HOW TO PLAN YOUR PACIFIC CREST TRAIL RESUPPLY STRATEGY
Planning your Pacific Crest Trail resupply strategy is one of the most difficult & daunting parts of getting ready for your thru-hike. Yet carefully planning your PCT food resupply strategy is critical to accomplishing a thru-hike. Kim Vawter, BFT’s Community Manager, completed a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike in 2016. During her 5-months on the Pacific Crest Trail, she resupplied more than 30 times; including 22 boxes that were sent to her along the trail.
In this post, Kim will share her Pacific Crest Trail resupply strategy along with tips & tricks to help you in creating your own plan. Make sure to check out our other posts on the Pacific Crest Trail, including a Pacific Crest Trail gear list, how to train for a thru-hike, and 20 inspirational photos of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Step 1: Determine how you’ll resupply
Without any side trips, the entire Pacific Crest Trail is 2,650 miles from the Mexico border to the Canadian border. You should start wrapping your mind around the idea that you are going to be hiking 3,000+ miles after adding in mileage to access resupply locations.
There are numerous options for designing your Pacific Crest Trail resupply strategy:
- Option 1: Mail Yourself 100% of Your Resupply Packages
- This would be a very daunting task. The only reason I would do this is if you have any serious dietary restrictions.
- Option 2: Pack Resupply Boxes As You Go & Mail To Yourself On Trail
- This is the option often chosen by international hikers who don’t have someone locally to mail resupply boxes to them.
- Option 3: Buy As You Go
- There are numerous sections on the trail where you’d need to haul food for a significant number of miles if you only bought in town.
Here are some important things to consider when weighing the pros/cons of each strategy:
- Mailing resupply boxes is fairly expensive so you’ll need to keep that in mind when saving & budgeting for your trip.
- You’ll be traveling through some really small hiker friendly towns where I encourage you to support local restaurants & stores by eating out or buying supplies.
- You’ll need to be cognizant of post office opening/closing times if you’re picking up resupply boxes, you won’t always have service so make sure to take note of this somewhere.
- Given that some of the trail towns are rather small resupplying in towns can be very expensive.
So which strategy is the best? According to the Class of 2016 thru-hiker survey, “75% of hikers mailed some resupply boxes, 16% mailed all their resupply boxes and 9% mailed none.” Most people do a combination of the three options listed above. We’ll assume that’s your plan and the rest of this blog post will walk you through planning for a combination of resupply strategies for your 2,650-mile thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Step 2: Determine what your average daily miles on the Pacific Crest Trail will be
In order to break down all 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail into resupply sections, you need to figure out how many miles you plan to cover in a day. This means you’ll need to determine your hiking pace. To assess my hiking pace, I timed myself on a training backpacking trip in Joshua Tree National Park on the Hiking & Riding Trail. I concluded my average pace was 3 miles/hour; essentially 1 mile every 20 minutes. Next, you’ll need to figure out how many hours you plan to spend hiking a day. I assumed I would hike for 8 hours a day.
8 hours a day x 3 miles an hour = an average of 24 miles a day
2, 650 miles a day divided by 24 miles a day equals about 110 days.
24 miles a day is a lot of miles, and I knew there was NO WAY I was going to do that many miles in numerous sections of the trail (the beginning, the Sierras, in Washington, etc.). Elevation gain/loss will impact your hiking pace. So this was a high average. I also knew in 5 months that I’d have numerous zero & nero days.
Zero days are rest days where you hike no miles; nero days are days you might only do a few miles when you’re coming into or out of town.
Most people, including me, don’t work seven days a week so I knew realistically I wasn’t going to hike for 7 days a week. I added in 30 zero days. I picked 30 because this was 1.5 zero-days a week for 5 months. I wanted to provide myself with numerous zero days in case I suffered an injury & needed to rest.
So for planning purposes, hiking for 110 days with an average of 24 miles a day + 30 zero/nero days = 140 days on trail. So then 2,650 total miles divided by 140 days equals an average of 19 miles a day.
I decided to be very safe and pack my boxes based on a 15 mile per day estimate. Plus, I was preparing for elevation, heat & even snow to slow me down. I’d rather have extra food than not have enough food; especially given that I was prepared for hiker hunger. If I packed for less mileage I’d have extra food so as my hunger and appetite increased I’d be okay. You can also use Craig’s PCT Planner to help you with figuring out an estimate of what trail towns you’ll be passing through based on your starting date, your average hiking pace, and the number of hours you plan to hike per day.
How’d it all work out in the end for me?
I finished the Pacific Crest Trail with an average of 18 miles a day, which explains why in a few locations I had a bit of extra food. I didn’t mind this though because it meant I had more variety to chose from vs. having to eat everything in my resupply boxes. Plus, numerous people I hiked with were more than happy to take some of my excess food vs. random, unlabeled food in hiker boxes.
Step 3: Determine where to stop on the Pacific Crest Trail to resupply
For Kristen’s John Muir Trail Resupply Guide she included 3 recommended locations to resupply with location addresses & hours of operation, mileage charts, and thorough mailing instructions. Keep in mind the PCT is 12 times longer than the JMT so I won’t be going into as much detail.
