Contrary to popular belief, Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers do not carry all of their food for the entire hike with them from the beginning.
“Wait, so do you carry all your food for the entire hike with you the entire time?”
If you’re thinking about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, be ready for people to ask you this question (among others) as you make your way down the trail. Nobody is carrying the calories required for a PCT thru-hike in their backpack. The more accurate question? What does your resupply strategy look like?
Using the data I collected as part of the 2018 Pacific Crest Trail Thru-hiker Survey, I’ve compiled the following information to build a useful picture of what a PCT resupply strategy looks like (spoiler alert: it doesn’t involve carrying five months’ worth of food).
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NOTES ON THE DATA
- This year we had 502 completed surveys.
- The responses to some questions have been sorted and colored in hopes of more usefully and accurately presenting the data (e.g. northbound vs. southbound).
- Not all PCT hikers document the stats of their thru-hike (yes, I’m weird). Because of this, the data is not 100% guaranteed accurate (again, this is not science we’re dealing with).
- For simplicity, I refer to the survey respondents collectively as this year’s “class“. Remember this is only a fraction of this year’s PCT hikers and it is not necessarily representative of the entire PCT Class of 2018.
- If you find some small and meaningless discrepancy in the data, get over it – again, we’re playing with hand grenades, not rifles. BUT – if you find large or obvious errors, please lets me know.
- I will be releasing more detailed survey posts focused on PCT Gear, PCT Resupply, PCT Demographics, and PCT Advice in the coming weeks. If you would like to be notified of new surveys, click here.
Here are the labels used to differentiate hiker segments:
- THRU: Thru-hikers (all)
- FINISH: Thru-hikers (all) who completed the entire PCT
- NOFINISH: Thru-hikers (all) who did NOT complete the PCT
If NO LABEL has been appended to a data point, then I used all data collected.
Pacific Crest Trail Resupply Strategy
If you’ve set yourself down the path to a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, then chances are you’ve heard of this thing called “resupply”. What’s resupply? It can be a verb, as in, “I can’t wait to resupply in the next town.” Or a noun, as in, “Fuck, my resupply got lost in the mail and now I have to buy food for the next section at the gas station.” It basically has to with replenishing your food stock.
Before I get into the “best” strategy for PCT resupply, I must warn you to not fall into the trap of trying to plan out your entire hike ahead of time. It’s not going to work. It’s better to have an idea of what you would like/expect to do opposed to a strict plan. But hey, I’m just some dude on the internet, you do whatever you want, friend.
But seriously, unless you have very specific dietary restrictions (e.g. you’re a kosher vegan who’s allergic to nuts, wheat, and soy) or some very compelling reason (i.e. a FKT, fastest known time, attempt), there is zero reason for you have all of your resupply stops planned ahead of time.
Keeping this in mind, let’s take a look at what the PCT Class of 2018 did about resupply.
- THRU – RESUPPLY STRATEGY
- 9% Mailed ALL Resupplies
- 78% Mailed SOME Resupplies
- 13% Mailed NO Resupplies
- FINISH – RESUPPLY STRATEGY
- 5% Mailed ALL Resupplies
- 86% Mailed SOME Resupplies
- 9% Mailed NO Resupplies
- NOFINISH – RESUPPLY STRATEGY
- 17% Mailed ALL Resupplies
- 64% Mailed SOME Resupplies
- 19% Mailed NO Resupplies
Yes, mailing SOME resupply boxes is what the cool kids do on the PCT. How do I know they’re the cool kids? Obviously because they’re doing what everyone else is doing. That’s the only way to be cool. You ain’t cool unless you pee your pants.
Now, there are two types of resupply boxes that you can send yourself when hiking the PCT. The first box is one that you’ve prepackaged and then either send to yourself before departing or leave with a trusted person to send after a certain amount of time has passed. The second box is one that you pack and then send to yourself from somewhere on the trail.
So you want to be cool (I get it, we all do) and decide that mailing some boxes is the way to go. So the next question is how many boxes should you be packing and sending when on the trail? Well, on average, this year’s PCT Class sent themselves nine resupply boxes (or 8.7 to be exact).
- FINISH – AVERAGE BOXES SENT: 8.7 (σ = 6)
- 22% – The percentage of hikers who said they would have liked to have sent FEWER resupply boxes.
- 8.74 – The average number of resupply boxes sent by hikers who said they would have liked to have sent FEWER resupply boxes.
