How to Score Cheap and Discounted Food for Your Thru-Hike
Use Discount Food Grocery Stores to Improve Your Mail Drops
When planning for my hikes I’ve been lucky enough to live near discount food grocery stores. These are stores that sell damaged goods or foods that have reached their sell by date–an arbitrary date picked by the manufacture–and are priced accordingly. These stores stock their shelves with colorful packages of processed goods ranging from fruit snacks, protein bars, cookies, crackers, pop tarts, whole fat dried milk, cereal, chips, candy, tuna packets, trail mix, mashed potatoes, noodles in pouches. Any of that sound familiar? And all of that priced at roughly half off what you would pay at the grocery store.
These discount food stores, sometimes called salvage grocery stores, or grocery liquidators, address two of the key complaints about mail drops: not enough variety and too expensive. When I went to Mr. G’s in Walpol, NH before my hikes (and I still go whenever I’m in the neighborhood, like last weekend) I went without a list or expectations of what I would find. Stores like this have no set inventory that arrives every week–they typically receive the cast-offs from grocery stores in the area. Shopping at a discount food store is a similar treasure hunt as shopping at a thrift store. I knew that I would find protein bars and pop tarts, but I couldn’t bank on a certain brand or a favorite flavor, but I did know they would have variety. They had a level of variety that was unmatched at traditional grocery stores and far exceeded what was available at Sam’s Club, Costco, or other bulk store which count on you buying a large amount of one type of item. Mr. G’s, and the other discount food stores I’ve been to specialize in packaged goods, so don’t go expecting to find fresh vegetables, meat, or dairy, but those tend not to be the items hikers fill their mail drops with.
Many of the items that line the shelves at discount food stores are dinged, dented, and slightly crushed–much like the food in my pack at the end of the day. Just like the food in my pack the goods at the discount food store are still good to eat, but they’re not pretty to look at. These stores tend not to by hightech and with no set inventory it appears they have no set price list.
Pricing at these stores can be wildly inconsistent–and with a bit of hunting can work in your favor. It is not uncommon to find a pile of candy bars marked as ninety-nine cents each and in another part of the store find the same candy bars marked two for a dollar or find them in a clear plastic bag with an assortment of other like items for two dollars.
When shopping at Mr. G’s for the 22 mail drops I used for the CDT I liked to buy a little bit of everything that caught my eye. I ensured that every box was different–sometimes I was limited by the inventory but mostly I was liberated by my many choices. There wasn’t a single item that I ate everyday on trail–not even the items that I really liked and that kept them special. Mail drops are my thing, and they’re not for everyone, but if they are for you, I recommend trying to find one of these stores near you using the state by state directory at the end of the linked article (the links contained in the Time article no longer work and the directory is from ‘09 so be sure to give a location a call before heading there).
Where Else to Find Discount Food
If you’re not lucky enough to live near a discount food warehouse there are other places to check out–on, or off trail.
- Which Ones: Check the large chain grocery stores: In the northeast I’ve had luck at Big Y, Market Basket, and Shaws
- Where: You’re typically looking for wire shelves in the back of the store near the swinging doors leading into the warehouse portion of the store, or near the bathrooms if those are in the back of the store
- What: The selection depends on what has been dropped, dented, sliced, or going out of date–just as it is at a liquidation center. The selection trends towards canned goods, cereal, non fat dried milk, bars, nuts, and candy, also seasonal items and non edibles
- Where: Check the endcaps near the back of the store
- What: Expect to find their store brand mixed among other products–good for candy, nuts, and beef jerky
- Other: Seasonal items like travel-sized sunscreen and bugspray, chapstick, small tubes of toothpaste
Big Lots!/ Ocean State Job Lots
- Where: The last food aisle
- What: Name brand items. I once bought a 12 pack variety case of Idahoan Mashed Potatoes for 25 cents. I actually bought 3 cases at that price.
Away from the discount food store your option will be limited so start your collection early, check often, be creative. Depending on how much food you’re able to stockpile you can put that food towards those handful of places where mail drops are helpful on the AT where it can add fun pops of variety to your trail diet.
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