By Laura Lancaster
Having been on the receiving end of a number of care packages during my own thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014, I know what a difference they can make. If you’re not able to get out on your own thru-hike this season, care packages are a great way to be a part of a friend or loved one’s hike.
But what should you send? Knowing how strategically planned every ounce is for many hikers, it’s important to be selective in what you put into your care package.
What Not to Send a Thru-Hiker
This was sent to me by a close friend near the end of our thru-hike. It was such a thoughtful gift–some soap from a brewery that we both loved, a horror-themed deck of cards. And, realistically, it would have been good after a long day of hiking to clean off with some nice-smelling soap, or to unwind with a fun card game.
But thru-hikers find that their priorities and needs change over time. At the end of the hiking day I collapsed into my sleeping bag and was out within 15 minutes. Playing a card game was out of the question, and that soap definitely would have violated Leave No Trace principles.
Many well-meaning friends and family members make similar mistakes every year. It’s tempting to gift hikers a book or a game to enjoy while they hike, or even a small trinket that they can take with them while they travel (one well-meaning aunt even sent me a rock necklace to wear on our journey). But unless the thru-hiker has specifically requested it, avoid sending objects that will add to their pack weight.
What to Send a Thru-Hiker
The short answer is food. For a group of people eating twice what the average person eats on a daily basis, hikers’ diets tend to be fairly dull. After a couple of the months on the trail, whatever they put in their resupply boxes, whatever it is they can find at the gas station to purchase, they’re sick of it.
That’s where you come in. Get your friend or loved one something decadent. Get them something flavorful. Get them something they haven’t eaten in the last two months. Visiting their favorite bakery? Buy them some prepackaged goodies and pop them in the mail. Traveling a lot? Buy them international treats that you can’t get in the states. Love to bake? Mail homemade cookies.
One trick to keep baked goods from turning stale (and most hikers won’t care if the cookies are stale or not) is to find the fattiest, richest, most oil/butter-laden recipe you can find, and then add extra butter. Hikers don’t care about greasy fingers. What they do care about is getting those extra calories. Some friends sent us a package labeled “PB oatmeal monsters” where the grease was soaking through the plastic packaging when we opened it. The accompanying note estimated that there were 500 calories per cookie. We each ate about three of those a day until they ran out.
Another trick for keeping baked goods fresh is to use a vacuum sealer. Halfway through our thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, my mother started adding three or four packages of vacuum-sealed homemade chocolate chip cookies to every resupply box she mailed to us. When we opened up these packages the cookies–a month or more old at this point–were still soft. Perfection.
Don’t forget to include a note with your care package. While email is a great way to keep in touch with friends and family while they are on their hike, a handwritten letter or postcard adds that important personal touch. After being on the trail for months (and a month on the trail can feel like a year in the real world) it’s easy to get homesick and feel disconnected from the people you love. Ten minutes spent writing a note will boost the morale of just about any thru-hiker and remind them of what they have to look forward to when they return home.
As with anything else that goes through the U.S. mail, your care package has the potential to be smashed, crushed, left out in the pouring rain, or stuffed into a hot and humid warehouse. Using an extra sturdy box, or even securing the treats inside of a Tupperware® container can help protect your care package against both the elements and the potential for rodents.
Also, resist the urge to surprise your friends. Resupply stops are rarely foolproof. The better ones are post offices off-the-beaten-path, tiny affairs only open a handful of hours a week and completely overwhelmed during the two months of the year that thru-hikers pass through. Other resupply stops are gas stations or minimarts that just have boxes lined up against a wall without any kind of order at all–grab what’s yours, pay a $5 handling fee and get out. It is all too easy, and common, for a hiker to grab the resupply box that they shipped to themselves and bolt back to the trail, not even realizing that their mother’s special cookies were in a second box in the corner. And they want those cookies! So try to let your friend know what stop you’ll be sending a care package to well in advance of its arrival.
I had the chance recently to speak with the nutritionist and PCT trail angel Brenda Braaten about nutritional needs during a thru-hike (which will be the subject of a future blog post), and she told me that one snack she enjoys on long hikes is, surprisingly, fruitcake.
While not an obvious choice for backpacking, given its reputation as a holiday doorstop, fruitcake not only has a fantastic calorie/oz. ratio but also an extremely long shelf life–it will last up to a month unrefrigerated–making it the perfect food to ship to a friend.
I’ve altered the classic fruitcake recipe below for thru-hiking (more butter and alcohol, naturally). This batch will be kept in our freezer until a little bit later in the season when it’s time to ship it out to friends and family who are thru-hiking this year.
- 1 cup raisins
- 1 cup chopped dried dates
- ½ cup chopped dried apricots
- ½ cup chopped candied ginger
- Zest of one orange
- 1 cup gold rum or brandy
- 1 cup apple cider
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 2 sticks of butter
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- ¼ tsp nutmeg
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 eggs
- ¾ cup semisweet chocolate morsels
- ¾ cup mini marshmallows
- ½ cup chopped pecans
- Mix the dried fruit and the orange zest in a bowl. Add the rum and let it sit on your counter while you put together the rest of your ingredients.
- Mix the flour, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl. Put to the side.
- Add the cider, butter, sugar, vanilla, and spices into a sauce pan over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the dried fruit/rum mixture, and simmer for ten minutes.
- Preheat the oven on to 325 degrees.
- Once the mixture in the sauce pan has cooled sufficiently, add the ingredients to the flour mixture and mix to incorporate. Stir in the eggs. Add the chocolate chips, marshmallows, and pecans and stir just enough to incorporate. Pour the mixture into a greased 10” loaf pan and pop into the oven.
- After one hour, test the mixture to make sure it’s done by inserting a toothpick in the thru-cake in several places. If it comes out clean each time, remove the cake from oven.
While the thru-cake is cooling, prepare the rum-glaze.
- 1 stick butter
¼ cup rum
1 tsp vanilla
- 1 ½ cup confectioners sugar
Heat the butter, rum, and vanilla in a small sauce pan until just melted. Turn off the heat and stir in the confectioners sugar. While the mixture is still hot, pour over the thru-cake.
Allow to cool overnight. The thru-cake will improve in flavor over time, so it should be just fine sitting in a box for a couple of weeks waiting for its recipient. That being said, if it will be a month or more until your recipient receives the cake, pop it in the freezer until you’re ready to mail it.
Laura Lancaster started backpacking at the age of 12 and hasn’t let up since.Currently a freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, she thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014 and the Wonderland Trail in 2015. Laura has been published in Backpacker, Survivor’s Edge magazine, and American Survival Guide. You can see more of her work at lauralancaster.net.