Skip to Content

AT Thru-Hike Resupply: Are Boxes or In-Town Best?14 min read

The Appalachian Trail is a long, arduous hike from the south to the north. One of the most important things you need to do when hiking this trail is how to resupply on it. In this blog post, we will go over some tips and tricks for how to resupply on the Appalachian Trail so that your hike can be as enjoyable as possible without worrying about how much food you have left or how soon your next meal will come around, this leads to the question of how to resupply on the Appalachian Trail?

Two primary methods of resupplying are available, in town and pre-built packages you mail to yourself. Long ago bounce boxes were a primary means to getting food when there were fewer trail options, but today town resupplies offer you many options for changing tastes.

When you are planning your thru-hike you want to know your food and nutritional needs, for someone with a specific dietary need or needs then you will need to manage some form of bounce boxes. For those without dietary issues having the freedom to adjust on the trail will be enjoyed as your tastes change.

How Do You Get Food on the Appalachian Trail?

There is somehow a belief by many new to thru-hiking that you are actively needing to hunt and catch food while on the trail, or that you need to know all the plants and what is edible but this is far from the truth.

On the trail, you will cross paths with towns, gas stations, hostels, and many other places that you can use to resupply from. You are never more than a few days from the next resupply point, and often there can be multiple opportunities or options for a resupply each week.

The two most common means of resupplying on the trail are while in town and then using pre-built packages that you mail which you or your family mail to you. In town resupplies offer you many options for changing tastes, while bounce boxes allow you to have a better cost for your foods as prices on the trail can be much more expensive.

How Often Do Thru-Hikers Resupply?

So now that you get that you can resupply in a town or by mailed packages you may wonder how often overall thru-hikers actually resupply. Most of the time it will be about every 3-5 days with a few longer stretches along the way.

You can resupply more often but the fewer times you take to go into towns the better distance you will hike and the less prone to ZERO days. You should know before you leave a town what you expect it to take to hike to the next planned resupply point which will let you know how much to purchase.

Overall what you decide to carry will heavily influence how often you need to resupply, if you can carry 10 days of food then you wouldn’t need to resupply for 10 days but this will be heavy to carry so most find a balance between the weight and distance.

General Resupply Options for Thru-Hikers

There are loads of easy ways to resupply while out on the Appalachian Trail since it frequently passes within a few miles of numerous towns making it easy to find a resupply opportunity.

It is for this reason that most thru-hikers on the AT now opt to skip mailing themselves boxes for food and just resupply in the towns from the many options as there are always general stores, gas stations, outfitters, hiker boxes, and more to get food from.

Resupply boxes are typically used for gear, like shoes you know will fail around 500 miles, specialty medicine or dietary needs, and the like, let’s take a look at the most common resupply points on the trail.

General Stores

Think of these as stores that carry a wide range of items, from food to camping gear, and are typically located near the trail. The two most common general stores are Dollar General, Walmart, and then places like grocery stores.

Walmart is a great place for resupplying as they have a wide variety of food options, some being very unhealthy but others that can fit any dietary need you might have. They also sell replacement gear, like Sawyer water filters, and clothes making it a one-stop shop for your resupply needs.

Dollar General is more common in the South but can be found all along the trail, they typically have less variety than Walmart but do offer dehydrated food options which can help with weight.

Gas Stations

Some of the smaller towns may not have a close grocery but they may have gas stations that can be used for resupply in a pinch. These stations typically have pre-made sandwiches, candy bars, soda, and other snacks which can help you get by for a day or two.

Sometimes you can get enough ramen and other miscellaneous foods to push three to five days longer to a real town stop.

Outfitters

These have grown more and more plentiful along the trail with the big shops, like REI, existing in or around towns but smaller outfitters also selling gear and food can be found in numerous spots.

If you are in need of a new piece of gear, like a tent, then an outfitter is the place to go but they also offer food options that typically include dehydrated meals, oatmeal, gorp (trail mix), and candy bars.

These are good places to check for real gear issues and to make swaps as they will have better quality gear than you can find in nearly any general store.

Hiker Boxes

Hikers frequently buy more than they need, many fellow hikers will choose to leave the excess for the next hiker to pick and choose from. These are called resupply boxes. They typically have a large range of food, gear, and similar available for the hikers to choose from.

The best way to find a resupply box is to ask at the local outfitter, general store, or even the town’s welcome center as they will all have information on where the closest one can be found for your resupply needs.

Sometimes you can find food in these hiker boxes but it is also going to frequently have gear that has been donated by other long-distance hikers and is usually not the best quality or wasn’t actually needed like deodorant.

Hostels

Hostels will frequently have a decent offering of food choices, usually oatmeal, ramen, and prepackaged sandwiches.

They typically have dehydrated meal options as well but they are going to be more expensive than what can be found at general stores or outfitters.

Mail Drops (Along with Bounce Boxes)

Mail drops are useful when you can plan out the needs of the trail, like above where I said shoes, you expect them to last 500-600 miles so sending yourself a box at 500-600 miles into the trek would be perfect for a replacement to catch you in a town you are going to ZERO in.

As to food choices, if you are on a more strict budget or have specific dietary needs that are hard to impossible to hit on the trail they are a perfect way to send yourself food on the long hike.

Advantages to Mail Drops

The main benefit of organizing a mail drop is financial simplicity. Mail drops may help you save money on your trip if done correctly.

It’s certainly not a guarantee that they will save you money since it’s easy to overspend once you get to town. You can buy most of your food in bulk for significantly less than what it costs to purchase in towns at resupply points.

You can save money if you cook your own meals. You can do this by buying a food dehydrator to prepare dehydrated meals. You will also need to decide where to send your mail. You can use this opportunity to complete two tasks at once by planning your mail drop and your in-town zeros.