Where should you start? You’ll want to start with getting a list of all potential trail stops and their PCT mileage. You can find this online in numerous locations. I inputted that data into an excel sheet listing how many days of food I’d need to survive from Point A to Point B based on an average of 15 miles per day.
In the charts below, you’ll note in YELLOW cities that I mailed a resupply box to. Other cities listed I chose to resupply in town. Being local in California, I was familiar with the towns of Big Bear, Wrightwood, & Agua Dulce and knew there were plenty of options to buy food locally in town, so I chose not to mail a package to any of those locations.
Based on research and suggestions, gained from Yogi’s Guide and interviews with past hikers, I selected 22 cities where I would mail resupply packages and 15 additional locations where I planned to resupply in town. That’s a total of 37 resupply locations.
How’d it all work out in the end for me?
If I were to hike the trail again, I’d most likely only send 15-18 packages. I’d opt to buy more food in trail towns. I made additional notes on the charts to help you with your resupply strategy. There are some locations where you’ll 100% want to mail a box.
Insider Tip About Resupplying in Town
One thing to keep in mind with buying food in town is that it takes time. You have to get to the store, shop, and then deconstruct packaging and repack your food bag. Sometimes I’d only want to go into town for half-day but by the time I had finished errands and fully resupplied it was almost dark, so I often opted for meeting other thru-hikers at a local watering hole (aka bar), having a nice hot meal in town, and splitting a room before heading out early the next morning.
In Wrightwood, I was lucky to stay with a family friend who provided transportation to the store as well as two helpers to deconstruct packaging & restock my food bag.
Step 4: Shop for all of your Pacific Crest Trail Resupply Food
By far the best part of planning my resupply. I’m the type that likes variety in what I eat and was determined to have variety in my meals on the trail. I shopped on Amazon, at Costco, Target, GFS (Gordon Food Service), Minimus, Meijers, and individual vendor websites.
Most people suggest buying more than you think you’ll need. You will be burning a ton of calories and will be hungrier than you think. I wasn’t too worried about this since I was packing my boxes based on a 15 mile per day average yet planned to do more like 18 miles a day, I felt I’d have more than enough food.
For each day I packed 1 breakfast, 1 lunch, 1 dinner & 5 snacks.
So a 5-day box would have 5 breakfasts, 5 lunches, 5 dinners & 25 snacks.
5 snacks per day allowed for 2 snacks between breakfast & lunch and then 2 snacks between lunch & dinner as well as 1 after-dinner sweet snack.
Each of these stacks represents 1 day of food–1 breakfast, 1 lunch, 1 dinner & 5 snacks and was sealed as a full day in a 1 gallon Ziploc bag.
Here are ideas of what I purchased for my resupply boxes. Anything with a * denotes something I purchased in bulk quantity and then divided into individual servings. You can generally find really good bulk purchases on Amazon or at Costco.
Pacific Crest Trail Breakfast Options
- Ancient Grains Granola*
- Cliff Pro Bars
- Mountain House Granola with Milk & Blueberries*
- Mountain House Breakfast Skillet*
- Mountain House Biscuits & Gravy*
Pacific Crest Trail Lunch/Dinner Options
- Nissin Top Ramen*
- Idahoan Potatoes*
- Annie Chun’s Soup Bowls
- Tortillas with Wild Friends flavored peanut butter packets
- Mountain House Beef Stroganoff with Noodles*
- Mountain House Sweet & Sour Pork with Rice*
- Salami with crackers
- Plain pasta with olive oil & Italian Herb seasoning mix
- Knorr Pasta
- Annie’s Instant Mac & Cheese*
- Lipton Chicken Noodle Dry Soup Pouches
Pacific Crest Trail Snack Options
- Trail Bars: Healthy Warrior Chia Bars, Kind Bars, Cave Man Bars, Nature Valley Bars, Bearded Brothers Bars, Picky Bars, Bobo’s Oat Bars, Go Macro Bars,
- Chips & Such: Pirates Booty, Way Better Snacks Chip Bags, Teddy Grahams
- Nutella & Go Packs (Nutella with dipping sticks)
- Trail Mix Snack Packs
- Dried Fruit*
- Fruit Pouches
- Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate
- Harvest Stone Ale House Mix*
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Candy: Peanut M&M’s, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate covered almonds
Get more simple & lightweight backpacking food ideas.
I researched a lot about thru-hiker nutrition and learned that ideally, a thru-hikers diet should consist of 50% carbs, 35% fats, and 15% protein. Remember you also want the most number of calories and nutrients in the smallest and lightest package to maximize the value of each food item.
