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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Gear Review: Salewa Wildfire Approach Shoes

 

Photo courtesy of Salewa

Photo courtesy of Salewa

One of the most important pieces of gear for long distance backpackers are their shoes. For my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I chose the Salewa Wildfire Approach Shoes. I knew that if I planned on hiking anything more than fifteen miles a day with a 25+ lb backpack, foot love was top priority. I’ll be honest, what originally attracted me to these shoes was its style; the futuristic look and bright color scheme of the Wildfires caught my eye. In fact, my boyfriend/hiking partner, Lucas, saw me checking out the different colors online and said, “Wow. I want those.”

After a bit of research, we both ordered our first pairs. I figured the shoe’s design would function well on the trail’s terrain and, long story short, it does. Untitled2

DESIGN

Although the Wildfires are an approach shoe, their sticky rubber, stiff sole, and unique ankle design serve well for long distance backpacking through tough terrain. There are many sections of the A.T. where scrambling up and down rocks is necessary, and the Vibram Tech Approach EVO sole gripped those rocks with no problem. As a rock climber (and shorter person), I appreciated the rubber toe box a lot. Instead of being forced to lunge up a section of rocky steps, I could find little toe chips and pockets to use as intermediates.

The sticky rubber also allowed Lucas and I the chance to slip off our packs and climb up boulders we saw along the trail, which is something you can’t do in a pair of traditional trail runners! 10336792_470475323085364_6745281100402170421_n

PERFORMANCE

They perform well on steep or uneven terrain, rocky descents, snow, dirt, and just about anything else. However, we did experience some slippage on mud and slick rocks, but I believe that becomes unavoidable to some extent. We purchased the shoes without Gore-Tex, and they dried overnight when laid sideways, which is important for a rainy Appalachian Trail afternoon. Lucas went the entire time without getting any blisters, giving credibility to Salewa’s “100% blister-free” claims. I, however, did acquire a tiny blister on one of my toes (it went away overnight though).

Many people use high-top boots on their hikes for the ankle support. During research, we came across theories that claimed the high-top ankle support actually weakens your body’s natural ability to stabilize itself. Since we have gone as far as we have without twisting an ankle (knock on wood), I’d say the ankle support in the Wildfires was enough.

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FIT

For six months, Lucas wore his Wildfires as his everyday street shoe. He was obsessed with the fit from the moment he took them out of the box. During our thru-hike, the shoes felt right, as if everything was how it should be in a shoe and the toe box was wide enough. That is, until our feet swelled. I made the mistake of ordering only a half size up–big mistake! I encourage you to buy a full size up from your street shoe if you intend to hike over 100 miles within a short period. Feet swelling and collapsed arches are inevitable when long distance backpacking!

Thankfully, the Wildfires are laced similar to climbing shoes, and extend far towards the toe. Again, buy your shoe that extra size up and just tighten the laces for a secure fit. Both Lucas and I found the customizable insoles interesting, but I admit that I did not take advantage of this feature because I used my own super stiff, replacement insole (which I regret). The MFF+ Footbed system is definitely something to play around with and use to create the best fit for your foot. The wider insoles and extra cushion in the heel options will help with foot swelling. We ended up re-lacing our shoes 500 miles into the A.T. because our feet widened too much.

Note: this strange method does allow the shoe to widen, but it doesn’t take advantage of the Wildfire’s unique lacing. photo 3(1)

DURABILITY

It’s not uncommon to see torn up shoes on the A.T.–seriously. Many thru-hikers sport duct tape on their shoes, or have a couple of toes hanging out the front. So, although parts of our shoes began to fall apart, there wasn’t much functional damage. Nothing that would hinder our hiking ability changed; there was no real tread wear and the toe box maintained its edge. I’m absolutely impressed with their durability!

The shoes only became less aesthetically pleasing with time. The first thing to show wear was the EXA shell that covers the bottom sides of the shoe–pieces of the beehive-like plastic began to fall off about 200 miles into our thru-hike. Next, we noticed the back and the sides of our ankle support wearing down to expose the inner foam. Luckily these changes did not effect the feel of our shoes–in truth, my heels couldn’t tell the difference. The rubber never separated from the outer fabric, and there are no holes either. photo 4

CONCLUSION

These shoes are absolutely superb/I highly recommend them. Wear them during a section hike, take them on a climbing trip, or sport them around town–it doesn’t matter, you’ll fall for their magical powers. If you plan on using them for a thru-hike, UP-size and enjoy! The quality of the Wildfire’s design and durability is suited for more difficult, technical hiking. This shoe makes a huge difference when scrambling over rocks. No joke, fellow hikers were envious of our gripping capabilities and asked to try on Lucas’ pair.

In the end, I wore my shoes for a little over 600 miles, and since Lucas wore his for 6 months before the trail, we guess his accumulated mileage is near 1,000. If we would have sized properly, I’d say the shoes could have easily handled 1,500 miles. Soon, we will be sporting new pairs of Firetails, which are the next model up in stiffness. We plan on walking in them all the way to Katahdin!