Monday, September 1, 2014
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How many mail drops should you send on the Appalachian Trail?

How many mail drops should you send on the Appalachian Trail?

I typically reserve this space for our hikers to brag about the awesomeness of their lives, but occasionally I weigh in to share the occasional celebrity gossip story. Today, I bring no such exciting news, but instead hope to answer a question I know weighs heavy on the mind of many aspiring Appalachian Trial Thru-Hikers…

“How many mail drops should I send myself on the Appalachian Trail?”

Although I touch upon this subject in Appalachian Trials, I feel as though we can cover this in more depth to help you determine the correct answer for you and your situation.

Peace of Mind

On Whiteblaze.net you can find pages and pages and pages and pages and…well you get it….about anything and everything mail drop related.  Going into the trail, this was definitely one of the preparation tactics I was most concerned with.  As I often did, I turned to my pre-trail therapist/spiritual shaman/gear guru, Ian Mangiardi of The Dusty Camel“How many mail drops did you send yourself during your thru-hike?”

His response: zero.

The question originally arose as I was packing my USPS Priority boxes full of Clif Bars, Snickers, and trail mix.  Maybe I was just doing it wrong, but it felt like I was paying money to send myself supplies that I’ve seen at every gas station on earth.  It felt that way, because it was that way.  As Ian’s advice and my experience would go onto confirm, Snickers is as ubiquitous as Ryan Seacrest.  Whether you like it or not, he they will find you.

In other words, I was doing it wrong.  I was buying food at the grocery store and sending it to myself so I didn’t have to buy food at the grocery store(?).  As soon as Ian confirmed my suspicion, I halted preparing any further mail drops, and put the remainder of my energy to being as anxious as possible all of the time.

And I would go the first 1,500 miles with only receiving a few mail drops.  I didn’t starve to death.  I didn’t overpay for food (at least most of the time – you’ll read the exceptions below).  I didn’t have to be the smelliest person in the post office in every town.

…..happily ever after, right?….

Well things changed.  My brain started to fail on me.  I went to the hospital a couple of times. The doctors thought I was dehydrated.  As I would later find out, it was actually West Nile Virus that was wreaking havoc inside my head, but none-the-less, I believed that I needed to improve my nutrition.

Because inordinate perspiration followed by excessive water consumption can actually cause more harm than good, I had my mom send me an (overpriced) electrolyte supplement.  More accurately, my mother informed me that she had purchased said supplement, she was sending it, I was going to take it, and if it didn’t play out exactly this way, she would helicopter into the woods and end me.

Needless to say, over the last few hundred miles, my mail drop schedule suddenly became much more frequent as I would receive a slew of supplements and vitamins at every other town.

(Side note: Although ultimately WNV was the main culprit of my misery, I did feel better – although still not great – upon taking these supplements.  Take it from me, proper hydration on the trail is hugeI highly recommend getting yourself an electrolyte supplement.  Gatorade will work.)

When I was a normal hiker dude with normal hiker dietary requirements, mail drops were more of a pain in the ass than they were support. 

When I needed something I couldn’t readily acquire in Nowhere, Maine, mail drops were helpful.

Seems pretty straight forward, right?

It is.  And ultimately this is the answer to our question.  If you don’t have any dietary restrictions or special medication, you do not need to send yourself any mail drops.  The previous sentence, again.  

There are exceptions to this rule, of course.

Exception 1: You’re broke

If you are very, very, broke.  And I know most 18-30 year-olds will fall into varying categories of broke.  But I’m referring to the truly epic, using donated gear, living out of hiker boxes, type of broke.

If this is you, find the parts on the trail where you’ll be covering long stretches (more than 120-150 miles) without a proper grocery store.  Your AT Guide or Hiker’s Companion will have this information.  In these areas, and these areas only, send yourself enough food to get to the next grocery store. Gas stations and convenience stores are going to be more expensive.  It’s basic candy bar science.

You can do this if you’re not broke and looking to save some cash, but keep in mind that your body will be sending yourself all sorts of weird cravings, your tastes will change, and you will get sick of eating the same processed corn-or-wheat based product on repeat.  In other words, you can’t know what you will want to eat.  That might not sound important now, but it will be.  Many of the foods I lived on during the trail, haven’t passed my lips since finishing more than a year ago.

