In our previous installment of Planning a Thru-Hike, we talked about budgeting and finances. This week we’re talking about resupply, incidentally a major component of budgeting for a long-distance hike.
Like many aspects of thru-hiking, you can plan as much as you want, but ultimately you can’t predict all aspects of a backpacking trip, so leaving some wiggle room in your plans will save time on the front end and stress during the trip itself.
That said, it’s important to have some idea of what you’re getting into with your resupply strategy. Showing up with no plan might mean long stretches of questionable resupply locations, or being relegated to gas-station food and hiking for days on Little Debbies and cans (!!!) of tuna.
Here are some things to consider when planning the resupply aspect of your thru-hike.
1) Will You be Sending Mail-Drops, Resupplying in Town, or a Combination?
There are a few variables at play here, and this is where researching the main stops is important. Read through trail guides, old blogs, and whatever info you can get your hands on to see what the resupply locations have to offer. No matter how low-trafficked the trail is, chances are there’s something out there that can give you a hint about the food situation. Maybe the resupply spot is not much more than a post office and a gas station. In that case, sending a mail drop is best. This will mean planning ahead, addressing the box correctly, and timing your arrival at the location for the open post office hours.
If the stop is in a decently large location or has a reasonable place to buy food, resupplying in town is an easier option. You’ll have a better idea of how much food you’ll be eating and what you’re sick of, or craving. Plus you won’t have to time the stop with post office hours or deal with postage.
Most people on a longer thru-hike wind up doing a combination. Barring dietary restrictions (more on that below), stops with a grocery store or Dollar General are prime for resupplies. In towns with an expensive reputation or limited access to trail-ready foods, plan on sending a mail drop. That’s why it’s so important to have good info on each suggested stop.
2) What Distances Will You Be Hiking Between Resupplies?
Aside from overall strategy (mail-drops vs. in-town resupply), knowing the distances between towns or resupply opportunities is the most important part of your resupply strategy. Mapping the trail, reading trail guides, and/ or talking to people who have hiked the route previously will all be helpful. A trail like the Appalachian Trail or Colorado Trail will have plentiful resupply opportunities, with tons of available information. Less-trafficked trails like the Pinhoti or Benton Mackaye Trail might have less information, but you should still be able to piece together enough info to plan a strategy.
Additionally, consider how you’re getting to the resupply location. Can you walk into town? Does the trail cross through a town or pass right by a store? Will it require a hitch? Some remote trails have the option for ranches or hostels to hold mail drops, so that will require additional planning as well. If possible, plan for being able to stock up on food every 4-7 days or so. Any longer than that and your pack will become quite heavy.
3) Do You Have Dietary Restrictions?
Hikers with dietary restrictions will often have an easier and less stressful time by sending themselves mail drops. That way they’ll know exactly what’s in their food, be able to plan ahead, and won’t be caught trying to resupply at a gas station with a limited selection. This goes for vegetarians, vegans, folks with medical considerations, or any preference or belief-driven dietary restrictions. We recommend reading up on other people’s strategies who’ve hiked a similar-distance trail following the same diet. Trial and error is all fun and games until you’re in a spot where you have limited options for refueling.
4) What is Your Resupply Budget?
There is a definite cost difference between buying in town and sending mail-drops, but one isn’t necessarily better than the other. With mail-drops, you can buy in bulk, and know prices of food to shop around for the best deal. You’ll have to take into account the cost of shipping though, which factors into the overall cost of the boxes.
Buying food in towns along the trail can run the gamut—if each of your towns has a Dollar General, you’re in good shape. If the town has only an outfitter with expensive backpacking food, you’ll be spending a lot more money. Again, this is where research comes in very handy so you aren’t caught off guard. With your budgeting in mind, try to break down your anticipated expenditures per resupply, and base your strategy off of that.
5) You’ll Probably Mess This Up
If we can leave you with any advice from the resupply side of planning a thru-hike, it’s that you’re going to screw it up. Whether it’s your first thru-hike or your fifth, chances are you’re going to misjudge your hiker hunger and run short on food between resupplies, finding yourself staggering into town 10 miles after inhaling your last smashed Clif Bar. Once you get into that town and resupply, you’re definitely going to buy too much food and be loaded down with a few too many extra pounds, leading to handing out PastaSides like a benevolent angel of sodium.
You’ll probably also have a stretch of trail where your food bag full of salty snacks does nothing to quench your craving for something sweet. Then, during your next resupply, you buy all sweet snacks, and subsequently wish for salt. It’s fine, you’ll be fine. The next town is probably just a few days away.
If you missed ‘em be sure to check out the previous articles in this series on:
Maggie Slepian is a full-time freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana. She is the co-founder of BackpackingRoutes.com, and spends as much time outdoors as possible. You can follow her here, or find clips and contact info at Maggieslepian.com