- 7.4% – The percentage of hikers who said they would have liked to have sent MORE resupply boxes.
- 7.09 – The average number of resupply boxes sent by hikers who said they would have liked to have sent MORE resupply boxes.
People who sent closer to nine (8.74) resupply boxes said they wish they had sent fewer resupply boxes, and people who sent closer to seven resupply boxes (7.09) said they wish had sent more resupply boxes. The only logical conclusion to draw from this? You should definitely send yourself eight resupply boxes if you expect to have any chance of completing the PCT.
Now that we know how many boxes we’re going to send, the next step is figuring out where to send those boxes.
Where to Mail PCT Resupply Boxes
I asked hikers where they would definitely recommend sending a resupply box and came up with the top ten responses. Why ten? Because, in case you didn’t read the above section, most hikers mailed SOME resupply boxes, and the average number of boxes mailed by thru-hikers who finished the PCT was nine. However, upon further investigation, we learned that the real number of boxes hikers wish they had sent was eight (so I’m including the top ten options here to give you options).
I’ve put the ranking at the end of each place name (that is, how many people voted for is at a place to “definitely mail a resupply box”, but I’ve ordered them geographically from south to north
- Warner Springs (Desert) – Mile 110 (#7)
- Kennedy Meadows (Sierra) – Mile 703 (#3)
- Sierra City (NorCal) – Mile 1,198 (#4)
- Crater Lake/Mazama Village Store (Oregon) – Mile 1,830 (#5)
- Big Lake Youth Camp (Oregon) – Mile 1,992 (#6)
- Timberline Lodge (Oregon) – Mile 2,094 (#9)
- White Pass (Washington) – Mile 2,303 (#10)
- Snoqualmie Pass (Washington) – Mile 2,402 (#8)
- Stevens Pass/Skykomish (Washington) – Mile 2,476 (#2)
- Stehekin (Washington) – Mile 2,574 (#1)
Before you do more resupply “planning” consider the following: for the ENTIRETY OF CALIFORNIA (that’s 1,700 mi / 2,700 km) you are only sending THREE BOXES (assuming you’re strictly following this guide to PCT greatness and are hiking NOBO like a sane person).
Something many people don’t realize before beginning a thru-hike is that you can easily send yourself boxes from towns on the trail. Yes, the PCT is a long trail, but you’re really just connecting a bunch of smaller trails between resupply stops. There’s no reason that you can’t go to a supermarket during one of these stops, buy yourself a bunch of delicious hiker food, and mail it ahead to another resupply stop further up the trail (unless it’s Sunday because the post office is closed on Sunday).
In fact, 23% of hikers said, if they were to change something about their resupply strategy, they would either send NO boxes ahead of time or send more boxes from along the trail. Summing it up, here are the total number of resupply boxes you should be sending per PCT section (that is if you’re following the advice of this year’s PCT average).
- DESERT: 1 (Warner Springs)
- SIERRA: 1 (Kennedy Meadows)
- NORCAL: 1 (Sierra City)
- OREGON: 3 (Crater Lake/Mazama Village Store, Big Lake Youth Camp, Timberline Lodge)
- WASHINGTON: 4 (White Pass, Snoqualmie Pass, Stevens Pass/Skykomish, Skehekin)
I also asked hikers where they would have rather mailed themselves a box instead of buying locally. This could be either because the resupply selection is crap, the prices are high, or the store owners are assholes. This year, there were three places with a significant number of responses: Agua Dulce (Desert), Sierra City (NorCal) and Shelter Cove (Oregon).
Only one of these places, Sierra City (NorCal), made the top ten places to send a resupply box, so if you’re wanting to send yourself the minimal number of boxes, definitely consider sending one here.
Changes to PCT resupply stragegy
I also asked hikers what CHANGES they would make to their resupply strategies if they were to do it all over with the knowledge of having now thru-hiked the PCT. The top responses were:
- 22% – Send more variety in resupply boxes
- 22% – Fewer resupply boxes
- 20% – Healthier food in boxes
- 16% – Less food in boxes
- 15% – Mail boxes from on then trail instead of ahead of time
- 9% – Prepare no boxes ahead of time
- 4% – More food in boxes
What Food to Send in PCT Resupply Boxes
We now know how many boxes we need and where we’re going to be sending them. But what exactly should we be putting in these boxes? Should you just empty ten bulk bags of M&M’s into a box and ship it off to yourself? Yes, yes you absolutely should. That would be amazing, so please do that. But if you’re not like me and the idea of surviving on chocolate bits of nostalgia doesn’t sound like your kind of party (you’re wrong, that’s everyone’s kind of party), then here’s what last year’s PCT Class told us about what they were putting inside their resupply boxes.
