Recently, someone asked me, “how do you afford to thru-hike?” He’s not the first person to ask, so I wrote an answer.
I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to hike and travel as much as I have in the past 5+ years. There’s no secret trust fund or sugar momma supporting me, but it would be dishonest not to acknowledge the support that makes thru-hiking possible. For example, my parents have allowed me to stay on their health insurance until I’m 26. I also come from an upper middle class background, which gives me an edge in finding well-paying work to save aggressively.
That said, the way I see it you need three things to thru-hike: money, time, and desire.
Requisite #1: Money
If you look at my financial breakdown from my Te Araroa hike, you’ll see that distance hiking is actually a pretty affordable lifestyle. Living on $30/day is well below the poverty line, and you can look at the details in that article to get a better idea of how I keep my hikes affordable.
Still, $3000 is no small sum of money. For a lot of people saving any money at all is impossible. Being a young, healthy individual helps; by living frugally I manage to save enough money to thru-hike. The trick isn’t making six figures or finding lucrative investment strategies, but spending less. For example, I saved over 50% of every paycheck I made in 2015, which funded my PCT and TA hikes in 2016-2017. Here are some of the things I did:
I found an awesome roommate and a cheap apartment in a less expensive part of town.
I rarely ate out. Instead, I bought 50 pound bags of rice and beans from the ethnic grocery store and cooked them for many lunches and dinners.
Meat is expensive, so I ate vegetarian.
Alcohol is expensive, so I rarely drank.
I didn’t own a car. Instead, I bought a bicycle on Craigslist and rode it to and from work. Biking (or walking) to work in the winter was a sacrifice but worth it. Every February morning I had to trudge through the snow to get to work, I told myself it was training for Sierra snowpack.
I did bodyweight fitness in my apartment or local park and skipped the gym membership.
I used my library card for books, movies, and music. I love my library card!
Since then, I’ve also found odd jobs between hikes to supplement my savings, such as working on a farm in Oregon and au pairing in New Zealand.
Requisite #2: Time
Personally, I think for most people finding the time to hike is harder than actually raising the funds. When they ask, “how can you afford to thru-hike,” what they’re really asking is, “how can you leave your life for so long?” Their question is actually one of freedom, not personal finance. The reality for many is that other commitments make spending 4-6 months (let alone 18-24) in the woods too great a sacrifice. In the pursuit of trails and adventures, I’ve avoided commitments. Here are some things that I don’t have:
Looking at the list above, I think a lot of those other things are great—I’d like to have children as well as go to graduate school some day. They’re also probably the 7 most common reasons people give for why they don’t actualize their dream of thru-hiking.
At the end of the day life is about opportunity cost. The way I see it, my time is the limiting factor, so deciding how to spend it is important. Sure, I want to thru-hike and I want to go to grad school, but I can’t do both simultaneously so I have to make a choice. Tomorrow my preferences could change, but today I prioritize travel and thru-hiking above most else. There’s a great anecdote about Warren Buffett on this subject.
Requisite #3: Desire
Without getting too philosophical or self-helpy, the most important requisite for thru-hiking is a desire to thru-hike. Having the drive comes first and foremost—money and time can be sorted out if you have the desire, but no amount of time and money will get you to the trailhead. It seems obvious, but I thru-hike because I want to thru-hike.
And while this might sound like semantics, I think my approach to hiking is important: I don’t dream about thru-hiking, I set the goal of thru-hiking. For each of my hikes, I have set a concrete goal and then worked to realize it:
January 2014 – I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail the following summer; over the next four months my number one priority became solving the logistical and financial hurdles towards this goal.
January 2015 – I decided I wanted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and Te Araroa back-to-back. I figured out how much it would cost, how long it would take, and what gear was necessary. I aggressively saved money over the following year so that I could leave my job in the spring of 2016 to hike both.
January 2017 – I decided I wanted to hike the Sierra High Route and do a hike with my dad in 2017. I stayed in New Zealand longer than expected so that my time would be free in August and September for both of these adventures.
I’ve never had time and money set aside before deciding to thru-hike. Instead, I made it work. You want to thru-hike? Commit to it. Pick your date. Make it happen. This might all seem idealistic, but remember: nobody ever walked from Mexico to Canada by accident. You have to intentionally work—and often sacrifice—to accomplish the things you want to do in life.