AT Resupply: Would I Drop Box Again?
I reached the summit of Katahdin five days ago, on Sept. 10, 2018. Since returning home I’ve had a lot of emotions and trip-related thoughts to process.
I have begun to consider my hike as a whole and what I would do the same and what I would do differently. My drop box strategy was a major part of my hike in terms of logistics planning, food choice, and finances. Using drop boxes is something I’ve been reassessing since the White Mountains (almost no options to receive a box in the Whites) but I decided to wait until the end, officially, before sharing my thoughts.
Just in case there are readers that are not familiar with the term drop box. A drop box is a package that is mailed to you during your hike, usually the contents are food, but boxes can contain gear and other helpful items (ziplock bags, toiletries, etc.). The contents are not as important as is the strategy: to aid your hike by providing you with items that are either not available in a trail town, or would be more expensive.
Why I Chose Drop Boxes
I originally planned to hike the entire Appalachian Trail with my dog, Sadie. (You can read about hiking with Sadie, and a dog in general, in my previous Trek post here). I wanted to provide her with consistent diet, both in terms of a dog food brand and in terms of calories. I felt that sending dog food along the trail was the best way to resupply for Sadie.
Since I planned to send Sadie’s food I thought that I might as well send myself some food too.
I also recalled, from my 600 mile AT section hike in 2012, that I became sick of Knorr’s pasta sides very quickly. Drop boxes provided a way for me to send a greater variety of food since I could purchase it before the hike.
Below are some pros and cons of hiking with a drop box schedule.
A Lot of Pre-Hike Planning
The concept of a drop box plan often includes the phrase mail to yourself. Unfortunately, since you are hiking on the trail, you can’t actually mail something to yourself. Every hiker needs a friend back home, or somewhere, who is mailing the boxes. For me, these friends were my parents.
I wanted to leave my parents with the least amount of work possible. I was incredibly grateful that they were willing to be so involved with the hike and did not want to take advantage of their time.
Before departing on my walk (April 1) I ordered a ton of dehydrated veggies and beans. My plan was to measure out homemade dehydrated dinners into ziplock bags. The beans and veggies were healthier than instant pastas like Knorr and ramen, and also cheaper than other dehydrated meals (Backpackers Pantry, Mountain House, etc.). You can read about my dehydrated meals on the Trek, here.
I compiled two months worth of meals before leaving for the trail. I had four different recipes and placed each recipe in its own cardboard box complete with a label. All my parents had to do was grab one from each box, for variety, according to the number of days I needed food. This work included making ziplock bags of Sadie’s meals as well. One ziplock bag per meal.
Going even further (Disclaimer: I am a project manager by profession) I created a spreadsheet in Google Docs so that my parents could see the town I was projected to pass through and an estimation of when I would arrive. The spreadsheet included deadlines (per town) to mail the packages and how many days of food each box needed. Since the sheet lived in Google Docs I could update when I had phone service in case anything changed, and they would be able to see these changes instantly.
Of course, these dates and times were estimations. It is almost impossible to know exactly when you will arrive in a town until a few days before—especially in the beginning of the trial when you are still getting your trail legs.
I tended to be conservative, setting dates that were most likely earlier than when I would arrive. The packages were better off sitting in a post office waiting for me. I only set two weeks’ worth of dates before heading out on the trail. I planned to update the rest as I went along.
(Almost) Constant Attention During Your Hike
Despite my pre-trip planning and the spreadsheet, the drop box schedule still required my attention. I had to update the dates, double check them against the realities of hiking and communicate with my parents when things changed.
I had invested a lot of upfront cost and this put pressure on me to make sure I received my drop boxes. Every box I missed (if I got to town way earlier than the package, for example, and decided to hike on) was money spent that went to waste.
Not to mention, the drop boxes were Sadie’s source of food, so I definitely didn’t want to mess anything up.
Potential Frustration (aka: Chasing a Pair of Shoes for over a Month)
In Pawling, NY, I ordered a new pair of shoes from Amazon. Knowing that Amazon usually ships UPS or FedEx I decided to send the package to my parents first, and then they would send to a post office. (Most post offices don’t receive UPS or FedEx. Don’t ask me which do and which don’t. I received a shirt via UPS from the Daleville, VA, post office, but had friends whose packages were lost forever when a PO representative told them that their location does not receive those packages.)