Exception 2:  You’re a culinary genius

During my third week on trail, I camped next to a hiker who was heating a batch of homemade chili.  He felt bad that I wasn’t cooking anything (I wasn’t carrying a stove- by choice) and he insisted that I try his dinner.  Although the gesture was nice, I wish he wouldn’t have- because it was the most delicious fucking chili I’ve ever tasted.  After one bite, all I could dwell on was how my peanut butter and honey tortilla tasted like cement and butt compared to The Chosen Chili.

In other words, if you have the capacity and time to prepare several batches of homemade chili and dehydrating it – you should do that.  If you’re like me and your cooking/dehydrating skills aren’t better than Ramen noodles – and nothing you prepare is going to be cheaper than Ramen noodles, it is the most basic food element – opt for the grocery store.

Exception 3: You have way too much spare prep time

Don’t let me talk you out of sending yourself mail drops at every single post office, outfitter, and hostel along the AT if that’s what you so please.  If you’re nerdy about this stuff and want to go balls to the walls with sending supplies, by all means, walls, meet balls.  But know that you really aren’t doing much in terms of preparing yourself for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.  You’re scratching an itch.

Buying supplies at the grocery store and then sending yourself supplies so you don’t have to buy supplies at the grocery store – doesn’t really save time or money (in most cases).

What’s the Difference?

You might also be asking, what’s the difference?   Even if it doesn’t save time or money, why not do it?  “At least I’ll know I have cheap food on its way so I don’t have to worry about it.”

You’re not wrong for thinking that.  In fact, if that will cause you more peace of mind than the alternative, perhaps you should.

But also remember that your mental state will likely shift while on trail (a half year of The Woods has a way of shining a new light).  In my opinion, one of the most enjoyable aspects of long distance backpacking is the complete and absolute freedom.  In no other period of your life, will time start to lose its importance.  You will wake up when the sun rises, eat when it hangs high, and sleep when it sets.  “Schedule” will leave your lexicon (unless you’re actually on a tight schedule, which is to be avoided, if possible).

When you send food to a given post office, you get pulled back into a world that operates on schedules.  Arriving to a post office twenty minutes after it closes on Saturday is a raging pain in the ass.  You either have to call and have it forwarded (without knowing the next chance you’ll get at cell access and power) or will have to make an impromptu zero in town (or nearby).  You sent yourself food to save money, and now you’re taking a day off so you can pick up a box of Twix and Ramen.  It doesn’t quite equate.

Either way, the additional $0.15 on the candy bar is a freedom tax I am happy to pay.  So will you.

If preparing for the trail is your main concern, may I suggest a book that will be your psychological and emotional guide to successfully thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

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About Zach

My name is Zach. I am an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. I wrote a book called Appalachian Trials. It helps hikers mentally prepare for a half year backpacking trip. Find me on Facebook or The Google. I also giveaway cool stuff on the Appalachian Trials Newsletter. If you're planning on thru-hiking the Trail in the future, I encourage you to check out my Personal AT Coaching Page.
  • http://herenevrywhere.blogspot.com/ Jonathon Black

    Having just finished a hike of the AT, I can say with hearty agreement that ZERO is the amount of mail-drops one needs. I had an over abundance of prep time, and I thought I could save money buying in bulk from Amazon. Within 2 weeks I was ahead of schedule I was calling home and saying, “Please don’t send that mail-drop”. When I did get a drop I threw half the crap into the hiker box because it was too much, or too repetitive. I eventually went home for a weekend and re-worked the boxes and made them conform to my needs, but that was mainly because I’d already purchased the stuff and felt like I needed to use it.
    My girlfriend got to eat the bars I didn’t want all summer, and here I sit at home with a couple hundred bars still left!
    Between grossly over-estimating what I would need and what I would eat and the hassle of shipping the box to a PO and hoping I’d get there at a time when they were open drop boxes weren’t a luxury but a pain! Also I had one box never show up to the PO and was eventually returned home after 2 1/2 months.

