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Keep Your Feet On The Gas: How To Resupply Like A Champ On A Thru Hike, Part 3

Words & Photos from Eloise Robbins

Not surprisingly, food plays a dominant role in any adventure! Depending on where you're going, it may not always be a straightforward process to make sure you can consume it. Food is one of the most challenging things to plan, especially if you're particular about what you eat. 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. In Part Three of Eloise's Resupply Series, she explains how to make sure all the hard work you've done on the front end shows up where you need it to on trail.

You've plotted precisely where you're going to resupply. You know when you'll arrive in each town. You've picked your menu carefully and know what you'll eat for every meal. Now you just have to package up your resupply boxes, take them to the post office, and send them on their way. Easy, right? Unfortunately, mailing boxes can be incredibly stressful. Here's how you can ease your worries about spoiled food and lost boxes.

How to Package Your Food

I picked up a box in Colorado on the Continental Divide Trail. One of the treats inside was a pack of naan bread my resupply person had thoughtfully added. I carried it for days, daydreaming about eating it, salivating at the thought of dinner. Finally, on the third day, I opened the pack. I ate half a naan bread, before realizing it tasted a bit funny. Horrified, I checked it more carefully. On the back of the bread, hidden from view, grey mold covered the entire surface.

This is one of the biggest concerns about mailing boxes. So, how can you avoid your food spoiling? Carefully check best-by dates on anything store-bought. Make sure it's far enough in advance that even if you're delayed picking up your boxes, the food will still be good. If you want to repackage food into trail-appropriate containers, wait until you receive your box to do this. For example, Oreos will keep better in the original packaging, and then you can pour them into a Ziploc bag when you get your box. If you've dehydrated your meals, consider vacuum sealing them to keep out unwanted moisture.

Don't forget that your box is unlikely to be stored somewhere at room temperature. Depending on your trip, your box may be exposed to extreme heat that could result in melting chocolate and gummies. It may go through several freeze-thaw cycles. Try and choose foods that temperature swings won't damage, and save more delicate options for when you can resupply in town.

You also want to pay attention to the box itself. Reinforce all of the seams and corners with tape, and make sure anything sharp, spiky, or breakable is well padded so that it won't puncture your box. This will help ensure your box arrives in one piece.

What Else Goes in a Resupply Box?

Resupply boxes don't just have to be food. I normally include maps. Many thru hikers include toiletries, including toothpaste, sunscreen, and hand sanitizer. I find it's pretty easy to pick these up in town, so I normally just make sure I have enough of these consumables that I don't run out in a location I'm picking up a box. I do include extra Ziploc bags, either for repackaging food or storing trash on the trail.

If you're in a location where you can't resupply in a store, you're probably somewhere incredibly remote, with limited access to restaurants. It's a great idea to include a few treats for town. These can include a fancy meal to make, your favorite candy, or a few photos and letters from friends and family to keep your spirits up.

Call Your Resupply Spots

Now your food is packaged, your maps are ready to go, and you have some extra snacks for town. Next step? Call the places you plan on mailing your boxes to and check if they have specific requirements. Many places will only hold packages for a certain amount of time and require you to include certain information on the outside of your box. They may also charge a fee or want you to ship using a specific carrier, such as USPS or FedEx. Some may require you to ship in a very specific container. For example, the John Muir Ranch on the Pacific Crest Trail says you must mail your food in a five-gallon plastic bucket since your package is shipped up to the ranch on horseback. A phone call is also the perfect opportunity to confirm the address you are mailing to.

How to Label Your Box

Most places will tell you exactly how to label your box. If they don't, or if you're mailing to a post office using general delivery, there's some fairly standard information to include. This is:

  • Your real name (not your trail name)
  • Estimated Arrival Date
  • The phrase "Please Hold For (name of trail) Thru-Hiker"

You should write your real last name in large, clear letters on every side of the box. You should also try and make your box as distinctive as possible. In some locations, a store owner or postal worker will have hundreds of boxes to look through to find yours. If you can tell them, "it's the one with the tie-dye duct tape" or "it's the one with rainbow stickers all over," they will have a much better chance of finding it quickly. Make sure whatever identifying mark you use is visible from all sides.

Also, make sure it's clear who you are mailing your box to. If you're mailing using general delivery, write that in large letters underneath your name and above the post office address. If you're mailing to a store or hostel, make sure you write your name c/o hostel name. If you forget either of these magic phrases, your box might not make it to its destination.

