Top 10 Ways to Save Money in Town
Is your budget already feeling a little tight on your thru-hike? Wondering how to stretch your cash a little further? Town stops are one of the most expensive parts of a long-distance hike. Here are ten tips to be thrifty so you can afford to hike further.
1. Stay Out of Town
This is the most common money-saving advice you’ll receive: limit time in town. Time on trail is cheap—your only real cost is whatever you’re eating and maybe a permit or two. Town quickly gets expensive. You’ll be tempted to spend on restaurant meals, alcohol, hotel stays, and new gear. Getting in and out of town can be expensive too if you take a shuttle instead of hitchhiking. Less time in town normally means lower costs.
It’s easy for me to recommend avoiding town, sitting fat and happy just steps from my fully stocked kitchen, months after my last hike. It’s a very different story once you’ve been on trail for a month or two. Once hiker hunger hits, eating multiple meals at every restaurant in town is almost impossible to resist. In addition, injury or bad weather can force hikers to take days or even weeks off.
Sometimes you just need a break in town, especially on a five-month thru-hike. Try to stay out of town when you can, knowing there will be some inevitable zeroes that you really need (or want) to take.
READ NEXT –
2. Nearo over Zero
Camping right outside of town, hiking in the morning, and then paying for a single night in a hotel gives you all of the benefits of a zero with half of the lodging costs. You can do this on the other side of your town stay as well for a double nearo. However, I always find it tempting to stay too long in town by justifying that I’m saving money on hotels. This means I spend a lot more on town food, which can negate all of my lodging savings.
You can also hike into town in the morning and hike out the same day. This sounds great in theory, but it can be challenging to complete all of your town chores without a hotel stay. Some hostels and trail angels will let you shower and do laundry without spending the night (normally for a small fee), while others may have different rules.
It can also be difficult to avoid a night in town if you rely heavily on electronics on your hike. Larger battery bricks take a long time to charge, and you may struggle to find somewhere to plug in for long enough without booking a hotel room.
3. Do the Math on Hostels vs. Hotels
The price difference between splitting a hotel between your trail family versus paying for individual bunks in a hostel will depend on the trail, the town, and how many people you’re hiking with. It’s worth checking. For one or two people, hostels are normally cheaper. However, savings by staying in a hotel add up quickly for larger groups.
Keep two additional points in mind when choosing whether to stay in a hostel or cram hikers into a hotel room. First, many hotels have rules about maximum occupancy or charge more for extra people. Don’t be that jerk that crams six hikers into a hotel room with a limit of four people. You’ll cause problems for future hikers when suddenly that hotel is no longer hiker-friendly.
Secondly, check out what additional amenities the hostel or hotel has before deciding to stay. Many hostels or hotels will hold packages for free if you stay with them but charge a fee if you don’t. Some offer shuttle service to and from the trail, or to a grocery store. It can be cheaper to stay at what initially looks like a more expensive place if you don’t have to pay for shuttles or package pickup.
A hotel or hostel with a good hiker box can also be worth its weight in gold. Resupply can be an expensive part of a town stop, and if you can do half your resupply for free, that’s pretty valuable.
4. Work for Stay, Trail Angels, and Campgrounds
Occasionally hostels will allow hikers to trade chores for a free or heavily discounted night’s stay. Spaces may be limited since hostels need to make money, so don’t rely on this being a regular option.
Trail angels can also be a cheap place to stay. Many trail angels open up their homes to hikers, and some will even feed you, allow you to do laundry, and shuttle you to the trail. Many trail angels are icons on their trail, and staying with them is a huge part of trail culture.
Don’t forget that many trail angels expect a small donation for their services (and it’s classy to offer one even if they don’t ask). $20 a night has been the minimum donation for a long time, but many trail angels will ask for more to help cover their costs. Angels are incredibly nice people, so if you can’t afford to donate, you may be able to do chores to help cover your stay. Just be careful not to take advantage of these wonderful people.
