If you know someone who is hiking or plans on hiking a long-distance trail, you may want to send them a hiker care package at some point along the trail. The trick of sending a care package? Knowing what to put in it.
At first thought, you may be tempted to fill it with “things hikers like” – trail mix, energy bars, and the like. Allow me to be the first to tell you that the last thing your hiking friend, relative, lover, or stranger wants/needs is more “hiker food”.
There are a few things to consider when deciding where to send a package and what to put in it. Most importantly:
- What's available in the town they're stopping in? Are they going to be going to a supermarket or a gas station to resupply?
- How long are they going to be staying in town? Is this a quick in and out or are they going to spend the night?
- How easy is it to get around town? Is it walkable? Is there a shuttle? Uber?
- Is there anything that they've expressly told you that they want/need?
- Do they have dietary restrictions? Can they get their favorite foods on the trail?
All of this and more can go into sending your thru-hiker the most magical care package of the trail.
How to Send a Care Package
As amazing as it would be to surprise someone with a package, you really need to tell someone when you're sending them a care package on the trail. Better than that, you should be coordinating with them where you're sending them a package.
The best place to send a care package to a thru-hiker is somewhere they'll already be sending a package to themselves. As nice as it is to send someone a package, giving them an extra chore to do while in town can be a pain. The second best place to send a thru-hiker care package is to somewhere you know your thru-hiker will be staying (this could be a hotel, motel, trail angel, or friend).
How to Pack
One helpful thing you can do when preparing a care package for a thru-hiker is to ensure your package will stand out. Cover it in colorful tape, put stickers all over it, write your thru-hiker's name on it in giant block letters with a thick marker – just make sure you do whatever you do on all sides of the box and you inform your thru-hiker what you've done (so they can just say, for example, “it's the box with the pink and green tape all over it”).
Sending a care package to a post office can seem an attractive option – especially since in many locations this may be your only option. However, remember post offices are closed Sundays and holidays and have limited hours in many more remote areas. This may seem trivial, but it can be a serious complication on the trail.
Hotels or hiker-friendly businesses are oftentimes safer options for sending thru-hiker care packages. Just ensure you've confirmed with wherever you're sending your package that they'll accept whichever carrier you're using to send it (USPS, UPS, FedEx, DHL, mule, etc.)
Food to Send
There are two types of food to be considered when on a long-distance hike, town food and trail food.
- Alcohol: Those small travel-sized bottles of alcohol? The perfect thing to include in a care package. That said, shipping alcohol is not legal in every state, so make sure you know what you're doing before sending it through the mail.
- Homemade goods: Cookies, brownies, bread, whatever it is you cook or bake regularly that will keep in the mail? All excellent options for a care package. Bonus points for including additional containers or bags so that your thru-hikers bounty can be easily shared or transported.
- Gift cards: If there's a restaurant in town that you know (this part is important) your hiker is going to visit, a gift card there would be an excellent option for your care package (but money sent digitally would be better).
Most hikers will have their trail food (i.e. resupply) sorted and will likely not depend on care packages to resupply them. That said, there are some things you could send to your thru-hiker that they would probably like to have on the trail, but may not be able to (or want to) pay for.
- Dehydrated meals: The dehydrated meals such as Mountain House, Backpackers Pantry, GOOD TO-GO, and others that most people imagine is the “food you're supposed to eat when backpacking”, are (I think) generally pretty good. However, they're also expensive. I very rarely buy them for myself, but should someone offer me one I will take it happily.
- Joe Chocolate: Expensive, caffeine-infused chocolate? Yes, please, thank you. This stuff is great but similar to the dehydrated meals, it's pricey. The perfect thing for a care package.
- Clif Shot Bloks Fastpak: I love these things. But as with everything above, they're expensive.
- Dried fruit: I love dried mangoes – the only problem? They're usually one of the most expensive items I buy as part of my resupply. Does your thru-hiker love dried mangoes? Send them some!
- Jerky: Another expensive thing that hikers love? Jerky.
Backpacking Gear to Send
You may not have spent months researching backpacking gear before a thru-hike, but there are a few pieces of gear that you can still supply to your thru-hiker. You'll want to make sure you know some information about the gear they're using ahead of time, but it shouldn't be too difficult to figure out (just ask!)
Chances are, your thru-hiker is wearing socks. Socks are one of the things that are replaced multiple times over the course of the trail, and there are few things better than putting on a new pair of socks during a thru-hike.
