To mail drop or not to mail drop…
Nothing stresses me out more than trying to plan what food I might want to eat four months from now, not to mention how much of it. I don’t even like to read the guidebook until I’m a week or two out from leaving. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in long distance hiking, it’s that the minute you make a plan, something will come along that causes it to be thrown out the window. I will never be someone that meticulously goes through the guidebook, picks out town stops for thousands of miles, preps well-balanced meal plans and packs them up for later shipping, and then actually sticks to that schedule.
When I was on the AT, I didn’t prepare any mail drops. I did leave gear with my mom to send out if I needed it. The few times I had her mail me something, she would throw in several of the biggest protein bars I’ve ever seen. So big, it would take me days to eat one. I guess she was worried about my protein intake. I was more worried about my homemade cookie intake. Regardless, I never relied on mail drops for food. The towns on the AT are frequent and close to the trail.
When I was planning my PCT hike, I felt the pressure of everyone else’s planning on the internet: “This is logistically harder than the AT! There are places where you definitely have to send a mail drop because there won’t be any food anywhere!” I cheated and looked at a friend’s resupply schedule instead of making my own, but I still didn’t want to do anything with it. I ended up packing myself four boxes of food for the Sierra since I was pretty sure I’d need them there (and yet didn’t care enough to look into it in more detail – I told my mom I’d give her addresses later). That took me a whole week. One week to pack four boxes of food! Like I said, guessing what food I might be craving that far away, let alone not gagging on from eating too much of it, stresses me out. Spoiler alert: I packed oatmeal packets in those boxes and then gagged on every bite and ended up giving away tons of oatmeal in the middle of the Sierra despite the fact that my hiker hunger was gargantuan.
There are many factors in deciding whether to do mail drops or not, and I bet you can guess my preference. When I’m on a thru hike, I prefer to shop as I go. Even if a town doesn’t have a full grocery and I’m left with the limited selection of a gas station’s convenience store, at least I know at that moment what crappy food I feel like eating for the week. But let’s explore some of those factors anyway.
People often cite cheaper cost as a major factor in doing mail drops. If you’re resupplying at a gas station or in a resort town, chances are good the food prices are going to be higher than if you had shopped at a regular size grocery store at home. The prices will definitely be higher than if you had shopped in bulk or dehydrated your own food. But you can spend as little as you like food shopping pre-hike and you’re still going to have to ship those food drops somewhere. Shipping adds up. USPS flat rate boxes aren’t the cheapest, and even if you are able to use a regional flat rate box, I bet any food cost savings you had will be eaten up by shipping costs. The way I figure it, shopping on the trail or shipping from home are pretty much a wash.
If you’re worried about being stuck with five days of honey buns for breakfast, cheese and crackers and pepperoni for lunch, Ramen or Pasta Sides for dinner, and lots of candy to supplement, then gas station shopping might not be for you. I’m pretty okay with that, and it’s usually what I end up with even when I have a larger selection to choose from. Sure there are items I like to have that are pretty much impossible to buy except in bulk (Nestle Nido, TVP, quality bars for a decent price), but I don’t like them enough to go through the horror of packing mail drops. If you are on some sort of special diet, then you might not have a choice. I like to keep my gastro options open.
What about those times when the rumors tell you there isn’t any food to be had and you absolutely must send a mail drop? First of all, just hitching a little farther will generally get you to a store. But I often found that these rumored barren wastelands did have resupply options. What I also found was that if I did want to send myself a package, I could do it from the trail!
Mail drops from the trail
I generally look two to three stops ahead in the guidebook when I’m hiking, and that gives me plenty of time to send a package if I feel like I need it. This also eliminates the need for a support person somewhere far away. Here are three ways of doing this:
1. Grocery Shopping: If I’m in a town with a real grocery store, I can simply buy enough extra food to pack a box right there and then and ship it ahead. USPS is faster than you think.
2. Amazon Prime Pantry: Amazon Prime members can shop in the “pantry” and pay a flat shipping fee of $5.99 for filling up to a very large box (I don’t think I’ve filled more than 20% of one for a resupply). The pantry allows you to buy, say, one box of Clif bars (quantity: 6) versus one case of Clif bars (quantity: way too many to think about). Sure, I end up eating the same flavor bar all week but that’s not a huge deal. You can also buy things like individual boxes of mac and cheese, couscous, crackers, poptarts, and cookies.
Just be aware that there is no two-day shipping with this. The boxes ship UPS ground. If you’re trying to ship general delivery, also be aware that the Post Office does not accept UPS packages. (I found out the PO doesn’t accept UPS packages when I sent an amazon general delivery order to a town on the AT. The PO told me the UPS driver always drops off hiker packages at a local outfitter instead. Technically illegal but also convenient to not have my package rejected.) To force amazon to ship USPS, enter the address as “PO Box General Delivery” instead of just “General Delivery.” I read somewhere that this tricked amazon into using USPS instead of UPS and it has worked several times for me.
3. Zero Day Resupply: By thru hikers, for thru hikers, when you go shopping on this site, it not only adds up the total price as you put items in the cart, it also adds up the weight and calories of each item too. You can buy individual bars to get a better variety of flavors and they carry backpacking specific food like Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry meals. And, you can select whether to ship USPS or UPS! (Hint: UPS costs a lot more but may be your only option in places likes trail angel houses in rural areas or backcountry resorts.)
There are other hiker friendly resupply options popping up near popular trails but these are the three options that I have personally used and that can be used anywhere in the U.S. I did end up sending myself a handful of mail drops on the PCT, but it was much less stressful doing so from the trail than a million years ahead of time (approximately).
If you are here looking for a very detailed PCT resupply strategy that involves mail drops, look no further than Chuckles’ article on The Trek. I did not read the whole thing because (A) I already hiked the PCT and am not currently planning another hike of it, and (B) this is exactly the kind of plan that stresses me out; but I know she is an excellent writer/hiker who knows her subject matter so I guarantee it’s a good article. Props to Chuckles for being way better prepared than I.