Thru-Hiking on a Budget: 8 Tips for Broke Backpackers

Last Updated on 09/05/2023

Thru-Hiking on a Budget

Thru-Hiking on a Budget

Planning to go thru-hiking on a budget isn’t easy but it can be done and definitely shouldn’t put you off your long-distance walking dreams. In this article, we will share everything we know about budgeting for a thru-hike and how to spend your money as wisely as possible without sacrificing the most important gear.

The idea behind preparing for a thru-hike on a budget is to save the most pack weight possible for the least amount of money. Footwear first is a good rule because, without a good pair of boots or shoes, your feet will get pretty messed up fairly quickly.

You don’t need to spend a lot of money to get the gear you need for thru-hiking. However, you will find that the more lightweight the equipment gets, the higher the price goes. If you don’t have a big budget then we have a tip to help you save the most weight and allocate your funds in the smartest way possible.

Saving for a Thru-Hike

Thru-hiking on a budget is cheap, but it’s not free. You do need a small chunk of change to attempt a thru-hike to buy the gear and food without working a job for a couple of months. Unless you can use 4 weeks of holiday in one go then there aren’t many thru-hikes you could even attempt with a full-time job.

Your budget will depend on the length of the hike and the amount of new gear you need beforehand. It is best to split the two for budgeting purposes and first figure out roughly how long the hike will take in terms of days and how much money you will need per day.

Once you know how much the hike will cost on the trail you can then figure out how much you need to spend on gear. With these two numbers, you have a target to save towards, and then it is only a matter of time before you have what you need.

The best way to save for a thru-hike is to start right now. You can withdraw cash every week and not use your card to control your spending and then put any extra change in a savings jar if you have low willpower.

Budgeting for a Thru-Hike

Now that you have your budget saved up, you need to ration it appropriately. As well as replacing and updating your gear you need to be sensible with your daily spending.

How Much Does it Cost Per Day on a Thru-Hike?

On the low end of things, you could spend as little as $15 per day however it would be pretty rough going.

If you increase your budget to $30 per day you can stay in the occasional hostel or hotel to recharge your batteries or treat yourself to a big steak dinner. Things are pretty good with $30 a day, and you don’t feel the stress of a tight budget.

On the higher end of the budget scale, you could spend $100+ per day if you stay in the best hotels and eat expensive food at every opportunity.

How to Make the Most of Your Thru-Hiking Budget

First, you will need to individually weigh all of your gear and figure out what your budget is. Then you can research how much weight you could save and how much it would cost to upgrade certain pieces of gear.

The trick is to replace the heaviest items in your backpack first. Instead of trying to save a couple of grams here and a couple of grams there, aim to make upgrades that will have the most significant impact overall. We have a whole article about saving pack weight for more information.

You can figure out how much weight you will save per dollar spent by dividing the weight saving in grams by the cost of an upgrade.

Example 1: if you currently have a 2-man tent that weighs over 2kg and you can save over a kilogram by spending $200 on a lightweight solo tent weighing 1kg then 1000 g ÷ $200 = 5 grams per dollar.

Example 2: If you have a large 70+ liter backpack that weighs close to 2kg then you can upgrade this for a smaller, more comfortable, and lightweight backpack weighing 1.2kg for $150. This would save you 800 grams, so the calculation would be 800 ÷ $150 = 5.33 grams per dollar.

As you can see by comparing the tent to the backpack, the backpack would be a better investment even though the tent would technically save you more weight overall. So you are still left with a decision to make but you can make it based on facts.

Thru Hiker with an honesty box

Thru-Hiking Budget Priorities

When you are working with a budget, you need to make priorities and sacrifices. You can use budget calculations like the one above, but sometimes you need to focus on what is important to you.

Footwear First

Footwear is arguably your most important piece of gear on a thru-hiking trip which is why you should make sure that the footwear you choose fits you like a glove. You may already have some comfy boots or shoes, which is great, but if your footwear is on the older side, you may want to upgrade your shoes first.

