When I say resupply here, I am referring to food. It can be debated how hikers should obtain gear along their distance hikes, but I have no firm opinion on this. I do, however, have a conviction that when it comes to obtaining food, buying it in town is the way to go, barring you have dietary restrictions. If you do, you must succumb to packages unless you’re in a town with ample accommodation.
My experience with distance backpacking goes as far as thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and thru-hiking the New England Trail. In these 5,000 miles, I only had to send one food-resupply package. Did I have to do it? No. But if you know anything about Stehekin, Washington, you know a resupply here would be exorbitant, unhealthy, and not more than a stuff sack full of pastries.
I haven’t hiked the Continental Divide Trail yet, and no, I don’t think I’m going to get by on it without resupply packages. But they will be my last option. My main argument against relying on resupply packages is the frustration the process causes, frustration I’ve seen almost unanimously across hikers using this method. All the while, my biggest concern is how far the walk to the store is.
Resupplying in stores is the method of ease, but this is solely my opinion, not a consensus. Here, I break down the benefits and drawbacks of both methods in the hope that hikers can see how resupplying in stores is the best overall method.
Benefits of Resupplying with Packages
This method can be cheaper. I say can here because this is not a guarantee. The food itself will be cheaper because it will be bought in the cheapest place possible, such as Walmart or a chain grocery store. But the cost of sending the package may counteract the money you saved buying in bulk.
Often, there are limited businesses that sell food in trail towns, and these businesses may not have the healthiest or most desirable displays. If you have food sent via packages from home or an outlet store (say you went into a town with a Walmart and sent a package ahead), what you want is what you’ll get. This may not always be the case with store purchases.
Lastly, with a package, the work is done ahead of time, meaning you may be able to put your feet up in town more.
Drawbacks of Resupplying with Packages
The bulk (I would say no pun intended, but that would be dishonest) of my argument lies here. Sending packages come with the stipulation of exhausting logistics. I’ve seen countless hikers hunker down in towns against their will to wait for a package. If you have a desire to keep trucking, this misfortune is bound to demoralize you. The United States Postal Service is sloppy. Hiccups happen.
The quantity of food I buy at a given resupply is based on what I have left, a measure that can’t be assessed ahead of time. If your package has too much food in it, you’ll have to either carry extra weight, bump the food up to the next town (let’s hope you don’t already have a package up there), or sacrifice your residual goods to the hiker-box Gods. It is this very mishap that fills hiker boxes.
Perishables perish. Block cheeses can stay good for over a week unrefrigerated, but excessive warmth can cause these blocks to demulsify. I don’t advise sending produce in a package, but if temperatures are cool enough, hikers can pack some out. As is true with all shipping, packages may get damaged. Obviously, you’ll have to pay mailing fees as well.
The approach to this method is sometimes to buy as much food as possible before the hike and to distribute it evenly throughout. I hiked with a veteran on the Appalachian Trail who bought thousands of dollars of Mountain House meals and Greenbelly bars before embarking. He bought very little in town, almost fully relying on this bulk supply. He had only three kinds of dehydrated meals and bars. He was so jaded from the diet that I almost considered offering him my tuna wrap dinner for a Mountain House. In retrospect, he may have accepted.
Benefits of Resupplying with Stores
Resupplying in stores, especially on the Pacific Crest Trail, is no perfect formula, but it is better than relying on packages. There are no delays and no required planning or mailing fees. With this also comes an opportunity for variety and an ability to base the quantity of your purchase on what you already have.
Drawbacks of Resupplying with Stores
Again, this could be more expensive than using packages. This depends on how expensive the store is (which typically correlates to how monopolized they are), how much mailing fees are, and how much cheaper the mailed food is. Store supply can also be an obstacle for hikers, especially in small towns when crowds of hikers are storming through. If you’re worried about a store’s supply, play it safe and send a package. Just bear in mind that in my 5,000 miles I’ve never come across a depleted store.
The Method of Ease: Stores
Resupplying with packages is not something I’ve learned to affiliate with ease of mind. The logistics are vexing and quite frankly trivial when you can just buy food at a store. I understand the prices at many of the stores in PCT towns are preposterous, but if it’s a matter of paying a few extra bucks to not have to deal with a package, pay the money. You’ll be glad you did. Ditching your box plans will allow for a spontaneous, wholesome, flexible, and happier hike.
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