Insight on a Frugal Thru-hike

This post is a compilation of random tips, tricks, and gear advice that we believe is worth sharing to potential Appalachian Trail thru-hikers–or long-distance backpackers–who are on a budget. It’s the kind of stuff that Lucas and I wish we knew ahead of time.

In total, we spent about $3,000 each (gear included).

Hitch-hike, but be smart about it.

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Lookin’ completely hiker-ish with a purpose, aka not threatening to strangers.

We stuck out our grimy thumbs at passing trucks from the get-go; since Lucas had already hitched around Europe, there was no hesitation. In the beginning, many hikers called up taxis or shuttles to pick them up. Up until Harper’s Ferry, the unofficial halfway point, we still witnessed people calling up taxis. That cost adds up!

  • Most locals near the trail are aware of thru-hikers. They know that you need to resupply in town and want to help/like someone to talk to.
  • If the driver doesn’t ask where you’re headed to within 30 seconds of saying hello, looks at you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, or has an open beer can in their hand, don’t get into the car.
  • Try not to hitch alone, especially if you’re female.
  • You are absolutely allowed to turn people down! Make up an excuse. Say you forgot something, or that you’re actually waiting for a friend.
  • Stand by the road in a place where a car can easily pull-off.
  • Take note if hitching is illegal in the area.
  • Make fun signs like a big thumb, smile, or dance.
  • Go to grocery stores. People will ask if you need a ride back to the A.T.
  • If desperate, approach drivers at gas stations. Tell them your story.

Unless it’s a jacket or shoes, don’t worry about hiking-specific clothing.

Rockin' the hand-me-down hat and thrift store tank.

Rockin’ the hand-me-down hat and thrift store tank.

Instead, simply think synthetics and comfort. We both started with polyester shirts from Target, which we threw away after 700 miles and replaced them with thrift store shirts.

  • Synthetics hold smell, bad. Even if you buy a name brand shirt, it’ll eventually smell like cat urine, so why not recycle shirts and support local businesses for $2?
  • I sent my pants home early on and wore my long underwear under my shorts. It’s less weight, plus you have all the pockets you need.
  • Check hiker boxes for gloves, hats, and even boots.

Why pay to sleep somewhere when you can sleep in the woods for free?

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The morning after we slept in an alpaca barn at Four Pines.

…or on the outskirts of town…or (with their permission) behind a local’s house?

  • We stayed at hostels when all of our items were soaked or the owners were known for being awesome.
  • If you’re in the mood to meet locals, download the app Couchsurfing and give that a go, or simply talk to people you see.
  • If a hostel lists the price of every individual service in your guide book, beware. The nicest hostel owners (I encountered) have some sort of connection to the trail. They treat you like a human being not a profit, and then encourage you to leave donation.
  • Keep an eye out for work-for-stay options. There’s potential to learn skills/apply ones you already have in exchange for a bed.

It’s nice to be treated respectfully, so make sure to respect people in turn.

If the hostel is donation-based, leave a fair donation. If someone gives you a ride to the trail and tells you their story about how they’re struggling, politely offer a few bucks for gas.

Skip restaurants and hitch to the grocery store instead.

  • Load up on both nutritious and calorie-dense food to eat right then and there. For us, it was impossible to come into town not starving, so we’d do things like split a rotisserie chicken, eat a spring mix of lettuce from the bag, bananas, fresh loaves of bread and hummus, etc.
  • In cooler weather, load up on blocks of cheddar cheese; it keeps well for a few days. At times, Lucas and I ate a 1/4 lb. of cheese a day, and it was great. In New England, cheese that’s usually pricey ($4+) can be as low as $1.80.

Mail-drops are worth it, if you have enough time to plan ahead!

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Christmas Day

About half of our resupplies came from mail-drops, which were sent to not-the-best resupply points. When I made sure to vary the food, mail-drops were like Christmas. So yeah, keep them random and exciting!

  • If you buy items in bulk, the mail-drop becomes worth it. Let’s say a box is $15 to ship, and you have 10 clif bars in it that you bought at $.80 each and a huge jar of almond butter for $7. Already, you’ve saved at least $15 versus buying it at the store off the trail, and you still have a box to fill with more items bought at discounted prices.
  • Check-out Baltimore Jack’s resupply guide. It’s on point.
  • If the mail-drops are overly planned and mostly the same, you’ll end up ditching their contents in a nearby hiker box.
  • Stick mini candies in all the box’s empty spaces, except butterfingers because the texture changes.
  • It’s nice eating the (healthy) food you like, especially when the only resupply option is a convenience store.

Have lot’s of Ziplocks at all times. 

Just trust me on this one.

In the near future, I’ll make an in-depth post specifically about gear, but for now, I hope this helps you with your planning!

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