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Water caching and resupplies on the PCT

One of the hardest things to plan (especially if you’re not physically in the US yet), is your resupply strategy for food and water.

It takes a lot of research to plan if, where, and when you’ll need resupply boxes, and even if you figure it all out, chances are that your plans or your appetite will change. 

Planning Resupplies

If you’re not yet familiar with the concept of resupply boxes: a postal box that you send ahead to yourself along the trail, containing food and other items you might need at that time. 

But there’s a catch or two…

You will want more food, or maybe less food (not likely), and you will want different food. Things that you love to eat back home, might all of a sudden not be appetizing anymore once you’ve been on trail for a while.

And even if that’s not the case, most post offices will only hold your box for a fixed amount of time (two weeks is standard, though many might diverge from that as the post offices along the trail are familiar with hikers and their schedules.) What if you get delayed, injured, or there is an unexpected closure? Getting to your box might well become a royal pain in the behind in that case. 

In addition, arriving in town on a Friday afternoon will mean you either won’t get your box, or you are obliged to wait until Monday to pick it up. Some hotels or other hiker-friendly places also accept boxes and will typically hold them for longer, though they might charge you for the privilege. In some places, I have encountered charges of as high as $15 PER BOX, so check before you send.

Resupply boxes strategy

So, do you need to send resupply boxes ahead? 

That depends. Do you have a special diet or food preferences that can’t be satisfied in rural America? Vegetarians should be fine, but vegans might struggle, in general. Gluten-free might be a challenge as well, though I have no personal experience with this. If you do need to adhere to any sort of diet, I would urge you to check online forums to search or ask for advice. Trail magic along the way does not usually consider diets. Can you resist the offer of a juicy burger after a week’s worth of cold soaking?

A lot of resupply stops will consist of a small supermarket or convenience stores. In some cases, it’s just a gas station. If you’re fine with living off chocolate bars and bags of chips/crisps, you’re good to go. If you would prefer something a bit healthier on occasion, sending something ahead to those places could make your week.

Another consideration can be cost saving. Many far-flung places charge hefty prices for their supplies and occasionally run out altogether.

American hikers often buy food ahead in bulk and divide it up into their boxes, which they then have relatives ship to them at the appropriate moment, but international hikers don’t have that same luxury unless they know local people and know them well enough to ask them for such a big favor.

If you do send food ahead for cost-saving purposes, don’t forget to factor in the shipping costs though.

Where and when to send food

I personally only sent a few boxes ahead the entire way. Most notably, I shipped all my food ahead to stops in Washington from a post office in Bend, Oregon. 

As you progress into Washington, the stops will be more and more isolated, and your options more and more limited and expensive.

The day I spent in Bend (which also happened to be my birthday), was one of the most stressful days along the trail though. Shopping, transporting, packing, and then sending 5 boxes for 3 people involved a huge amount of stress and logistics, and I can’t say I walked away from that particular ‘zero*’ very rested.

For the rest of the trail, I mostly just made do with what I could buy locally. After you factor in the restrictions that having to pick up a box before closing time imposes on your schedule and add the costs of shipping a box of food ahead to the lower prices in bigger towns, the difference might not be all that big. 

In addition, the revenue these locals make from the hikers goes a long way. Remember, these are the people you will be depending on for food, showers, laundry, and beds. I’m fine with them making some money out of that for the few months of the year we are there. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be so overrun by smelly, tired, and scruffy people for a few months every year, but most of them seem to take it in good stride and are most welcoming.

Don’t go too crazy sorting all the food out in advance. It will become clearer along the way and the advice of others will be helpful as well.

Water on the PCT

Planning your water strategy 

The answer to that is anything from one to seven liters of water. Honestly, I can’t pin it down more than that. Because: what’s the temperature that day? How much shade will there be? How much hiking will you do? What’s your body mass? How much water do you need for cooking? Are you dry camping (camping away from a water source) or not? And most important: how far until the next reliable water source? 

If you’re anything like me, you’ll take too much water with you in the beginning. I was walking into a desert, after all.

I hadn’t taken into account the grey, overcast day, the fact that there was a running stream 4 miles in and another one just a bit further.

I wasn’t tuned in to what my body would need yet, and I was determined to drink enough (spoiler alert: I failed at that).

But I’d much (much) rather have too much water with me than too little. Because too much means a heavy pack. Too little means dehydration, passing out, risk of kidney stones (see spoiler alert), and possibly even death. Or it means having to ask others to part with the water they carried across the desert. Water is like gold out there, only more valuable. 

How much water do I bring?

So, bring too much, and learn along the way. Bring at least a liter more than you think you’ll need. A good rule of thumb is one liter per five miles. If the next water source is in 20 miles, bring 5 liters. If there’s an overnight stay in between here and there, bring even more, as you’ll need water for cooking/cold soaking. But if it’s really hot, bring even more (or consider waiting out the heat, night hiking, or starting before dawn.)

The best source of reliable and up-to-date information out there are the comments in the FarOut app. The app is used for navigation but also includes the option to add comments for other hikers. This is used regularly, so check the comments for the next water source. They will tell you about the water situation. Don’t forget to check the date of the comment! If someone stated a week ago that the source was just a trickle, don’t rely on it to still be there when you arrive. 

Comments might also include information on the state of the water. If you don’t fancy yourself some ‘brownish gooey, sulfur-smelling water with a dead rat floating in it’, maybe stock up on a few liters more, eh?

Water caches

Now, I would also like to address water caches.

It used to be that PCT hikers needed to plan for sections without any water. You would need, for instance, to hire a car, drive ahead, bury some water caches to dig up once you got there, and then drive back. 

A water cache is a stockpile of water that someone (usually a trail angel) has left for hikers running out of water. They used to be for life-threatening situations only.

But it seems that more and more hikers have come to rely on water caches, so that now, most go out with not nearly enough water to make it to the next source, if they know there is a reliable water cache along the way. But even the most reliable cache could run out before it gets refilled. 

The ‘just-enough’ strategy that seems to be preferred by many ultralight hikers, doesn’t leave room for unforeseen circumstances. 

I have seen many a hiker having to ask others for some of their spare water. And sure, people sometimes make mistakes. You’ve miscalculated, a reliable source dried up, or your water bladder leaked. It happens. 

But it shouldn’t happen regularly. It shouldn’t happen more than once.

There you are, in the middle of a desert, with less than half a liter of water left, since you thought you’d make it to the next source with two liters if you hiked fast enough. But you won’t make it, so now you have to ask the guy or girl next to you, the one that lugged six liters along through the desert and over mountains if you could borrow some of theirs.

In essence, they have no choice other than to share their water, as refusing might mean throwing you into a dangerous situation that could even result in a rescue team having to be called in. And that, in turn, puts those brave souls in danger. They might not even mind sharing, as it in turn, lightens their load. 

What they are not telling you, is that they already knew you weren’t taking enough water with you, so they brought extra. For you. 

Do you want to be that hiker?

And finally…

The PCT is supposed to be hard. You didn’t choose this trail so you could have a nice relaxing walk in the woods. You choose it because it was a challenge. Because you wanted to test yourself. Bring the water, please.

Water caches are for emergencies only. Not ones that you created yourself by not bringing enough in the first place.

*Don’t know what a ‘zero’ is? Read Lies’ article on the thru-hiker’s dictionary here.

Want to know more about Lies’ hike? Have questions? Take a look at her website at (available in Dutch and English).


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