The chart below allows for a big picture view of the Trail by providing an overview of all the resupply locations accessible via the AT. Mileage figures match AWOL's guidebook.
The US Postal Service allows you to mail packages to yourself care of local post offices, a service called General Delivery. The post office will typically hold the package for 30 days before sending it to its return address. Just arrive in person, show your picture ID, and receive your package.
If you use Priority Mail flat-rate boxes, the only cost is postage because boxes are free. The medium-sized flat rate box (11" x 8-1/2" x 5-1/2") is the perfect size for 5-10 days of food for one person. Priority Mail is also faster than parcel post and you can forward an unopened package at no cost.
Here’s how to address the package:
|Your Full Name||ex:||Michael Ruso|
|General Delivery||General Delivery|
|Town, State||Homosassa, FL|
In past decades, thru-hikers on the AT relied almost exclusively on maildrops. Months before their hikes, they carefully studied mileage charts, estimated hiking times, identified towns where they could mail a package containing food and other supplies, and then bought dry food in bulk and packed dozens of boxes. After they left for the trail, a friend, parent, or spouse mailed the boxes at prescribed times. However, fewer and fewer thru-hikers are relying on this strategy and instead are buying groceries in towns along the trails.
Problems with the all-maildrop method on the AT:
1) Mailing food is expensive
By my estimation, you have to resupply _____ times during a 6-month A.T. thru-hike. If you are hiking alone and send _____ medium-sized, Priority Mail flat-rate boxes at $_______ each, then the total cost will be $_______. Couples will need to use the larger flat-rate box, at $______ each, which would be ________ total.
Only by shopping at Costco or Sam’s Club can you offset the cost of shipping.
If you do send maildrops, use Priority Mail flat rate boxes. Packages sent parcel post are not cheaper. Standard post rates are based on weight and the number of “zones” between departure and destination, of which there are eight. Our resupply boxes typically weigh 10-15 pounds, which means that a package sent from our hometown in Florida to a AT trail town would cost $______ and $________.
*accurate prices as of October 2014 — compare prices at usps.com/ship
2) There is no need — unless you have special dietary restrictions.
There is no sense in shipping macaroni & cheese across the country. However, if you have special dietary restrictions like Celiac disease, food allergies, or you are vegan, then you will have difficulty finding appropriate food in trail towns. If this is the case, then you should rely almost entirely on maildrops.
3) Your tastes will change
On managing editor Mike’s first thru-hike on the A.T., his resupply plan depended heavily on maildrops. Just a few weeks into the hike he became sick of most of the food in his boxes but had five more months of the same awful stuff. This has happened to every thru-hiker and you are not the exception.
You will also experience bizarre, pregnancy-like cravings on the Trail. You will want to eat an entire jar of garlic pickles and wash them down with a half-gallon of chocolate milk. With so many grocery stores so close to the trail, you’ll give in to the cravings, so while you’re buying those pickles, why not resupply too?
4) You will make mistakes
Despite your best efforts, meticulous research, and thoughtful planning, you are still not clairvoyant. You will inevitably pack boxes with too much or too little of something. (Do you really know your rate of toothpaste usage?) You will also likely be moving slower or faster than you predicted and thus need more or less food than you packed.
Either you’ll be left without something or wastefully throw things away. Hiker boxes are filled to the brim with food for this reason.
5) It binds you to an artificial time table
While on the AT, managing editor Mike had a maildrop waiting for him at the post office in the next town. The PO wasn’t open on Sundays and only open for a few hours in the morning on Saturday. It was a Friday afternoon, and at the pace he was hiking, he would have reached town Saturday after the PO had closed and would have needed to wait till Monday morning to pick up the box. No problem, except that he was down to one dinner and one breakfast. He didn’t have enough food to wait until Monday. So instead of stopping to camp for the night, he pushed on into dusk over an exposed mountainside during a hailstorm and then climbed down a boulder field in the dark. Luckily he wasn’t hurt, but he could have been.
Plan to not have plans.
This is the key to success on any long-distance trek, but it may be a lesson that has to be experienced to be truly learned. You should of course do your research, study the maps and mileage figures, make estimates, and set goals. But once you are on the trail, be ready to abandon your plan if need be. Don’t hike all day through freezing rain just to adhere to the timetable you cooked up on your couch six months before. Take a zero and spend the day reading in your tent. Adjust. Adapt. Be flexible. If you want to go slower and hike a beautiful stretch between resupplies in 7 days instead of 5, a shop-as-you-go approach gives you that freedom. Same if you want to hike faster. A maildrop resupply strategy binds you to an artificial time table in a way that doesn’t allow for that flexibility.
In summary, here are the benefits of resupplying in-town on the AT:
1) Flexibility & freedom
2) $ Savings
Having outlined above the problems with an all-maildrop method, there are however ____ locations where a maildrop is necessary because either there is no grocery, the only grocery is a small convenience store with limited selection and high prices, or picking up a box in one location will reduce your pack weight when leaving another town.
If you live on the west coast and will need to have someone mail boxes from there, we recommend that you do not. It is expensive to ship across the country (see above). Instead, pack and mail your resupply boxes when you first arrive in Georgia or while on the Trail itself.
On-Trail method: on a zero day when you are resupplying anyway, buy extra food, pack it, and then mail that box on ahead to your next resupply destination. It will get there a few days before you do. This eliminates the need to coordinate with someone back home.
If you live on the east coast, shopping at Costco or Sam’s Club will save a tremendous amount of money. If you do not have a membership, ask a friend or family member with one to take you. They will have to pay at check-out and you pay them back afterward.
A “bounce box” allows you to send ahead items you need periodically but don’t want to carry. What goes into a bounce box? It could be supplies like extra batteries, cell phone chargers, or toiletries. When summer arrives you could bounce your cold-weather clothes on ahead to New Hampshire in anticipation of colder temperatures in the White Mountains.
If you think you'll be repeatedly bouncing a box, it's wise to include packing tape and a sharpie so that you can seal and label the box at the next PO without spending more money.