There eventually comes a time in a bikepacker’s journey when the miles grow long and resources run low. No, it’s not the dark night of the soul, though I suppose it could be. But more importantly, it’s time to resupply!
I actually love resupplying on a bikepacking trip. There’s something about rolling into a small town after days out in the wild, dusty and windblown and hungry and thirsty. I don’t need much but what I do need, I really need, and this is where I’m going to find it. There’s a beautiful simplicity in it, and a sense of being in touch with my most basic necessities. Also: chocolate milk and potato chips!! 🙂
If you want to bikepack for more than a few days at a time, you’ll need to resupply as you go. On a long route like the Great Divide or Western Wildlands you might resupply dozens of times. It’s actually not that complicated, but it might seem so at first. This post is an overview of how and where to resupply, what to expect, when and how to use mail drops, and other bikepacking resupply tips. It’s tailored mainly toward rides in rural parts of the United States, but many of the basics apply to bikepacking in other countries too.
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How Often to Resupply
The short answer: as often as possible. Food is heavy — around 2 pounds per person per day — so you can lighten your bikepacking load by packing only what you need to reach the next place that sells food.
In practice, I think 2 to 4 days is an ideal resupply frequency. Less often and it gets hard to fit all the food on your bike. More often breaks up the momentum of a ride and can feel like too much civilization, since the nicest camping and riding is often found further from towns. Many US bikepacking routes from the Rockies westward are designed with roughly this resupply frequency in mind.
A few other factors to consider: cost (bringing from home is often cheaper than buying on the road), dietary needs and whether you can meet them on the road, and time (stopping to resupply often takes a few hours, and it’s easy to get sucked into the “town vortex”). These might all be reasons to carry extra and skip a potential resupply stop.
What to Resupply
Food is the most obvious and common resupply task, by far. After a few days of pedaling through the middle of nowhere, ravenous bikepackers are excited to refill our bags with sustenance and tasty treats.
Other consumables will also need to be replenished on a long trip. Items like toothpaste, sunscreen, chap stick, and first aid supplies can often be found in convenience stores in the smallest of towns, or in drug or grocery stores in larger population centers. Specialty items like prescription medications, contact lenses, and your favorite brand of chamois butter may need to be sent in a mail drop (more on that below).
Stove fuel is another common consumable, and one of the harder ones to find if you’re using isobutane canisters. In the US you can find it in larger towns at Walmart and outdoor outfitters like REI, or in smaller towns at hardware stores, hunting and fishing stores, rural lodges, and national park visitors centers. For more on stove and fuel types, see Bikepacking Stoves.
Bike parts eventually wear out on a long enough trip. After several thousand miles you may need to replace a chain, brake pads (more than once), and maybe even tires. You’ll definitely need to buy more chain lube.
Where to Resupply
Resupply locations vary based on the route, but common options include:
- Small-to-medium size towns
- Large cities (usually rare on bikepacking routes)
- Rural gas stations and general stores in the middle of nowhere
- Remote lodges or campgrounds
- National park visitors centers
Types of Resupplies
Depending on what’s available along your route, you can resupply in one or more of these ways.
Grocery stores are the most obvious resupply option, and often the best. Compared to convenience stores they have lower prices, more variety, and a better selection of nutritious foods. If you want to eat a semi-healthy diet while bikepacking in America, grocery stores are your best bet.
There are a few downsides too though. Food often comes in larger quantities than a bikepacker needs, which is especially hard for solo bikepackers. You’ll have to buy all ten oatmeal packets in the box, or the entire jar of instant coffee, even if it’s more than you want to carry. Sometimes grocery stores can feel huge and overwhelming after a few days in the backcountry (or is that just me?) which makes them tough for a quick in-and-out resupply.
Grocery stores can be hard to find when moving at bike pace through less populated areas of the US. On routes like the Great Divide or Western Wildlands you might find yourself needing to buy a few days of food from just a gas station or small general store.
This is expensive and usually results in a not-so-healthy menu; sometimes it’s hard to even find much that feels like “real food.” But calories are calories, and in a pinch it can be done. Focus on foods high in protein and fat: nuts, peanut butter, jerky, cheese, etc. On the bright side these stores are often small easy to navigate, and they sell conveniently sized individual servings.
If you can’t find what you need along the way, you can mail it to yourself or have a helpful friend mail it to you along your route. Mail drops are a great way to restock on hard-to-find items during a long trip, and they can also make shorter trips feasible for people with severe dietary restrictions or medical needs. I’ll cover mail drops in more detail below.
