Ideas for an Inexpensive Thru-hike
by Weathercarrot, posted on 13 Nov 2003
The following is a much-expanded version of something I posted a month or two ago. It seems like this is the time of year when the info below might be particularly useful for those planning to start a long distance AT hike next spring. My focus here is specifically on the feasibility of hiking the trail inexpensively, with specific logistical and resupply info to go with that. Most of this will be obvious to many of you, but I wanted to address how doable this kind of hike is to those who haven't had the long distance hiking experience.
I have learned over time how to hike significantly cheaper than what is now the average cost of thru-hiking. I managed to do the trail last year on not much more than $1,100. I know that sounds very low and not all that feasible, but for me it has just been a matter of practice over the last 12 years (and that still included all food eaten, postage, new walkman, pair of new shoes, hostels, and even pizza and ice cream). The first time I thru-hiked, I spent at least $2,000, and that was in 1991 when it was somewhat cheaper to hike. Then while the cost went up, I went the opposite direction and spent less and less. It's simply a matter of transitioning into and getting yourself used to a certain level of self-discipline. It can even become a game of "how little money can i spend in this town?" There are some basic and simple techniques that can go a long way toward this goal. The biggest of which is to minimize the amount of *time* spent in town, including not staying the night. For example, if you plan on getting to town around mid-morning, you can spend multiple hours there doing your resupply and other chores and head out with enough time to do several more miles by dark, or just to the first place out of town to pitch your tent, or whatever. If you restrict your town nights and days off in town to just a select few where you especially feel the extended town experience is vaulable, then you're already making a big cumulative difference over the whole trail. Selecting those places can be based on perhaps knowing ahead of time where the really cheap town lodging/camping is, working off your stay in a few places, and almost never doing motels (unless splitting it with a bunch of people).
Other ways to minimize cost include not being a drinker or a smoker. for so many people, alcohol adds up to sometimes well over a thousand dollars on top of everything else. Also, eating at restaurants very selectively, and resisting the temptation for much of the time. This can actually be the hardest thing to do when hiking cheaply. but on the other hand, I got so used to my $1000 budget that if i had $2,000, it would feel like the whole hike was filled with town luxuries. So in the end, it's all very relative. Of course, for those spending $3000-5000, switching to the low budget hike would be very difficult, but then again we can always shape our frame of reference to fit whatever the goal is. If you hike as if you can only spend 1000, then 2000 will feel perfectly reasonable.
What follows is my list of resupply and logistical suggestions for thru-hikng the AT on a very low budget (although it can be useful to any other budget as well). This is based on the "self-supported" method of resupply - buying along the way and sending ahead from good grocery locations to poor grocery locations. The benefits of this include not having to do as much pre-hike food/maildrop preparation, less postage cost, and more flexibility as you hike north. I combine that with section by section tips on minimizing how much money one spends, including which towns I would recommend staying in (at which loacation) and which you might be better off passing through with just basic town chores and hiking out. This list is also based on the premise of limited maildrops and assumes that you would be eating primarily grocery store food rather than dehydrating your own stuff and mailing all of it (which is no less valid a method - it just depends on what one's priorities are). Lots of other combinations would work as well - the degree of detail here is not meant to imply that other perspectives are less successful. This is just some of what has worked best for me after trying different things. In addition I would also highly recommend taking a look at Jack Tarlin's resupply list, located in the Links section of this site.
Important Notes - the number of days listed after a location is how many days of food to hike out of town with (*for a roughly average pace*). Amount of food bought may be less, since you'll sometimes hike into town with food left over in your pack, or you may find some in hiker boxes, or whatever. Also, buying in town means that you have to be flexible based on selection. Some of these resupplies are only a few days apart from each other, largely to cut down on food weight in your pack, and I've chosen the more convenient towns. It is often a better option to send maildrops to non-PO locations, since the hours can be longer and you're less likely to have those weekend closure problems. If a given town below has a maildrop listed, I'll specify if it's a post office or something else. For specific addresses and zip codes, refer to the AT Data Book and the AT Companion.
