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10 Frugal Thru-Hiking Tips

Appalachian Trail - 2000 Mile Mark in Maine
Appalachian Trail – 2000 Mile Mark in Maine

Taking time to hike the Appalachian Trail can be expensive if you don’t spend your money wisely. Here are a few tips to keep your costs to a minimum without going primal. Being a frugal thru-hiker or section hiker can halve the estimated $5000 that it takes to hike a long trail.

Hiking Hitchhiker
Hitch-Hiking Backpacker

1. Don’t Pay for Trail Shuttles

At $1 or $2 per mile, the cost of trail shuttles adds up very quickly (even more than lodging.) Don’t take shuttles that you have to pay for. Hitchhike, ask for free shuttles in Facebook groups, or suck it up and hike where you need to go.

White Mountains Lodge and Hostel, Gorham NH
White Mountains Lodge and Hostel, Gorham NH

2. Don’t Pay for Motels or Hostels

If you need to go into town to resupply, get your food and head back to the trail before nightfall. If you want a shower, find someone who will give you one for free or at a discount, like at a YMCA, church, or campground. If you decide you have to stay in town, at least split the cost of a cheap motel room with other hikers. Seriously, you’re spending all this time outdoors hiking: why do you need to sleep indoors when you get to town. Sleep on the trail and save your dough.

Mail Drop
Mail Drop

3. Resupply by Mail

You can send boxes of food and supplies to US Post Offices where they’ll hold it for you until you pick it up. It’s an amazing service and a great way to save a ton of money on resupply costs, since food and sundries in small towns can be so expensive.  You can even send yourself “heavy” food that you can eat for a treat in town, like canned food, that you’d never want to carry on the trail. Click for instructions on sending mail drops.

Select high calorie items to reduce the weight of your food bag and repackage food to remove excess packaging,
Select high calorie items to reduce the weight of your food bag and repackage food to remove excess packaging,

4. Buy Food in Bulk

You can save a bundle by buying your food in bulk and breaking it into meal or snack size portions at home. Splitting a big order with another hiking friend is also a great way to save. Shop around. You can usually buy large lots of raw and processed food on Amazon.com or in natural food stores. Dries beans, grains, spices, and even large lots of snickers bars and M&M’s can go a long way to lowering your food costs. Food is expensive and a great place to save money.

You can purchase used backpacking gear at a steep discount on eBay
You can purchase used backpacking gear at a steep discount on eBay

5. Buy Used Gear

There’s no reason to pay full price for expensive backpacking gear when its easy to find lightly used gear such as backpacks, sleeping bags, tents, and tarps online. Let your fingers do your shopping on eBay, where you should be able to save 40-50% on the gear you need for a long distance hike.

Goodwill Thrift Stores
Goodwill Thrift Stores

6. Buy Thrift Store Clothing

When was the last time you went into a Goodwill or Thrift Shop and checked out the clothing they have for sale. It’s amazing what you can find, often at a 75% or better discount over retail clothing prices. Just make Make sure it’s all synthetic (not cotton) because it will last longer and dry faster than cotton, as well as chafing less.

Look for the following clothing for a long distance hike:

  • insulated puffy jacket
  • fleece sweater (100 weight is best)
  • rain jacket
  • windbreaker
  • button down shirts
  • long pants
  • T-shirts
  • nylon running shorts
  • goofy hat
  • black dress socks – these work great for hiking
  • boxer shorts (to prevent chafing)
Inov-8 Terroc 330 Trail Running Shoes
Buy multiple pairs of shoes when they’re on-sale

7. Pre-Buy Multiple Pairs of Shoes

You’re probably going to go through a few pairs of shoes or boots on your hike. Figure getting 400-500 miles on a pair of trail runners, for instance. Try buying them all at once when they’re on sale or an end-of-year clearance. You can save up to 50% off the retail price.

Sewing a UL quilt
Sewing a UL quilt

8. Make Your Own Gear

You can save a bundle on up-front gear costs by making your own gear. For example, you can make an ultralight backpacking quilt from scratch or turn a used sleeping bag into one. Tarps and bug bivies are also fairly simple to make and well as alcohol stoves, of course. Here are some good places to find MYOG instructions and kits.

There's no need to pay for rent or utilities when you're not home.
There’s no need to pay for rent or utilities when you’re not home.

9. Turn Off Your Utilities and Stop Paying Rent

If you plan to drop out of civilization for a few months or more, you can save a lot of money turning off all of your utilities or moving out of your apartment so you don’t have to pay rent while you’re away. The same holds for cell phone bills: switch from a monthly plan to pre-paid one so you’re not paying for minutes you won’t use.

