How much does it cost to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail?
This is a big question for anyone that’s considering thru-hiking the AT. When I started dreaming of thru-hiking, I thought there was no way I could make it happen until I was retired, had all my debts paid off, and didn’t need to work anymore. In my late 20s/early 30s, I was swimming in debt and living paycheck to paycheck. The idea of getting away from life for 6 months on the trail was tempting, but the cost felt prohibitive. It wasn’t until I started doing some research and really thinking outside the box was I able to come up with a plan to save and budget for a 6 month trek.
A quick google search will recommend planning to spend $1000 per month on the trail, and when most hikers take 5-7 months to complete the trail, that comes out to $5,000-$7,000 total. But not only is that recommendation a bit dated due to today’s inflation rates, but it doesn’t include any initial gear purchases, at-home expenses, or post trail expenses. In 2022, I spent around $8000 during my thru-hike, which included my on-trail expenses and at-home expenses, and another $1000 on my initial gear set up. It took my 6 months to get from Georgia to Maine, which averaged out to around $1300 a month.
The cost to thru-hike can vary greatly from one person to the next, and there are many factors that will affect your budget, including the time you spend on trail, the level of comfort you desire on your journey, your gear choices, and your at-home expenses.
- Time on Trail: The first factor is the amount of time you spend on the trail. Most thru-hikers complete their 2,000+ mile journey in 5-7 months. Those that hike faster will spend less money on their thru-hike, and those that take more time on the trail will spend more. I finished my hike in 6 months, but I had budgeted and saved for 7 months of expenses, so I had some extra cushion when I finished.
- Level of Comfort: While you’re hiking the AT, you’ll need to stop and resupply every 4-6 days. That means you’ll get off the trail and go into town to get more food and supplies. Most hikers will also stop at a hostel or motel for a shower, a hot meal, and a bed for the night. And town days can get expensive! You’ll need to consider what level of comfort you need to keep going. Can you get by with a bare bones hostel stay and a cheap meal that you cook yourself? Or will you want a lush hotel bed and dinner at a nice restaurant? Will you need to stay in town once a week? Twice a week? Would you prefer to pay for shuttle services to town and back? Or are you comfortable sticking out your thumb for a free ride? Are you ok eating cheap ramen noodles on trail, or do you want to splurge on freeze dried backpacking meals? I consider myself to be pretty frugal in my everyday life, and I don’t live with a lot of luxuries. But when I was on trail, I loved stopping in town to eat at a restaurant and get a hot shower. I ate a lot of inexpensive food on the trail, but I also had enough saved to pack the occasional Mountain House meal in my resupply. And thankfully, I had budgeted and saved enough money to afford to give myself those little luxuries.
- Gear Choices: Before you start your journey on the AT, you’ll have to buy all of your gear- backpack, tent, sleep system, etc. Gear prices can add up pretty quickly, especially if you are buying the “best” you can find. The most lightweight gear is going to be the most expensive, but it will also save pounds off your pack weight and save your body a lot of pain and discomfort. Initial gear costs can range from $1,000-$3,000, and some gear items will need to be replaced during your trek (like your shoes).
- At-Home Expenses: This is a big one that people don’t often consider when planning their hike, and it can vary hugely from person to person. What kind of expenses will you still need to take care of back home while you are out in the mountains for 5-7 months? Do you have a mortgage or rent to pay? Do you have debts that need to be paid, like student loans, car payments, and credit cards? What about car insurance and health insurance? And utilities, internet, phone bills, and subscription services? All of these will influence your monthly expenses during your thru-hike.
Thru-Hiker Budget Break-Down
I’m going to outline four major categories of a thru-hiking budget that you’ll need to consider when planning how much to save for your hike, as well as some tips to help you save some money on each category.
1. Initial Gear Expenses
How much to save? $1,000 - $3,000
- The Big Three - $800-$1700
The “big three” are the three most expensive (and three heaviest) pieces of equipment in your setup. These include your backpack, your shelter, and your sleep system. Backpacks generally start around $200 and go up from there, depending on the size, the materials used, and the brand. You can get a 65L internal frame backpack from REI for around $200-$250, but an ultralight pack from a cottage gear company may be closer to $300-400. Your shelter (tent or hammock setup) can range anywhere from $200-$700+. Popular brands such as Nemo or Big Agnes may cost $400-$500, but there are a lot of companies that make ultralight tents that can cost quite a bit more. Your sleep system includes your sleeping pad and sleeping bag or quilt. Again, you can choose big brands from your local gear store, or shop online from cottage companies, and the prices will range from $400-600.
- Everything Else: $200-$1300
The rest of your gear, including clothing, shoes, trekking poles, cook kit, and accessories will vary greatly depending on what you decide to bring and how much you want to spend. Name brands will always be more expensive, but there are high quality alternatives to every piece of gear. I recommend researching and reading some gear reviews online and buying from stores with good return policies so you can make exchanges if you need to. You can find my full gear list from my 2022 thru-hike here and my list of resources for gear reviews here.