Pre-Cached or Hired
This is uncommon, but occasionally there aren’t enough towns or post offices along a really remote route to make it rideable without support. In this case you can hike or drive to a spot along your route and leave supplies for yourself to pick up later, or hire a local outfitter (or bribe a helpful friend) to meet you with supplies during your ride.
I most often see this done with water in dry desert areas where carrying enough would be impractical. Parts of the Arizona Trail have designated water caches, and I’ve heard of people caching or paying for water drops on bikepacking routes in Utah like the White Rim Loop and Grand Staircase Loop. If appropriate (see next paragraph) you could also include food and other consumables.
If the cache will be left unattended, it’s essential to use flawless Leave No Trace practices. Don’t leave food that will attract animals, and pack out (or secure and then return for later) all empty containers. Don’t leave things in a place where they’ll be unsightly to other trail users, or might blow away and turn to litter.
Tips for Resupplying at Stores
Shopping for food might sound easy, but resupplying can be stressful. When you’re tired, hungry, and have only one shot to buy the right amount of food for the next couple hundred miles, it’s all too easy to miscalculate the number of Snickers and Slim Jims required to power your journey. Here are some tips that might help.
Eat first, resupply second. If you arrive tired and hungry, buy the sandwich and chocolate milk first and sit outside with your feast. You can go back for round two of shopping once you’ve replenished your energy.
Count calories. At convenience stores where everything is individually packaged, a small amount of food can look like a lot more than it actually is. Until you gain experience, force yourself to actually add up the calories on the labels to make sure you don’t end up hungry.
Save ziplock bags. Whether you bring them from home or horde them along the way, a few ziplocks are key for repackaging food that comes in boxes, pouches, or other hard-to-pack containers.
Split grocery store packages with others. You can save money and food weight by splitting that box of oatmeal or 4-pack of Mac ‘n Cheese with others in your group.
Carry an emergency meal and snacks. No matter how rock solid your itinerary seems, sometimes stuff happens. I always carry at least one lightweight emergency meal (ramen packets are perfect) and a handful of snacks in case I can’t make my next resupply stop when planned. If conditions are uncertain, I’ll carry more.
Look one or two stops ahead, but not much further. Of course you’ll need to know how many days of food to buy, so you’ll have to know your next resupply stop and possibly the one after that. If you’re currently at a well-stocked store and the section coming up will be sparse, consider carrying some extras you may not find at the next stop. Looking further ahead than that, at least for me, isn’t useful.
A “mail drop” is when you pre-pack your own resupply boxes and ship them to yourself along your route, or have a helpful contact ship them for you. They’re usually only done for longer trips of about a month or more, or when you have special needs that can’t be met by shopping as you go.
When do mail drops make sense?
Personally I love shopping for food as I go, so I use mail drops sparingly. My tastes and nutritional needs tend to shift once I’m on the road, and I like to follow my cravings and adapt to changing caloric needs. But mail drops do solve important problems and can be an essential part of long rides. Here are some reasons to use mail drops:
- Dietary restrictions make it hard to find what you need in small towns. Vegan and gluten-free diets are especially hard to accommodate in typical American convenience stores, unless you really like peanut butter. Even folks on unrestricted but health-focused diets may prefer mail drops over too many convenience store resupplies.
- If you’ll be out for a month or more, you may need to replenish hard-to-find items like a favorite brand of sunscreen, specialty dried food ingredients like freeze dried veggies, a few favorite treats from home, bike parts and supplies, etc.
- Sometimes you’ll find a rural lodge or campground on-route that doesn’t have a store but does accept mail drop packages. This can avoid a lengthy detour to town or a hefty food carry between sparse resupply stops.
Mail drops are definitely convenient, but beware of overdoing them a long trip. Some downsides to mail drops:
- What you packed at home may not be what appeals once on the road. It’s often more exciting, and perhaps better for your body, to go grocery shopping for whatever looks good.
- Unless you’re experienced, it’s hard to know in advance how much food you’ll want to eat and carry once you’re riding.
- Mail drop pickups need to be timed with business hours, and there may be unexpected hassles or missing packages. Small town post offices, in particular, often have very limited hours.
- The upfront planning and prep time is significant. Some people love it, while others find it overwhelming. If you’re in the latter camp, maybe best to just wing it as you go.
- Shipping costs add up quickly, often canceling out any advantage from buying in bulk at home versus paying higher prices on the road.
