pairs of shoes or $255!  Now with shoes you have to be careful and expect your feet to spread out at least ½ size, probably 1 full size right off the bat.  If it turns out you got the wrong size, you can usually sell heavily discounted shoes for about what you bought them later.  People tend to love their chosen model of shoes and once last years are gone, they’ll be happy to buy your unused ones.  Trick your friends and family into paying for shipping to the trail by calling it a “care package” and adding in chocolate!

Keep in mind, if you buy too much of anything else ahead of time you’ll probably use it after your hike is done anyway since everything you’ve been wearing is probably too disgusting to use in normal life.

Make Your Own Gear (MYOG)

If 30-50% off from used and discounted gear isn’t enough, we can do better! Making your own stuff can range from applying a hole puncher to a cat food can to make a free alcohol stove, or to making your own sleeping bag, backpack and even puffy jacket.  Typically the material costs about 20-40% of a similar retail item but requires anywhere from 1 to 8 hours to make.  Not only that, the stuff people make is generally lighter, simpler and more durable than store bought gear.  If you’re socially conscious, MYOG is also the only way to make sure little kids aren’t making your shit.

There is a huge community of people making all of their own equipment using the same cutting edge fabrics the big boys use with their own specific preferences in mind.  Some of them have branched off to form their own cottage gear companies. If you have access to a sewing machine, time and some determination these great resources can get you started:

Sleeping bag, tarp and backpack kits: https://www.rayjardine.com/

Kits for clothing and everything else: https://thru-hiker.com/materials/index.php

Questions and HELP!: https://www.reddit.com/r/MYOG/ and https://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/forums/display_forum.html?forum=38

Don’t Sleep in a Bed

The most frugal thru-hikers I met on the PCT had a rule – no bed’s until Canada.  That saves an enormous amount on motels, hotels and hostels.  You’re also less likely to hang out in town, buying expensive town food and beer when you don’t have a plush bed to sleep on.  You can always chip in to someone else’s room and sleep on the floor for a lower rate but still use the shower, laundry and sweet sweet air conditioning.

Mail Your Resupply

You hike on your stomach and those calories cost money! Buying food in bulk at Costco and paying for flat rate boxes will often beat buying grocery store food.  I don’t have quantitative numbers on this but every hiker I met seemed to have come to the same conclusion.  If you’re resupplying from anything smaller than a full size supermarket, mailing wins.  Supplement with goodies from the hiker box!  If you’re lucky, someone ahead of you is sick of whatever they mailed themselves and dumped it for you to harvest!

Don’t Dumpster Dive

I’ve done it off-trail, maybe you’ve done it too but on-trail dumpster diving isn’t cool.  Thru-hikers, like any minority group, have a reputation based around the gross generalizations caused by the bad behavior of a few.  If the locals see thru-hikers dumpster diving, it looks really bad – especially if there’s any mess.  That actually goes for all bad behavior – trashed motel rooms, litter, unpaid bar tabs, public drunkenness etc., harms the reputation of our little community SO DON’T BE AN ASSHOLE!

Question the Cost

If thru-hiking is going to cost $1 per mile or whatever you’ve budgeted, look at every non-essential item you’re thinking about buying and ask yourself how many miles it costs.  Fancy latte at Fivebucks? 5 miles.  New rain jacket that’s slightly better than your old one? 150 miles.  More often than not, I’d rather have the miles than the stuff.

Hopefully that gives you some ideas on how to save money, if you’re so inclined.  If you’re wading in cash, enjoy it and don’t worry!  Add your own tips in the comments! Don’t forget to follow along with me this March as I hike 5,000 miles and check out my fundraiser to help the AZT, CDT and Te Araroa!

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Comments 2

  • William : Mar 7th

    On the point of dumpster diving, I totally agree. Also the point about essentially representing all hikers to locals. I was a hiker turned local shuttle driver in Hamburg, PA, and I can attest that one or two hikers can sour locals for a week or two towards anything regarding the AT. Anyway, love the article!

    Reply
  • David : Jun 2nd

    Very good article! However, I would caution about buying your shoes all at one time. Mine went from 12 to a 13 in about 2 months…

    Reply

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