There are two ways to think about and estimate on-trail costs: mileage and time.
Decades ago conventional wisdom said you could thru-hike the Appalachian Trail for a dollar a mile. Today, the figure is usually considered to be about $3 per mile. If that is the case, then to complete all 2,600 miles you shouldn't begin the trip without $7,800 in the bank. $8300 would give you a cushion and sense of comfort in case of costly emergencies like replacement gear or emergency room visits — two things our editors have needed in the past.
Estimating expenses by mileage ignores the fact that not everyone hikes at the same pace. Someone who completes the trail in 4 months will spend far less money than someone who does it in 6 months. With this in mind, you should save and budget based on the expected length of your hike. We recommend saving $1000 for each month, plus an additional $500 as a contingency.
On-Trail vs. Pre-Hike Expenses
Whether you use the $1000 per month figure or the $3 per mile figure, these numbers are only for on-trail expenses. This figure does not include the initial investment of gear and other supplies.
If you do not already have a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and other gear, this upfront cost can close to a $1000. Of course you don't have to spend that much. Ways to save on gear are discussed here
Expenses for one person, on an average thru-hike lasting 5 months:
pre-hike gear costs: $500 $1000
on-trail expenses: $4500 $5500
travel to & from trail: $250 $500
total: $5250 $7000
Hotel/motel stays greatly affect on-trip expenses. We cannot say for certain how many nights a PCT hiker must spend in a hotel. That is up the individual. Some hikers might want to spend more time sleeping indoors and showering, others will not. The temperament and personality of the hiker is the determining factor.
We recommend taking a zero day once every 7-10 days. On a five month trip, that's roughly 20 stays in a hotel/motel/hostel. If you nero into town and then zero at a hotel, that's two nights each stop, for a total of 40 nights in a hotel room.
Appalachian Trail veterans should not expect as many hostels along the PCT as along the AT. Motels are much more common. The absolute cheapest motels are charge around $60 a night, but the average is higher. Motels in trail towns sometimes offer a "PCT discount" of about 10%, the same amount as a AAA discount. However, if you bring your AAA card, don't expect to stack a AAA discount on top of a PCT discount. They only give you one or the other.
Staying with Trail Angels
One aspect of the PCT is unique among the national scenic trails. In many, many trail towns there are trail angels who let hikers stay in their homes. Sometimes they ask for nothing in return. Sometimes they ask for a donation, typical around $20. Many advertise themselves with notices posted to trees near road crossings. Financially, staying with trail angels is similar, if not cheaper, than staying at a hostel.
Everyone's living situation and financial circumstances are different, so I can't give too much specific advice on the subject of preparing your finances before your thru-hike. However, it is one of the most important things to do and one of the first things to start thinking about. Here is a checklist:
1) What are your fixed monthly bills?
rent / mortgage
utilities like electricity, water, garbage
internet / home phone / cable tv
other debts / bills
2) Which of your monthly expenses can be eliminated?
Try to get rid of every expense you can. Don't pay for anything that you won't be using during the trip. In other words, cancel your internet & cable tv, suspend your newspaper subscription, move out of your apartment and put your stuff in storage. Try to pay off all big debts like car payments and credit cards. Student loans and mortgages are so hefty, you'll likely have to keep making those payments while you are hiking.
Thru-hiking and not working for 5-6 months costs a lot of money. You have to save up beforehand, so you will want to minimize expenses during the trip. One of the most effective ways to save money that is often overlooked, is to suspend your car insurance while you are gone. This can save you hundreds of dollars while you are gone. However, it is only an option if you own the car outright and aren't making monthly payments.
If You Have USAA
If your car is insured through USAA, then you are in luck. Call USAA and tell them what you are doing — explain that not you or anyone else will be using the car between January and March and that you don't want to keep it insured but don't want to take the license plate off either. USAA has a program for soldiers when they deploy overseas. For only about eight dollars a month (as of 2014) your car will remain legally insured in a way that satisfies state requirements, which means you can keep the license plate on your car, and it is covered in case of theft, fire, or vandalism. However, it will not be legal to drive the vehicle.
or Surrender Your Tag
Other insurance companies do not have a deal similar to USAA. You can ask your agent about reducing coverage down low enough just to keep the tag on, but this can still cost a lot of money considering that you are not using the vehicle. So, in my opinion the best option is to surrender your license plate.
1) Take the plate off the vehicle and physically bring it to your local tax collector's office — not the DMV. The DMV only deals with driver's licenses, and won't be able to help you. (Remember to have someone else give you a ride in their car). At the tax collector's office explain your hike, that your car will be in storage for three months, and that you want to surrender your tag. They will take your tag and hand you a printout showing you have surrendered your tag.
Tags have to be re-registered every year, right? It's that sticker you pay for every year. When you surrender your tag you do not have to pay for a new sticker.
2) After surrendering the tag — and only after — call your insurance company. And tell them you have surrendered your tag and want to suspend your policy, but not cancel it. If you cancel the insurance, then you would have to re-apply for a policy and will have lost all the discounts you have accumulated over the years for being accident free, et cetera. By suspending the policy, you can simply re-activate it with a phone call when you get back.
3) When you return from the hike, call your insurance company and reinstate your policy. Next, and only after reinstating your insurance, take the printout back to the tax collector's office and you can get a new tag for a small fee. The fee will vary from county to county, but it will be something like 20 to 40 dollars, which is much less than carrying full insurance on the car for five months, and much less than the fee for a new tag when you register a car for the first time.