If you’ve ever done a long-distance hike, or even thought of doing one, the part of planning that probably took up the most of your time was how to get your food. It’s amazing how often I hear people ask about how to get food along any trail, but it makes sense, really. You eat a ton of food while hiking, and your life revolves around very little besides eating, walking and sleeping. The funny thing is that every long-distance trail that I’ve hiked has had almost the same options for resupply. The pros and cons are the same, the techniques are the same, and the kinds of food you’ll want are the same.
Unless you plan on carrying all of your food with you from the start of the trip, you have three options: shop for food along the way, send yourself packages, or a combination of the two. Simple enough, right? For the most part, it is.
Rather than an in-depth discussion of each point, which has been done before, I’ll just highlight as many of the pros and cons of the two basic methods as I can.
Mailing Food Packages:
- Stocking up on bulk items at home saves money per item.
- You can find specialty items that you are used to from home and not worry about trying to find them in grocery stores far away on the trail.
- You can have consistent quality of food if you plan your food from home.
- Your food is waiting for you in town when you get there, so you can maximize the amount of time that you can relax on your break from the trail.
- Shipping costs can outweigh money saved by purchasing in bulk.
- Packages can be lost or returned to sender (I have only had this happen once in several years. If you ship USPS Priority Mail, it almost never happens).
- You’d better plan on some diverse food, because after a month of pre-planned food you will almost certainly get sick of it.
- It really helps to have someone at home putting together your packages so that you can change what is in them if you decide you need more or less of something.
- Getting exactly the right amount of food for a section is almost impossible. You’ll almost always end up with too much or too little.
- Limits flexibility. If you decide you’re not interested in a town anymore, but your package is going there, you either give up the package or go into town just for the package.
Shopping For Food Along The Way
- A variety of stores means the most variety of food, so you probably won’t get sick of your food.
- Instant feedback on how much food you need! If you get into town with too much food, you can just buy less for the next section. If you had too little, you can buy a little more and constantly tweak your shopping list.
- You can find food at all kinds of stores, and finding out which places go is often an adventure in itself.
- Takes a lot of time when you get into a town and would rather just relax.
- Generally more expensive to buy individual items rather than in bulk. Also generally harder to find specialty items.
- Impulsive buying usually means more junk food and less healthy options. If you have amazing willpower, this might not be an issue, but it’s very hard to resist candy bars and potato chips once you’ve been hiking for several weeks.
You might notice that there are more downsides to mail drops. If you look at it as just a list of pros and cons, that’s right. But that doesn’t mean either option is any better than the other. To tell the truth, neither is ideal. The best you can do is hope to get all the food you need, not get sick of your food, and stay healthy.
My long distance hikes in the past have been varied. On the AT in 2007 and the NET in 2009, I did only mail drops, only rarely buying extra snacks at stores. On the Maine AT in 2008, I shopped along the way, and sent some mail drops from the trail. On the PCT in 2010 I shopped for food along the way, sometimes sending mail drops, until central Oregon. For the last month and a half of the trail, I did only mail drops, sent from the last major trail town. And despite all of that, I never managed to strike the perfect balance with my food. Sometimes I had plenty of food that I really enjoyed, but it was very expensive. Sometimes I had junk food that was appealing and cheap but not very good for me. Sometimes I had food that was healthy and inexpensive, but after a few weeks I couldn’t stand the sight of it.
The last section of the PCT was as close to perfection as I got. I had been hiking for several months already, so I knew exactly what I would eat and what I wouldn’t. So I had just the right mix of junk food and good food. I managed to eat all of the food but a handful of trail mix by the end. I only got sick of the trail mix in the last week or so.
Whenever I get to another long distance trail (this summer? Who knows?), I’m going to try to send myself packages of pre-prepared dehydrated meals along with several energy bars, dried fruits, and nuts that I can get on discount. I’ll buy the candy bars, snack foods, breakfast stuff, and simple things to add to the stash at stores along the way. I like not spending much time in grocery stores while in towns, and I like having good food, but I don’t like trying to figure out before the hike just what I’ll be able to eat the whole way. Maybe I’ll find that perfect balance eventually.