Thru-Hiker: Gear and Resources for Long Distance Hikers
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Bear Canister Bias

Thru-Fishing the JMT

5 x 8 Poncho as Shelter and Raingear

Esbit Stove Height vs Efficiency

Stoveweight vs Time Over 14 Days

Stoveweight vs Time Over 28 Days

Repairing Gear on the Trail

Washing Down Gear

Common Choices for Alcohol Fueled Stoves

Flying With Fuels

Resupply Options for Long Distance Hikers

MSR Pocket Rocket Tests

Pack Light Eat Right

Debunking Cookware Myths

For a Few Calories More: the Good, Bad, and Ugly of Trail Foods

Water Purification for Long Distance Hikers

Resupply Options

The logistics of keeping yourself in food and gear for a thru-hike are certainly a challenge.  Here's some quick info to help you decide which will work best for you.

Getting geared up for a thru-hike used to  seem like a Herculean task.  Internet sites  have helped hikers to make much more informed choices about what gear will work well. Most of these sites, however, offer little in practical advice for perhaps the most difficult part of managing a long distance hike: resupplying.

Before going into each of the options, though, let's take a quick look at what makes it so challenging.

  • It can be really difficult to accurately gauge when you're going to be at a certain place
  • Many of the trail towns are very small and offer little in terms of services
  • Having to wait for gear/maildrops to show up in town can be really expensive, especially if the town doesn't have a hostel
  • Stress over gear failures/PO times can quickly dispel your hard earned feeling of separation from the rat race.
  • Your appetite can vary wildly, making planning an exercise in futility.
  • Your tastes can also vary wildly. Ditching your oatmeal into the hiker box can quickly eliminate any savings from bulk buying.

Maildrops: Most of the people who set out to thru-hike try maildrops.  The conventional wisdom is that by buying in bulk you save money.  Unfortunately, the cost of postage can quickly offset any savings from bulk buying.  In addition, I've seen many a thru-hiker become so thoroughly disgusted with their food that they begin abandoning it in town in favor of rebuying alternatives locally.  Finally, being the home logistical contact can be a huge burden and time drain.

On the other hand, maildrops have some distinct advantages.  You can include items like home dehydrated foods or TVP that can be a real treat.  Single serve soaps, boot waterproofer, and other small items can be prepared in advance and included periodically.  Having to buy a full tube of sunscreen when you only need one ounce is a real bummer.  While most of these incidentals can be often be found for free in the local hiker box, this isn't always the case.  Also, the next databook/maps/town guide section is easily added to the appropriate box.

Finally, maildrops can be a way to make sure you'll have enough food and money to complete your trip.  In 1994 I completed my first thru-hike right after leaving the Peace Corps, so thrifty was the name of the game.  By buying my food in bulk and budgeting $20 in traveler's checks for spending money per town stop I knew before I had set out that at least food and expenses wouldn't force me to leave the trail.

Buy Along the Way: Most of the drawbacks of maildrops are solved by just playing it by ear and buying your food along the way.  You can easily change your food intake, vary your diet, and include local produce.  Many of the towns have excellent supermarkets with great selections, including dried vegetables and vegetarian items.  In addition, buying locally is almost always cheaper than buying in bulk and mailing.  While its true that some towns don't have much of a selection, it usually isn't too hard to find something to get you to the next town.

There's a great sense of freedom that comes with being able to choose where and when you want to go into town without having PO times guiding your hand.  

You can often carry much less food, instead making quick trips to small stores close to the trail for supplies (which you'll probably be doing anyway for ice cream, etc).

You can often find great food in hiker boxes!  I saved a lot of money on my last thru-hike by taking advantage of other people's abandoned food.  

Hybrid system: Many people who choose to buy along the way also keep one "bump" box stocked with extra clothes, data sections, etc.  If they don't need the items in the box, they just forward it down the trail at no extra charge.  Remember, your bump box cannot be forwarded if you open it.

The Bottom Line: I strongly recommend buying along the way for most people.  Disciplined people can save a lot of money that way. However,  be warned that you can also spend your money quickly if you're careless with your finances. Trail towns have a way of absorbing your cash like a sponge.  Unless you're on a serious budget or have special dietary needs, maildrops are more trouble than they're worth.


Maildrop Notes
You can send yourself packages to any US Post Office general delivery.  The label format should read:

Your Name
c/o General Delivery
Town, State Zip Code

You need to carry a picture ID to take delivery of your package!

The post offices are only required to keep your package for 10 days, so don't send them months in advance.  While many post offices will hold your package longer, some do not.  Writing your approximate arrival date is a good idea.

Actual postage required to send your maildrops will vary depending on where you live.  If you across the country, it may be incredibly expensive to ship your drops.

The cost for US Priority Mail is often very close to the cost for Parcel Post.  You can forward items for free with Priority Mail as long as the package is not opened.  Also, shipping supplies like boxes and tape are provided in the cost of Priority Mail.  On the other hand, if you're planning on shipping fuel canisters you must use parcel post to avoid violating HAZMAT regulations.

Keep a list of all the PO's zip codes and phone numbers.  Sometimes you can call the PO to arrange for forwarding.

Don't make yourself miserable by sending yourself 10 day resupplies.  Five days or so should be plenty.  

Running Resupply Notes
You can get a good feeling for which towns will have a good market by looking in the AT Companion or Thru-Hiker's Handbook.   

I found it fun to just buy five days of food or so and then just see how far it would take me.

I really liked buying a pound or so of hard salami at the deli.  Even in the heat of summer, this salami didn't go bad.  You can make sandwiches or put it into your dinner for a fat/protein source.  

TVP is my protein source of choice when I can get it, but this is nearly impossible for running resupply.

A foot long submarine sandwich makes a great dinner for the first night out from town.

Keep a list of all the PO's zip codes and phone numbers.  You may need to send yourself an item.

Bump Box Notes
It can be really annoying to have to open your bump box just to remove one small item.  Once it's open, you can't forward it for free.  Also, if you're going to forward a box tell the clerk when you get the box.  Sometimes they won't let you forward it if it leaves their site.

It may be cheaper to keep your data sections separate from the rest of your bump box.  Send that stuff in an envelope via First Class Mail.  If you open your bump box, it cannot be forwarded for free.