What are you going to eat while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail? How do you get water? What’s your PCT resupply strategy? In this article, I’ll answer all of your questions.
Why should you think about a PCT resupply strategy and what to eat before hiking the Pacific Crest Trail?
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is over 4000 kilometers (2650 miles) long and crosses the United States of America, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. In contrast to many long-distance trails in Europe, you won’t pass a town or a village every other day. Depending on the section, you often have to bring enough food with you to last four to ten days. Where do you get all that food? And what is useful to buy in terms of food? What’s your PCT resupply strategy? You can read all about it in this article.
Before starting the Pacific Crest Trail, it is wise to pick a PCT resupply strategy. There are several options:
- Send food to yourself during the hike. In this case, you’ve arranged everything all at once and this option is perfect for those on a special diet. However, it has some major drawbacks. For example, this option is quite tricky if you don’t know anyone in the US who can send you packages (post offices don’t hold packages for months). In addition, you don’t exactly know how much you will eat after hiking for months. Did you pack enough? Also, do you still like eating the food you’ve packed, or do you prefer different food?
- Buy all your food on the go. Since you regularly (like every three to ten days) pass a village or city, you can choose to buy your food on the way. The only drawback is that there is only a limited supply in the small villages and that the prices are much higher than, for example, in a large store such as Walmart.
- Mix it up: Buy on the go and send yourself the occasional package. This takes some time along the way, but it is also practical. Therefore, this is the PCT resupply strategy that most hikers like to choose.
How do you send yourself packages on the Pacific Crest Trail?
Yes, you’ve decided to send yourself packages of food on the PCT. How do you do that? Use the Priority Mail packages provided by the USPS (United States Postal Service). You can get these boxes at almost any post office that you can stuff as full as possible with food and other things you think you might need on the trail.
You pay a fixed amount per box to send. They call these “Flat rate boxes” and there are three formats commonly used on the PCT:
- Small Flat Rate Box (this one is very small). Cost to ship: $8.45
- Medium Flat Rate Box. This one is available with two different openings, one with a top opening and one with a side opening. Cost to ship: $15.50.
- Large Flat Rate Box. This is most commonly used by PCT hikers. Cost to ship: $21.90.
Order via Amazon or another online store
In addition, you can also order things through web stores such as Amazon and, for example, REI (a large outdoor shop). I ordered a new sleeping mat and micro spikes (which made hiking in the snow so much easier) via Amazon while I was hiking the PCT and it was really easy to pick them up at a post office. Very convenient!
Where do you have the packages delivered?
You send most packages to a post office in your name. You do this by putting the following on your package:
< NAME >
c/o GENERAL DELIVERY
< Town > < State > < Postal Code >
In addition, on the side (or on all sides), write “Please hold for PCT hiker” and “ETA <date>”.
When you send a package, you will receive a receipt with a track and trace code. Take a picture of this with your phone so you don’t have to carry all the receipts.
In addition to post offices, you can sometimes send your packages to other places, for example to a campsite or hotel. On this website, you will find a handy overview of all possible places on the PCT where you can send packages.
A few more tips about sending packages on the PCT:
- Not all places are open 24 hours a day. Arriving in a town on a Saturday? Then you may not be able to go to the post office until Monday morning.
- The post offices along the PCT receive a lot of packages for hikers. Write your last name on it in a large font and draw something or use bright tape or stickers, so your package stands out. For example, I covered my packages with bright orange tape. This allows the employees to find your package much easier and faster.
- Because they get so many packages, they only hold your package for a limited time. Take into account that they will only hold your package for about a month.
- Some things you are not allowed to put in boxes (such as gas cartridges, these can only be transported by land and not by plane). Check the USPS website or ask at the post office what is and is not allowed.
What to eat on the Pacific Crest Trail?
Here comes the fun part: what are you going to eat on the Pacific Crest Trail? Everyone has a different taste and some things in terms of food are more available along the PCT than others. An important rule when it comes to food: get as many calories as possible in the smallest possible packaging. You want to keep your backpack as light as possible. Here are some of the things I ate on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Other people also ate instant oatmeal with dried fruit, but I really don’t like oatmeal, so that’s not an option for me.
Lunch & dinner
I often made ate the same food for lunch and dinner. I made sure that I could combine as much as possible with each other. What was in my foodbag?
- Tortilla wraps
- Packets of tuna and salmon (the StarKist brand has many variations and is widely available)
- Knorr Sides. You have these with both pasta and rice and there are many different variations.
- Ramen noodle soup. Cheap, widely available, and lightweight.
- Idahoan mashed potatoes. Ready quickly, different variants, and cheap. I didn’t always feel like eating this, but it was filling.
- Peanut butter. Brands like Skippy and Justin’s (more expensive, but also more delicious) have convenient small packaging. I sometimes put the peanut butter in a wrap or mixed it with ramen noodles (which makes some kind of peanut soup, quite tasty!)
- Turkey bites or small slices of SPAM. Both are very tasty when you mix them with the Knorr Sides. The turkey bites are also delicious as a snack.
- Cheese sticks. Small strings of cheese that last quite a long time. You can put them in the wrap, mix them with mashed potatoes or just eat it as a snack.
You can also buy special backpacking meals from Mountain House. These are freeze-dried meals and you only need to add water to get a tasty meal. The downside is that these meals are quite expensive ($5-$10 each), making a long-distance hike like the Pacific Crest Trail very expensive.
