How to Plan a Healthy Hiking Food Resupply Strategy
It’s that time of year! All across the globe, aspirational thru-hikers are testing their gear, ramping up their training regimen, and googling questions like, “what is the poodle dog bush?” in preparation for a life-changing border-to-border journey that will test their limits and broaden their horizons.
While most thru-hikers have long since figured out their food strategy, for those of us at home jealously watching hikers hit the trail over the past few weeks (or even planning their 2020 attempt), it can be a bit of a black box to fully understand how hikers prep for the PCT, particularly food mail drops. This task gets even trickier if you’re trying to hike on a healthy diet.
We’ve been there, and successfully done that, so allow us to pass along what we learned about maintaining a healthy diet while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Thru-Hiking Resupply Strategy
Some hikers can live on potatoes and sugar for weeks… we are not those hikers.
Most hikers resupply their food with a mix of mail drops and grocery stores, but since my diet was such a carefully planned balance of macros, I wasn’t confident I could rely on any grocery store, and chose to do a 100% mail drop strategy (only 9% of 2018 hikers went with 100% mail drops).
Knowing what we know now, there’s 5–6 towns* with substantial enough grocery stores that you can buy some of your resupply there, but it’ll be semi-perishable goods (avocado, hard cheeses, and cured meats) so you would still require shelf-stable meals to last beyond the second or third day out of town (and even fewer days in the desert heat).
*Towns with adequate grocery stores:
What You’ll Need
This was a demanding part-time, unpaid job for Christopher. Having a resupply partner who is willing to spend a not-insignificant-part of their summer to make your hiking dreams a reality is an invaluable gift that I will never stop being grateful for. We have a poster of the PCT on the wall in our apartment, with all of the mail drops and his trailside visits marked with pins, and I frequently find myself pausing in front of it, overwhelmed both by the scale and the effort, and I run to find him and give him a hug and whisper a small “Thank you.”
Boxes: 30 boxes, mostly from the USPS: 20 medium and 10 large flat-rate boxes. For shipments sent via UPS or FedEx, you can’t use USPS packaging, so grab a few extra medium to large blank cardboard boxes (or recycled Amazon boxes)
Supplies, of course! We’ll get to that later…
A list of mail drop locations
Before leaving, we mapped out all options for mail drops (~33 post offices and trail angels) and narrowed it down to ~28 as I hiked (some were close enough together to bypass). The average time between pickups was 3–5 days, with a few 8-day intervals, and up to 11+ days in the Sierra where multiple pickups and traditional exit points were closed due to snow. Keep in mind that the post office is closed and doesn’t deliver mail on Sundays, so if you arrive in a town on that day you may have to make alternative arrangements, like mailing to a trail angel house or adjusting your pace to arrive a day earlier or later.
The Resupply Process
We sent most of our boxes via USPS, as post offices will hold a General Delivery package for 2+ weeks for the recipient to pick it up. Private carriers (UPS and FedEx) require delivery to a private residence or business who can receive and hold the package, and those were more work to coordinate in advance.
Most boxes cost $14–$18 to ship; some private businesses charge up to $50 to receive and hold them for you, which is not the cheapest option. Tip: we could have managed our shipping cost much better with a shipping software that business use, like ShippingEasy: pre-enter all the potential delivery addresses before you head out, and your resupply partner can price out USPS vs UPS/FedEx (and get discounted rates from the carriers as a bonus).
The USPS Medium Flat-Rate box is about 0.33 cubic feet, and in our packing experience, fit 3–5 days of food. Longer resupplies, especially 7–8+ day stretches, had to be sent in a Large Flat-Rate box or our own box.
We bought custom packing tape to help make the boxes easier to identify in the post office (plus, the motivational quote kept me going on some of the rough days: "The best way out is always through.")
