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Food: Mail or Buy?

When we tell people about our PCT hike, they often ask how we will handle the food aspect of the trip. Fortunately, we won’t have to carry 5 months of food all at once. Instead we will replenish our food supplies periodically, either by buying food from grocery stores near the trail, or shipping ourselves packages to post offices convenient to the trail. Both options have pros and cons.

Buying food at grocery stores near the trail allows us to buy whatever we are craving at the moment, rather than trying to decide months in advance. If we get sick of a certain energy bar or type of instant mashed potatoes, we can switch to another. Buying at grocery stores can also be cheaper because there isn’t the added expense of shipping the food. Plus, grocery stores tend to keep longer hours than post offices, meaning we’re less likely to be stuck in town waiting to get our food.

On the flip side, the benefit of shipping ourselves food is that we can guarantee we will eat nutritious food. Some towns along the trail only have a convenience store or gas station food mart, rather than a full grocery store, so the pickings can be slim. Eating candy bars and ramen every day would get old quickly. Another benefit of preparing food boxes ahead of time is that it makes PCT town stops simpler and less stressful. In some towns we can ship a box to a local business, which is open longer than the post office.

Since we are vegetarians and predominantly eat organic food, which is hard to find in some rural areas, we are going to opt for a combination approach. At locations where there is a bigger city with a grocery store near the trail, we will stop there and buy food. But when the town nearest the trail only has a gas station or convenience store, we will mail ourselves food boxes. Where possible, we want to stay close to the trail and walk to get our food, rather than hitchhiking, so we’ve factored that into our plans as well. After doing some research in Yogi’s PCT Handbook, this is the breakdown we decided on:

Location Buy or Mail Days
to Next
Town
Mt. Laguna Buy 4
Warner Springs USPS to PO 4
Idylwild Buy 6
Big Bear Buy 4
Wrightwood Buy 4.5
Agua Dulce Buy 5
Tehachapi Buy 7
Kennedy Meadows USPS to KM General Store 11
Vermillion Valley Resort UPS to Vermillion Valley Resort 4
Tuolumne Meadows Buy 9
Echo Lake Resort USPS to PO 5.5
Sierra City Buy 4
Belden USPS to PO 3
Drakesbad Guest Ranch USPS to Drakesbad Guest Ranch 3.5
Burney Falls State Park UPS to Burney Park Camp Store 3.5
Castella UPS to Ammirati’s 4
Etna Buy 2
Seiad Valley USPS to Mid River RV Park 3
Ashland Buy 4.5
Crater Lake Mazama Village USPS to Crater Lake Camp Store 4.5
Shelter Cove Resort UPS to Shelter Cove Resort 3.5
Big Lake Youth Camp USPS to Big Lake Youth Camp 4.5
Timberline Lodge USPS to Timberline Lodge Ski Area 2
Cascade Locks Buy 6.5
Whites Pass USPS to Kracker Barrel Store 4
Snoqualmie Pass USPS to Chevron Station 3.5
Skykomish USPS to Dinsmore’s Hiker Haven 5.5
Stehekin USPS to PO 4

Based on this plan, we will create 17 food boxes, covering about 73 trail days. Jim and Cindy have graciously offered to be our package shipping team. THANKS!

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Joe Sofranko #

    So organized!! I love it! Leaving nothing up to chance. Not a bad idea considering how long your trip is. :)

    December 5, 2011
    • Thanks Joe! The funny thing is that no matter how much we plan, there will undoubtedly be unexpected things which mess up the plan….but that’s what makes it a grand adventure!

      December 6, 2011
  2. Margaret #

    You are not just doing this for yourselves, you are making it look “easy” for others! LOL. Actually, though, for people who might be considering this venture, you are creating a path that will potentially make it more accessible to folks, including vegetarians who might otherwise be filled with doubts!
    Love, m

    December 6, 2011
    • Thanks Margaret for the thoughtful comment! One of our goals with this blog is to encourage people to go on backpacking trips, and to show people how they can eat well on the trail. In future entries, we’ll be sharing more about our particular food choices. Hopefully that will also be helpful, especially for vegetarians.