Adding Flavor, Salt, & Calories
By the end of the trail, you’ll become a pro at adding these 3 elements to any thru-hiker meal: flavoring, salt, and calories. I purchased small individual packs of Kikkoman Thai Style Chili Sauce, Mrs. Dash seasoning blends, and Marconi Olive Oil. I scattered these throughout my resupply boxes to add flavor to various meals. By the time I got halfway through California, I had opted to carry a bottle of Siracha, a small bottle of olive oil & a shaker of seasoning mix. It was worth it. My mouth still waters thinking about some of the yummy creations I enjoyed on the trail, largely thanks to these three critical additions to almost every meal.
Money Saving Tip
I wanted to stretch the money I’d saved for the trail as much as possible so I price-shopped around for the best deals. I borrowed from a friend a Food Saver vacuum sealing machine so I could vacuum-seal individual servings. Mountain House sells a large number of their meals in #10 cans which have 8-10 servings per can and cost a lot less per serving. This is also a great strategy if you have to pack your boxes far in advance of starting your thru-hike.
Step 5: Packing Your Pacific Crest Trail Resupply Boxes
Here are the basic steps to packing your resupply boxes:
- To begin, you’ll need a large space for assembling & packing your resupply boxes.
- Construct every box using unique & easily identifiable duct tape and label every side of the box.
- Mark each box with a post-it listing city of pick-up & the number of days of food that should be packed in the box.
- Using large 1 gallon Ziploc bags, separate food into piles each containing 1 days worth of food. Once you have a pile of these food bags, you can start packing your boxes with the listed number of days on each box. I created a pile of breakfast options, a pile of lunch/dinner options, and a pile of snack options in a large open space. We then created an assembly line to make things easy.
Think back to all the gear purchasing you’ve been doing for your thru-hike. Don’t forget when packing your resupply boxes to remember “lightweight & packability” are key when it comes to food as well. Deconstruct as much packaging as you can.
My mom spent an hour just opening every Knorr Pasta package to let out air and then taping the package back shut. You’ll find you’ll be cramming your resupply boxes shut, so you want to have as much space as possible.
Don’t Forget Necessities
Apart from my food, I had a pile of necessities that I wanted to be included in specific boxes. You’ll want to include any extra supplies in your packages that you think you’ll need to replenish. Here are some examples:
- Toilet Paper (VERY KEY! I frequently didn’t pack enough!)
- PCT Halfmile Paper Maps
- Yogi’s Guide Trail Town Pages
- Refills on items on first-aid kit items
- Tylenol, Claritin, Benadryl
- Kleenex, Leukotape
Minimus.biz is a great place to buy travel sizes of your favorite toiletries and food items to include in your PCT resupply boxes.
I also had gear items I wanted for the Sierras and needed to be packed in my Kennedy Meadows box. My first Oregon box included a fresh hiking t-shirt and a new pair of underwear & socks. Finally, I added broken-in hiking shoes every 500-750 miles.
Check out my Complete PCT Backpacking Gear List
Step 6: Shipping your PCT Resupply Boxes
Money Saving Tip for shipping your PCT Resupply Boxes
USPS Priority Mail Regional Rate Boxes are a low-cost shipping option if you purchase and print shipping labels online. I opted for these boxes as much as possible to save on shipping. Keep in mind even if you only save $1 or $2 dollars per box you’re shipping 20+ packages, so that’s $20-$40. They do though have a maximum weight to watch out for. You can’t pick these boxes up at your local post office; you’ll need to decide how many boxes you want of each type, order online & have them delivered.
Other Tips for Shipping your PCT Resupply Boxes
Here are a few key things to keep in mind regarding mailing of your resupply boxes:
- If possible, select one individual to mail all your boxes. You’ll want to stay in close communication with this individual as your estimated schedule will change often.
- Always use USPS Priority Mail for boxes; unless a location requires something different.
- If you change resupply locations or decide you don’t need a box, UPSPS offers free forwarding of USPS Priority Mail boxes, as long as they have been unopened. This will be very helpful.
- Write “HOLD FOR PCT HIKER HIKER NAME. ETA: MM/DD/YY” on every side of the package.
- Use easily identifiable duct tape to seal your boxes so you can quickly locate them when visiting pick-up locations on the trail.
- Allow at minimum 1-2 full weeks for your boxes to arrive at each location. The post office will hold packages for up to 30 days.
What About If Friends Want To Send Care Packages?
My parents did an incredible job of stuffing surprises here and there into my resupply boxes. My best friend coordinated for all of my friends & family to write me letters of encouragement on the trail. They mailed these letters to my mom & dad, and they stuffed them in my boxes. Given that I had packed my my own resupply boxes, you can imagine the pleasant suprise when I open my boxes and found letters, notes, and pictures from friends & family.
I had a few friends send me packages on the trail, and it brightened my days & kept me cruising. I shared 5-10 locations where friends could also send packages and was clear with directions as to what was ok to mail and what was not. At my last resupply stop in Stehekin, WA, I received 5 finale boxes from friends and let me tell you, I savored every bit of those boxes—they had boxed wine in them, endless bags of candy, homemade banana bread and so much more. I highly encourage you to allow friends to send you mail on the trail, but make sure they tell you when and where they sent a package. as you have to ask for all of your mail.