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How to Best Cache Food on a Thru-Hike

How to Best Cache Food on a Thru-Hike

You’re here because you are looking to cache food on a thru-hike or you heard about someone doing so.  Either way…welcome to the next level of thru-hiking.

Before you get into the specifics of burying food and water caches, please look up local regulations where you want to cache (and read this post!)

There are several rookie mistakes that you should avoid when caching food.  My partner and I have cached food and water on 5 different thru-hikes and have learned a lot along the way!  This post is meant to help you not make some of the mistakes we’ve made in the past.

Many elements go into making a food cache from guessing how hungry you’ll be to rodent or bear-proofing your cache.  I’ll break that all down for you so you can make your cache a success!

This post contains affiliate links.  I have used every product mentioned and if you purchase one of these products I can make a small commission at no cost to you.

So, You’re Doing an Epic Hike and Need to Cache Food…

Digging a hole for a food cache in the desert
Digging a Hole

You’re likely here because you’re interested in the Hayduke Trail, the Desert Winter Thru-Hike, or the Lowest to Highest Route.  These are the three most likely suspects where you’d cache food on a thru-hike.  Although, I’ve heard caching is helpful on the Great Basin Trail as well…

It is possible to hike all three without caches.  However, caching food can eliminate long dirt road hitches or overpriced gas station resupplies. ⛽️

But, let’s face it…caching food IS A PROCESS. 

🍔 First, you’ll need to get all of your food ahead of time guessing how hungry you’ll be well in advance.

🚐 Second, you must go on a road trip along your chosen route and bury all your caches.

🚗 Third, you might need to go on an ending road trip to collect your trash if you use hard-sided containers.

Adding one or even two road trips to your hike can take a lot of effort (and gas money).

Below, I’ll describe WHEN Karma and I opt to cache food on a thru-hike, WHAT containers we use, WHAT goes inside the cache, and HOW we cache it (including etiquette). 

If you read to the end, you’ll discover the secret ingredient to a good food cache!

When Could You Cache Food on a Thru-Hike?

Digging a hole to cache food on a thru-hike
Burying a Food and Water Cache

I make a resupply spreadsheet for every trail Karma and I hike.  Yes, I know others have them on the internet, but I make our own to eliminate areas where I know we won’t go.

I highly recommend that you do this for your own thru-hike.

📝 In the spreadsheet, you should have columns for:

  • Town Name
  • Miles from the start of the Trail
  • Miles to the next town
  • Grocery store options (and rate them using the user photos on Google Maps!)
  • Possible Mail Drop Location (including addresses and hours)
  • Hotel options and their general prices
  • If they have canister stove fuel

➡️ You should CONSIDER caching food if: the town’s food options are terrible and/or there is no mail drop option.  Furthermore, you could look for areas in the middle of extra-long distances between towns to break up food carries. 

Example 1: On the Hayduke, we cached near Hole-in-the-Rock road.  Why? Because the route crossed the road almost 30 miles from the paved road, it depended on a small trailhead, and Escalante did not have great plant-based options.  Although, Escalante had more than most rural Utah towns.

Yes, some distances on other long trails do qualify by these criteria.  However, on an actual trail, you should be able to do a 7-day carry if needed.  They’re character-building! 💪

What Container Should You Use for Your Food Cache?

Example of a backpacking food cache in a 5-gallon bucket.
5-Gallon Bucket Cache

When you’re looking to cache food on a thru-hike, you need to look at 3 different container options. 

  1. Bear Vault
  2. 5-gallon bucket with food grade lid
  3. Opsak

What you end up choosing depends on you researching your desired cache locations

1️⃣ You should use a Bear Vault when you’re going to cache in areas frequented by bears or raccoons.  This not only keeps your food safer but keeps bears safer, too.  You can also use Opsaks in your Bear Vault for extra security.  This is the safest option.  *This requires an end road trip to retrieve it.

2️⃣ You should use a 5-gallon bucket with a food grade lid when bear activity is highly unlikely but rodent or coyote activity is possible.  The food grade lid provides a much stronger seal than the paint bucket lids.  A 5-gallon bucket works to repel various rodents and we have had one scratched by a coyote but never opened.  You can also use opsaks inside if you’re worried.  *This requires an end road trip to retrieve it or you could pawn it off on a nearby vehicle and offer to pay them to take it.

3️⃣ You should use Opsaks when you’re not in bear areas and you don’t have the option to road trip back through for your trash afterward.  This method is by far the riskiest, but easiest to continue packing out all your trash.  Personally, I have never used this method, although I know others have had success here. 