The box with my new shoes was sent to Cheshire, MA. At that point my hiking shoes were pretty beat up and I was ready for a new pair. My trail family and I hiked through Cheshire on a Sunday (post office is closed). We were only planning on camping eight miles farther, yet I couldn’t convince my friends to wait in Cheshire with me.
I decided to hike on, my shoes weren’t that bad, and call the PO on Monday to bump the shoes to Manchester Center, VT. I spoke to a real, live human on Monday morning and was told my box would be in Manchester Center.
I arrived in Manchester Center. My box with my new shoes was not there.
It was a Saturday at 11:45 a.m. Post offices often have shortened Saturday hours.
I called the Cheshire post office to see why my package was not where I told them to send it. The Cheshire post office closes as 11:30 a.m. on Saturdays. The Manchester Center PO lady checked the tracking number. She told me the box was still in Cheshire, MA.
For the second time I hiked out of town with beat-up hiking shoes. The right toe box had a huge gash across the top. While summiting Mount Killington my left foot caught on a root to create a matching hole in the left toe box. I was able to get in touch with Cheshire and turns out they did not forward the box at all. I told them to send it ahead to Hanover, NH.
I arrived in Hanover. My shoes had not. When the PO employees checked the tracking number the only thing they could tell me was that my box was in transit. They did not know where it was in transit or when it would arrive. They all agreed that based on my timeline, it would normally have already been delivered. They had no idea as to why it was not delivered yet.
I stayed at a trail angel’s house that night, hoping that my box would get delivered in the morning. I sat around a coffee shop and waited through both the morning and the afternoon deliveries. Still no shoes. Still in transit.
I told Hanover to forward the box to Bethel, ME. Don’t send boxes to Bethel, the trail is much closer to Gorham, NH. My mistake on that one, the box did in fact make it to Bethel in time for me to retrieve but I chose not to because of the cost of getting a shuttle to Bethel.
So I bumped the box yet again, to Andover, ME.
I originally wanted my shoes in Cheshire, MA, which is at mile 1,578. I received my shoes in Andover, ME, at mile 1,944. The difference in mileage between those two towns is 366.
It’s the only hiccup I experienced in my drop box schedule, but it was a beast of a hiccup.
Easier Resupply in Town (Though not Necessarily Cheaper)
Having most of my resupply needs sent to me (all dinners and some snacks) made for an easier time in town. When I was hiking with Sadie, getting into a grocery store was difficult unless someone could watch her or I was able to leave her in a hostel or motel room.
Sadie went home in Harpers Ferry so my main reason for having a drop box was no longer a part of my hike. I continued to have boxes sent because I had bought the dehydrated meals and my trail angel mother was throwing in a lot of snacks on her own.
Some towns, Fontana Dam, NC, for example, do not have a good resupply option. Monson, ME, is a notoriously expensive resupply. In places like those examples I was happy to have a resupply box.
The cost of shipping was usually around $10 to $12 per box. Toward the end of my hike the boxes only provided one thing that I could not buy in town: my homemade dehydrated meals. Otherwise, the boxes were full of Snickers, crackers, fruit snacks, and trail mix that my wonderful mother provided. I am so grateful for those snacks, but for the sake of this article — I could have bought those items in town without a shipping cost.
That being said, it was pretty nice to only have to buy some lunchtime food and a few extra snacks when I went shopping. The boxes kept my town resupply trips short and simple.
What I’ll Do Next Time
I’m not hiking the AT. again
So let’s change the title of this section to “What You Can Consider for Your Hike.”
But if I was to give advice to a future thru-hiker then I would say this: show up to Springer Mountain with three to four days of food and plan no further. Save your money for a town resupply. *But please budget. See what chunk you’ve saved and limit a certain amount per month, and then figure out per week what you can spend. Maine is awesome. You don’t want to be rushing because of a lack of funds.
The Appalachian Trail is so very hard in many ways, but one way it is easier than other trails is the resupply. There are so many towns, so frequently (just wait and see in NY and NJ) that you hardly need to plan your resupply. Just wake up and walk.
What I would do next time is what my buddy Brü Hiker did for his drop boxes. He had so many people at home that wanted to help him, he got his mom to organize the masses so they would send him boxes along the way. This required minimal planning, just a text to his mom to tell her the next town, and then he got a totally free box of food.
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