The TOP COMMENTS I got from hikers about the food in their resupplies were (as noted above):
- 22% – Send more variety in resupply boxes (like peanut, pretzel, and dark chocolate M&M’s – not just the originals
- 20% – Healthier food in boxes (if candy is green does that make it healthy?)
- 16% – Less food in boxes (because if you’ve never done this before, you probably have no idea what you’re doing and are going to overcompensate with way too much food)
Okay, but what exactly do PCT hikers eat when on the trail? Berries and dirt? Yes. But sometimes when you get to town you’ll want to treat yourself with some processed and packaged goodness known colloquially as snacks. Here are this year’s favorite (and least favorite) snacks (and/or meals):
- Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai
- Mac n Cheese
- Idahoan Mashed Potatoes
- Clif Bars
- Peanut Butter
- Pop Tarts
How Frequently to Resupply on the PCT
Let’s review. We know how many boxes we’re sending, where we’re sending them, and what we’re putting in them, but this is only one (small) piece of the PCT resupply puzzle. The truth is, more often than not, you’re going to be resupplying in town at the locally available retailers (or, sometimes, at a small convenience store at a lakeside resort).
Now, the question becomes, “How often do I resupply?”
Accurately predicting where you’re going to resupply (and thus how often you resupply) before you start hiking is one of the most useless planning exercises people waste their time with. Predicting how long it’s going to take you to walk 100 mi / 160 km three months from now without knowing key variables such as the weather, your physical condition, and the people you’re with (yes, the people you’re with can have a big impact on where you resupply) is a wild guess at best.
If making it to the end of the PCT as quickly as possible is your goal, then the question of how often to resupply may seem straightforward – stop infrequently and carry lots of food. But carrying more food means carrying a heavier pack which could lead to a lower daily mileage or, worse, injury.
So what’s the right balance between resupply and hiking? Here’s a look at what the Class of 2018’s hikes looked like.
- FINISH – AVERAGE RESUPPLY STOPS MADE | 28 (σ = 6.9)
Despite the reported number of resupply stops being 29, the number of reported town stops (when hikers were asked to list specifically where they made stops) was 41. Interesting. To be safe, let’s unscientifically split the difference and call it an even 35. This translates to a resupply stop every EVERY 76 MILES (122 km) on average. If you don’t want to carry more than six days worth of food (which is a lot), then you need to be AVERAGING 12.7 MILES per day (20.4 km); if you can’t hike 12.7 mi / 20.4 km in a single day, then you have other preparations to do before worrying about your PCT resupply strategy.
How many miles per day did this year’s PCT Class average?
- FINISH – AVERAGE DAYS ON TRAIL | 149 (σ = 23)
- FINISH – AVERAGE DAYS HIKING (SUBTRACT ZERO DAYS) | 133 (σ = 19)
- FINISH – OVERALL AVERAGE DAILY MILEAGE* | 18.28 mi / 29.41 km (σ = 3.21 mi / 5.15 km)
- FINISH – HIKING DAYS AVERAGE DAILY MILEAGE* | 20.5 mi / 32.98 km (σ = 3.19 mi / 5.13 km)
- FINISH – PRE-KENNEDY MEADOWS AVERAGE DAILY MILEAGE* | 15.74 mi / 25.33 km (σ = 4.33 mi / 6.97 km)
- FINISH – POST-KENNEDY MEADOWS AVERAGE DAILY MILEAGE* | 19.13 mi / 30.78 km (σ = 3.5 mi / 5.63 km)
- FINISH – AVERAGE LONGEST DAY | 39.56 mi / 63.65 km (σ = 9.54 mi / 15.35 km)
- FINISH – AVERAGE ZEROES | 17 (σ = 10.6)
- FINISH – AVERAGE NEAR-OS | 16 (σ = 10)
Obviously, stretches between resupply can vary greatly (e.g. Kennedy Meadows to VVR) and some will be a lot longer (or shorter) than others, but this should give you a rough idea of what to expect.
The Average PCT Resupply Plan
Based on survey responses we can piece together what an “average” Pacific Crest Trail hiker’s resupply looked like for a 2018 thru-hike.