You'll need a shoe size, a brand, and a style before purchasing your socks to make sure you're getting your thru-hiker the correct gear; not just any old pair of socks will do. That said, some of the best and most popular socks used and loved by thru-hikers are:
- Darn Tough – Hiker Quarter Midweight Hiking (Men's/Women's)
- Injinji – Trail Midweight Mini-Crew (Men's/Women's)
- Smartwool – Hike Light Cushion Mid Crew (Men's/Women's)
If your thru-hiker is using plastic, store-bought water bottles. on the trail (especially if they're using a Sawyer Squeeze or Platypus QuickDraw), then there's a chance their water bottle (which is likely something similar to a Smartwater or LIFEWTR bottle) is getting rather nasty.
Why not get them a new one?
It's always best to ask what your thru-hiker is using, but a Smartwater or LIFEWTR bottle is typically a safe bet (usually 1L or 750ml). Want to make the bottle more exciting than an empty plastic water bottle? Decorate it with stickers and write messages on it with a permanent marker.
Lastly, save some money and ship it empty.
Something other than socks that hikers will replace during their thru-hikes? Their shoes. Unlike socks, you really can't get away not knowing exactly what (and where) they'll need new shoes.
That said, buying and sending a thru-hiker a new pair of shoes is an excellent way to support their thru-hike (as long as they didn't buy all their shoes ahead of time and you know exactly what you're getting them).
If you don't want to include shoes in your care package because of the added bulk, but you still want to get a pair of shoes for a hiker, you can instead have them shipped directly to where your hiker will pick them up. If you're shipping with REI, Backcountry, Amazon, or another online retailer, just be sure whichever shipping method they're using is accepted by wherever you're sending them.
Sending gear to a thru-hiker that hasn't been specifically requested is generally ill-advised. However, one piece of gear that nearly every hiker will have a use for is a stuff sack.
Some hikers simply use plastic bags while others use silnylon or even homemade stuff sacks. Some of the lightest – but most expensive – stuff sacks are made of Dyneema. They're a luxury that many hikers won't afford themselves, preferring to invest their dollars elsewhere.
However, this is precisely what makes them great gifts. Here are some good options if you're looking to up your thru-hiker's stuff sack game.
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear Drawstring Stuff Sacks
- High Tail Designs Ultralight Drawstring Stuff Sack
- Cloud Gear Stuff Sack
As with everything except for maybe socks, make sure your hiker knows what you're going to be sending. It would be a sad thing for a hiker to end up with an expensive stuff sack they have no use for.
A lot of items are great to have in town, but aren't worth carrying with you during a thru-hike.
If you know your thru-hiker is going to be staying in town for a day (ideally, on a planned zero day), there are a lot of things you could supply them with to make town life their best life.
If you're sending your hiker a box of town comforts to a hotel (that they're presumably staying at), I would highly encourage you to include a prepaid label (and some tape) with this box so that they can drop the box back off at reception to send out before they leave. This assumes that the items you're sending to them are not necessarily intended to be thrown away.
- Town clothes – A spare pair of clothing is nice to have in town (but that I would not recommend anyone carries). Send your thru-hiker some town clothes so that they don't have to do laundry in their rain jacket and a towel. What kind of clothes? Honestly, probably anything.
- Toilet paper – If your hiker hasn't gone full-bidet, a bag (or roll) of nice toilet paper is a great thing to include in a hiker care package. Their alternative (in town) is to either steal toilet paper from whatever bathroom they happen to find themselves in, take mystery toilet paper out of a hiker box, or buy an entire pack of toilet paper and then discard whatever they don't take.
- Laundry detergent – Want to save your thru-hiker some money on hotel laundry? Send them a small bag of powdered laundry detergent (or a pod) so that they don't have to buy any from reception or the quarter-eating machine in the laundry room. If you want to get really fancy, you could also send your hiker some Nikwax Down Wash Direct (for down items), Tech Wash (for shells and waterproof items), or Basewash (for synthetic fabrics).
- Ziploc Bags – Gallon and quart-size Ziploc bags are something I always find myself buying in town (and wasting many of). Just make sure whatever you include, it's the normal closure (not the zipper closure) and that you get the storage or freezer bags (not the sandwich bags). Wondering why thru-hikers need Ziploc bags? Mostly for repackaging food (to make it more compact) or carrying out their poop paper.