The best way to spend less money on the trail is to hike faster!
The best way to spend less money on the trail is to hike faster!

10. Hike Faster

Perhaps the best way to save money is by hiking the trail faster. You’ll definitely save more money on food and lodging if you’re out for a shorter period of time. Of course, that means you’ll have more time to attempt another major hike….so hiking fast may be self-defeating to your bank account in the end.

What are other ways to save money on thru-hikes and section hikes?

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31 comments

  1. I think your advice in #2 is a bit irresponsible. First, if you stay at a hostel that asks for a donation, you should pay. The hiker who does what you suggest and skips out without donating is the type of person who gives hikers a bad reputation within the local community. Also, I don’t know too many “cheap hotels” that would allow seven people in a room, so to split the cost with a half dozen other hikers means you are probably sneaking extra people in without paying the extra cost usually charged to putting extra people in a room. It happens often and again gives hikers a bad reputation. Maintaining a good reputation with trail towns should be an primary concern of every hiker and if it is a priority for the authors of this blog, it is not emphasized as much as it could be in this post.

    • Most hostels are bunkhouses with a nightly fee on US long trails. If its a church group, use your judgement. As for splitting a room with other hikers, I did not mean or imply that you should do this on the sly. It’s kind of hard to hide in a small town, don’t you think? Why not be honest, if you’re going to get busted anyway?

    • Think perhaps you misread that. Splitting a room or finding a place for a free or cheap shower does not imply you are doing it on the sly.

  2. I totally agree with #5 & #6, I find quite a bit of good used gear at yard sales

  3. You know, if you have to live like this (looking for free rides, free showers, etc.) maybe you’ve got your priorities all wrong. Maybe you shouldn’t be on the trail. It would seem like you need to get a better job or even two jobs.

    • Why? Those are the same tips shared by many celebrities in thru-hiking, rockclimbing, backcountry hunting, skiing et al in their 20s and early 30s.

      • So, if a celebrity says it then it’s okay? It’s about self-responsibility. Standing on your own two feet. …being independent. But it’s not your fault. As you said it’s the same advise given by other 20 and 30 year olds. It would be hard for your generation to understand that we’ve become a culture of dependence from over 40 years of progressive propaganda. My generation would call it mooching. You would be considered a sponge, beggar, bum, tramp, derelict, vagrant, hobo, transient, …not the kind of names one would be proud to be called in the past. These are the kind of people that are a burden to others. It was considered shameful in the past but there is little shame anymore. I’m betting that many of those celebrities you’re talking about are dependent on someone to get their lives restarted once they come off a long stint on the trail.

      • Not sure what the progressive movement has to do with it. Even conservative-minded hunters (eg. Randy Newberg, Steven RInella) solicited the same advice to beginners.

      • Furthermore, these kind of frugal advice predates 1970s. They exist in many of the popular literature published between 1880s to 1950s. Many of those authors are cherished by even the most conservative personas.

      • My response referred to people looking for free things like rides, rooms, showers, etc. as a part of their thru-hiking strategy It is the result of a “crisis of culture”, a culture in which it is perfectly acceptable to spend money on luxuries and vices (camping gear and marijuana) while refusing to take care of one’s self (e.g., hiking for months without sufficient funds and “expecting” or specifically looking for hand-outs). It is a culture based on the irresponsible credo that “I can do whatever I want to because someone else will always take care of me”. This attitude of entitlement has shown up the last couple of years on the Pacific Crest Trail. Instead of taking only what they need from water caches, young arrogant, entitled hikers seem to think the water caches are there for them alone and leave nothing for those who follow and who may need it in an emergency. As a result, many trail angels have become discouraged and backed away from helping as much. Also, it causes people in trail towns to take a not very kind view of hikers. It hurts the whole hiking community.

      • I don’t exist to support corporations, they don’t exist to support me. I use what I need and can get at the best value. If a Chinese knockoff at half the price will accomplish it’s purpose that’s what I buy. Caveat Emptor means just that. I see people buying overpriced gear all the time just because they’re convinced that a name alone makes it good. If I can find it in a thrift store that’s where I’ll buy it. Also it’s usually the yellow blazing party types who are wasting their time and blowing cash they don’t have. Serious hikers do just that, hike! If I can get a shower for free that’s where I’ll take it. I’m on the trail to hike and enjoy the wilderness. I’m not there to support the local economy. Period.