My personal recommendation is to use mail drops sparingly, like once or twice during a several month trip like the Great Divide. Send yourself critical items that are hard to find along the way, and top up your supplies of favorite sunscreen, dried food ingredients, etc. Otherwise, enjoy the process of shopping as you go.
The exception: special circumstances like severe dietary restrictions or medical needs are a reason to send as many mail drops as it takes.
Where to Send Mail Drops
If you decide to send yourself a mail drop in the middle of your bikepacking trip, you have two options:
USPS General Delivery: You can send yourself a package to any post office via the General Delivery service, and they’ll hold it for a short period until you pick it up. Things to know about general delivery:
- Address it to “your name,” General Delivery, and the address of the post office. Label the package with something like “Please hold for bikepacker (your name), ETA (your estimated pickup date).” Pad the date by a few days in case you’re late.
- Technically the post office only has to hold your package for 10 to 14 days; after that they might return it to sender. If you need them to hold it longer, call and ask. Some may be willing, especially along a popular route where mail drops are common. If they won’t hold it long enough for you to mail it before you leave, have a contact at home mail it once you’re on the road.
- 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.
- 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.
Local Businesses: Another option is to send your package to yourself “care of” a local business along the route. Businesses often have longer hours than small post offices (RV parks and motels are especially convenient) and may be more willing to hold your package for longer than two weeks. 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 (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.
- On very popular routes like the Arizona Trail (which gets a lot of thru hiker traffic in addition to some bikepackers), some businesses may charge a fee to hold your package.
- When you pick up your package, it’s good form to spend some money at the business. Stay at the RV park, eat at the restaurant, shop at the store, etc.
- Unlike the USPS, businesses can often accept delivery from online retailers that ship via UPS or Fedex. This is so handy for those emergency gear orders from REI or Amazon while on the road.
Packing and Mailing Tips
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, but more expensive than a small light box shipping locally.
Package 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.
What to Include in a Mail Drop
It can be hard, when packing your mail drop at home, to imagine exactly what you’ll want and need in the middle of your trip. Here are some common ideas to get you thinking:
- food, obviously
- special treats (dark chocolate, flask of whisky, favorite gourmet cheese, etc)
- dried ingredients to spice up store-bought meals (cream powder, freeze dried veggies, more ideas here)
- sunscreen, toothpaste, wet wipes, etc. especially if you’re picky about the brand
- contact lenses and solution
- bike parts and supplies (chain lube, brake pads, chain, etc)
- paper maps or guidebook pages for the next section of your ride
Note on stove fuel in mail drops: It’s sometimes said that you can’t mail stove fuel in resupply boxes. This is not entirely true, as isobutane canisters can be shipped via ground with appropriate labels. I’ve done it successfully, but have also heard that it can be a hassle if the post office staff is unfamiliar with the regulations. I would suggest trying this only if you really can’t find another fuel source along the way.
Receiving Online Orders
Sometimes you unexpectedly need to replace gear or bike parts that can’t be found along your route. I’ve been there several times: leaky water bladder, busted sleeping pad, my husband even replaced his smartphone on one of our trips together!
The most efficient way is to order online and have it delivered to an establishment along your route. You generally can’t use USPS General Delivery since these items often ship via UPS or Fedex. Your best bet is to find a small and friendly business along your route — RV parks, restaurants, and general stores are good bets — and ask if they’ll accept the delivery for you. Try to find one with long business hours so you can time your arrival when they’re open. When you pick it up be sure to stay the night / eat a meal / buy some groceries to thank them.
Resupply Checklist PDF
If you’d like a reference for the road, I have a free one-page PDF download with a detailed resupply checklist and shopping list. You can access it by entering your email address here:
Get the resupply checklist!
Trip Planning Help
If you’re learning about resupplying for the first time, you probably also have some other bikepacking logistics to figure out. For folks tackling their first or longest bikepacking trip, the Bikepacking Trip Planner Workbook is here for you! It’s packed with interactive tables, checklists, and worksheets to walk you through the planning process, plus loads of resources and recommendations on gear, itinerary, supplies, bike prep, emergency planning, and lots more.
More Bikepacking Resources
If you found this post helpful, you might also like these:
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- Review: Salsa Fargo After 4500 Bikepacking Miles
- Bikepacking Tents: What to Look For + Top Picks
- 6 Scenic Oregon Bikepacking Routes for Every Level
Or visit the bikepacking section for lots more.
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