“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 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 huge. I highly recommend getting yourself an electrolyte supplement. Read more about supplements on the trail.)
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.
Another thing to keep in mind, many locations (esp. hostels) may charge a fee for holding your package if you choose not to stay with them. Be sure to call ahead and check if 1) they even accept packages, and 2) if there’s a fee, and if so, how much.
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 – the exceptions can be found in this article: “Where to send mail drops on the Appalachian Trail“)
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.