How to Mail Your Box

USPS flat rate boxes can be an incredible tool. With a high weight limit, fast shipping, and tracking included, they are most thru-hikers favorite way to ship in the U.S. If you're hiking an international trail, some other countries also offer flat rate boxes, although they are frequently not as great as the U.S. ones. Don't forget to check with your pickup location as to their preferred carrier: some remote stores and hostels will only take UPS or FedEx.

Whatever method you choose, don't forget to get a tracking number. If you're not using flat rate boxes, you may have to pay extra for this service, but it is entirely worth it. The last thing you want is to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, wondering where your box is.

Should A Friend Mail Your Boxes?

If you're hiking for four months, post offices won't hold boxes for long enough for them to still be available at later stops. So, what do you do? There are two straightforward options.

First, leave boxes with a trusted friend to mail at a later date. Emphasis on the trusted part- if they don't mail your boxes, you could end up being very hungry. You can leave a spreadsheet with estimated mailing dates or simply call and remind them when they should mail a box. This has the huge advantage that if you suddenly can no longer stomach instant mashed potatoes, your friend can go through your boxes and replace all of those meals. You also have flexibility if you decide to flip flop (thru-hiker speak for changing the direction in which you hike the trail) or skip a section of trail since your friend can change the order of your boxes or move up your shipping schedule.

If you don't have a friend willing to make the huge time commitment to support your hike in this way, you can mail your own boxes. Pick a large town along the trail that you'll hit in the first month. Mail your extra maps there. Once you hit town, pick up your maps and hit the grocery store, then make resupply boxes for your next section. You can then pick another large town about a month further up your route. Mail the maps you'll need there on ahead, then repeat the process. You'll be reasonably sure that your boxes will show up since you mailed them yourself, and you can be much more self-sufficient. However, this does mean that you may have to find more maps if you decide to flip-flop or can't make it to your destination for some reason. It can also suck up large amounts of precious town time, and you may have to take an extra rest day just to mailboxes.

How to Mail Internationally

You were looking for the short answer on how to mail internationally? Don't. It's expensive, and you'll have to deal with restrictions on the types of food you can import, as well as potentially paying hefty customs fees. Instead, plan on a day or two before you start hiking to make up your boxes in a large town close to where your trail begins. You can then ship out your boxes for the first month on trail. Unless you're lucky enough to have international friends in the country you're traveling in, you can follow the suggestions for self-reliant package mailing listed above.

Bounce Boxes

A bounce box is a package that hikers mail along the trail, picking it up every few town stops, then mailing it further ahead. It frequently contains toiletries, town clothes, and gear items that have to be infrequently replaced, like socks. If you use a USPS flat rate box, you can bounce your box once for free if you do not open it.

Bounce boxes don't make sense for a lot of hikers. They can be expensive, and finding socks or toiletries in stores is normally pretty easy. However, they can be a useful tool if you need a steady supply of something that's not normally available in small towns. Medicine and disposable contact lenses are two of the more common bounce box contents. However, if you are mailing boxes for other reasons, you can just estimate when you'll run out of these items and add them to your boxes.

What if My Box Goes Missing?

That panicked feeling when the postal worker says they don't have your box can be pretty awful. Unfortunately, it's almost certain to happen at some point. Here's a few tips for when the inevitable happens.

First, find your tracking number. Make sure your box has reached its destination. Occasionally, it will be delayed, and you might have to decide if you'd rather wait in town for a few days or hitch to the nearest grocery store.

If your box is supposed to be at the post office, politely ask the worker to check again. Nine times out of ten, they will find your box if they look more closely. Many locations along popular trails might hold hundreds of boxes for thru hikers. Finding a single box can be challenging, no matter how distinctive your box is. If they still can't find your box, they may have more luck if you come back later in the day or when someone else is working. Remember to be polite and smile, and they'll be likely to spend more time looking for you.

If you mailed your box to a hostel or store and they can't find it, you can also try the local post office. A friend mailed me a package to a hostel in Harper's Ferry on the Appalachian Trail, but the hostel never received it. While waiting for my friend to call me back with the tracking information, I checked in at the post office. It was behind the counter: they just hadn't brought it over to the hostel yet.

If this doesn't work, you might have to get creative. You probably mailed a box to this location because it's remote and doesn't have good food for hiking. You might have to suck it up and carry heavy cans of food to your next resupply. Or maybe you can undertake a long and difficult hitch to a decent grocery store. There might even be a good hiker box where other hikers have left unwanted food. While not ideal, you're unlikely to starve.

Mailing boxes can be difficult, expensive, and stressful, so I like to limit the number of boxes I mail as much as possible. However, when it's unavoidable, I follow the tips listed here to help make sure my food doesn't spoil and arrives in one piece.


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.

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