      December 9, 2011
  3. I’m leaving early Feb 2012, but stopping for about a month in Palm Springs area for family.

    For protein, I plan to bring 2 to 3 large mouse traps, to trap squirrels, and other rodents.

    Also planning to bring some fishing lines, hooks, etc. for fish. I have an old West Coast foraging book, although in black and white drawings of plants. It’s better than nothing.

    I’m trying to up my foraging IQ also–there’s plenty of youtube videos but not too many good books out, comparable to Sam Thayer’s books in the Mid-West.

    Nothing’s getting mailed to me, I’m either buying (hopefully just mostly grains, pasta and beans) or receiving from the land (vegies, fruits and meat), I’m hoping I can get milk from ranchers along the way.

    December 15, 2011
    • Hi James, We recommend a leave no trace policy, which means you leave the wilderness exactly as you found it. This means carrying in all of your food and packing out all your waste. If hundreds of people harvested food from the PCT each summer, the ecosystem surrounding the trail would be harmed. Good luck with your planning! I recommend joining the PCT-L email list to learn more.

      December 16, 2011
      • James #

        So if you came across some yummy Bear’s Head mushroom and berries, you’d just take a picture and walk on? I can’t imagine going into the wild, but not fully experiencing it gastronomically. I hope the no trace policy isn’t PCTA’s stand, I’ll have join the email list to inquire. Thanks for the email list suggestion. This is very disconcerting.

        December 17, 2011
  4. Dan #

    M2C ~ Great plan for re-supply. From my trip last year I decided to mail a pkg to Cabazon this year in between Idylwild and Big Bear. Fuller Ridge is tough and will probably still have snow and ice like last year on it so I will try to carry as little as possible until I get used to being back on the trail. The heat kills me after spending my entire life up here in Alaska.
    I’m headed back in 2012 – plan on starting between April 9 & 13th. Perhaps see you on the trail.

    January 4, 2012
    • Glad to hear from an experienced PCT hiker that it looks like a good plan. So far the California snow pack is at almost record lows so Fuller Ridge might not have much ice. However, there is still a lot of winter left and things could turn around. Your early start should help with some of the desert temperatures and readjustment from Alaska. Good luck!

      January 6, 2012
  5. Lookin’ good. I like the organization. Just a heads up, Kennedy Meadows to VVR is quite a haul. If the snow stays low, it’s possible, but may not be much fun (especially if you hope to get Mt. Whitney in there). Those who attempted it this year were very sorry. Don’t forget you’ll be carrying a ton more gear and food cause hunger really hits in this section. You might want to consider going out at Lone Pine or Independence to make it more enjoyable. Many people last year had to bail early into LP or Ind and learned the hard way.

    January 13, 2012
    • Thanks Erin! We will definitely consider splitting that section into two pieces, and we’ll keep a close eye on the snow and people’s experiences with it. We’ve heard it can be nice to do it all as one piece for an unbroken wilderness experience, which is why we want to leave open that possibility.

      January 16, 2012
      • It would be nice to avoid going out at Kearsarge since it’s a long side trail…my original plan(before the insane snow!) was to do Lone Pine to VVR. That gave me 9 days instead of 11. Btw, I don’t see your names on your blog at all? Also, I just posted my favorite hiking songs on my journal in case you’re looking for some.

        January 16, 2012
        • Yeah, guess we don’t have our names in too many places on this blog. Check out the About Us page. We’ll take a look at your songs. Thanks. -Anna and Chris

          January 16, 2012
  6. Charles #

    Something occurred to me RE: leave no trace – what do you do with food scraps or build up on your pot(s)? What is standard operating procedure for cleaning pots/utensils/cups when out in the wild?