    They only good things that came of drop boxes were the sweet notes my girlfriend was able to send to me, vitamins, and protein powder (even that I eventually switched to Carnation Instant Breakfast). The re-supplies in Maine were awesome; all the Inn’s and hostels have taken the advise of past hikers and really stocked their pantries well, so even in the land of no Walmarts or grocery stores hikers are still able to fill their food bags with good stuff.

    Great post Zach!

  • Zach

    Great input, Johnny Walker.

    The point of this post is to dispel the common wisdom that all hikers *must* send themselves supplies along the way. Your situation is a perfect example of how it’s more of a hassle than a help.

    Also CONGRATULATIONS!

  • Sharon

    Zero was the perfect # for me. I was a no stove and no mail drop backpacker on the AT this year and could not have been happier. Felt so free not worrying about getting to a certain PO within a rigid time frame. Also I hiked the trail meat free, yep vegetarian and never had a problem besides the major craves for avocados and other fresh veggies, even after hiking out of a town with a few stashed away. There were a few times when the pickings were slim, but really never gave it much thought. Sometimes in camp mouths would be watering for a piece of avocado or kiwi… Several cooking hikers had stove problems for one reason or another and it was a nice knowing I wasn’t carrying dead weight of a broken stove and fuel. Never missed eating hot meals only ever missed hot morning coffee and there was no way instant hot coffee was worth the weight of a stove and fuel. I digress, stove-less backpacking is another subject entirely. Yet, I know a stove will only be used when car camping.
    Happy trails….

    • Zach

      Right on Sharon, that’s awesome. Would you be interested in writing a guest post on your experiences with eating vegetarian on the trail? What sorts of foods you ate/meals you prepared, how you got protein, explaining your cravings, challenges, etc. I think a lot of other hikers would get value out of it.

    • Aidan

      Hi, I wanted to ask if you’re a vegan or a vegetarian? I’m planning my thru-hike and I’m a vegan, trying to gauge if there’ll be enough options to get food on the trail, or if i should send stuff ahead. Thanks.

  • http://www.aquobnecabins.com/at.html Steve Aquone Hostel

    A great post Zach and absolutely on the money, however my 2010 Thru-hike did fall into Exception 2: You’re a culinary genius; Maggie would cook up a storm and dehydrate it and vacuum seal the contents, so my mail drops and her letters was something I looked forward to. Here are the rules……… Do’s.. Cook and eat this type of menu alone, in or near your tent far away from any shelter………Don’t ever cook this type of food in a shelter surrounded by hungry peanut butter munching hikers, it’s like a rabbit eating freshly cut grass surrounded by hungry wolves, you have been warned. Enjoy your hike.

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  • Zach

    “It’s like a rabbit eating freshly cut grass surrounded by hungry wolves”

    Ha! Aint that the truth.

    You are very fortunate to have a Maggie. Find her right now, and give her a big hug.

  • http://rovingrivers.com Rachel Rivers

    This has got to be the best post ever on maildrops. I hate every penny I spent on maildrop boxes during my 2001 hike. Why would I want to go to the post office to open a box of the same food that I have been eating for weeks, when I could hitch a ride into any town and shop for whatever I might want for the next few days? In my opinion, the freedom of the trail is what makes it so amazing- the potential that each day holds an adventure. Schedules are for real life.

    • Zach

      Schedules *are* for real life. And as everyone knows, real life blows :)
      Good luck on your upcoming thru Rachel!

  • Paul Jones

    I am an aspiring AT thru-hiker, if I get the funds. My plan is to use MRE’s for the duration of the hike. Not a wide array of food, but with the MRE heater there’s no need for a stove. So I might have to do a few mail drops. Congrats to all the hikers that completed the thru-hike.

  • Daniel

    I also believe that zero is a good number to aim for. There are a few locations, such as Harper’s Ferry, where resupply is more difficult unless you are happy with resupplying in a gas station. These few locations might require a bus ride, hitchhike, or shuttle. If you are tight on a schedule this might be annoying but better than having to wait for a closed PO. Many businesses do accept packages with much better hours than POs (for getting a care package maybe!). Other than food, some people want to mail some weight forward or have special requirements: but I would try to use the post office as little as possible and not immediately try to become an exception.