- Leave Springer with 4-5 days of food (Neels Gap is about 3 days away, but it would mean buying 1-2 days less there)
- Neels Gap: 3-4 days (buy - assuming there is still somewhat of a selection there). It's worth staying at the hostel here if you can afford it. Otherwise, hike another 1-4 miles and camp on the ridge.
- Hiawassee: (via Dicks Creek Gap) - 6 days - buy at supermarket in town, or have a maildrop at Blueberry Patch Hostel (and stay there as well - one of my favorites). I would plan on staying at the last shelter before town, get to the hostel in the late morning and take the afternoon off). One can also split a room in town with people, or do a short day in and hike out after you resupply.
- SKIP Franklin and Rainbow Springs (Franklin will be tempting, but I like to do the bigger carry from the Blueberry Patch and stay in the woods longer, thus spending less $)
- Wesser: 2-3 days - buy to add to whatever is left over in your food bag - don't be picky here - or have a *very* small mail drop at the NOC store/outfitters. I like getting into NOC after an early start from Wesser Bald Shelter, spend about 2-3 hours doing laundry, resupply, and then if it's a nice day, a afternoon long climb up to the top of Cheoah Bald to camp with an awesome sunset (or the shelter before that).
- Fontana: 7 days, to avoid Gatlinburg (unless you have some desire to go there). Maildrop at the PO. Store is expemsive and selection not reliably consistent. Stay in Fontana shelter or go into the park if there's time in the day.
- Hot Springs: 5 days (maildrop at PO or buy if not picky). If staying at Elmer's or the Duckett House, you can usually work off your stay, and you can have maildrop there as well.
- Erwin: 5 days - buy at supermarket, or have maildrop at Miss Janet's House (and definately stay there as well - conveniently downtown near PO and stores).
- SKIP the towns of Roan Mtn and Elk Park.
- Kincora Hostel: 4 days (maildrop at Hostel) Don't miss this place... spend at least two nights. Don't worry - it's affordable.
- Damascus: 5-6 days - buy at combination of stores or maildrop at PO. Stay at hostel.
- Atkins: 3 days - best option is to have maildrop at the motel (right on the AT) and you don't have to stay there to have a drop. Formerly the Village motel, this has changed ownership and name. you'd have to call ahead from around Hot Springs or Erwin to confirm that they have the same previous arrangement, and to get an address (if not in the companion). mail from around Kincora. hike out to next shelter picking up water from spring on the way.
- Bland: 3 days (buy, or skip to Pearisburg having carried more food out of Atkins.) shelter north of town is convenient if it's late.
- Pearisburg: 6 days (buy at one of three supermarkets) Stay at hostel, split room at the Rendezvous, camp 4 miles north of town, or at the next shelter beyond that (Rice Field - nice spot).
- Daleville/Troutville: 8 days or 4 days (buy - Kroger Supermarket very near trail). split room with many in motel, or camp outside of town. next shelter is not too far.
- If you have a hard time making it to Waynesboro in 8 days, or if it's too heavy a load, there are a number of other places to pick up some extra in between (Big Island or Glasgow, about half way, split into four days a carry). However, for me it was always worth carrying the full 8-ish days out of Troutville so I didn't have to deal with any other logistics and cost in this section.
- Waynesboro: 5 days (buy at Kroger supermarket). stay at YMCA campsite, or hike out to Calf Mtn Shelter.
- either Front Royal (buy) or Linden (maildrop) 3-4 days - or you can skip this and make it all the way to Harpers Ferry by carrying a some extra out of Waynesboro and buying small amounts of supplemental stuff while in Shenandoah Park.
From Harpers Ferry to Duncannon there are a number of feasible resupply combinations. Here is the one I'd likely go with:
- Harpers Ferry: 4-5 days (maildrop at ATC instead of PO - unless you get ride into Charles Town where there are many stores) - this next section is longer than that, but there are lots of opportunities to grab stuff along the way... there might be a cheap hostel in town. seems to be different every year. many camp at the inconvenient KOA. ask other hikers and the ATC people about all of this. or just leave town with enough time to get to garvey shelter.
- Boiling Springs: 1-2 days (buy - ask at ATC field office where the store is) or *very* small maildrop at PO. Free camping in town.
- Duncannon: 4-5 days (maildrop at PO) or buy - supermarket less than a mile out of town. the cheap Doyle Hotel is a trail tradition, or go to next shelter.