    As Ang and i will be doing our first overnights this upcoming season its something that since i have no experience with i am not quite sure of the most optimal solution. Any advice is appreciated!

    January 14, 2012
    • Most important is to cook the right amount of food, so you don’t have any left over after a meal. If you do have leftovers, save them for the next day’s lunch. For the remaining scraps, you can rinse the pot or bowl with water, scrubbing with your fingers. Some people use a drop of biodegradable soap and/or a scrubbing pad, but we don’t find these to be necessary. We like using the GSI Compact Scraper to help remove gunk. Discard the water/food scrap mixture away from your campsite and any water sources. Never wash dishes in a stream or lake. For more information, you can check out http://www.lnt.org/ .

      Where are you planning to camp? That’s exciting!

      January 16, 2012
  7. gerrikail #

    Your blog has been helping me tremendously in planning my husband and my PCT thru-hike this year. Like you, we are vegetarian and healthier eaters, so your food planning info has been awesome. Looking at the mail versus buy schedule above, did this plan work for you or did you wish you mailed more boxes then rely on buying? Were there towns that you planned on buying from and wished you sent a package instead or vice versa?

    January 17, 2014
    • So glad this table and the other food information has been useful for you! The whole plan worked amazingly well for us. If we were to hike the PCT all over again, we would probably pick the same mail and buy locations.

      That said, two places we felt were 50/50 to keep or leave were Etna and the long Sierra section. We thought Etna was a nice town, though not as amazing as some people in Yogi’s guide book thought. It required a hitch (we prefer towns that are closer to the trail) and we only stocked up for two additional days. It might have been easier to just carry 6 days worth of food from Castella. We did meet some cool folks in Etna, thoroughly enjoyed the ice cream shop, and the rest break was nice.

      As for the 11 day section between Kennedy Meadows and Vermilion Valley Resort (with a side trip up Mt Whitney), I would decide based on the snow pack. If there is heavy snow, you’ll be moving slower and going out via Kearsarge Pass to resupply is probably best. If the snow is mostly melted, the longer section without resupply was awesome. Your pack will be super heavy at the start, but we enjoyed the longer wilderness stretch and walking fewer daily miles than other thru hikers who were taking the side trail. Both options are really great, you can’t go wrong.

      January 17, 2014
      • gerrikail #

        Thanks for the quick reply! I will definitely follow your advice on the mail and buy locations.

        Funny you mentioned Etna. Based on what I read in Yogi’s book I planned a zero day there…maybe I should rethink this.

        As for the high Sierras (I am planning Mt Whitney)…from what I’ve read, the Kearsarge Pass is supposed to be spectacular, so I am planning on that, but I will bypass VVR and go straight to Mammoth Lake. This will give us 5-6 days on trail before Kearsarge Pass, then 7 days on trail to Mammoth Lake, followed by 7 days on trail to North Kennedy Meadows. I think these 3 week-long uninterrupted sections of the high Sierras will be perfect.

        January 17, 2014
      • gerrikail #

        One more question…at least for now…did you use a bounce box?

        January 17, 2014
        • Yes, after using the bounce box, we would re-ship it 3-4 weeks farther up the trail. We found it convenient to ship it to a town where we were already planning to pick up a food box, and even nicer if we planned for a zero day in that location. Just make sure the place you send your bounce box also has the ability to ship it back out. (We found out that Drakesbad Guest Ranch only receives packages, and will send out letters, but not packages…unless you ask really nice)

          January 21, 2014
  8. Your blog is extremely helpful! When mailing a box to a PO or business do you have to specify on the box that you are thru-hiking and that you will pick up the box on a certain date?

    July 14, 2015
  9. Matt #

    Do you think it is possible to hike the PCT without sending resupply boxes as a vegetarian? My girlfriend and I are planning to do it, but having difficulty finding a way to send resupply boxes for the whole trail.

    February 27, 2017

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