If you want, your family or friends can help you hike by sending you care packages. They should send them to you throughout your journey, but only if you tell them what to include and what you would have to throw away as many may try to send you things you can’t carry.

Disadvantages to Mail Drops

But, while there are certain benefits to having your food transported ahead of time, there are a few things to think about before deciding to do so. First, it’s difficult to predict what you’ll want in the future many months after you’ve changed your diet and metabolism.

A frequent mistake is to send too little food in the box, leaving you dissatisfied and hungry, which results in you spending more money on food than you would after arriving in town. There’s also the chance that you’ll send along too much food, which is equally an issue with waste.

You may always offer it to hikers in need of additional food, toss it in a hiker box, or send it ahead to another location. Nonetheless, this might be difficult to avoid. Finally, the most significant issue is that you’ll have is managing the coordination with post office hours for a pickup.

You could always give it to hikers who could use some extra food, throw it in a hiker box, or mail it ahead to another destination. Nonetheless, that can be hard to avoid.

This can happen where the box gets there but you get there after close and they don’t open again for 24-48 hours leaving you the choice to wait and pay for numerous hostel nights or leave it behind and resupply in the town instead.

For me, unless I am on a trail with absolutely well-known poor resupply points I would skip all but the bare necessities like shoes and allow my tastes to guide my way in town.

Bounce Boxing

Another benefit if a mail drop is done right is the ability to “bounce” them forward to another post office along your way, this can help if you can’t pick up a box or you realize you don’t need it at the location you sent it to.

For you to be able to bounce a box you need to fulfill a few specific criteria on the shipping of the box:

  1. The box was mailed using USPS priority mail
  2. The box is sent to a post office
  3. The box is unopened

From this point, if you match those three criteria you can bounce your box forward but it HAS to be to another post office and not to any other address which can limit when and where you can bounce to.

If you are unsure of the speed and distance you will be covering in your schedule it may benefit you greatly to send these packages to a post office to allow the ability to bounce them as needed, just make sure you have the tracking information!

How to Use a Post Office Along the Appalachian Trail

When you go to the postal office, ask the clerk if they can bounce your box. Tell them that you are a thru-hiker and add something like the bolded text below to the conversation, though along the AT many will already be very familiar with this process.

I need to have my priority mail parcel forwarded to a different post office location.

Exercise some caution here, don’t leave the post office counter with your box or open it. It is considered in your possession once you walk away with the package or open it, and you will be charged a fee to bounce it ahead.

Making Use of a Bounce Box

Where before we spoke about a bounce box as a useful way to manage to move a package down the trail they are also perfect for getting the gear you will need down the trail to yourself as you may know the temperatures change a lot over a 4-6 month hike!

Medications

So I would love to say that Americans are generally prescription free but this would be a bald-faced lie, we are a nation of problems that medication was prescribed to manage.

What this means for thru-hikers is that you will likely need to send your prescriptions ahead as filling a prescription on the way may not be easy to accomplish.

Some medications can’t be mailed though so you will need to make sure you have looked at the restrictions prior to sending out anything through the mail.

Special Foods

Those who have dietary restrictions or prefer more health food choices will find difficulty on the trail as their foods will be less than optimal. Most of the time, you’ll be looking at processed foods that are high in sodium and low in taste.

Because of this, it’s a good idea to send along anything that is a dietary need and then maybe some of your favorite snacks or meals that you know will make you happy and help power through town resupply stops.

Gear Swap

The last super beneficial way to use a bounce box is to send yourself gear, I mentioned shoes above but if you start in March you have a much warmer sleeping quilt or sleeping bag than you need in June.

In sending yourself a bounce box you can bounce it down the trail until the right circumstances hit to open the box and take out the lighter quilt. Then you could box up the original bag or quilt to bounce forward towards the end of the trek when you will start to get colder weather again!

Tips to Effective Resupplies

Here are a few tips to make resupply faster and more efficient when you are out on the trail:

Have a List

Many thru-hikers just go in random and this leads to buying either too much or too little. Having a list of the items you will need for resupply will help you stay on track and not overspend while resupplying.

This can be as simple as understanding what you prefer for meals like breakfast or dinner, each town usually has a grocery store with a wide variety of food items to chose from.

Be Creative

Lately, I was watching IB TATs 2018 AT thru-hike and he brought up someone saying to add chocolate cake mix to their breakfast oatmeal, and I was amazed as I wouldn’t have thought to pair these things together!

You want to be creative in how you resupply because it will make the process more fun and interesting, plus you’ll get to try new food items that you may not have otherwise.

Look at Other Hikers Foods

Use the hikers around you for inspiration, is there something they’ve been eating that appeals to you? Ask them where they’ve been getting their food and if they have any tips.

Since the trail has people from every corner of the world you will get some amazingly unique views of food and how what you can choose to resupply with while on the trail.

Amazon Offers Drop Lockers

For those who fail to bounce box gear to themselves, there is the chance to use Amazon lockers to pick up ordered gear along the way. While I am not sure how prevalent these lockers are, it is an option to have your supplies sent directly to a locker that will be available at certain points along the trail.

Final Thoughts on Resupplying on the Appalachian Trail

Resupplying on the Appalachian Trail can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. There are many ways to stay stocked up with food and gear along your journey. You just need a plan for how you will resupply before you get started so that when you start hitting towns all of your needs are met!

One way is by sending yourself mailed items, perhaps in bounce boxes, which saves time allowing you to bounce the package up the trail to where you need it.

Another option is having Amazon Lockers available at certain points on the trail where people who haven’t sent themselves packages but that allows them to order from Amazon to an address along the hiking route.