I have mentioned several times on this blog about sending packages to yourself while hiking the Appalachian Trail. If you are in the planning stages for a thru-hike, it may not be obvious what I actually mean by that.
Over the decades a strong hiker culture and institutional support have been built up around the long trails (both the AT and the Pacific Crest Trail). Towns along the trail are used to seeing thru-hikers and are often set up to provide the resources we need. For example, many small motels sell denatured alcohol by the ounce, and other such offerings.
There are two sorts of packages you may send to yourself: resupply boxes with food and extra gear, or orders of new gear (new sneakers).
The easiest way to mail packages to yourself is through the post office. Post offices along the AT receive a large number of packages for hikers every year and are set up for this. There are a few caveats. First is that it is best to use your real name on the package (not a trail name!) because postal workers will often ask for ID before handing out mail. Second is that mail sent to a post office must be sent by the post office. That is, you can’t send UPS or Fedex to general delivery.
The third—and arguably most important—caveat is that you can only pick up packages from the post office during business hours. Post offices are closed on Sunday, and many have shortened hours on Saturday, so make sure you think ahead or you may end up waiting in town longer than you expected to. One nice option at the post office is that an uncollected package can be forwarded to another post office for free. So if you hike into town on a Saturday night and don’t want to wait until Monday, you can resupply at the grocery store and call the post office on Monday to send your package somewhere else.
Many post offices have a separate rack just for hiker packages. To mail a package to yourself, send it with this format:
Your Real World Name
c/o General Delivery
Town, State, Zip
Then somewhere on the front of the package write: “Please hold for AT hiker, Estimated arrival: date range“
For boxes that you don’t pack yourself, such as orders of new gear from a company, if you are going to mail to a post office, make sure they use the postal service and not another carrier.
The alternative to the post office is to look for other places such as hostels, motels, gear stores, etc. that hold mail drops for hikers. The easiest and most reliable method of finding these is to use the most recent edition of the AT Guide or another thru-hiker guidebook. It’s generally a good idea to still call ahead to make sure they haven’t closed up since the book was printed. There are several advantages to mail dropping to a business. One is that they are usually open seven days a week, and often with longer hours than the post office. The second advantage is that you can send via any carrier you prefer.
Finally, I would advise against sending out six months worth of mail drops in advance. You never know what’s going to happen, but it’s also likely that your tastes may change, you may want different gear from home, or you may desire something you hadn’t thought of. On my hike, during a stopover at my parents’ house in New York, I packed and addressed a few boxes for New England but left them unsealed. Then I called and asked my mother to please send them as I planned ahead while on trail. Sometimes she put in a few extra vegan treats for me!