Mastering Mail Drops for Backpacking and Bikepacking

It’s a lovely feeling in the midst of a long journey: receiving a care package full of goodies and essentials, thoughtfully packed by your past self and mailed to your present self in a middle-of-nowhere town.

Thanks to the magic of the United States Postal Service (not a phrase I ever expected to write!) and the generosity of helpful people, it’s actually pretty easy to arrange. Long-distance hikers and bikepackers commonly send ourselves boxes of food and supplies, also called mail drops, via General Delivery or care of small businesses along our route.

I’ve mailed myself resupply boxes during mid-distance thru hikes like the John Muir Trail and Arizona Trail, and less frequently during bikepacking trips like the Great Divide. They can be an invaluable tool on certain routes, but they also add complexity and constraints to your itinerary.

My personal opinion is that people tend to overuse mail drops, especially when they’re less experienced. In this post I’ll explain how to dial in your mail drop frequency to get the most value for the least hassle.

Hikers vs. Bikers

Whether you’re a backpacker or bikepacker, the same mail drop basics apply. Backpackers tend to use them more often for food, because the slower pace of walking doesn’t intersect with as many well-stocked stores. During thru hikes I commonly mail myself food boxes containing a full menu for 5 – 7 days.

Bikepackers, on the other hand, reach towns with well-stocked stores more often. With the added flexibility of a bike (covering a few extra miles is no big deal) it’s easier to have a buy-as-you-go mentality. When bikepacking I only send myself the occasional resupply box during long routes, like the two months I spent on the Great Divide, to restock hard-to-find ingredients and key bike parts.

Related: Backpacking vs. Bikepacking: Two Paths to the Same Destination?

What to Include in a Mail Drop

Mail drops aren’t just for food! They can be used for anything you need or want during your trip but can’t count on finding along the way. Here are some ideas to get you thinking.

Food where none exists: If you want to resupply at a remote lodge or tiny town with no store, you’ll need to ship yourself a full menu. This kind of mail drop can help you pack lighter by breaking up a long heavy food carry into two shorter ones.

Food for dietary restrictions: If the available food doesn’t work for you (good luck trying to do a 5-day vegan resupply from a gas station!) mail drops are a great way to make possible an otherwise infeasible journey.

Food add-ins for healthy eating: I like to buy simple meals as I go, but I add a lot of mix-ins to keep my diet balanced while on the trail. Sometimes I send myself bags of soy protein, protein powder, and freeze dried veggies to mix into store-bought meals along the way.

Toiletries, sunscreen, other consumables if you’re picky about brands and ingredients (otherwise you can buy all the basics as you go).

Prescription medications, dietary supplements, contact lenses, and other items needed for your health and upkeep.

Maps and guidebook sections for upcoming segments of the route. Great Divide bikepackers often mail themselves the next few sections of the ACA maps. On the John Muir Trail I mailed myself paper topo maps for the miles ahead.

Gear for upcoming conditions: On long trails our gear needs change. Ship yourself warmer clothes, snow travel gear, a bear canister, whatever it is that you didn’t want to carry the whole way.

Replacement gear and parts: Fresh socks, a new pair of underwear, perhaps a fresh pair of shoes on a long thru hike. On a long bikepacking route like the Great Divide some bikepackers mail themselves new brake pads, a new chain, sometimes even new tires.

Town luxuries. It’s common to pick up a resupply box in a town where you’ll be taking a zero day. Ship yourself something you’ll enjoy there: a favorite snack or desert, packet of detergent for the sink laundry, even a set of “town clothes” that feel good on your tired body.

Looking down into open cardboard box filled with snacks
This resupply box contains sunscreen, toiletries, and lots of hearty protein-filled food.

Downsides of Mail Drops

That all sounds amazing, right? Mail drops definitely have the potential to bring joy and convenience to your trip.

But they also have some significant downsides, most of which only become apparent once you’re already on the trail. So in an effort to save you some headaches, here are some reasons to not use mail drops or to use them sparingly.

Your tastes will change. Those 25 servings of homemade dehydrated chili seemed like an incredible idea when you packed them, but after a few weeks on the trail you might fling your food bag off the nearest cliff if you have to eat one more chili dinner. In towns with reasonably well-stocked stores it can be nice to shop for whatever you’re craving in the moment.

Your schedule will be constrained. This is a big one. Post offices in small towns often have very limited hours. The last thing you want to do, when you’re in the thick of a thru hike or bike trip, is choose between abandoning your precious box of goodies or taking an unplanned zero day waiting for the post office to open.

The upfront planning and prep work can be overwhelming. Prepping for a big trip is already challenging enough. Some people love obsessing over every detail, while others find it overwhelming. If you’re in the latter camp, best to only send what you absolutely need and just wing the rest as you go.

Shipping costs add up fast. Though making meals in bulk at home can be cheaper than buying them in stores along the way, any savings are quickly eroded by the costs of mailing yourself large and heavy boxes.

Flexibility and spontaneity are two of my favorite things about long self-powered journeys, so I use mail drops sparingly. I like being able to shop for the food I’m craving and let my schedule unfold as I go. I only send resupply boxes to critical points where I’ll need food that isn’t available, or to important milestones like the midpoint of a long route.

Bikepacking bike parked in front of a post office
Picking up a resupply mail drop in Colorado on the GDMBR. I sent myself two resupply boxes on this trip and bought everything else as I went.

