Of top interest to hikers (and those living vicariously through us) is how in the world we keep ourselves fed throughout the 2660 mile Pacific Crest Trail. There are many, many ways to create a solid resupply strategy, but Sean and I have decided to do a combination of preassembled “mail drops” and buying food on the trail in nearby towns. With the help of our good friend the internet (including many blogs from others’ past experience), here is our plan for keeping ourselves fed on the PCT.
(Edit: If you’re interested in seeing how this plan worked out, click here.)
In case the name didn’t clue you in enough, mail drops are food resupply boxes that you either create before you hit the trail and have someone ship to you or create in a trail town and ship forward to yourself. Post offices and some businesses along the trail will hold boxes for you (some businesses will charge a fee). We have the most wonderful trail angels at home (Sean’s parents, thanks Mike and Jo!) that are willing to make trips to the post office when needed and ship out our precious boxes. While we were briefly in Indiana between trips, we did the daunting task of planning, shopping, and organizing 12 mail drops each with enough food for 2 people for 5 days.
There are many online resources discussing PCT food resupply techniques. Two very important and helpful tools we used are Craig’s PCT Planner which helps you get a loose idea of where / when you’ll need to resupply and Halfway Anywhere’s incredibly thorough thru-hiker survey. (If you are planning a thru-hike of your own, definitely check these out.) With all the stats you can think of, Halfway Anywhere truly spoils the aspiring thru-hiker with data. Based on the survey, we went with the following 12 resupply points for mail drops (in order from south to north)
These 12 points were highly recommended places to have a box waiting on you due to expense of resupply or lack of resupply options at the given way points. Halfway Anywhere’s survey of past thru-hikers also notes that the average thru-hiker resupplied 28 times. Creating these 12 boxes accounts for nearly half of our needed trail food.
For first time long distance hikers, this can be a daunting question. Last year before hitting the Appalachian Trail, we did our best to assemble 5 boxes full of food we hoped we would like. For the most part, we did an okay job, but nothing teaches you more than experience. Now, we have a much better idea of what kind of food we actually like to eat out there and how much is enough to carry. There are lots and lots of ways to pack a mail drop and it really depends on your personal taste, diet, and amount of prep time you’re willing and able to put into it. A good guideline to stick to is 1-2 lbs of food per day. Many new backpackers overpack on food.
Without the proper equipment and space available to us this winter, dehydrating our own food was out of the question for this trip. Dehydrating your own food (primarily dinners) can have major benefits such as having variety, saving money, and eating considerably more nutritionally dense meals. However, this adds countless hours of preparation in shopping, prepping, cooking, dehydrating, and packaging the meals. From what I can tell from fellow hikers, it is generally worth the time and prep to make other hikers drool over your homemade creation while we eat our hundredth Pasta Side or package of Ramen Noodles. Long story short, our mail drops do not include homemade dehydrated food, but for some other hikers, this form of prep is an essential step in creating their mail drops, especially for those on a specific food diet due to personal choice or allergy. Check out this article from Trail to Summit about making your own dehydrated food.
When picking out food for our mail drops we split our needs into three obvious categories: Breakfast, Snacks/Lunches, and Dinners.
Breakfast – Breakfast is easy. We each eat 1 package of 2 stupid PopTarts every single day. Each package has approx 400 precious calories. I’ve searched high and low in the grocery store for anything with comparable calories per weight to no avail.. 1 package of PopTarts each per day.
Snacks / Lunches – On the AT, we did a mix of actually eating a lunch and just snacking throughout the day. We ate things like…
*these items were not included in mail drops due to shelf life
Dinners – We cook our meals together and typically mix items to bulk them up
Don’t forget Leave No Trace etiquette!! Packing gallon and quart size Ziplocs will help with organization, trash, and odor. Pack it in, pack it out.
Food is easily the most expensive part of a thru-hike simply because you need so much of it! A long distance hiker will walk 15-25+ miles per day and can burn upwards of 4,000 calories. On trail, we ate around 2500 calories / day and went hog wild at restaurants in towns. On the AT, we spent $70-$90 per resupply for 2 people for 4-6 days. This year we spent $600 at Costco and $250 at Meijer to create 12 boxes (for 2 people for 5 days). That boils down to $71 per box and does not include the $25(ish) per box to ship. Mail drops tend to hang in the balance of cost vs benefit, especially without homemade dehydrated food. It is nice to have boxes that are already paid for and to know we won’t have to resupply from a gas station (which is the worst), but by the time you add shipping, buying in bulk doesn’t necessarily save you any money. For one mail drop for one person for 5 days, expect to spend $20-$40 and an additional $15-25 for shipping.
Fellow AT Hiker, Stretch, made a wonderful graphic on Appalachian Trials that beautifully sums up on trail expenses. (If you haven’t checked out Appalachian Trials yet and are planning a thru, go now!)
We’ve got about 2 weeks until takeoff and are beyond stoked. Even our time between Stratton and the PCT has been an experience of its own. Life is good, and I couldn’t be more grateful.