Ballpark estimate: $1,400+ for gear and $1,000+ month for expenses on the trail
Each year, a few thousand people attempt the exciting and rigorous adventure of “thru-hiking” the nearly 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail (or AT), although only about 25 percent ever complete the trek.
The beautiful AT runs through 14 states in the eastern United States, with Springer Mountain in Georgia on one end and Mount Katahdin in Maine at the other. A complete thru-hike takes about five to seven months. Aside from preparing yourself physically, mentally, and logistically, you’ll need to plan for the costs of the hike, which involves a number of categories, including trip preparation, such as making sure you have all the right gear, clothing, and trip insurance, and then costs on the trail itself, such as the expenses for food, accommodations, and postage for mail drops.
The amount you’ll spend on gear depends on how much you already own. Your most important major pieces of gear will be your backpack, tent, and sleeping bag. Visit an outdoors outfitter and have them fit you with an internal frame pack that is comfortable and proportioned well for your build.
Plan to bring a sleeping bag rated to 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit. A down sleeping bag will be warm and lightweight and compresses well for packing. A bag with synthetic fill will be cheaper and will remain warmer when wet than down. If your tent doesn’t leak and has a footprint, down will probably be the better choice.
It’s a good idea to bring a tent because the Appalachian Trail shelters may fill up. This is where you’ll need to decide how much weight you want to carry and how much you want to spend. There are a number of lightweight, 1-person backpacking tents available over a wide range of prices.
When it comes to clothing, this is definitely a case of “less is more.” You’ll want to bring minimal but good quality clothing to keep your pack light—generally only one or two of each item. The less you carry, the happier you’ll be, but you also need to be prepared for the types of weather you could encounter over the course of your journey. Many folks recommend synthetic fabrics rather than cotton because they will dry faster and help you avoid hypothermia. Basic clothing items you’ll want to bring include a down jacket, a windproof or waterproof shell, a warm hat, a sun hat, gloves, wool or smartwool socks, synthetic short-sleeve and long-sleeve T-shirts, a warmer layering shirt, convertible hiking pants, and hiking boots or trail shoes.
For footwear, comfort and good fit are critical. Hiking boots will provide good ankle support when carrying a loaded pack, but some hikers use lighter weight hiking shoes. Use the expertise of the staff at an outdoor store to help you pick footwear that fits you well. Also consider that you may need to buy more than one pair of boots if you wear through them during the trip.
You’ll need a number of other lower cost but important items that can nonetheless add up. These include cooking gear (backpacker stove, pot, spork, bowl, stove fuel), water filtration, lighting (headlamp, lightweight solar powered lantern), a water bottle, a pocket knife or Swiss Army knife, a first aid kit, two or three stuff sacks, possibly hiking poles, toiletries, sunscreen, and bug repellent.
The last thing you want to happen on your trip is an injury or illness without access to get the treatment you need. While your health insurance plan should offer protection for routine ailments and emergencies, if your coverage is not very comprehensive or if you have very high deductibles, you may want to look into travel insurance to help fill in the gaps. Compare quotes and terms, and make sure you understand the deductibles you’d be subject to so you can find the plan that makes the most sense.
Food will be your biggest cost on the trail, since many hikers consume upwards of 5,000 calories per day on the trail. You’re also going to need to restock your food about once a week, either by shopping when you stop at towns along the way or by having a series of dropboxes with food mailed to you. Boxes can be sent to town post offices general delivery for you to pick up when you arrive at various destinations. Many people prefer a combination of both shopping and dropboxes to make sure their dietary needs are covered properly. You can try an online hiking food supply calculator to help you plan ahead.
Most of the time, you’ll likely be sleeping in your tent or in one of the three-sided shelters along the trail. However, you may spend some time in hotels or hostels to get a break from the trail, especially when weather conditions are difficult. You should also figure on some extra for accommodations when you reach a town. There are low-cost or donation-based hostels in the towns that cater to hikers, although if you want more comfortable accommodations and have room for it in your budget, you can spend a bit more for a hotel.
Planning for Shipping
Shipping costs can be a significant budget item when you hike the Appalachian Trail. If you are planning to use drop boxes to resupply your food, you should budget enough for about 20 to 28 boxes for the course of your journey.
Many hikers also use a smart strategy called a “bounce box” that contains items that they want to access occasionally without having to carry them in their backpacks. These include extra batteries, changes of clothes, toiletries, and other replacement supplies. The bounce box gets shipped along to each town as they hike along. If you go for this option, you can pick it up, access what you need, and then repack and ship to your next stop. You’ll need to plan your shipping costs for the number of stops where you want to retrieve, access, and then ship the box.
Costs to Prepare for Hiking the Appalachian Trail
When budgeting to hike the Appalachian Trail, here’s an overview of what to expect. Assuming you’re starting from scratch with your gear and buying new items, here’s what you’ll need to prepare for your trip:
- A good backpack, which can cost anywhere from $150 to about $300.
- A quality sleeping bag for $100 to $200.
- A sleeping pad (inflatable or a lightweight foam) from $50 to $150.
- A lightweight 1-person backpacking tent that weighs under 3 lbs., from $200 to $500 or more.
- To buy study basic clothing and footwear for your trip, you might spend anywhere from about $500 to around $1,000. You should factor in an additional safety margin of a few hundred dollars in case you need to replace your footwear a few times (remember you are hiking over 2,000 miles!)
- Total costs for other gear, depending upon which products you choose, can run from around $400 to $700.
- For travel insurance, if you do need to go this route, you can figure that a policy might cost you as much as $800 to $2,000 or more for a long-haul hike, depending on the policy and not counting deductibles.
Costs Once You’re Actually On the Appalachian Trail
Once you’re actually on the Appalachian Trail, you’ll have a variety of ongoing costs as well. These costs can vary from person to person, but a good rule of thumb is generally about $1,000 per month while on the trail. (Most people are on the trial five to seven months.)
Here are a few examples of what this might include:
- Food costs are about $10 to $20 a day or more.
- Hostels cost about $15 to $40 per night, while hotels are about $100 per night. (You can estimate one night a week in a hostel or hotel while in town).
- Flat rate boxes for your food shipments or bounce box currently cost about $14 to $19 to ship by U.S. Postal Service.
Cost Savings Option
Before you go out and buy all of your gear from your trip, it’s a good idea to shop in your own home and see if what items you already own that you can use. You can also ask family and friends if they have any gear you can borrow, or look online for used items in good condition so you can save a little money on the front end of your trip.