Cost of Thru-HikingDec 01, 2020
There are a few questions that have always been hard to answer - “Why do you do it?” for one - but I usually have a response that’s at least half-true and satisfies most people. However, there’s a question for which I’ve never had a good answer: “How much did it cost?”
To properly answer this question, you must either respond with an accurate figure or else say, “I don’t know.” Any other response is a lie. Math is the only academic subject that can’t be debated, and out of respect for that, I’ve never been OK with making up an answer.
I finally decided to take the time and figure out how much it costs to do a thru-hike. In this article, we’re specifically looking at my PCT LASH (Long-Ass Section Hike) in 2018.
For the most part, cost breaks down into three categories: Gear, Travel, and Daily Expenses.
If you use the same gear for multiple trips, it’s hard to put a figure on the cost of gear for any one trip. For many people, a thru-hike is once-in-a-lifetime, and for people like myself, the same tent can be used ten summers in row. We’ll look at how much gear would cost if only used once, and we’ll also see how much my gear has cost on a per-trip basis, given how many times it’s been used (and counting!)
Travel costs are mostly straightforward - how much did you spend to get there and back? Usually this is simply a pair of one-way flights, possibly along with a shuttle ride or two.
More than any other category, daily expenses can vary a lot. Some people will stay in hotels at every opportunity, while others can go months without paying for lodging. Some will spend $20 per meal, multiple times per day, while others are OK with cold oatmeal and a spoonful of peanut butter, in between whatever they find for free in the hiker box. While gear and travel expenses can only be somewhat mitigated, daily expenses are the one category that’s truly up to you.
Big Three Total - $985
Tent - $330
Sleeping Bag - $280
Sleeping Pad - $185
Backpack - $140
Big Three Per Use - $201
Tent (8) - $41
Sleeping Bag (10) - $28
Sleeping Pad (3) - $62
Backpack (2) - $70
I’ve had my sleeping bag for over a decade, and my tent for nearly as long, and they’re still holding up! They’re some of the most expensive things you’ll need to buy, but investing in a quality tent and sleeping bag won’t cost much in the long run.
A quality backpack should last just as long, but mine has only gotten so much use, since a lot of my summer trips are on a bicycle.
Clothing Total - $505
Jacket - $160
Shoes - $280
Socks - $15
Insoles - $50
Clothing Per Use - $366
Jacket (3) - $53
Shoes (1) - $280
Socks (2) - $8
Insoles (2) - $25
A lot of the clothing you’ll use is something you already have - chances are you own a pair of gym shorts that’ll work just fine for hiking. For this purpose, I’m only counting clothing purchased specifically for hiking/touring, compared to whatever clothing I already had or would’ve bought anyway, whether that be workout clothes or everyday use.
Also, I only hiked half of the PCT, so I’m pretending I bought twice as many shoes.
Miscellaneous Total - $292
Water Filter - $37
Trekking Poles - $170
Trowel - $25
Pocketknife - $15
Power Bank - $45
Miscellaneous Per Use - $82
Water Filter (6) - $6
Trekking Poles (4) - $43
Trowel (2) - $13
Pocketknife (3) - $5
Power Bank (3) - $15
Again, I’m not counting items I already had (like a toothbrush).
By far, the biggest expense is the “Big Three”, but on a per-use basis, that cost comes down considerably. A lot of clothing and miscellaneous gear can be made up of stuff most people would already own.
It’s worth pointing out that the “Per Use” cost is based on how many times I’ve used each item so far - a lot of this gear still has a lot of life left in it. While I tend to go on more adventures than many people, some of the figures will come down even more. Therefore, the Per Use figures shown here are decent ballpark estimates for most people.
Plane tickets - $210
Train ticket - $45
This one’s pretty straightforward. I rarely left the trail, and was able to hitchhike every time I did. In the end, my travel costs only came down to getting to and from the trail, which boiled down to two one-way plane tickets (both of which were surprisingly cheap) and one one-way train ticket.
Some might not be as lucky and need to pay for a private shuttle on either end of the trail, or might pay for a ride to leave the trail once or twice. Compared to my personal cost, it would be wise to round up.
Since I only hiked half of the PCT, this is double the figure actually spent.
As mentioned before, this can vary a lot. I’m notorious for scavenging from hiker boxes (part of my trail name, Coyote), and I took advantage of Trail Magic at every opportunity. On top of that, I don’t eat at restaurants nearly as much as others, and I’m content to stick to basics like oatmeal, tortillas, and peanut butter. Sometimes it felt like everyone else was hiking first class and I was the only one hiking coach.
That said, you’d have to spend money on food whether you went hiking or not, so should your food expenses count at all?
Since these figures are based on a sample size of one, the margin of error is large. In particular, my numbers for travel and daily expense are probably lower than most people’s, so when estimating your own cost, it would be wise to round up.
If a thru-hike is the kind of thing you’d do more than once, your per use cost drops dramatically - more than $1,000 in this case. When buying your gear, consider that. Does your gear need to hold up for multiple adventures, or does it need to just barely make it to the end of the trail? Depending on the answer, the good stuff is a smart investment and will cost less in the long run.