Where to Send Mail Drops

If you decide to mail yourself resupply boxes on the road or trail, you have two options for how to do it. Heads up, this is important!

USPS General Delivery

You can send yourself a package to any US post office via the General Delivery service, and they will hold it (for a short period of time) until you pick it up. Important things to know about using general delivery for mail drops:

Address your package to:

your name
General Delivery
the address of the post office

Label it with something like “Please hold for (your name), ETA (your estimated pickup date).” Pad the date by a few days in case you’re late.

You’ll need a photo ID to pick up your package, and only the person whose name is on the package can pick it up.

Don’t send too early. The requirements are a bit vague, but technically the post office only has to hold your package for 10 to 15 days; after that they might return to sender. If you need them to hold it longer, call and ask. Some may be willing to go up to 30 days. If they won’t hold it long enough for you to mail it before you leave home, entrust the job to a friend or family member. Another option is to pack and mail the box from a well-stocked town once you’re already on the road / trail.

Check post office hours before deciding where to send your packages! Small town post offices might only be open a few days per week, which becomes a logistical challenge on a long ride without a fixed schedule.

Cardboard box strapped to handlebars of bikepacking bike
Picking up a mail drop while bikepacking in Colorado

Local Businesses

Another option, often better than the post office, is to send your resupply package to yourself “care of” a local business along the route. Businesses often have longer hours than post offices (RV parks and motels are especially convenient) and may be more willing to hold your package for longer than two weeks. They can also accept UPS or Fedex deliveries, not just USPS.

I usually look for small family-run businesses that play a pivotal role in the community or offer services to travelers. General stores, RV parks and campgrounds, diners and restaurants, and small outdoor outfitters are all good places to try.

Tips for sending mail drops to local businesses:

Always call first to ask if they will hold your package. Don’t assume!

Label the package with something like “Please hold for bikepacker / hiker (your name), ETA (your estimated pickup date).” Pad the date by a few days in case you’re late.

Check business hours and make sure you can arrive within them.

Be aware that some business charge fees to hold packages on popular trails. Personally I think this is fair since they are providing a service. On popular trails like the PCT they may need to dedicate an entire room to resupply boxes!

Spend some money at the business when you pick up your package, especially if they are holding it as a favor. Shop at the store, eat at the restaurant, spend a night at the motel.

Backpacker unpacks a resupply box on a picnic table
Happily unpacking a resupply box I shipped to a small general store and diner along the Arizona Trail.

Bounce Boxes

On long thru hikes like the PCT or AT, hikers sometimes use a “bounce box.” This is a box they mail to their future self at a town further down the trail, then pick it up there, repack it, and repeat. The box “bounces” down the trail as they hike.

Bounce boxes are great for things you’ll need later, like warm clothing that you don’t want to carry through a hot section of trail. You can also buy supplies in well-stocked towns and then pick them up in key spots with poorly stocked stores.

Packing and Mailing Tips

What’s the best way to pack and mail your resupply box? USPS offers flat rate boxes as well as the typical rates based on distance, size, and weight. Flat rate boxes are usually cheaper for heavy stuff going far away. Rates based on size, weight, and distance may be cheaper for light stuff being shipped nearby.

My advice: pack your stuff carefully! Liquids and powders should be double-bagged in case of spills. I’ve seen resupply boxes, especially heavy ones, arrive in fairly poor condition.

Stove Fuel in Mail Drops?

It’s often said that you can’t mail stove fuel in resupply boxes, but in fact you can. I’ve done it. That said, it’s not a guarantee so best to only try when you can’t get fuel any other way.

Only isobutane canisters can be mailed. Don’t try this with liquid fuel.

You’ll need to disclose your fuel canister to the post office employee who accepts your package. They’ll ship it using the required method (ground) with the appropriate labels.

I’ve heard stories of post office employees who don’t know this is allowed, so you may find yourself in the position of explaining the regulations or needing to talk to a supervisor.

Receiving Online Orders on the Road

What if you didn’t plan to send a resupply but suddenly find yourself in need of something you can’t buy along the way? In my experience this is pretty common during long journeys as gear fails or gets lost. I’ve personally replaced my hydration bladder, water filter, sleeping pad, and bike parts this way. My husband once ordered a replacement smartphone on the Arizona Trail!

The good news: you can order gear from any online retailer (Amazon, REI, etc) just as you would at home.

The challenging part: most online retailers don’t ship via USPS, so you can’t receive your order via General Delivery. Though some people have apparently managed it, no doubt due to the kindness of a helpful postal employee, you can’t count on a post office to hold your online order for you.

The solution: make arrangements with a local business on your route and have the order shipped to them. As when mailing resupply boxes, look for a traveler-friendly spot like an RV park, small town diner or general store, outdoor outfitter, or bike shop. Call and ask first! When you pick it up, spend some money at their business as a thank you.

Sending Stuff Home

Did you overpack? Or maybe you no longer need those extra warm layers, bear canister, or ice axe for the trail ahead? Post offices work both ways!

You can easily walk into a post office with an armful of stuff, buy a box and some tape strips, and walk out many pounds lighter. I’ve done this a number of times and it’s always been worth it.

More Outdoor Adventure Resources

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About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 20,000 miles by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride (and helping you plan yours). Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more about me here.

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