Tips for Saving Money on Gear
2. On-Trail Expenses
How much to save? $1500 per month on trail ($7500-$10,500 total)
- Food / Resupply - $800-$1000 per month
Thru-hikers eat a lot of food! And the costs of food and resupplies add up very quickly. You can expect to burn between 3,000-5,000 calories per day while on the trail, so you need to be able to consume enough calories to compensate for that. Most hikers can’t carry enough calories to fuel themselves and run on a calorie deficit. Then when they get to town, they have to gorge themselves on town food to replenish what they’ve lost. It’s hard to pass by a burger joint or a Mexican restaurant when you’ve been surviving off ramen and instant mashed potatoes for months. You can generally expect to resupply every 4-5 days on the AT, so plan to spend some money at restaurants in addition to your trail food. Sometimes you’ll resupply at a grocery store or Walmart, but a lot of the time, you’ll only have access to a Dollar General, a local convenience store, or even a gas station. A lot of the foods you’ll buy are single serve packaged foods, like Knorr Rice Sides, instant oatmeal packets, protein bars, ramen noodles, and candy bars. These convenience foods can get expensive. On my 2022 thru-hike, I tried to resupply every 4 days and would easily spend $80-100 at the grocery store each time. I would also stop at a restaurant for lunch and/or dinner before getting back on the trail and expect to pay $25-35 per meal.
- Hostels / Hotels / Motels- $200+ per month
I hear a lot of potential thru-hikers bawk at the cost of thru-hiking. It doesn’t anything to sleep in the woods! But thru-hiking is physically and mentally exhausting, and it’s nice to get out of the woods every once in a while and go to town for a bed and a hot shower. There are many hiker hostels along the trail that offer bunk style rooms with shared kitchens, bathrooms, laundry, and communal spaces. They typically charge $35-50 per night and may or may not include meals. Nice hotels are hard to come by along the trail, but you’ll often find small motels that are easy to get to. Just like anywhere else, motels and hotels can range in cost. I typically say motels around $80-100 a night and hotels around $150-200. If you take a “zero” while in town, you’ll spend 2 nights in a hostel or motel so that you can take an entire day off from hiking. I usually spent the night in a hostel or motel about once a week and took a zero day every other week.
- Shuttles - $0-$300 per month
Shuttle services have become very common along the AT. When you need to get to town to resupply, you can either get to a road crossing and hitchhike or you can call and arrange for a shuttle driver to pick you up. Hitch-hiking is free, but has it’s obvious risks. And shuttle drivers typically charge $2-3 per mile depending on how far they have to travel. You can find shuttle drivers’ phone numbers in the FarOut app, the AWOL guide, on WhiteBlaze.net and at many outfitters and hostels. Most shuttles I used on the AT cost $20-40 to get me into town and back.
- Gear Replacements - $100+ per month
There are some items of gear that you will definitely have to replace while you are on trail, and your shoes are a must! I went through 5 pairs of trail runners during my thru-hike, and they cost around $150 a pair. I also replaced my shoe inserts, socks, and some clothing items. I didn’t have any serious gear malfunctions, but I did end up switching from a hammock set up to a tent, which was a big expense. I was glad to have the wiggle room in my budget to account for gear replacements.
- Increasing Costs as You Hike North:
It’s important to mention that on trail expenses are not the same in every state! Everything is more expensive in the northern states than in the south. Meals, resupplies, hostels, and hotels will get more expensive the further north you go, so factor that into your monthly budget. I began in Georgia, and planned for around $1000-$1200 per month for the first few months and then increased it to $1500 per month for the second half of my thru-hike.
Tips for Saving Money on On-Trail Expenses
3. At-Home Expenses
How much to save? It Depends
I’ve gone through what kinds of expenses to expect for your daily life while on the AT, but what about the expenses that occur at home? Depending on your situation, you may have to pay a number of bills related to your home situation while you’re away. These may include:
Make a list of all of your at-home expenses and break it down into a monthly cost. Some things may be cheaper when you’re on trail (like your electric bill), while others may be more expensive (such as health insurance). Look for ways to reduce your at-home expenses and cut costs during your thru-hike.
Tips for Saving Money on At-Home Expenses
4. Post-Trail Expenses
How much to save? 2-3 months living expenses
When you are planning out your budget for your thru-hike, don’t forget to factor in your plans for after the trail. Will you want to travel to visit with friends and family? Will you need to find a new job? Will you need to find a new place to live or buy a new car if you sold it before your hike? I suggest setting aside enough savings for 2-3 months of expenses for after your thru-hike, as it may take some time to get settled back in to “real life.” When I finished my thru-hike, I took a whole month off to just rest my body and get my mind back into a place to start working again. Soon after that, I ended up changing careers, moving closer to the trail, and starting my own business. All of those changes cost money, and I was happy to have saved enough to give myself a buffer during the transition.
Follow Your Dream!
Just looking at the raw numbers can be daunting, but don't let the cost of thru-hiking take you away from your dreams! If you really want it, make a plan to make it happen and follow through. You may have to make some sacrifices, but remember that nothing worth doing is ever easy.
If you want to learn more about thru-hiking, sign up for one of my online Thru-Hiker Prep classes, where I'll go over everything you need to know to get started with planning your Appalachian Trail journey.
And if you want to get a taste of the AT, but you're not ready to commit to a full thru-hike yet, check out some of my guided backpacking trips or get in touch to plan a private trip.