Now that we know how many boxes we’re mailing, where we’re mailing them to, what’s going in them, and how often we want to stop for resupplies, we can focus on arguably the most important question: where are we going to stop?
NOTE: The percentage of hikers who resupplied at the following places has been coded as follows: OVER 66%, 33-66%, LESS THAN 33%. Also, stops are listed in geographical order from south to north.
- Campo (44%)
- Mount Laguna (80%)
- Julian (64%)
- Warner Springs (96%)
- Paradise Cafe (74%)
- Anza (<1%)
- Idyllwild (97%)
- Cabazon (23%)
- Big Bear City (36%)
- Big Bear Lake (70%)
- Wrightwood (94%)
- Acton (33%)
- Agua Dulce (94%)
- The Anderson’s (72%)
- Hikertown (82%)
- Wee Vill Market (2%)
- Tehachapi (94%)
- Mojave (6%)
- Onyx (1%)
- Lake Isabella (43%)
- Kernville (4%)
- Ridgecrest (17%)
- Kennedy Meadows (97%)
- Lone Pine (35%)
- Independence (27%)
- Muir Trail Ranch (12%)
- Bishop (75%)
- Vermilion Valley Resort (45%)
- Red’s Meadow (41%)
- Mammoth Lakes (85%)
- Yosemite Valley (30%)
- Tuolumne Meadows (76%)
- Lee Vining (10%)
- Bridgeport (21%)
- Kennedy Meadows North (58%)
- Markleeville (4%)
For more on the Kennedy Meadows to Vermilion Valley Resort resupply, find my detailed post here.
If you’re interested in my PCT resupply for each section, check out the following posts:
- South Lake Tahoe (93%)
- Echo Lake (20%)
- Tahoe City (6%)
- Soda Springs (6%)
- Truckee (32%)
- Sierra City (86%)
- Quincy (35%)
- Chester (71%)
- Belden (79%)
- Drakesbad (27%)
- Old Station (59%)
- Burney (64%)
- Burney Falls (55%)
- Castella (22%)
- Dunsmuir (30%)
- Mount Shasta (59%)
- Etna (83%)
- Seiad Valley (91%)
- Callahan’s (36%)
- Ashland (94%)
- Fish Lake (23%)
- Lake of the Woods Resort (1%)
- Mazama Village Store (Crater Lake) (94%)
- Diamond Lake Resort (9%)
- Shelter Cove Resort (88%)
- Odell Lake Resort (5%)
- Elk Lake Resort (26%)
- Sisters (33%)
- Bend (58%)
- Big Lake Youth Camp (62%)
- Olallie Lake Resort (52%)
- Government Camp (13%)
- Timberline Lodge (94%)
- Cascade Locks (95%)
- Hood River (13%)
- Portland (6%)
- Trout Lake (76%)
- White Pass (87%)
- Packwood (41%)
- Snoqualmie Pass (98%)
- Stevens Pass/Skykomish (83%)
- Skykomish (52%)
- The Dinsmores (11%)
- Leavenworth (9%)
- Stehekin (94%)
- Mazama (18%)
- Winthrop (10%)
- Holden Village (5%)
How would our average Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker have used his or her 35 resupply stops based on this information?
It would look something like this (COLORED NAMES indicate that sending a box was prefered by this year’s class):
- MILE 41: Mount Laguna
- MILE 110: Warner Springs
- MILE 179: Idyllwild
- MILE 266: Big Bear Lake
- MILE 364: Wrightwood
- MILE 454: Agua Dulce
- MILE 478: The Anderson’s
- MILE 518: Hikertown
- MILE 558: Tehachapi
- MILE 652: Lake Isabella
- MILE 703: Kennedy Meadows
- MILE 831: Bishop
- MILE 879: Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR)
- MILE 903: Mammoth Lakes
- MILE 942: Tuolumne Meadows
- MILE 1018: Kennedy Meadows North
- MILE 1093: South Lake Tahoe
- MILE 1198: Sierra City
- MILE 1284: Belden
- MILE 1329: Chester
- MILE 1409: Burney
- MILE 1507: Mount Shasta
- MILE 1606: Etna
- MILE 1662: Seiad Valley
- MILE 1727: Ashland
- MILE 1830: Mazama Village Store (Crater Lake)
- MILE 1912: Shelter Cove Resort
- MILE 2002: Big Lake Youth Camp
- MILE 2107: Timberline Lodge
- MILE 2155: Cascade Locks
- MILE 2234: Trout Lake
- MILE 2303: White Pass
- MILE 2402: Snoqualmie Pass
- MILE 2476: Stevens Pass/Skykomish
- MILE 2574: Stehekin
I know how badly you want to fit in and be really cool PCT thru-hikers (don’t worry, you are), but please remember this is just one of countless potential PCT resupply examples. This is not a definitive guide by any means. It’s meant to be a tool to gently guide you as you try to not starve in the mountains (you wouldn’t want to deny the sleuth of bears that consumes your body a proper feed, would you?).
