Keep Your Feet On The Gas: How to Resupply Like a Champ on a Thru Hike, Part 1
Words & Photos by Eloise Robbins
Tell anyone you hike long distances, and one of the first questions they'll ask you is about food. What do you eat? How do you carry all of your food for five months? (Spoiler alert, you don't.) How much does it weigh? And aren't you hungry? Food is one of the most challenging things to plan. You can pore over gear lists and gain all of the outdoor skills you want, but food is deeply personal. What works for one person will not work for another. Luckily there's a variety of different strategies that will make sure you don't go hungry.
Do You Need to Resupply?
Before you start drooling over recipes and counting the calories on the back of different brands of Honey Buns, you should do some planning. First of all, you should figure out if you have to resupply or if you can carry food for your entire trip. The widest range for which you can comfortably carry food is about two to ten days. The amount you can load up will depend on the size of your backpack, the amount you eat, and how much weight you are alright shouldering. Personally, four to six days is the sweet spot. Less than four days and I spend too long picking up boxes or wandering around towns. More than six days, and I feel like a turtle crawling along under a giant backpack. Once my trip is longer, I start looking for somewhere to resupply.
Should You Mail Boxes?
The next big question is if you will mail resupply boxes or buy from stores and supermarkets in the towns you go through. This will depend on your individual needs and also the trail or route you're exploring. Well-traveled hikes that go through many larger towns (such as the Appalachian Trail) require little planning and no resupply boxes for most people. You can simply walk into a store, decide how many days you want to spend getting to the next town, and then buy the appropriate amount of food. If you're traveling a more remote route, you're unlikely to have that option. I am hiking the Great Divide Trail this summer. There are two spots along the trail with grocery stores. The only other resupply option is to mail food parcels to remote visitor centers. Unless I want to be very, very hungry, I have to get some boxes ready.
You may also need to mail food if you have dietary restrictions. Trail towns normally have a smaller variety of foods appropriate for special diets. If you're vegan, gluten-free, have food allergies, or any other dietary restrictions, you may struggle to find things to eat, even if there is a grocery store. Depending on your diet, you may be able to buy appropriate food in a larger town to ship, or you may have to make and dehydrate your own meals.
You are also almost certainly going to mail yourself boxes for other reasons along a trip. More maps, ice ax, and microspikes, medication, a lighter summer sleeping bag; these are all reasons you'd ship yourself a package. If you're already spending the money on postage, it makes sense to add as much food as you can squeeze in, especially if you use flat rate boxes.
Where Should You Ship Boxes?
So, how do you figure out which town stops have bustling grocery stores and which have a gas station that's only stocked with overpriced canned goods? Simply follow those who came before. If you're hiking an established route with a guidebook, using a navigation app that shows town information, or even just referring to any detailed trip reports available, you will be able to find information about resupply. If you're making up your own route, you may have to do a little more detective work. A Google search will tell you if there's a grocery store, but you'll have to call them to find out if they have lightweight, backpacking-friendly food options. Often, hostels, hotels, and visitor centers will hold packages (sometimes for a fee) if you decide to mail boxes instead.
What are the Disadvantages of Mailing?
Mailing boxes might seem perfect. You can eat your favorite foods without worrying if the tiny trail town grocery store carries them. You can save money on the food itself if you're shipping from a larger town. But resupply boxes also come with some pretty hefty disadvantages. The shipping cost can quickly eat up any savings on the food itself. You can find yourself waiting in town for days if your schedule does not line up with post office opening hours. Most of all, you might end up looking at a box full of food you can't stand, gagging at the sight of yet more instant mashed potatoes. You can't account for changes in your tastes in a box you packed two months ago, and you will get sick of the meals you eat every day.
You also cannot mail fresh food. If you include cheese, vegetables, or even tortillas with a shorter shelf life, it will spoil before you pick up your box. Most hikers supplement their boxes with fresh food, so they have to go to a grocery store anyway. Unless you need to mail food for dietary issues, a trip to the grocery store will cancel out many of the benefits of mailing.
How Many Days of Food?
So, how do you know how many days of food to pack for each section? It all depends on how fast you can walk. You probably already know roughly how many miles a day you like to cover from shorter hikes, even if you haven't done a trip that requires resupply before. Some pretty easy math will tell you that if you like to hike 20 miles a day, a hundred-mile section will take you five days. The amount of miles you can cover varies from person to person and trail to trail. If you're a complete beginner, do a couple of practice hikes beforehand on similar terrain to figure out how many miles you like to hike.
If you're packing resupply boxes for a five-month thru hike before you start, keep in mind that both the amount you eat and the distance you can cover will increase as your hike progresses. You may start a hike only able to do 10 miles a day. After three or four months, you might be able to do 25 or 30 miles a day. Luckily, you're also hungrier, so if you underestimate how much distance you can cover, you'll still be able to eat the extra food you packed.
How Much Food Should You Bring Per Day?
How do you figure out how many calories a day you need to eat? Unfortunately, there's no formula that works for everyone. At 5'2" and 120 pounds, my food needs are very different than my 6'2" 200-pound husband. One mistake that newer thru-hikers often make is assuming they will immediately be ravenous the instant they start hiking. In reality, you're unlikely to eat much more than you would on a weekend trip for at least the first few weeks. I often eat less–nerves, poor sleep, and adjusting to life on trail saps my appetite.
Then, after a few weeks of hiking, when you finally feel like you know how much you should bring to eat, your body will move the goalposts on you. Hiker hunger kicks in at a different point for everyone. For some, it takes just a week. For me, it takes about a month. At that point, I become insatiable. I can eat two dinners in town and still be hungry ten minutes later. By the end of a thru-hike, I carry roughly double the food I started with per day. I am limited more by how much I can fit in my backpack than by what I can consume.
Keep in mind that other factors apart from how long you've been on trail will also influence how much you eat. Altitude can make you hungrier (or leave you nauseated). Increasing your daily mileage or elevation gain can increase your appetite. If you're hiking a trail like the Pacific Crest Trail, where flat desert rises into the high elevation Sierra Nevada, err on the side of caution when planning food for a new elevation. You don't want to have to take a lengthy detour to town because you haven't brought enough to eat.
When planning food, you should also consider your bailout options. If you don't bring enough food on the Appalachian Trail, it's not a big deal. You can simply hitch to town at one of many road crossings. It might slow down your itinerary, but you won't starve. However, if you're dropped off in a remote location with no bailout points, you should bring extra food. If you're delayed due to weather, tougher than expected terrain, or injury, you don't want to also have to worry about being hungry. Adding an extra day of food to your resupply plans might make your bag heavy, but the peace of mind will be worth it.
Once you know how many days of food, you can plan the number of meals you need. I like to do this visually: I lay out each day's breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks on my dining room table or on a hotel bed if I'm already on trail. It's a quick and easy way to make sure you have enough food and that you haven't forgotten to plan for a certain meal.
Plan It Out
Once I have considered all these factors, I start making lists and spreadsheets. These can be incredibly simple or complex. You may find it useful to note down:
- Places where you intend to resupply by buying or mailing a box
- How many days of food you need
- If mailing, if you can supplement with additional food from a store
- Where you have to mail maps and extra equipment
- Estimated arrival date
- Any additional information, such as if you plan on staying at a hotel in town
Now you should have a solid resupply plan. The next step is to start thinking about what you want to buy in town or put in those resupply boxes! I'll share some ideas in Part 2 of this series.
Eloise Robbins is a Triple Crowner who completed the Continental Divide Trail in 2017. She also enjoys canoeing, bikepacking, and getting outdoors all winter long. You can read more of her writing at https://funsizehikes.com.