If you are ordering your footwear online, when they arrive, you can wear them around the house for a day to see how they feel, which gives you a real chance to test them. If you are buying from a shop, then you have the benefit of trying multiple sizes to see which fits best. Thru-hiking footwear is not something I would make any kind of compromise for, as it can make or break your hike.

Big Items Next

Your backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad are the next items you should consider replacing with more lightweight or comfortable upgrades. You wear your backpack all day long, so it is important to get something comfortable and with adequate support/padding, and your tent and sleeping system will literally keep you alive in bad weather.

Getting a more lightweight tent and sleeping bag is an easy win for reducing pack weight on a budget. You can also save hundreds of grams on a sleeping pad which doesn’t cost much. Changing your cooking equipment is another way to save an easy chunk of weight.

How to Log Your Budget While Thru-Hiking

There are many mobile apps that can track your spending and provide statistics and facts for budgeting purposes. But we like to do things old-school and feel that a cash-only approach is the easiest way to keep track of your budget.

If you withdraw, say, $600 at a time, and spend an average of $20 per day, then you have about 30 days budget. To stick to your budget, you could take a $20 note from your safe stash every day and keep it in a pocket. If you don’t spend it then it gets added to the next day until you have enough to treat yourself.

You can log your transactions in a journal or small waterproof notepad at the end of every day, which is simple enough. Or you could again use some kind of app to create a spreadsheet on your phone.

Thru-Hiking Gear on a Budget

Here is a list of how much you should expect to budget for a thru-hike to get good quality gear in the lower price range. This doesn’t mean getting the cheapest and nastiest stuff to save money; it means spending wisely on items that offer great value.

EquipmentAverage Price
Footwear$50 - $200
Backpack$100 - $200
Tent$100 - $200
Sleeping Bag$100 - $200
Sleeping Pad$100 - $200
Down Jacket$100 - $200
Waterproofs$100 - $200
Cooking Kit$50 - $100

Most thru hikers will have some of these items already, and so you can readjust your budget to spend more on other things or save it for the hike. To explain in a little more detail about how to buy budget thru-hiking gear, we have broken down the essentials with an explanation and recommendations to check out.

Check for used items on places like GearTrade and eBay, as well as list your old items to recoup some funds.

Budget Thru-Hiking Boots

If there is one item you should treat yourself to before a long-distance walk, it is a new pair of hiking boots. While there are budget options out there, we recommend trying on as many different pairs as you can without looking a the price. You will know when you find the right pair as you won’t want to take them off.

You can choose between leather and synthetic, as well as look for a lightweight hiking boot that means you carry less weight with every step. Leather is typically the most expensive, but you could always buy second-hand to save money.

For a new pair of thru-hiking boots, you will need a budget of at least $100 for something very standard or closer to $200 for a more robust hiking boot. Some brands that offer budget thru-hiking boots we recommend are Columbia, Keen, Merrell, Oboz, Timberland, and Hi-Tec, which all offer excellent value for money.

Budget Trail Runners for Thru-Hiking

The alternative to thru-hiking in boots is using trail runners or low-cut hiking shoes. The benefit of this is that they are much more lightweight and affordable, as well as drying out faster if they get wet and being cooler in summer.  The downside to using budget trail runners for thru-hiking is the lack of ankle support and thinner soles.

If you are expecting to cross lots of rivers and boggy areas, then breathable trail runners are a great choice because they dry out quickly and don’t hold water as a boot would. You can combine trail runners with gaiters to increase your waterproof protection and prevent small stones from entering your shoe.

The weight saving on your feet is most appreciated towards the end of a hard day on the trail when heavy boots can start to feel like bricks attached to your feet. In the heat of summer, boots can also make your feet incredibly hot and sweaty, whereas trail running shoes keep your feet much cooler.

