I Conquered My Debt to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail
I felt more in the four months I was on the trail than I had in the 20-plus years that came before then. But to realize my dream, it took an education in frugality to claw me out of financial ruin.
All photos courtesy of Ayesha Cording.
$20,000 in debt a few years ago, I decided to walk the entire length of the United States along the Pacific Crest Trail. I hadn’t hiked longer than a weekend, I was out of breath on the uphill to my apartment, but the idea of crossing an entire country on foot captured me. I had always thought that long term travel was only possible for trust fund babies or retirees, but this idea kept pestering me, and I knew I would always regret it if I didn’t try.
I just had to find the money to do it.
The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,650-mile hiking path that extends from the California desert near the Mexico border to the Northern Cascades of Canada, traversing all of California, Oregon and Washington along the way. The trail was made famous in the 2012 Cheryl Strayed book Wild that was later adapted into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.
The average hiker completes this journey in five months. More than two thirds of the people who start this trail do not finish due to quitting, injury, or running out of money. It’s no walk in the park either: The elevation loss and gain is equivalent to climbing Mt Everest approximately 16 times. What’s more there are less than 90 recorded people who have hiked this trail twice, including me.
At the time I was a 25-year-old with a modest position in a boring customer service job in Wellington, New Zealand (aka the birthplace of Lord of The Rings) making around $30,000 a year. This was, admittedly, incredible money to this former cafe worker who never went to college. My days were spent in front of a computer, answering phones and being yelled at by Chardonnay drinkers who “want to speak to [my] manager.”
Thru hiking was to be my salvation from the corporate world I never felt a part of, from the never ending Dolly Parton song, from the feeling that in 30 years I’ll still be in the lunchroom hearing about Karen’s renovations to the spare room. In the 18 months leading up to the trail every single excess cent from my monthly paycheck was hurled toward debt I had racked up from an online clothing business I started that ended up costing me more than I made.
The day I realized that instead of counting down, my bank account was counting up. I screamed, I cried, and I did that thing where people cut their credit cards up, but my scissors were too blunt to work (good scissors are expensive). The symbolism didn’t matter. I was debt free.
Then I did it. I quit my job, and after three months of twice-weekly, half-hearted trail running I hiked the entire trail in four months. I relied on the kindness of strangers who picked up this filthy hitchhiker when I was desperate to get into town. I crossed South East Asia on a bicycle and walked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. The only problem was, when I came back home a year later later I was broke, unemployed and desperate to for the chance to walk the trail again. I wanted to go back to the place that not only made me feel physically and mentally strong, but surrounded me with a community that didn't want to settle for a traditional life either.
My first hike, in 2017, cost me upwards of $6,000. I failed to track detailed expenses on that hike as to where that money all went and to be honest I was far too busy being swept away in the excitement of a thru-hike to care. The second time I made a vow to track my spending habits to better gauge how much I would need for long term travel in the future.
How I saved $10,000 in 11 months to hike the Pacific Crest Trail
I only needed $4,500 to do the hike itself, but I saved more than twice what I needed as a buffer and for extra travel around the United States afterward. I also wanted some time after trail to decompress as being thrust back into "normal" life can be very jarring. Here’s how I did it:
Live with three roommates: For $400 a month I split a room with my partner at the time in an old, tiny, shared house on the edge of the city. It was drafty, cold and damp (like most housing in this part of the country), but the cost of an extra sweater and a dehumidifier was worth the extra $500 per month I saved this way. Especially when $900 a month would only get me the most basic studio apartment here.
Cut grocery bills: Food was the biggest expense that I could save on after rent. The solution is easy: make 90 percent of meals at home from scratch, brew your own coffee and take leftovers to work so you can eat them in front of Karen while your eyes glaze over.
Stop buying garbage: I knew I wasn’t going to be thankful for buying that pricey aromatherapy diffuser while I was sleeping under the Milky Way halfway across the world. Just stop. You don’t need it. Make it even easier for yourself and just don’t go into the seductive homeware store in the first place.
Take on odd jobs: There are only so many corners you can cut before you are sidling from frugal into just being that one cheap “I left my wallet at home” friend (screw you, Tom). Side hustle income is money you haven’t accounted for yet. I used my rusty acting skills to be a “real” patient for doctors in training. Yes I had to pretend I had chlamydia, yes some of the doctors didn’t realize I was just acting, and no I didn’t get any propositions for a date after.
How I spent the $4,500 I needed for the hike itself
Thru-hiking costs on the trail were simple. I used the same minimalist gear set up as the first time. I also got better at impulse control the second time I hiked the trail. It was a little easier to know when I was actually exhausted to the point of needing something like an extra night in a hotel room or a warm meal at a restaurant vs just being tired and making bad decisions. Making it easy for the four months I spent on trail to be broken down into:
Travel and travel Insurance: $1,280
The roundtrip flight from New Zealand to Los Angeles set me back $750 and finding insurance that would cover me at 10,000 feet elevation in case of a medical emergency cost another $530. As it worked out, fate made sure that a nasty fall on trail in Northern California had me in the emergency room needing nine stitches, so no one can say I didn’t make the most of my money.
Food on trail: $1,300
Food. Commonly the most expensive part of a long distance hike and easily my favorite part of thru-hiking. I spent an average of $12 per day just on food to eat while I hiked. I chose to only send myself a few boxes along the trail to ensure that I wouldn’t get tired of what I was eating. I still gag at the sight of a Fig Newton.
Usually my boxes would consist of an assortment of bars, almonds, dark chocolate, dried fruit, protein powder, squeezy baby food packets (when I didn’t have the energy to chew) and as many bags of potato chips as I could cram in.
A few times I got lucky and received a care package from a hiker friend. A big bag of chocolate covered espresso beans, conditioner and q-tips almost had the postal clerk needing to check my pulse. It’s the simple things that get you after that long in the woods.
Gear and replacement gear: $480
This included replacement trail running sneakers (hiking boots are dead), a new inflatable sleeping pad and a water filter. Other gear I already had included a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, portable battery and trekking poles.
Town expenses (hotel rooms/food/booze/laundry): $1,200
Town is for splitting a hotel room with as many other hikers as possible, eating pints of ice-cream at 10am and staining the hotel sheets with your dirt-caked legs (even though you scrubbed them for half an hour in the shower. Each). I would stay in a hotel room around once a week and splitting it between four hikers would cost $20-30 each.
Subscriptions (music and audiobooks) and phone plan: $240
Sometimes I need club bangers to get me to the top of the hill.
What I will always remember
There are ways I could have made my hike even cheaper; such as better utilizing the network of “trail angels” —kind people who like to help out hikers—spending less time in town or eating the mystery ziplock of white powder that dominates every hiker donation box along the trail.
The reality is you won’t remember the couple of extra dollars you spend washing your clothes in town, you won’t remember when in the space of 24 hours you tripped over a rock, twisted your ankle, shit your pants and then got your period (those were dark times). But I will always remember the summer I spent walking the Pacific Crest Trail, simply living, feeling alive and experiencing a place where for once in my adult life my time could not be bought.
The trail forced me to live in that very moment instead of inside my head. It showed me that life doesn’t have to be this big heavy thing that we must navigate alone. It reminded me that the childlike hunger to explore the world around us still exists, even if the world has tried to “adult” it out of us. I felt more in the four months I was on the trail than I had in the 20-plus years that came before it—exhausted, scared, elated, courageous and finally just thankful. Thankful for every single moment, thankful for each financial sacrifice I made that brought me there and finally thankful that I had the somewhat mystical foresight to pack a spare pair of underpants.
You don’t pay for what the trail gives you. You just do what you have to do to get there.