Approach Trail: Mail Drop it Like it's Hot

 It's good to put some colorful duct tape on your mail drop packages so you can point in out in a crowd

There’s a grand debate over buying food in towns versus sending yourself mail drops.  You can definitely save some money if you buy food in bulk and ship it to yourself, but is it really worth it? And how do you even go about buying, packaging and sending yourself several months of food?

In this article I’ll break down how we managed to package over 250 days worth of food, what went right, and what went terribly wrong.

Part 1: The Process – 5 Days of Delirium

OK, full disclosure, the entire process wasn’t completely done in 5 days, but the vast majority of it was.  I had been dehydrating fruit for a couple weeks, but besides that all of this occurred in the week before we left. We got less than 20 hours of sleep, worked constantly in assembly line fashion, and pretty much turned into robots.

How the Hell Much Do I Need?

In order to know how many days of food you need, you have to figure out how many packages you’ll be sending yourself and how many days of food you’ll want in each one.  For the AT, we decided to split our food half and half – we would ship ourselves roughly 85 days worth of food, and we would buy the rest in towns. I found some good articles on Whiteblaze about the towns with good Post Offices/shitty grocery stores. Important note: Make sure to call the post offices you plan on shipping food to – in the past few years many have closed down.  I created a list of towns we would ship to, then looked at maps and mileages to determine how many days of food we should put in each one.

I’m sort of a spreadsheet freak.  I may post the spreadsheet later on, but basically I created a list of all the food items we’d like to eat and estimated how often we could eat them. I then created a faux-menu for each day to make sure we would have enough food. From there, I tallied how many of each item we would need and created a basic shopping list. Then we hit Costco.

When we got back from Costco we had giant packs of nilla wafers, powdered potatoes, tang, dehydrated beef, and a billion other things that had to be broken down into single servings.  This is when it started getting robotic.

I actually managed to cut my thumb open on one of the big ass dehydrated meat can and had to make a midnight trip to the ER to get stitched up.  I was more frustrated at losing time than anything else.

We then sorted items into various categories: Snacks, Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Drink Mixes. Even our friends showed up to help! (Thanks Kathleen!)

Next it was time to start sorting out into 1-day portions of food.

After that came vacuum sealing – We had read that it was best to vacuum seal your maildropped food to preserve freshness.  So this was the next step.

Finally, we started labeling and loading up the boxes for shipment, making sure to doublecheck the number of days of food in each one.

We convinced my Mom to be our Champion in charge of mailing our packages and provided her with an estimated shipping schedule. Thanks Ma.


Part 2: What Went Wrong

So we read that if you vacuum seal your food you should leave the ends of zip-lock bags open, so all the air inside the bags come out.  This is a good idea in theory.  What actually happened was that all the food that sat in the bags for a couple months eventually started tasting the same.  Oreos tasted like vegetables. Fruit tasted like chicken. Beef Jerky tasted like corn. It collectively all began tasting like food bag.

So that was the first problem we faced.  Another issue was lack of delicious food. On the AT you have to put down a shit ton of calories.  You pound food at every break.  If you don’t like the food you’re carrying you either have to a) muscle it down or b) be hungry and carry it. So make sure you pack stuff you know you’ll enjoy. (When in doubt, add more oreos, snickers, and cliff bars).

Another issue we had was that we expected to cook breakfast (oatmeal, grits, etc.) every few days.  Nope. In the morning, all you want to do is breakdown camp and GTFO.  The earlier you get out, the earlier you get to camp. So a lot of those items went to waste.


Part 3: Moral of the Story

For the AT, there are enough towns along the way that you can get away with relying on grocery stores. However, it can be a struggle sometimes – you may have to stock up at minimally supplied gas stations or grocery stores miles off the trail. 

But mail drops can definitely present their own burdens (aside from the aforementioned) – you have to find post offices near the trail, make sure they are still in business, and arrive during their scant hours. At one point on the AT we chose to hike a 40 mile day so that we could arrive at the P.O. before it closed on Saturday (the goal was to avoid staying in town until Monday when it opened back up. Ironically enough, we had to recover in town until Monday morning anyways - thanks 4Loko).

We definitely saved some dollars with the mail drops, but we also ended up throwing away a lot of the ruined food. I think my gameplan for the next long trail will be to focus on foods/packaging that won’t lose freshness; that way I don’t even have to bother with vacuum sealing. Hell, maybe next time I’ll survive solely off of Oreos, Snickers, and Cliff Bars.