      • Good for you! You missed the whole point. I wasn’t talking about supporting local economies and I don’t care where you buy your gear or how much you pay for it. That’s your business. The point being made is that, if you are, “…on the trail to hike and enjoy the wilderness.” at everyone else’s expense (e.g., you don’t have enough money to cover your expenses so you actively, as a part of your hiking strategy, seek hand-outs), then you’re a beggar, a bum, or a sponge and you give all the other hiker’s a bad name. I don’t know how I can make this any clearer. By-the-way, what makes you think you don’t exist to support corporations? Unless you’re a farmer or manufacture a product what is your purpose? Whether you are able to accept it or not, we’re all just consumers and directly or indirectly support corporations. If you don’t want to support corporations and/or you want to save the Earth then I can only suggest suicide as a sure way for you to adequately fulfill you’re punishingly difficult ideals.

    • ” The point being made is that, if you are, “…on the trail to hike and enjoy the wilderness.” at everyone else’s expense (e.g., you don’t have enough money to cover your expenses so you actively, as a part of your hiking strategy, seek hand-outs), then you’re a beggar, a bum, or a sponge and you give all the other hiker’s a bad name.” What does this have to do with this: “If you need to go into town to resupply, get your food and head back to the trail before nightfall. If you want a shower, find someone who will give you one for free or at a discount, like at a YMCA, church, or campground.”? Other than to fuel your rant?
      Or this: ” It would seem like you need to get a better job or even two jobs.”? If you have two jobs you ain’t going to be doing much hiking.
      Then there’s this: ” Whether you are able to accept it or not, we’re all just consumers and directly or indirectly support corporations. If you don’t want to support corporations and/or you want to save the Earth then I can only suggest suicide as a sure way for you to adequately fulfill you’re punishingly difficult ideals.”
      Now just how did you get there from this: ” I don’t exist to support corporations, they don’t exist to support me. I use what I need and can get at the best value. “? Corporations exist to provide a product I want to buy at a price I’m willing to pay. Along the way they make a profit. If they try to focus solely on profit they have a BAD business model. This idea that corporations exist solely to maximize profits is inane, in fact it makes them sponges, beggars, et al. It’s just as bad for corporations to think we exist to give them money as it is for us to think they exist to give us money. It’s a two way street. And if you are blind to the abject corruption in modern corporate America you need to check your “conservative” credentials. And as I said, for the most part the people doing the mooching, begging, et al are the yellow blazing party types and not serious hikers. And if somebody needs a ride, maybe some help with food because their drop box didn’t show up, ect. I will try to help them. If they abuse it that’s on them. If their drinking, partying, ect then I won’t help them. It’s really not that hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

      • JohnW,

        If I’m not mistaken John Muir was a bit of a vagabond in his life I’m sure he ate a few meals and laid his head down for free many times.

        Look what he accomplished in his life.

        The list goes on I could name others but I find his example a common ground for all of us on this blog.

        I’m sure people said he should settle down get a job or two be productive do something with his life.

        Cheers friend,
        Marshall

      • Yes he was, and I hope some day to hike his trail. :)

      • I’d like to suggest that whatever you two guys choose to do in life that you do not pursue a career in law. You are completely incapable of defining issues and arguing them with any skill. Go back up to the first comment by Todd C perhaps his comment will help you understand the issue better. Moreover, I Googled John Muir and Wikipedia indicates that John Muir paid his own way through life…as did everyone back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. He worked his way through college and, pretty much, lived off the land, fishing and hunting, later in life in Yosemite.

      • This thread had turned very tiresome/boring and I’d ask that you stop posting these off-topic comments.

  4. I was on the AT this year and hostels are around 15 a night they offer a bunk with a pad and maybe a shower for your 15 dollars for the most part they are REALLY nice people some offer free shuttle rides to and from the trail I even met a trail angel who drove me into the next town 15 or 20 miles away to get my mail drop of food and allowed me to hit a grocery store as well she was awesome the only time I saw a shower sold separately they charged crazy prices for it like a dollar a minute to shower but this place was right on the trail and had you trapped so just plan wisely but expect hickups to happen as well

  5. I have found some amazing gear/tech clothing buys at the local thrift and consignment stores! The secret is to know brands and pay attention when you are flipping through the racks. I got a like-new Columbia Bugaboo coat for $6. I also seem to be particularly adept at finding LL Bean fleece shirts and wool sweaters- nothing like getting a $100 wool sweater for a couple bucks. I bought my pack (Jansport Ranier- external frame) on Ebay for a pittance and it was still new with tags. Bargains can be had if you look for them!

  6. Overall great advice, but I do have two comments related to the topics:

    6. Buy Thrift Store Clothing
    (black dress socks – these work great for hiking) The majority of dress socks are cotton or a cotton blend, and I have NEVER seen a label on socks identifying materials.