Where Did Hikers Like (and Not Like)?
I also asked about hikers’ FAVORITE and LEAST FAVORITE resupply points. Here’s what we came up with (for each section):
FAVORITE RESUPPLY POINTS
- DESERT: Idyllwild
- SIERRA: Bishop
- NORCAL: South Lake Tahoe
- OREGON: Ashland
- WASHINGTON: Stehekin
- Bend (Oregon)
- Wrightwood (Desert)
LEAST FAVORITE RESUPPLY POINTS
- DESERT: Hikertown
- SIERRA: Vermillion Valley Resort
- NORCAL: Sierra City
- OREGON: N/A
- WASHINGTON: N/A
- Lake Isabella (Desert)
- Seiad Valley (NorCal)
And what about hitchhiking into town? You know, that thing you do when you want someone to axe-murder you. It’s commonplace on the PCT, in case you were unaware. I asked hikers what resupply stops (if any) they had difficulty making it to from the trail. The top responses were (from south to north):
- Etna (Northern California)
- Bishop (Sierra)
- Kennedy Meadows North (NorCal)
- Lake Isabella (Desert)
- Bridgeport (NorCal)
- Bend (Oregon)
PCT Resupply Advice
We’ve covered a lot thus far, but enough with the numbers and colored labels and bulleted lists of places you may or may not have ever heard of. What did thru-hikers have to say about resupply on the PCT?
- A couple of times I intentionally sent (or bought) myself less food than I knew I needed to pressure myself into bigger miles. I don’t think I’ll be doing that anymore.
- Send boxes to places other than the post office due to reduced hours of operation.
- As your tastes evolve on the trail, I would suggest to do fewer boxes and to bring more variety as you don’t know what you will want to eat three weeks to a few months from your starting date.
- I would not have mailed a box to Warner Springs.
- Do NOT send a box to Warner Springs. Great resupply at the Community Center!
- I wouldn’t have sent a box to Warner Springs. I ended up throwing most of the food I packed into that box into the hiker box and bought from the Community Store.
- Before the hike it sounded like Oregon and Washington would be difficult to resupply so I sent a lot of boxes. But you could easily resupply at most places without sending a box. I would do that differently now.
- Would have packed out town food for the first lunch/dinner back on trail more often.
- No boxes needed in California, at all. NONE. California has a great resupply option at least every 100 miles of trail.
- I would’ve tried to switch up the food selection and tried to pack out healthier food.
- Don’t buy food before trail. Just buy as you go/ship resupply packages to yourself while on trail. It doesn’t take much time and it’s WAY better and faster than figuring it all out ahead of time (assuming you don’t have any difficult dietary restrictions).
- Definitely send boxes from town, not from home. When my trip ended prematurely I ended up stuck with a bunch of mashed potato flakes and Clif Bars.
- I would have mailed a box to Belden instead of Crater Lake. I also would have used Burney Mountain Guest Ranch for a full resupply.
- Pack out more fresh food from town.
- Make sure to send boxes with plenty of time and track the boxes! It is awful to arrive and not have your box waiting for you.
Now, if you were paying attention here (and have been paying attention since the beginning of the post), you might have noticed that Warner Springs got a lot of comments from hikers as a place not to send a box to. “But Mac, earlier I thought that we decided that we were sending a box to Warner Springs!?” I know, friend, I told you, PCT resupply is not a science.
Have fun out there!
Changes For Next Year
- If you have any suggestions to improve this post for next year, please leave a comment below and I might add it to this list.
If there is ANYTHING you can think of that would make this information more useful (or any more resupply-related cross-referencing you would like to see), then please LEAVE A COMMENT and let me know.
FOR MORE ON PCT RESUPPLY, CHECK OUT THESE POSTS.
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