I was deep in the pain cave, trudging uphill on the Colorado Trail during a monsoonal burst of rain and hail, when a vicious gust of wind knocked me to the ground. Splayed out on my back like a very damp, angry turtle, I raised my fists and yelled at the sky, my mouth frothing with a parade of curse words. I was, in a word, over it.
Luckily, redemption arrived a day later at tiny Twin Lakes, Colorado, when I picked up my resupply box, which was filled with emotional support foods I’d packed a few weeks earlier. While doing so, I was thrilled to discover another box with my name on it—a care package from my buddy Anna, who loaded me up with whiskey, candy, various toiletries, obscenely large baby wipes, and a Polaroid of her toddler holding a sign that read “WE LOOOOOOOVE YOU!!!” This time around, my tears were the happy kind.
During any backpacking trip that’s longer than, say, a week, you’re going to have to restock provisions. Some folks prefer to play it entirely by chance, resupplying at grocery stores, small markets, drugstores, and gas stations along the way; others load up on Priority Mail boxes and plot out every last calorie on color-coded spreadsheets. Most hikers, however, hang out in that sweet spot between the extremes. Here’s how to nail your own resupply strategy.
1. DO YOUR RESEARCH
There isn’t any single perfect formula to rule them all when it comes to calculating how often you’ll need to resupply (although many Pacific Crest Trail hikers swear by the famed Postholer planner), but knowing a few key data points will help you dial in a general strategy.
First, consider how many miles you’ll likely hike each day. Then divide that into the total distance you’ll cover on the hike to come up with a rough number of hiking days. From here, consider how many days’ worth of food you’ll want to carry at once. This depends on a number of factors—your own physical needs, the difficulty of the terrain, your pack capacity, and the composition of your food. Most hikers will carry somewhere between 1.5 to 2.5 pounds of food per day.
Now, whip out a map or guidebook and identify all potential resupply locations along the way—grocery stores, gas stations, campground stores, post offices, outfitters, and so on. Now look at which ones best line up with your number crunching—for example, if your daily estimate is 15 miles, and you want to aim for five-day food hauls, your first resupply location will come around the 75-mile mark. Take a look at not only what’s near that spot, but also ease of access—is your destination within walking distance from the trail? Is it accessible via public transportation? Will you need to thumb it? This exercise will be thrilling for some folks, stupidly boring for others, but is crucial to ensure you have some plan in mind other than making sad eyes at the sexy resupply bounties of hikers who are much more organized.
2. MAKE A PLAN
Winging it works if you don’t have any specific dietary needs and enjoy eating your body weight in sugar and salt, but it’s not always possible to find even the junkiest of convenience foods along more remote stretches of trail. Trust me—unless your digestive system is coated with a thin layer of titanium, eating nothing but instant ramen, candy bars, and sugary electrolyte drinks for days on end will eventually roil your guts with liquid fire.
Enter the resupply box. Sure, there are downsides—postage adds up, you need to keep to a rough schedule, post office hours can be fickle in more remote areas, your tastes will change, you need to coordinate a way to get your boxes shipped, and if you ditch the trail, you need to wrangle or abandon the goods that have already been sent.
But on the whole, a balanced strategy mixes buy-as-you-go convenience with the benefits of essentially mailing tasty presents to yourself. This allows you to better control your food intake and save money (buying in bulk ahead of time versus depleting your wallet at extensive stores with limited stock), while also limiting the amount of errands you need to run on those precious rest days when you’d rather just devour two large pizzas, then drape your haggard body across a real, live bed.
3. GET THE GOODS
So what do you actually put in those boxes, anyways? In short, the good stuff—especially the kinds of good stuff you probably won’t find in, say, tiny convenience stores.
Food. By the time I reached Muir Trail Ranch, a popular resupply stop near the Pacific Crest Trail in the Sierra, I wanted to punch the Quaker Oats man in the face. Instead, I dumped my entire resupply of instant oatmeal into the free hiker bins the moment I opened my resupply package. That’s to say—mix it up from box to box to avoid boredom. Don’t forget to top off things like olive oil, drink mixes, salt, hot sauce, parmesan packets, powdered milk, spices—whatever will liven up your trail grub. I also chuck in a special snack (read: chocolate-covered potato chips) that I will devour on the spot, along with something special for that night’s dinner if I’m not planning to eat in town.
Personal care items. While you might be able to find travel-sized toiletries in bigger stores, it’s often less hassle to just send them ahead. Before my first long hike, I did a practice run at home with toothpaste, contact solution, and deodorant (I’m bougie like that), to see just how long a travel-sized version would last; this way, I knew when to include a replacement in my resupply boxes. Also include any re-ups on personal medicine, vitamins, and commonly used first aid items, as well as specialty items that might be hard to find in remote outposts—your favorite lotions, sports tape, homeopathic remedies, and so on.
Daily use items. Baggies. Baggies. Baggies. I always toss some gallon- and sandwich-sized zip-top baggies in my boxes, which I use to repackage food, portion out snacks, protect papers, contain garbage, launder small items, and so on. If I’m worried that I can’t find single rolls of toilet paper, I’ll pop one in, as well as a few rinsed and repurposed zip-top plastic bags (i.e the kind used for trail mix, dried fruit, etc.) to stash my dirty TP. You might also include items like pens, tissues, socks, earplugs, and batteries.
Trail-specific gear. A common rite of passage on the PCT is to mail an ice axe, crampons, and bear canister to Kennedy Meadows, long considered the gateway to the Sierra. In Washington, many hikers ramp up their rain protection game. But on any trail, it also makes sense to pack maps, notes, and even guidebook pages for the next section you plan to tackle.
Town treats. I remember opening a box one day on the PCT to discover that Past Me had thought ahead to include a pair of fresh underwear, a lightweight sundress, a disposable razor, and a small packet each of fancy shampoo and leave-in hair conditioner to bring joy to the rather dirt-crusted Present Me. I have never felt so good in my life as I did after taking that shower (okay, it was two showers). Other delights include a small sliver of your favorite soap or solid shampoo, face lotion, small packet of laundry soap, a charger for electronics, a face mask, a bath bomb, Epsom salts, and more Epsom salts.
4. GET PACKING
Before sending a single box, research regulations, fees, and hours associated with your pick-up point, whether that’s a post office, a local business, or the front desk at your hostel. It’s sad to arrive at the post office five minutes after they close; it’s even sadder to arrive days later than you anticipated, only to discover that they only hold packages for a week. I still have no idea what happened to the package I sent myself in Salida, Colorado. But I do know that I did not get to enjoy the satisfaction of tearing into a package of chocolate-covered potato chips with wild-eyed abandon.
Make sure that all of your boxes are marked clearly with your given name, your estimated arrival date (I fudge this by a few days), and something to the effect of “Please hold for _____ Trail hiker.” Also consider jazzing up your box with some brightly colored duct tape, stickers, or scribbles that you can reference when retrieving it—i.e. “Mine is the one decorated with drawings of cats wearing party hats. Obviously.”
Finally, unless you’re only planning to send one or two packages to be scooped up early in your hike, it’s best to wrangle a friend to act as your official package coordinator. Along with your pre-packaged boxes (which you should leave unsealed), hand them a roll of packing tape, a wad of cash (if you have a scale at home, you can calculate shipping costs on the USPS website), and a few miscellaneous items that you can request if needed—extra clothing, medicine, and gear. And then secretly hope that they’re the kind of friend who will lift your spirits on a downbeat day by slipping in a little something that will make you smile and remember just how lucky you are to be out there in the first place.