My favorite part of eating on the Pacific Crest Trail: snacks! This is what I ate during short breaks:
- Snickers! A lot of calories in a very small bar. And it always tasted good. At one point I even ate two Snicker bars a day, because I was losing quite a lot of weight. Snickers tend to melt fast, so I usually ate them before 9 am. Otherwise, they would have melted.
- Cliff bars. Healthier than Snickers, but also a lot more expensive. I ate two or three Clif bars a week, I didn’t think they were super tasty, but some people swear by them.
- Nuts. Think almonds, walnuts, cashews. If I could find any of these, I would buy them.
- M&M’s peanut. These don’t melt too quickly, are very tasty, and provide a lot of calories.
- Dried fruit. To feel like I was eating something healthy, I’d usually bring a bag of dried pineapple or mango with me on the trail.
- Baby fruit. I don’t know what the official name is, but in the baby department in the supermarket, you can buy those little squeeze bottles with fruit.
Where do you buy all this food?
- In large supermarkets such as Walmart. Here you have a large selection of food and this is also the cheapest option. It’s very convenient to buy in bulk and put in packages to send yourself.
- Small supermarkets in trail towns. Smaller selection, but most of the things I ate on the PCT (like tuna bags, noodles, and wraps) were available pretty much everywhere.
- Outdoor stores, such as REI.
- Via Amazon: cheap and here you can easily buy large quantities at once. This is also a useful option if you’re planning to send yourself multiple packages.
Um, why don’t you eat a little healthier?
As I wrote before, it is useful to have as many calories as possible in the smallest and lightest packs. That way you can last much longer. Very occasionally I would buy fruit, spinach, or avocado to eat on the trail. But I only did that if I knew I would come across a trash can during the day.
You really don’t want to have food leftovers in your waste bag because it will smell really bad. I made that mistake once with some hummus, that didn’t smell so good after a few days. I was glad I could throw it away at some point, it was gross!
During the breaks in trail towns, I always tried to eat as healthy as possible. In addition, I often had vitamin pills with me on the trail.
And no, you probably won’t gain weight on a long-distance trail like the PCT. In fact, I’ve lost about ten kilos (22 pounds!) in five weeks. So I probably should have eaten (even) more.
Leave no trace
In everything you do, or eat, or buy, remember that you must not leave any traces in nature. Leave no trace is the most important rule on the PCT! Which means no trace at all. So don’t throw away your apple core because you think it will decay naturally. Food waste might attract wild animals and you really don’t want your fellow hikers being attacked by a bear, do you?
Also, bring your used toilet paper with you. That certainly does not belong in nature. Always make sure to bring a trash bag which you can throw away as soon as you see a trash can. I always used Ziplock bags for waste, they are pretty sturdy.
How to get water on the Pacific Crest Trail?
Very important: how do you get water on the Pacific Crest Trail? In the desert, it is not uncommon to drink four or five liters of water in a day. Of course, it is way too heavy to bring so much water with you for multiple days. Fortunately, there are often streams and rivers along the trail from which you can get water.
Of course, you have to filter this water, otherwise, there is a chance that you will get sick. Most hikers use a Sawyer PointONE Squeeze or a Sawyer Mini for this. The advantage of these water filters is that you can screw them directly onto (ultra-light) water bottles of, for example, Smart Water and Life Water. Both are available for sale almost everywhere in the US. I also saw many hikers with a Cnoc Vecto, a two-liter water bag.
How do you know where to get water on the PCT?
How do you know where to refill your water bottles? And how much water should you take before the next water source? There are a few ways to find out where the next water source is:
- Guthook App for the Pacific Crest Trail: a must-have for any hiker. With this app, you know exactly where you are, where there is water, where to camp, and where the town is. Other users can also comment on the status of the water. That way you are always informed.
- PCT water report: pdfs with the latest information about the water situation and where on the trail you can find it. You can download these reports on your phone or print them (if you’re able to find a printer along the trail). Make sure that you always check whether a new version is available as soon as you have cellphone service.
More tips on how to get water
In addition to water from streams, there are also regular water caches to be found along the way. These are places where people leave water for hikers, usually in large bottles. Although you see them quite often, you cannot rely on them, never assume that this water is actually there. The hiker in front of you may have just grabbed the last water.
Finally: if there is any snow along the trail, you can always melt snow as a last resort to get water. It is useful to have a bandana or a buff with you, so you can easily filter out the twigs and stones.
Would you like to read more about the Pacific Crest Trail?
I hope you found this a helpful article regarding food, water, and how to do a PCT resupply. Are you interested in reading more on the PCT? This is a nice practical guide to prepare for the Pacific Crest Trail:
The Pacific Crest Trail – Hiking the PCT from Mexico to Canada
Review by M. Eby on Amazon.com:
Researching the PCT and like the detailed info about each section. Maps are extremely helpful, although took maps would be even better. Nice details to help plan and hike.
And if you haven’t read it yet, you might want to read the most famous novel about the PCT:
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – Cheryl Strayed
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—and built her back up again.
And this book is also highly recommended, it describes the journey on the PCT very well:
The Great Alone: Walking the Pacific Crest Trail – Tim Voors
On this website, you can also read more about a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail:
In the spring of 2019, I hiked over 700 kilometers on the PCT. During the hike, I shot some videos and this little film on YouTube is a journal of my hike on the PCT.
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