- Port Clinton: 5 days (maildrop at PO) or buy in Hamburg; usually not hard to get a ride there. Town pavillion serves as a free trail shelter.
- Delaware Water Gap: 4 days (maildrop at PO) - unless you know ahead of time that you can get into Stroudsburg, or if you're willing to do a combination of the hiker boxes, the Pack Shack, bakery, and the convenience store. Even with all four together, it might be hard to resupply that way, but it worked for me. Stay at church hostel.
- Vernon: 4 days (or more if skipping Bear Mtn) - buy at Supermarket, stay at Church hostel downtown, or at firehouse pavillion if hostel is full or closed.
- Bear Mountain: 4 days (maildrop at PO) or better yet, skip and try to make it to Kent, CT by supplementing at the various delis/small stores along the way - and stay at Graymoor Friary 7 miles north of Bear Mtn on the trail, where dinner is often offered.
- Kent: 2 days (buy at IGA supermarket) - staying in town not recommended - Silver Hill campsite is a nice destination that evening, or the shelter before that.
- Salisbury: 5 days (buy at supermarket) - staying in town not recommended - Riga Shelter is a nice spot for that evening.
- Dalton: 2 days (buy at store) - Camp for free at Tom Levardi's house (83 Depot St. - right on the trail), or possibly stay at Rob Bird's house (ask about it at Shell Station).
- Chesire: PO is right on the trail, so maildrop is convenient, but it just seems better to skip this and go from Dalton to North Adams.
- North Adams: 4-5 days - Buy at the supermarket half a mile right on rt 2. Also near Pizza Hut, laundry and Chineese buffet. another supermarket left short distance on Rt 2. then head to campsite with spring north of town, or go to seth warner shelter.
- Manchester Center: 6 days (buy) Camp north of town - on top of Bromley, or at new shelter, etc.
- The towns of Killington, South Pomfret, and West Hartford have small stores one could use to supplement (thus reducing how much to carry out of Manchester) but the first two of those require short hitches.
- Hanover: 3-5 days, depending on what your Glencliff plans are (buy at supermarket or Coop). Possible cheap stay at Panarchy frat house, or just head out to Velvet Rocks shelter after eating dinner in town. might need to pack in water.
- Glencliff: 3 days - maildrop at either the PO or the Hostel across the street - for cold weather clothes - may include a day or two of food if you buy a little less in Hanover). stay at hostel.
The White Mtns can be an expensive area just for camping and shelters, but there's a wide range of possibilities as far as free stealth sites. You will notice people talking about this as you get closer, and look for lists of those sites at the Glencliff hostel.
- North Woodstock: 5 days (buy at small store or at supermarket in next-door Lincoln where there is also a movie theatre). split room with many, or camp north of town (legal stealth site just up the hill from liberty spring).
- Gorham: go in via Pinkham Notch, stay the night, then do a long 20 mile day-hike over to rt 2 (or backpack over a two day period) and go in to town for another night): stay at Barn or split a room somewhere else. carry 4 days north out of rt 2 (maildrop or buy) - the post office is more convenient than the store if you stay at the Barn.
- Andover: 5-6 days if skipping Rangeley, 3 days if not. Buy at combination of small stores (don't be picky) or maildrop at PO or at any of the hiker-oriented hostel-type places. The next time I go through, I won't stay anywhere in Andover, and just camp at a nice spot near the AT road crossing outside of town.
- Rangeley: 3 days - I usually skip this town and go from Andover to Stratton. Buy at the IGA store. Piazza Rock is a nice destination coming out of town.
- Stratton: 6 days (buy at stores). Split room at the one of the motels or stay at Widow's Walk, or leave town and camp north at first spot.
- Caratunk: I often skip this town. small maildrop at PO if not wanting to carry as much from Stratton, or some food might be sold at hostel up the river.
- Monson: 7 days (maildrop at PO or hostels) or pack less in the box and grab some stuff in the general store or in hiker boxes at Shaws or the Pie Lady. Stay at either place or camp north of town at Leeman Brook.
Abol Bridge: Very expensive, but if you are running low, you'll still need about a day of food as you enter Baxter State Park.