There are a lot of budget thru-hiking trail runners to choose from for around $50, but if you spend closer to $100, you can get some incredibly high-end shoes. Some thru-hiking trail runner brands to look for are Topo, Altra, Astra, Salomon, Hoka One One, La Sportiva, and Asics, which are used by some of the world’s top athletes.

Super Lightweight Thru-Hiking Budget Backpack

After your shoes, a comfortable and lightweight backpack should be your next concern. As you will be wearing your backpack the entire length of your thru-hike, and it will hold all your gear, you need something that is lightweight and comfortable.

Most super lightweight thru hiking budget backpacks will still cost a pretty penny and aren’t exactly cheap. Backpacks are an item that you could buy second-hand on GearTrade of eBay because they typically last a very long time.

The most budget-friendly backpack for thru-hiking costs around $200, whereas the most super lightweight backpacks will cost nearly double that. We recommend the Osprey Exos 48, Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor, or Granite Gear for the best value backpacks for thru-hikers.

Snugpak Bunker 3 Person Tent

Budget Thru-Hiking Tent

Your tent or sleeping system will no doubt be the heaviest thing in your pack and so upgrading it to something lightweight will make a massive difference to your pack weight. While getting a thru-hiking tent on a budget, you should not compromise on performance and quality. It is more important to stay safe and dry on a night than save a few hundred grams or dollars.

We would advise against single-skin tents, which often suffer from condensation and don’t keep you as warm as double-walled tents. You can get tents like the Alpkit Polestar, which utilize your hiking poles for the structure so that you save weight on carrying any tent poles

To find a good thru hiking 1 person tent on a budget, you can have a look at brands like ALPS, Kelty, NatureHike, and Eureeka, which all start around the $120 range. If you can spend less than $200 and get a tent that weighs around 1kg, you are doing well.

Budget Lightweight Sleeping Bag

To understand how much to spend on a budget lightweight sleeping bag, you need to have a good idea of the climate and weather conditions you are likely to experience on the trail. Once you have an idea of the temperature range, you need to find a sleeping bag that matches this and also falls within the ideal weight bracket.

Some long-distance routes will mean walking through both freezing cold and warmer seasons, in which case you might opt to use two sleeping bags. To do this, you will need to arrange for an exchange point to collect your summer sleeping bag and post your first one home.

Down sleeping bags offer the best weight-to-warmth ratio; however, they can cost hundreds of dollars, and if you get them wet, they can lose a lot of heat. Synthetic sleeping bags are cheaper and work even when wet, but they are significantly heavier and bulkier.

Some lightweight budget sleeping bag brands that are ideal for thru-hiking include Marmot, REI, Kelty, Big Agness, Mountain Hardwear, ALPS, and Snugpak. You can expect to pay between $100 – $200 for the sleeping bags that are warm enough for 3-season use and a little bit more if you want a winter sleeping bag.

Sleeping Pads for Thru-Hiking on a Budget

Your sleeping pad is arguably as important as your sleeping bag because it will keep you warm from below and enable you to get a good night’s sleep on hard or lumpy ground. There are plenty of different options you can choose between for a budget sleeping pad, but you need to decide what’s best for your sleeping position.

Inflatable sleeping pads offer the best depth and arguably comfort, but they have zero insulation and are the least durable. Insulated or self-inflating pads are filled with synthetic fibers to retain heat and add comfort, but these are often the most expensive. Foam pads are substantially less expensive and are the most reliable, but they are also the bulkiest and most uncomfortable.

If you sleep on your back, you can get away with most sleeping pads, and they don’t need to be too thick. If you sleep on, you should be looking at inflatable or self-inflating pads at least 5 cm deep so that your hips don’t touch the floor.

Some of the biggest names in sleeping pads are Thermarest, Nemo, Sea to Summit, and Exped; however, these are often very expensive. They do offer more budget-friendly sleeping pads; however, some lesser-known brands offer better value. These include Trekology, Big Agness, REI, and KLYMIT, which are fast becoming fan favorites.