  • http://ZeroSoundsLikeAwakinginthe21stCentry Harold Odom

    When I first hiked the A.T. the Blue Ridge Parkway was, to our great lament, just being blasted out of the mountainsides. The thought of a tourist invasion was anathema to the soul. Stores and gas stations ($0.28/gal.) were unheard of. If you tried hitching a ride you might just turn up at the bottom of a moonshiners well just for the color of your hat. (“Squeal like a pig.” comes to mind) With 21st century “conveniences” and the crush of civilization, I would think that these meticulous plans for drop boxes have gone the same way as the thumper-barrel still. Maybe a little civilization is not so bad. I’ll follow your more modern thinking on the subject. Thanks.

  • Son Driven

    Glad to have found this blog. No need for mail drops. Looking forward to hitting the AT in March. In preperation I am thinking about hiking around Florida for several weeks this winter, or perhaps I am just looking for an excuse to get out of another MInnesota winter. Will a 40 degree mummie bag suffice?

  • Rose

    thanks for the input on mail drops I was going nuts trying to work out just how I was going to do that. I know I will need a few mail drops for getting my dogs food. but my food well hell i can eat just about anything lol. you just made my night and my life easier for my hike. I have your book just haven’t got to it yet. but I still have time. Thanks again Two Blooms

  • Griffinn

    A 40*F bag for March on the AT will not suffice. It’s not as cold as 3 winters north of Green Bay, but early March is cold enough most years to merit a 20*F bag for weeks on end. And sleeping cold every night kills morale like. It maybe the south, but it’s mountains. Mountains play infinite wild-cards.

  • http://www.hopetofreedomquest.blogspot.com Griffinn

    Everything Badger says about maildrops is true.

    The validation of Exception2 comes rarely and is very much appreciated. It is possible to stage 15 maildrops to strategic locations, never take an unwanted zero, and never rush to arrive within business hours. It’s been done once that I know of.

    IF you want an array of vitamins, glucosamine and the like in reasonable volume, and you fuel your exertion by sucking electrolyte replacement glucose though your camelback between snacks, and you have sufficient experience of multiple consecutive months in backcountry settings to know what your body will need and want under such circumstances, and you eat all natural foods at home, and if you have a food dehydrator, and multiple seasons’ experience preparing and preserveing foods for youth expeditions, and you know a reliable volunteer with some storage and freezer space, and you’re good at projecting your estimated progress 5-7 days in advance… maildrops are awesome and eagerly anticipated.

    If this is at least 75% your reality and you want a free consultation, check out the Wednesday posts on my website, and throw me some questions.

    Most people don’t like maildrops.

  • Justin A

    Just to add in my experiences with mail drops here… I used them very frequently, and I found it to useful. I think overall the price of food decreased, considering I bought many of my items in bulk. It also helped with not overbuying, or underbuying food for trip, and decreased the amount of time spent in town. I think its an easy way to get in and out and have the necessary food that in total, ended up being cheaper than buying it at a gas station or small town grocery store. Though, I did have a very reliable mail drop sender (my mother) which made it very easy. I personally had no problems with not having mail drops or having to wait for any. I found it helped with scheduling and setting short term goals as to how many miles in a week I would be doing. I agree that you do not NEED mail drops, but I don’t necessarily think it is sound advice to tell someone they shouldn’t do mail drops. To each their own, hike your own hike, plan your own way. Input is good, but its all up to you.

    • http://appalachiantrials.com Zach

      Hey Justin,

      Thanks for weighing in. I absolutely agree with the premise of “hike your own hike”. I have an entire chapter in Appalachian Trials under that title. Because the prevailing conventional wisdom seems to suggest that it’s optimal (if not necessary) to send many mail drops, this post was dedicated mostly to provide another point of view.

      As a former thru-hiker, obviously your insight is every bit as valuable as anyone else’s. However, I find that most of the people I came in contact with felt more burdened by their mail drop schedule than relieved. But again, everyone is different.

