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Backpacking Food Basics

Why Thru-Hikers Should Buy Their Food on the Trail

Skip the resupply box: There are better uses for your time.

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This is Ask a Thru-Hiker, where record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your questions about life on the trail. 

Dear Snorkel,

I’m headed on my first thru-hike and am trying to figure out resupply. Should I make boxes of food to mail myself or resupply at grocery and convenience stores near the trail?

—Hungry Hiker

Dear Hungry Hiker,

While resupply options are a personal preference, I think almost all first-time thru-hikers will be better served by shopping at grocery stores along the trail as they hike. In a previous column, I went into detail on how thru-hikers get food for a 2,000-mile hike (spoiler: it isn’t by carrying 5 months’ worth of food from the start). Here’s why I think the buy-as-you-go method works better:

  • Tastes change. You thought you’d be able to eat oatmeal everyday. Turns out, it gets old after 2 weeks straight. I’ve seen hiker after hiker get a resupply box only to realize that everything they’ve packed themselves is now too gross to eat. Luckily, thru-hikers have a way of exchanging gear and food they send themselves that they no longer need: the hiker box. But you don’t want to spend all that time and shipping costs to mail yourself stuff that you just don’t want to eat anymore. With buy-as-you-go, you can eat the food your body is craving and adjust to your changing tastebuds each week.
  • Upfront costs wasted if you quit (or get tired of resupply food). I’ve done it myself: dump hundreds of dollars on food for resupply boxes only to quit the trail after a few weeks. I had pounds of Fritos and energy bars prepared in 20 different boxes. When I quit the trail 5 boxes in, that meant I came home to food I was less likely to want to eat at home than on trail. It’s much better for hikers’ budgets in the long run to buy-as-they-go, even if small town grocery store prices may be a bit higher than the supermarket in the city.
  • Options for fresh food. When you assemble boxes months before you plan to receive them on trail, it’s impossible to include cheese, vegetables, or fruit. While fresh food tends to weigh a little more than freeze-dried or dehydrated, most thru-hikers start to crave it after weeks of shelf-stable goods. When you buy as you go, it’s easy to incorporate a salami or a head of broccoli into your resupply. In fact, many hikers that use resupply boxes still go to the extra effort of picking up some fresh food. 
  • Upfront time could be better spent on training and learning skills. The months before starting a thru-hike may feel like they drag on, but there’s only so much prep a person can fit in. I’ve seen many thru-hikers-to-be spend months dehydrating food and putting together resupply boxes. In my opinion, that time could better be spent familiarizing themselves with their gear and bolstering outdoor skills. It’s easy to get food from towns along the trail. But it’s much harder to learn skills like wilderness first aid on the fly. 
  • Logistics associated with box pick-up: To get your resupply boxes, you can send it to yourself via general delivery (described in this Ask a Thru-hiker) or to a local hotel, hostel, or business. This requires timing when you get into town to Post Office hours. Time it wrong, and you could find yourself sitting out a 3-day holiday weekend, as happened to me on the CDT during Labor Day. If you send to a hotel, you lock yourself into staying there overnight, even when your friends may be headed elsewhere (thru-hiker etiquette recommends staying at the business that holds your box). 
  • Supporting local businesses. Many small trail towns rely on tourism dollars from summer visitors. By buying food and gear you need locally, you support people who live near the trail, many of whom were hit hard by trail closures and quarantines in 2020. This is a great way to prove that hikers and public lands are good for the local economy. 

There are exceptions. Despite the time, energy, and logistics associated with boxes, I still would recommend them for hikers with food allergies and dietary restrictions. You’re unlikely to find the type of food you usually eat at many stores along the trail. 

As fun as making resupply boxes may be, I encourage first-time thru-hikers to resist the temptation to spend their precious planning months on boxes. In my opinion, assembling boxes can be a distraction that isn’t the most effective way to use your time.

—Snorkel