Paying to camp in town feels stupid when you can camp for free on the trail. But if there’s not a cheap hotel or hostel nearby, staying at a campground can be super smart. You can shower and charge your devices at a fraction of the cost of a hotel. Many campgrounds have laundry and wifi, so you can do all of your chores quickly and easily. However, you will still have to stay in your tent, so this option is unappealing if you’re waiting out bad weather.
5. Watch your Resupply
You can be as thrifty as you want in town, but you’re still going to have to drop a load of cash to buy food for the trail. Do your research on mailing boxes versus buying in town, and don’t forget to factor in shipping costs and package pick-up fees.
Unless you’re hiking through expensive, remote towns with limited options or you have strict dietary requirements, shopping in town is normally cheaper. Don’t forget that hiker boxes can help lower resupply costs, especially if you don’t mind eating mystery baggies of unlabeled food.
READ NEXT –
6. Choose a Cheap Trail Family
The best money-saving advice I have is don’t hike with my husband. I spend easily double on thru-hikes where we are together (and not because I’m paying for him). He will splash out on expensive hotels like Timberline Lodge and never misses a chance for a burger and beer. That’s fine when he can afford it, but it drained my PCT budget trying to hang out with him.
If you can, hike with people who have similar budgets. That way you don’t have to choose between spending more than you can afford and feeling like you’re missing out.
7. Budget Your Food and Booze
This advice is easy at the beginning of a thru-hike but much more challenging once you have hiker hunger. Watch your spending on food and drink while you’re in town since eating at restaurants adds up quickly.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t eat all of the town food since it’s a great way to get calories and nutrition that you can’t get from trail food. But if you’re on a budget, hit the grocery store before you go to a restaurant. The deli counter is a cheap way to eat in town, and you can purchase salad and fruit so you feel better about your diet too.
Be mindful of other ways to stretch your town food budget. Not drinking booze will give you more money to spend on food. If that sounds like no fun, getting a six-pack or two to split with your trail family at the hotel is much cheaper than going to a bar.
8. Watch Out for Extra Spending
It’s not just lodging and food that you have to watch out for. Towns offer opportunities to purchase new gear. Some purchases are unavoidable: you’ll need new shoes at some point, for instance. However, you can avoid unnecessary purchases by making sure you start with the right gear for your trail. Buying a warmer sleeping bag, for example, can cost hundreds of dollars.
Making sure you do your research before you start your hike can save you a lot of money (and the Trek is a great place to do that research, wink wink). And before impulse-buying fancy new gear in town, stop and ask yourself whether you really need it or just want it becuase it’s ultralight and shiny.
There’s a few other town costs that you should either avoid or budget for, depending on your hike. Package pick-up fees can add up. Mailing a bounce box can get spendy. If you choose not to hitchhike either due to safety concerns or hiking a trail where hitching is illegal, shuttle costs can be expensive. If you get sick or injured, you may face unexpected copays for medication and urgent care visits.
9. Increase Distances Between Town Stops
If you have a choice of resupply options, pick the further-away one. If you can completely skip a town stop in favor of a longer resupply haul, that’s even better.
Carrying an extra day or two of food will increase your pack weight, but your wallet will thank you. You will remove the temptation of town food and hotel stays just by not going into town.
This is more practical on trails with frequent resupply stops, like the Appalachian Trail or the Arizona Trail. Don’t try this on a trail like the Great Divide Trail, where you’re already carrying over a week’s worth of food.
10. Don’t Be So Stingy You Don’t Have Fun
Town time can be one of the most fun parts of thru-hiking. It’s a great chance to hang out with your trail family, and it’s important to rest and recover during your thru-hike. It’s impossible to thru-hike without some time in town. Budget some town time, and try to enjoy it as much as you can.
Money issues are a common reason why thru-hikers quit, and towns can be expensive. If you need more money-saving tips, check out How to Afford a Thru-Hike by Kelly Floro.
Featured image: Photo via Eloise Robbins. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.