Doing a thru-hike on a major trail like the Appalachian can be one of the most exciting experiences in a lifetime, but like most adventures, it comes with its own set of risks. While many hikers have some form of health insurance, many also aren’t aware of exactly what their insurance will cover on their thru-hike—in many cases, thru-hike insurance is a better choice than traditional insurance.
So why should a hiker get thru-hike health insurance? Hikers should get thru-hike insurance because most traditional insurance policies are limited in-network coverage, national coverage plans are costly, short-term insurance plans aren’t always available, catastrophic insurance is bare-bones, and travel insurance plans are restrictive.
Doing a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail or another long-distance hike can be one of the most thrilling trips you’ll take in your lifetime, but you shouldn’t do it without proper healthcare coverage. Keep reading to find out more about why you should get thru-hike health insurance for your next long-distance trek.
If you’ve never done a thru-hike before, you might expect that your regular health insurance policy will cover any accidents or illnesses that might crop up on the trail. But the truth is that most state-based insurance policies only provide coverage for the state they’re based out of and maybe a few adjacent states, so you might find yourself stuck out of network if you have a medical problem.
In some cases, you can choose to go “out of network” on your regular healthcare plan while you’re on a thru-hike, but this can lead to some of your medical costs not being covered or your out of pocket costs being higher than if you’d contacted a doctor in your insurance network.
Before you make major plans to travel out of state for a thru-hike, you need to check with your insurance plan and see how much coverage you have while out of state. You might be shocked to discover that you have almost no protection at all on your hike, which could lead to massive medical bills in the case of a hike-related hospital stay.
If you go on a thru-hike you have the option of signing up for a nationwide insurance plan to cover the trip, but not only do you have to sign up for these insurance plans at certain times of the year or get locked out of them, they are also much more expensive than your typical state-based insurance policy.
Chances are if you’re taking a leave of absence from your job for six months to hike the Appalachian Trail, smart financial management during your period of no income is a major decision-making factor for planning out your thru-hike.
That means in many cases it’s just not going to be feasible to purchase a nationwide coverage plan that will only be wasted money once you do finish your hike and end back up in home territory. If you’re only hiking for six months but you sign up for a year of nationwide coverage, that means you’ll end up paying for six months of nationwide coverage you don’t actually need.
An option that seems feasible for a thru-hike is to seek out a short-term insurance policy through your current provider for the area you’re going to be hiking in, but the downside to this option for getting your thru-hike health insurance handled is that these kinds of short-term insurance policies aren’t available everywhere.
While this is a convenient and low-cost option for some people depending on who their regular insurance provider is, the fact that these policies aren’t an option for everyone means that they aren’t the best option when it comes to preparing for a thru-hike.
The major disadvantage of short-term insurance policies in the past is that they did not meet the minimum requirements for essential health insurance set forth by the Affordable Healthcare Act. However, starting in 2019, most Americans no longer suffer a tax penalty for being underinsured.
The exceptions to this rule are the following states:
While the federal tax penalty for lack of health insurance has been repealed, these states still enact state-based tax penalties for lack of health insurance coverage as of 2020.
That means as convenient as short-term insurance policies can be, they aren’t really the best choice for thru-hikes. You’re likely to end up paying more than your coverage is worth.
Some hikers on a shoestring budget might be tempted to enroll in a “catastrophic” insurance plan just as a bare minimum to cover emergencies. These insurance plans have a very low monthly premium, but the person on the policy is responsible for paying 100% of medical costs until the deductible (which is usually ridiculously high) is met.
The problem with depending on catastrophic insurance plans is that they pretty much only cover the absolute worst of the worst you can be sure you won’t be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars if you end up having an arm amputated, but you might end up with an insurance plan that has a deductible so high you may as well not have insurance at all if you break your leg on the trail instead.
Unless you have several thousand dollars tucked away for less-than-catastrophic medical problems you might encounter on your thru-hike that won’t be covered by a catastrophic insurance plan, you should consider looking at insurance options that are a little more robust than the bare-bones coverage provided by one of these policies.
Another option that might seem like a good idea for a thru-hike is travel insurance, but the major disadvantage of travel insurance is that many travel insurance policies require you to be quite some distance from your home destination in order to provide coverage. That is bad news for people who live near one of the thru-hike trails they want to travel on.
Travel insurance policies can be a good choice for people who are traveling, but it is often as expensive as regular health insurance (or more so) and that can be a major burden on hikers who have given up their source of income in order to have time to perform a thru-hike. Travel insurance is also very restrictive on covering high-risk sports and activities, which can make it a poor choice for extreme hikers.
Chances are if you try to make a claim on a travel insurance policy while doing a thru-hike, some insurance companies will try and kick back at the claim as a result. The last thing you want to do in the middle of your thru-hike is to try and combat insurance agents over coverage restrictions.
In comparison, insurance like WorldNomads is designed specifically for high-risk activities, which makes it a better choice for thru-hikers than traditional travel insurance policies. These policies can even be activated when you’re in the middle of your travel plans for convenience.
The most important benefit of getting thru-hike insurance rather than depending on your current insurance policy is that with insurance designed specifically for a high-risk activity like long-distance hiking, you can focus on enjoying your trip with total peace of mind.
This is a much more pleasant hiking experience than having to watch your every step because you’re so paranoid about avoiding an accident. If you don’t have a steady source of income as a result of preparing for a thru-hike, thru-hike insurance can be vital to making sure that a random illness or fall on the trail doesn’t lead to a medical bankruptcy at the end of your trip.
Hopefully, this has helped bring to your attention the need to keep health insurance in mind when you are planning your long-distance hike. You most definitely don't want to be caught out there in the wild without the way to get care when you need it.
For 5+ months you will be moving from camp to camp and city to city without a specific residence. Unless you are covered under your parent still then you will need to have some kind of safety net, injury finishes a majority of hikers, don't be one of those!