Down Jacket for Thru Hiking On a Budget

In terms of staying warm on a thru-hike, nothing will even come close to the warmth of a down jacket which is also lightweight and compact. Most thru-hikers use a down jacket as the main part of their layering system, and it even doubles as a pillow at night.

Down jackets are notoriously expensive, but we have found some excellent down jackets for thru-hiking on a budget. We found Outdoor Research, Eddie Bauer, REI, Columbia, and even an Amazon Essentials down jacket for between $50 to $100, which is great value.

If you have the budget and don’t like being cold, then you should aim to spend a little bit more for a budget thru-hiking down jacket, between $100 to $200. Preferred brands of down jackets are Rab, Mountain Hardwear, Patagonia, and Montbell. You are less likely to be disappointed if you get one of these.

Cheap Waterproofs for Thru-Hiking

If you haven’t spent all your thru-hiking budget yet, then it is time to think about your waterproofs. We like to use ultralightweight jackets like those made of Goretex Paclite, which also have lots of ventilation to prevent condensation build-up inside.

You can and probably should get some waterproof pants made of similar lightweight and breathable materials. The problem with this type of high-performance fabric is that it is expensive. If you had to choose between spending your budget on a waterproof jacket or pants, we would focus on your torso.

Alternatively, you might opt for a rain poncho that covers you and your backpack in one go or maybe a hiking umbrella in place of a jacket. One thing to remember is that a jacket does far more than protect you from rain, it is also a wind blocker, extra insulation layer, and something to sit on.

Budget lightweight waterproof jackets for thru-hiking will typically cost between $100 to $200, and the pants will normally cost a similar amount. Ponchos are invariably cheaper but can be more annoying to wear on a hike. Hiking umbrellas are my new favorite piece of gear however they do not keep you warm or protect you from the wind.

Lightweight Stoves and Utensils for Thru-Hiking

In order to get enough calories every day, you will likely want to take a camping stove on your thru-hike. This also means carrying other kitchen utensils like a pan, kettle, mug, cutlery, etc… which soon adds up in terms of weight and size.

Budget thru-hiking stoves are just as good as the more premium brands, in our opinion, and so are the utensils. If you get a mini gas stove and only take minimal utensils, then you can usually keep everything inside your cooking pot for easy storage.

You can get a full camping cooking kit that weighs less than 1kg and costs around $60 all in. Stoves will typically cost around $10 to $20, and a small pot and tools will probably cost another $30 to $40, which is all you need. We recommend the brands Lixida and BRS for all your budget camp cooking gear, and for slightly higher quality, we love MSR gear.


Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail on a Budget

Thru-Hiking the AT on a budget is fairly easy to be honest as you don’t need to pay for accommodation and don’t have that many opportunities to spend money. The problem often becomes that when you do hit a town you end up spending way more than you wanted in restaurants and bars. The answer? Don’t go to restaurants and bars.

Most thru-hikers are fairly savvy to spending as little money as possible. This includes eating noodles for dinner and stretching a little bit of money into a lot of experience.

If you aim to end the day in a town then you will always spend more money than if you just pass through to resupply and then camp a couple of miles down the trail. Yes, it is nice to recuperate but that also costs money and will soon eat into a small budget.

Thru-Hiking Appalachian Trail Budget

How much money do you need to hike the Appalachian trail? Most AT thru-hikers will budget for around $1000 per month or around $7000 total which gives you a daily budget of around $33 per day. This allows you to fully embrace the trail and not have to think about saving every penny all the time


We hope you have learned something about budgeting for a thru-hike, let us know your budgeting tips below!

Gear Assistant
Gear Assistant

This article has been written and/or edited by Andrew N. 20+ years of hiking, mountaineering, and camping experience, with access to all the latest outdoor gear.

Gear Assistant