How Much Does a Thru Hike Cost?

Ask any veteran long distance hiker for advice and you’ll usually get a confident answer.  Need a shelter recommendation?  No problem.  Want to cut some weight from your pack?  Just hand me some scissors and let’s get started.  But ask about how much a through hike costs and you’re bound to get something cagey like “It’s about a dollar per mile, but oh are you thinking Canadian dollars and what was inflation last year anyway?” or perhaps “You’d better have ten grand.”  or even “Dude! It only cost me $500 because I yogi’d all the way and caught fish! Wanna see my pole?”

Here’s the least helpful, but most true answer:  It depends.

Everyone comes to a thru-hike with a unique set of circumstances.  Some have just finished school or have tied up loose ends from a past life and are relatively obligation-free.  Others are supporting children, paying a mortgage, and are able to make ends meet just enough to afford the time away.  Everyone leaves a thru-hike with a unique set of circumstances as well.  Some folks are lucky enough to have jobs held and can dig right into work when the hiking is done.  Others have left their careers and are planning to move onto the next thing, but future income is uncertain.  Still others have retired.  So there’s a lot to be factored into the actual cost of a thru hike.

But on the trail, everyone pretty much has the same types of expense:  food, gear repair and replacement, and town expenses like shipping, motels/hostels, and restaurants.  The degree to which hikers indulge in the latter costs probably accounts for the larger variations in on-trail expenses.  This post focuses on the on-trail costs, the ones that are a little easier compare from hiker to hiker.

So what do thru-hikers actually spend while on the trail?  765 AT and PCT thru-hikers from years 2013 and 2014 responded to a survey about their on-trail expenses.  Hikers were asked to estimate how much money they spent while on the trail and given six possible spending categories from which to choose.  Hikers were asked not to include any routine expenses from home or travel costs to and from the trail head.  Results, noted below, are first stratified by age group with both trails combined, then by whether hikers hiked solo or as partners and broken out by trail.  Partners were defined as hikers who reported hiking with another person and sharing expenses for more than 75% of the way.  Hikers who hiked with anther person more than 75% of the way, but did not share expenses were considered solo hikers for this analysis.

Here’s a look at the raw data:

Spending vs. Age Category

Results for 765 AT and PCT thru-hikers in 2013-14.
 Less than $1,000$1,000 - $2,999$3,000 - $4,999$5,000 - $6,999$7,000 - $8,999More than $9,000
Under 20
184221
20 - 29487176954313
30 - 3911739402415
40 - 490132018124
50 - 59112183099
Over 6005111876

This is a little difficult to draw a meaningful interpretation from, so the chart below represents a percentage view.

CAUTION:  Interpret the percentages with a big grain of salt, especially if you are in the upper age groups or under 20.  Age group distribution was highly unequal with the bulk of hikers landing in the 20-29 and 30-39 age group.  Consequently, percentage figures for hikers over 40 and under 20 may not be truly representative, but percentage figures for hikers 20-39 are likely to be accurate.

cost versus age for 765 AT and PCT hikers Clearly, although hikers share similar expense categories while on the trail, there is still a wide distribution of spending on both trails that is not easily predicted by age group.  Most hikers seemed to cluster in the $3,000 – $7,000 range.

Is there a difference between trails?  Again, it depends…

solo spend AT and PCT

351 AT and 230 PCT solo thru-hikers almost exactly mirrored each other in spending categories.  So, even though the PCT is about 500 miles longer than the AT, the proportion of hikers in each spending category did not differ between trails (chi-square, p=0.875).  How about for partners?

Partner spent AT and PCTThe partners figures, interestingly, showed a statistically significant unequal distribution (chi-square, p=0.013) when comparing the two trails.  Hiking partners on the PCT (78 hikers) seemed to spend in the lower categories compared to hiking partners on the AT (106 hikers), who clustered in the higher spending categories.   Why could this be?

We can probably rule out geopolitical differences between trails.  If it were simply a matter of more opportunities to spend on the AT compared to the PCT, then both the partners and the solo hiking figures would show differences.  But this is not the case.  Is there something about AT partners compared to PCT partners that might account for the difference?  For instance, are hiking partners on the AT more well-off than hiking partners on the PCT?

Data on annual household income was not collected in this survey, but data on age was.  Theoretically, if AT hiking partners had significantly more representation in the older age groups, this might have accounted for increased spending on the AT due to greater levels of disposable income.  Unfortunately, no relationship was found between age group and spending on either trail.  This might be because a substantial majority of AT and PCT hiking partners fell in the 20-29 or 30-39 age group, so there may not have been enough data from the upper age groups to show a relationship, if one exists at all.

Age distribution of hiking partners on the AT and PCT

 

So the reason AT partners spend more than PCT partners remains a mystery, one which I am glad to investigate further if anyone wants to send a hypothesis my way.

If age group and trail aren’t very good indicators, is there any factor that can predict on-trail expenses?  It turns out that hike time, defined as total number of days on the trail, is a very good predictor of the likelihood of a solo hiker falling into any given spending category.  (There was no such predictive relationship between hike time and spending for partners.)

The below chart, the final one in this post, shows the predicted probabilities of being in each spending category for solo hikers.  Longer hike times are generally associated with slightly increased probability of being in higher spending categories.  This is pretty much a case of using statistics to verify common sense.

Solo Hikers: Predicted Probability of Spending Category by Hike Time (Days)

Based on data from 581 solo hikers on the AT and PCT in 2013-14
 Less than $1,000$1,000 - $2,999$3,000 - $4,999$5,000 - $6,999$7,000 - $8,999More than $9,000
50 days0.4%35.1%39.8%19.0%4.5%1.2%
100 days0.7%27.7%40.1%23.2%6.4%2.0%
150 days1.0%21.2%38.8%27.1%8.7%3.2%
200 days1.4%15.7%36.1%30.4%11.4%5.0%

The problem with this information is that it can be challenging for a hiker to predict his or her hiking time before starting out.  Also, the differences in probability between spending categories are small, so there isn’t too great of a significance from category to category.  Most people spend in a general mid range regardless of hike length.

You might, by now, have a good sense of how much to budget for a thru-hike or you might not be any better off than you were when you started reading this post!  In the end, there’s a a wide cost range to consider and , in addition to hike time for solo hikers, time in towns doing things like dining out, staying in motels, and making big gear changes might also play a role in the cost swings.

At the minimum, having about $5,000 set aside for on-trail expenses should work for most people planning to thru-hike the AT or PCT.  This might exceed the mark for many, but make those who enjoy a little more creature comfort feel slightly under-budgeted.

 

 

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