- Toiletries – If you know your thru-hiker intimately and know they use special and/or specific toiletries at home, it might be nice to send some small bottles filled with their toiletries of choice. Sure, hotel shampoo, conditioner, soap, and lotion can get the job done, but when you want to pamper yourself on a zero day, it can be nice to have something extra.
- Money – Yes, it might sound like a good idea to get a gift card for a local restaurant or something, but this can be risky. What if your hiker just wants to sit in their hotel and relax? What if they want to eat with a fellow hiker who refuses to eat at where you've sent a gift card? What if your package gets lost in the mail? Sending money (electronically) to be spent in town is probably the best way to go about contributing to a zero day. You could also offer to pay for a hotel room or order them food (for delivery) if you're in touch when they get to town.
Things Not to Forget
Regardless of what you send, there are a few things you need to remember before shipping that box to your thru-hiker.
- Whatever you send, they'll have to carry. This doesn't just apply to items intended to be taken on the trail. If you send a birthday cake, they'll have to carry that birthday cake around town until they reach whatever shady corner, picnic table, or hotel room they plan on eating it at. Carrying your gear, a resupply (or resupply package), and a care package around town can be a pain. If it's an option (and you know ahead of time), consider sending a care package directly to where they'll be staying.
- Consider sending a prepaid box or label. If there's something for your hiker to use “just in town” or anything intended to substitute an item they already have (e.g. socks or shoes) it'll either end up in the trash, a hiker box, or shipped elsewhere. Sending a prepaid shipping label or box/envelope with your care package can be a great way to minimize time wasted in town. Your hiker could swap their items out and then package/send their old items back (to you or elsewhere) using your provided label. This also saves them a (possibly second) trip to the post office after they've gotten their lives sorted. If you send a label, be sure your hiker will be picking up your box somewhere with outgoing mail.
- You're trying to help. The last thing you want to do is inconvenience your thru-hiker with something meant to help. Sending a package somewhere they're not planning on stopping or to somewhere in town they won't otherwise be visiting can be a huge pain – regardless of what's in your package.
- A personal note can mean a lot. In addition to whatever you're sending to your thru-hiker, including a personal note (that you write with your hand – scary, I know) can do a lot to help encourage your thru-hiker. The trail can be an unforgiving place and town can oftentimes convince a hiker to give up prematurely on a thru-hike. Want a personal note in return? Send a pre-stamped, pre-addressed postcard.
What NOT to Send
There are a few things that should (probably) be avoided at all costs when putting together a care package for a thru-hiker. That said, if you've been specifically instructed by someone that they want any one of the below items, don't let me stop you from sending them. Caveat aside, the unexpected arrival of any of the below items would either befuddle or frustrate a thru-hiker.
You might think that your hiker needs something to read whilst out on the trail, but unless you've been instructed to do so, do not send books. An excellent alternative? Get your hiker an Audible subscription.
Unless you've been specifically instructed to do so, don't risk sending any backpacking gear (besides what we discussed above).
Nobody knows what works better for a thru-hiker than that thru-hiker. Yes, buying someone, for example, a new tent or sleeping bag could be an incredibly generous gesture. But unless you've received specific instructions on what to buy and where to send it, a new and unexpected piece of gear in the middle of a thru-hiker could be more trouble than it's worth.
It can be difficult to know when a hiker will arrive at a particular place – a lot can happen (weather, injury, bear attack, etc.)
It's probably unwise to send anything perishable in a hiker care package unless you're confident it's going to be picked up in a timely manner. Just be sure to not put any undue pressure on your hiker.
Anything You're Not Willing to Lose
A last word of warning – don't send anything you're not willing to lose forever.
There are multiple places along the trail in rural or remote locations where items in the mail can sometimes disappear. This is why mailing to a post office is sometimes an attractive option but remember the warning above before doing so.
- Ask your thru-hiker where and when they would like a care package.
- Do something to make your package easily identifiable.
- Send your package to somewhere your thru-hiker is already going to need to go.
- Send socks, shoes, stuff sacks, or water bottles (but make sure you ask about exactly what they need and what their sizes are).
- Include a prepaid label if you're expecting things to be returned to you (don't make your hiker needlessly go to the post office)
- Include a personal note if you want to make things extra special.
- Don't send books, unsolicited backpacking gear, perishable items, or anything that's going to be a pain should your thru-hiker need to transport it around town.
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