    9. Turn Off Your Utilities and Stop Paying Rent
    While this may sound great; most people can’t just up and move out for a few months and then move back in. Also, the comment regarding phones is somewhat misleading. A “monthly” plan implies service with a non-prepaid carrier; these usually include a contract or payment agreement – you can’t just “switch” without paying an early termination fee (unless you’re out of contract of course). I do agree with using prepaid service though; they are generally more consumer friendly from a pricing stand point.

  7. Great advice Phil, sadly the Trail support systems have changed so much over the years.

  8. 1. Trail shuttles are expensive, best to avoid. Seems like I’m only paying for shuttles when hiking with a group. Solo hiking is more hitchhiking friendly. I usually turn down rides if they ask for money as it seems to draw the less than savory crowd. In turn I never ask for money when I offer a ride.
    2. Paying for a stay at a hostel can be money well spent, but you don’t need to stop at every hostel along the way.
    3. Postage is expensive, probably best to minimize mail drops. In my case friends and family wanted to help out. It did save money on the trail but eventually you’ll have to support them in their endeavors, so it’s a wash.
    4. Amazon vs Wal-Mart? Wonder which has better prices?
    5. Used gear? All my gear, except a pair of rain pants, was used long before my thru-hike. I suppose I should shop around a bit before I buy gear, but when you buy high quality gear that’s just right for you it last a long time. Saving are minimal over a long period.
    6.Thrift stores can provide a great buy, but how much time do you have to invest for an occasional buy? May not be worth it.
    7. Multiple pairs of shoes? Your feet will change, perhaps not a good move.
    8. Making your own gear can be a great skill to have, it’s probably worth your time even if it doesn’t save you any money.
    9. Turning off your utilities is so hiker dependent that giving advice is pointless.
    10. Hiking faster? HYOH

  9. One item that never leaves my pack is a cashmere sweater from a thrift store. Soft light warm bacterial free fast drying. Best and longest lasting 4 bucks I ever spent!

  10. Great ideas. I recently purchased two great fitting synthetic quick drying T shirts from TJ maxx (a discount clothing store) for $8 a piece. Compared to the hiking name brand shirts at $40-$60, a fantastic deal. I would like to share two more ideas. Be more frugal at home in daily life so you have those extra bucks available when you need it in trail towns. Do more trail magic: my wife and I always try to offer up trial magic to other hikers. Perhaps giving more will promote more comraderie in the hiking community and inspire others to do the same.

  11. Regarding #7 I think this is a great idea, with one caveat. Break them in first. Breaking in new shoes or boots on the trail is a miserable experience. I also try to get the same shoes. Or at least similar ones.

  12. Another good reason to shop in thrift stores, you might find a 5 million dollar picture of Billy the Kid.

  13. I like all the tips here, but one thing that bothers me and my wife is the fact that there are a lot of people on the AT that are bums, homeless (by choice), drug users and people that just can’t cope with society. All these types of people give the true adventure backpackers a bad name in the small trail towns. My wife and I have watched a documentary called thru-hikers on YouTube by seven. This type documentary promotes unwanted behavior on the AT. We went backpacking last week and in countered some really nice folks, most father/son, husband/wife/kids and sobo thru-hikers. However we did stay in the Clyde smith shelter one night with a guy that was homeless by choice. He asked everyone there if we had drugs on us and he wanted to get high. Also he woke us all up in the middle of the night saying he was a prime murder suspect in a case on the AT. that night no one got any sleep and in the morning we all got up and packed and on the trail within ten minutes. I can see why folks in trail towns don’t want transient people coming through their towns. People like this and other give backpackers a really bad name.

  14. People like that give people a bad name. You should report his statements to the police.

  15. Sometimes my “heavy food” drops consist of olive oil. Not sure it saves money overall, but it is definitely a fast way to consume calories and fat.

  16. I bought a used Marmot Hydrogen 30f sleeping bag at Next Adventure in Portland OR for $140. A new REI ultra lightweight backpack for half off at $60. A used Eddie Bauer 700 down vest for $10 and a new Patagonia down jacket for $40 at Platoe’s Closet. Merrell Moab used shoes on Craigslist for $50. A Marmot rain jacket at Costco for $40.Marmot pants for $40 at Seirra Trading Post. Columbia hiking pants with zipped off legs for $15 (like new) at Goodwill. Many Nike tights and undershirts that can be used for hiking or biking at thrift stores . It take a LOT of Time to find these But you can save a LOT of Money !!!

  17. Thanks for all of the advice! I had no idea that you could actually send food to yourself by mail! That’s pretty awesome.

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