Preparing Healthy Backpacking Food
Here lies the most time-consuming and challenging portion of planning. We began food planning with nutrition in mind, looking for the most calorie-dense, low-carb, shelf-stable things we could find: Duke’s sausages and other jerky, macadamia nuts, low-sugar chocolate, almond butter, MCT, heavy cream powder, keto protein shakes, and custom-made dinners with low-carb tortillas (for more ideas and details, see our post about great healthy backpacking food)
Homemade Backpacking Meals
We’re constantly surprised that the six dinner recipes now available on our site are pretty much the same recipes I had in my pack in Campo at the Mexico border on my first day. A few modifications were sent home via text at the top of tall mountains when cell service could be found (“More salt in the Tacos!”, “Try Xanthan Gum in the Chicken & Broccoli”, “Never mind, don’t ever put Xanthan Gum in the Chicken & Broccoli…”), but we had a really good recipe base to start from. There was one meal that never made it to production: a poor attempt at an Asian Stir-Fry (though we’re still working on how to make it possible) that only lasted a few hundred miles before I cut it from the menu. I couldn’t stand one more day of it, and took the last few samples and gave them to the group of ravenous hikers I was with at the time. I tried to figure out why I didn’t want those particular recipes anymore and asked the hikers what they liked about it: they shrugged and said, “It’s food! It all tastes good.” (I stopped using thru-hikers in full-blown hiker-hunger as objective taste testers for meals after that.)
Creating nutritious, healthy meals from scratch meant dehydrating sauces, freeze-drying meats and veggies, finding and testing the best spices, and, of course, solving the challenge of making a home-cooked meal shelf-stable. We packed our meals into individual Ziploc freezer bags, using a common-yet-questionable backpacking method of rehydrating in the bag itself. There was a lot of experimenting as we tried to figure out how to remove as much oxygen as possible from the bag to keep them from spoiling (including sucking out as much as we could with a straw like a human vacuum, which resulted in a bunch of inhaled spices…), and we settled on oxygen absorbers to help extend the shelf life of each pack. Freeze-drying machines are stupid expensive—even for personal use, they can cost more than $2,000. So, we combined freeze-dried ingredients, dehydrated sauces and ingredients, and some fat sources that came in powdered form, like heavy cream powder. We wish we’d had our current zipper- and heat-sealed bags and process then, as the size, shape, and air permeability of our new packaging is WAY better than our Ziploc MacGyvered version, but hey, our trial and error is your gain.
Add Variety to Hiking Meals
We tried to have a different recipe for each day of the week, cycling through seven total meals. Six ended up being plenty of variety, and I rarely rooted through my pack for favorite meals, but instead found myself quite happy with each day’s options. “Let’s see what’s for dinner… Buffalo Ranch! Sweet!”
Learning from this process is exactly why we started Next Mile Meals. You can spend all your time and energy to cook and package your trail meals at home, or you can simply order any assortment of our meals and just add water ;)
For any hikers considering ordering: we know the PCT protocol with post offices and General Delivery addressing and box labeling, and are happy to ship orders to a hiker along the trail, whether they’re on the PCT or elsewhere. We can also ship a large, bulk order to a hiker’s resupply partner for them to split up and ship out with their mail drops.
Prepare for the Occasional Hiking Hiccup
Quite a walk to get to some of the post offices, and then lug them back to where we were staying
Mail drop boxes need to be sent at least several days in advance, and some more than a week out: USPS Priority Mail isn’t a guaranteed delivery date, so sometimes they’ll be behind schedule. There were a few times early in my hike when Christopher procrastinated on sending a box out until the last minute, and I was stuck waiting in town for a few days until it showed up. It’s hard to be upset with a person who is doing you such a great favor, but those were some very terse phone calls.
We also cut it close on food a few times as I aimed to walk into each town with an empty pack. Never once did I feel like I had “too little” to eat, but there was an exact science so that I ate my last snack an hour or so before a town. That hiking-with-a-nearly-empty-pack-weight feeling was a delight, a mood boost on an already joyful “headed into town” day (only to load it back up with 4–6 lbs of supplies for the next stretch).
It’s Worth It
We can’t emphasize enough how important the food you choose to put into your body matters when you’re out on the trail, and 27.2% of PCT hikers wished they had packed healthier food. Any type of special diet requires a bit more work to accommodate, but when you provide yourself with the right type of fuel, the energy comes back to you tenfold.
Have you hiked the PCT (or another long trail) on a special diet? Share your tips in the comments!