What’s in your mail drop?

This past year, Joan hiked about 600 miles on the PCT and side trips to such places as South Sister from Castle Crags to near Bend, OR in the summer of 2019. A common inquiry I’ve been asked is what does Joan do for maildrops with her stoveless meals strategy. Here is the article she wrote about this topic.  -PM

Short version: A wider variety of food than I could buy in town. Plus, paper maps, toiletries, and a few extra goodies.

The author preparing mail drops before her PCT section hike. Reno made a great place to gather food, package, and mail out. Plus Reno has a Trader Joe’s!

Why maildrop food?

To maximize the variety of foods I eat on the trail, I alternate maildrops with buying in town. At half my town stops on my long-distance hikes, I buy in town and the other half I sent mail drops. Smaller trail towns have less variety. Going to only one or two stores in a big town gives fewer options as well. When I mail drop, I can order specialty items online and go to many different stores. When I buy a box of something, I can divide up portions and put one serving of each into all my boxes.

Not just-food

A few simple cleaning supplies allow me to make myself and my gear less grungy. I send floss, Q-tips, lens wipes (one to clean my sunglasses and one for my phone screen), denture tablets (to clean my water bottles) and an assortment of ziplock freezer bags (pint, quart, and gallon-sized) to replace ones I use to organize my stuff. I also like to send myself unscented laundry detergent because I find that after a few weeks on the trail, overly-scented detergents bothers me.

A few squares of paper towels and non-scented wet ones restock my bathroom clean up kit. A paper towel holds up better than toilet paper for me. Every other box gets small tubes of super glue to repair my shoes.

This summer, I included a new pair of socks halfway through my trip. And tossed my grungy old socks. I was making my feet extra happy.

Finally, maps are included in my drops. I’m one of those (increasingly few) people who carry and use paper maps. Figuring out the names of nearby peaks and get the lay of the land is deeply important to me. I also used maps for planning my side-trips to lakes and mountains not listed in Atlas Guides (Guthook). My phone has only failed once while backpacking (on a winter trip on the CDT). But that was enough to make me a believer in always carrying paper AND electronic maps.


In all other trail food, I like variety… but not breakfast. I eat the same thing every single morning when backpacking and never have gotten sick of it: granola with Nido milk powder. My very favorite granola is Trader Joe’s Ginger Almond. I can’t get it in my home town so I can only eat it when I travel. This summer, I bought five boxes so I could eat it most mornings on my trip. Something I looked forward to when I pick up my maildrops. That plus some jerky or cheese for protein gave me excellent, quick energy to start my days. 

Lunch and dinner

Lunches are flatbreads (tortillas or naan) with some protein. Cheese and pepperoni/ salami, peanut butter and honey (in sticks!), and hummus (comes in a powder) are my favorites.

Even when I get maildrop, I supplement with fresh food bought in town. Fresh veggies (like Roma tomatoes or a carrot), shredded cabbage or kale (leftover from my typical town salad), cheese, guacamole packets, and an apple always made it into my pack and made lunches better.

I don’t skimp on the cheese. I usually go for cheddar, gouda, string cheese, or parmesan. In Bend, though, I got quite a treat. At a fancy store, their fromager (cheese expert) recommended a Manchego (Sheep’s Milk Cheese) that tasted amazing. 

Dinners are just-add-cold water meals. The critical thing is thinking up what dishes I like to eat at home, and then figuring out how to mimic those on the trail. I love Indian, Mexican, and Asian food, so I took those as inspiration to create meals from the dehydrated ingredients. Beans and rice, instant black beans, couscous, and instant mashed potatoes are improved by adding powdered cheese and dried veggies.

(See link: http://ramblinghemlock.blogspot.com/2015/02/beginners-guide-to-going-stoveless.html)

This trip, I had less time to prepare, so I also ordered cans of freeze-dried foods to add even more variety. Mountain House Chicken Teriyaki and Spaghetti rehydrate well and taste fine to me in cold water.


I aim for an equal number of sweet and savory snacks. Salty, crunchy snacks taste especially useful in the heat. Plus, some protein like cheese or jerky at every snack break to provide long-lasting energy.  

  • Dried fruits

I continue to love dried fruits and make them a staple. Especially dried ginger, Mandarin oranges, dried bananas, dried apples, dried peaches, dried figs, and dried pears.


  • Other sweet snacks

Instant pudding with Nido powder. Instant cheesecake mix. Gummy dinosaurs cheered me up when I started to miss my students or needed some entertainment.

  • Salty snacks

Veggie chips were a favorite. Plus cajun salty snack mixes.

  • Bars

I didn’t like bars much. But they are easy to buy and carry, so I still ate them. But never more than one of the same type of bar per drop. Variety is essential!

  • Nut butters

On longer trips, I’ve carried jars of nut butter, but I was OK with just nut butter single servings for this trip.

  • Jerky and dried meat sticks

I love jerky, so I sent it to myself because it’s much less expensive at Costco or online. Inexpensive alternatives are meat or salami sticks.

  • Drink mixes

Emergen-C and any drink mix packets added flavor to water. These were especially good when water was scarce, and I would want to “tank up” and drink a half-liter (or a liter) at the water source to rehydrate.  

Final notes

The thing about food on the trail is that everyone is different. Some people say they get more variety from buying in town, but I just saw they could get more variety of Pop-Tart flavors. Read a lot of different blogs about food on the trail, and try to read between the lines to see what strategy fits your tastes.

And the author always sends the essentials! 😀

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Buck Nelson
Buck Nelson
4 years ago

Some good advice! Plenty of variety and knowing what you like is so important. Thanks for the good ideas.

Joan West
Joan West
4 years ago
Reply to  Buck Nelson

You’re welcome!

4 years ago

Joan, I frequently go stoveless, but I rarely bring dehydrated food due to cleanup. How do you keep your containers and utensils clean? When I do bring a stove, I count on hot water for cleanup. Thanks.

4 years ago
Reply to  PaulW

PaulW, I cold soak everything in the same ziplock bags I pack them in and then eat out of the plastic bags with a spoon. So there is no dishes, besides my spoon which I usually just lick clean(ish).

I do carry a tiny bottle of Dr Bonners soap. A drop in a plastic ziplock bag does OK for cleaning up with cold water if there is anything I need to clean.

4 years ago

Thanks Joan (and Paul)
The denture tabs are a great idea and I’m right with you about the Swedish Fish too.