      “I personally had no problems with not having mail drops or having to wait for any. I found it helped with scheduling and setting short term goals as to how many miles in a week I would be doing.”

      This is the idea that I think throws most aspiring thru-hikers off their game, that it’s necessary to develop a schedule. Unless you’re dealing with an unavoidable strict and demanding deadline, I highly-highly-highly advise thru-hikers to *not* impose any sort of schedule, as living in the woods allows the rare opportunity to remove yourself from any such man-made limitations. But again, just my POV, not saying that yours is wrong.

      Thanks again for weighing in; I hope that you continue to.

      Cheers,
      Zach

  • Marci

    Thanks for this helpful post, and all the helpful comments. I’m thru-hiking, starting March 2014. I’m less concerned with saving money and more concerned with saving time, since I really need to finish before I start grad school in mid-August. Would it be more time-consuming to try to make it to Post Offices for my mail drops, or to try to get to stores for re-supply?

    Also, any other advice for thru-hiking with a deadline would be much appreciated.

    • http://appalachiantrials.com Zach

      Hey Marci,

      First of all, good on you to squeeze in the AT before grad school. You’ll kick significantly more ass having completed such an epic journey.

      I’m sure there will be varying schools of thought here, but IMO, going without mail drops allows you more flexibility, and thus, the opportunity to move faster if necessary.

      As I mentioned in the post, arriving to PO after hours on a Saturday is a huge pain in the ass and is going to cost you time & energy. You will come across more establishments that offer the option to resupply than you will those willing to hold your package. Additionally, if you find that you’re doing bigger miles between stops than you would have otherwise planned, you run the risk of not sending yourself enough food to a given location, which will require a resupply stop anyway.

      If you purchase your food intelligently (in bulk, at econo stores, etc.) there is the potential to save money, especially on the northern half of the trail. If money isn’t an issue (or a major issue), then I’d say skip the mail drops (discounting the exceptions outlined in the post).

      Again, I’m sure others will weigh in here, but in my mind, flexibility = speed, and no mail drops = flexibility. (The transitive property of thru-hiking).

      Best of luck!

      - Zach

  • Jamie J. McCarthy

    I am starting my hike in 2014 and am relying on maildrops for economic, taste and nutritional needs. I am vegan and through a co-op have purchased beans, rice, pasta, oatmeal, and many other items in bulk, making dozens of different recipes and dehydrating and vacuum sealing them for a nightly hot and nutritious high-calorie meal–I think home-cooked meals during the evening will be nourishing to morale as well. I realize the importance of variety and am striving on a wide assortment of food in each package, designed for space and weight to travel. If I wasn’t doing this for budget reasons, I would do it anyway, since as a health-conscious vegan I would not want to be at the mercy of country stores–although a cold orange pop may be in order on occasion!

  • Jade

    What mail drops CAN be useful for is not carrying gear the whole way that you don’t need the whole way. Say, start out with a sleeping bag + bag liner to make it warm enough for colder nights earlier in the season. When it warms up enough for just the bag, send it ahead to where you’ll need it again. Same with warmer clothes, et al. One guy did part of the trail solo, part buddied. For the solo parts, he carried his own tent and stove. When his brother joined up, bro brought a 2 man tent and they sent the solo tent up to where bro would leave the trail. Just a thought… Any way you choose to do the hike, may your pack feel light, your legs feel strong, and magic find you when you need it most. :-)

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  • Stephen Betzen

    This was a little disappointing. With the Title “How many mail drops should YOU send on the Appalachian Trail?”, I was hoping for a more balanced approach to really inform those planning a hike. Yes, I get it, you can do the whole trail without a single drop. You can also do it and use all 88 post offices (and other drop places). I would love to read others experiences in addition to yours in an article with this name… seeing the extremes is nice, but there is so much to take into account.
    That said, you make a very valuable point that mailing cheap crap available along the way, may not be a good use of resources or time.
    Perhaps this should have been titled “How many mail drops should I have sent myself on the Appalachian Trail?”…. I guess my expectations with the title that you chose was that I would be presented with more diverse opinions on this subject.