I hiked the PCT 10 years ago as my first long-distance hike. Last summer, I hiked my 10th long trail; I have made it my lifestyle. As such, I have had the opportunity to meet a lot of other hikers who have way more miles than I do. We have talked about our strategies for route finding, gear, and resupply. I’ve been relieved to hear that, like me, they have all made mistakes and changes over the years. The one thing I have learned for certain is that no two people do it exactly the same way. 

That said, I can tell you that a lot of people have made the same mistakes. Most of the time, these “mistakes” are just different ways to do things that make that individual happier/more comfortable on trail. Sometimes, these mistakes cost people a lot of money. And, occasionally, a mistake can cost someone their hike.

Because resupply is the most obvious difference between backpacking and thru-hiking, it is the most intimidating part for many prospective thru-hikers, even if they have a lot of backpacking experience. This is also where I have seen people make their biggest mistakes.

First, let’s talk about what resupply is.

Since you don’t want to carry everything  you need for a 5-month hike, you are going to want to replenish your consumables (food, fuel, TP, hand sanitizer, sunblock, maps, etc.). Fortunately–on the PCT–the route crosses roads at regular intervals (every 2-10 days) where you can go to town to resupply those consumables.

There are 2 ways to do resupply, both have pros and cons. Let me talk about the pros of each.

Buy-As-You-Go

Many of the towns/resorts along the PCT have ample food and hiker items to get you to the next resupply town/resort. With this method, you buy everything you need in town when you get there. With this method:

  • You are going to town already (all resupply strategies include towns unless you are fully “supported”–and even then you are probably going to want to go to town occasionally for a hot meal).
  • You don’t have to worry about items being lost in the mail.
  • You don’t have to adjust your hiking to account for post office hours of operation, which can be very limited in small towns.
  • It may be cheaper than mailing boxes ahead, depending on how expensive the town/resort is.
  • You can buy whatever food sounds good to you at the time (I can tell you, you will probably acquire odd cravings out there).
  • If, for some reason, you can’t complete your hike, you will not have wasted time and money preparing everything ahead of time.

Just a word on this last point. From what I understand, the attrition rate on the PCT is usually at least 50%. You are probably thinking, “that isn’t me”. So does everyone else! I was fortunate enough 10 years ago to be one of maybe 70 people to complete the trail. There were times I almost quit, despite my complete devotion to it. In fact, of the 10 long trails I have started, I have had to cut 5 of them short. There are so many variables when you are on a long trail, some of which are out of your control. I have gotten off trail due to injury, waterborne illness, family emergency, and lonliness. So, if you have bought all of your consumables in advance of your hike, you should be prepared (if you end up having to cut your hike short) to be stuck with a lot of trail food and potentially out a bunch of money.

Mail Drops

The alternative method is to do mail drops. With this method, you mail a box to yourself in advance (usually via “General Delivery” at the Post Office) containing your resupply items for the next section of trail.

This way:

  • You can mail whatever you want to yourself and not be limited to what the town has.
  • You don’t have to stress about running all around town to resupply when you get there. You can enjoy your time there!
  • Depending on the town or resort that you are going to, sometimes this is the more cost-effective method. Some resorts really have to elevate their prices to account for having to haul in supplies to their remote location.

Mail drops are going to be very useful for people with specific dietary needs or who need hard-to-find items. If you are vegan or diabetic, or your headlamp takes a special battery, this strategy will make your life easier.

A ressupply box operation in progress (Photo Cred Whitney

A resupply box operation in progress (Photo Cred Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa

Bounce Bucket

A version of the maildrop strategy is the bounce bucket or box. A bounce box is a container that you mail to a town ahead of you on the trail. But, unlike mail drops, when you reach that town, you pick the box up from the post office (or hotel), collect just a few items from it, then mail it (and the rest of its contents) ahead of you again.

Some people actually use a 3 or 5 gallon bucket because it is durable and easy for the postal employees to find on the shelf (with two hundred other hiker boxes). Some items people put in bounce buckets/boxes are: backup socks, stakes, ground sheets, repair tape, pack liners, sporks, Platys, or other items that are likely to wear out or break. Also, some people like to include items for town stops like: a change of clothes (for when they do laundry), laundry detergent, razors, toenail clippers, hairbrushes, iPads, or a camera charger. Also, it may be useful to include items that you don’t want to buy a whole box of in every town, or are hard to find in some towns like: mini Body Glide, a ziplock bags, odd-sized batteries, a favorite drink mix, or medications. I like to include dried minced garlic, veggies, fruits, refried beans, cheese, and meats, plus packets of mayo, mustard, cream cheese, and Cholula. That way, I can buy whatever staples that sound good at the time in town and bulk them up with flavor, protein and calories!

Note: Because you will probably out-hike the box if you try and do this at every town stop, I suggest, at most, only getting your box every other or every third town.

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An example of a bounce bucket

Biggest Mistake

The most common regret I hear, with regards to resupply, is from hikers who made every single meal for the trail in advance of the hike. It’s an easy trap to fall into in January and February when perspective thru-hikers want to be doing something productive for the big hike! Most hikers I have talked to about this have told me that their tastes, caloric needs, and cravings changed a lot throughout the duration of their first long hike. While I like scoring the yummy homemade meals out of the hiker boxes when they are sick of them (or they have to get off the trail), I feel bad for all of the wasted time, energy, and money.

Best Bet

The majority of thru-hikers I have talked to use a hybrid strategy, and that seems to be the most successful. They buy as they go in the towns with good supermarkets and aren’t overly expensive. And, they have a family member mail a box to the towns that don’t have a lot, allowing for a little supplementation if something sounds good at the time. Add a bounce bucket every 3-4 town stops to grab some replacement items, and a well-rounded resupply is born! (How do you know which towns have what? Yogi’s PCT Handbook actually has a table in it listing every town and what you can expect to find in the way of hiker-specific resupply items. It is a helpful planning tool. I am sure there are other online references, too.)

Another possible hybrid strategy is to do maildrops from a large town while you are on trail. For example, some people resupply for all of Oregon once they reach Ashland, the furthest south town stop in Oregon. This way, they have a better idea if they will be able to complete the trail, their food will be fresher, and they will have a better understanding of what their body is craving right then.

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Buying food for several mail drops (Photo cred Sage Clegg)

If any of these terms are new to you, please refer to my  Thru-Hiking Glossary.

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