Tools You Need to Cache Food on a Thru-Hike

Depending on where you’re caching, it’s helpful to have a few tools.

Obviously, you need a shovel. We use a 2ft basic shovel from Lowe’s because it fits under our bed in the van.

Less obviously, you’ll want a pair of work gloves and a blanket to put the dirt on.

First, work gloves are handy.

Second, if you lay a blanket beside where you want to dig, you can put your dirt on top. Part of what makes it obvious is that someone has dug a hole is the excess dirt strewn around. Dirt from a foot deep is often a slightly different color than the surface dirt. The blanket keeps that dirt in one place so you can more easily fill around your bucket.

Lastly, in some areas, a pickaxe is really the way to go. It makes life easier.

Caching Food Etiquette *Important*

Technically, when you cache food on a thru-hike, you’re breaking LNT (Leave No Trace).

However, you can break LNT temporarily and you can do small things that make a HUGE difference.

BEFORE you even cache food on a thru-hike, have a plan on how you will remove the cache and all your trash.  The plan can entail reburying your cache and road tripping back through to get it.  Alternatively, you can pack everything out until you can throw it out or mail things home.  Lastly, if you’re near a parking area, you could politely ask someone if they’ll take your trash (and offer them some cash!)

Next, actually bury your cache.  Part of LNT is not leaving anything out in the open.  Your white Ace Hardware bucket is an eyesore in wild landscapes and looks like trash. 

🚨 Best Caching Etiquette: 🚨

  • Bring a solid shovel or a pickaxe. 
  • Go off trail or route 0.1-0.3 miles. 
  • Find an unassuming location and bury a cache. 
  • Mark it with a GPS waypoint and photos
  • Cover your tracks after you bury it, after you rebury it, and after you retrieve it.

Lastly, make sure it’s not visible to anyone else traveling nearby by foot, horse, ATV, camping, etc.  In the end, make it so you can’t notice anything happened there at all.

Some Trails Have Specific Caching Areas

This is where it’s important to do your research ahead of time.

Example 1️⃣: We cached a food bucket on the Wonderland Trail in a ranger-approved bear-proof bin. Here, rangers allowed those with a Wonderland Trail permit to drive ahead of time and leave food with our names, ETAs, and permit numbers. *Since it went into a bear-proof container approved by NPS, we used a 5-gallon bucket.

Example 2️⃣: When we did a 40-mile backpacking loop in Big Bend, we placed two water caches. The park service again specified to place your water jugs in metal bear-proof containers with our names and ETAs.

Example 3️⃣: If you hike the Arizona Trail southbound, you might consider caching your own water with your name and ETA in metal bear-proof containers. The Arizona Trail Association provides these at strategic locations. You can also activate a Trail Angel network that might cache water for you. (The Kaibab Plateau only has snowmelt water. When it’s dry for the summer, it’s dry until monsoons or more snow. Thus, it’s more likely a southbound problem, not a northbound one.)

What Should You Put in Your Cache?

When you cache food on a thru-hike, you need to think carefully through several factors.

  • You need to guess how hungry you’ll be – Food Resupply 🍔
  • Can you bury the bucket straight up or on its side? – Coldest on the Bottom 🥶
  • When is water before and after your food cache? – Caching Water as well 💦
  • Can you camp near your food cache? – Flat spots ⛺️

I’ll break each of these down in more detail so you can see our thought process.  And, I’m not going to lie…sometimes we guess wrong.  We’ve wished we added more food and we’ve been overwhelmed with too much food.

It’s your best guess.

Your Food Resupply

👣 Let’s say you’re basing your mileage on 20-mile days.  You have 82 miles to your next resupply.  Therefore, you need 4 days of food in your cache.

For us, that looks roughly like this (for 1 person):

  • 4 Lenny & Larry’s Cookies
  • 4 scoops Orgain Chocolate Protein
  • 4 caffeinated drink mix packets
  • 8 electrolyte drink mix packets
  • 16 snack bars (aiming for 10g of protein or more each)
  • 4 tortillas
  • 1 sm squeeze peanut butter
  • 10 oreos
  • 4 homemade dehydrated meals
  • 1 chocolate bar
  • Toilet paper
  • Wet wipes
  • Sunscreen
  • (Canister Fuel)

Obviously, you can make your own 4-day resupply food plans.  This is just a basic sample of ours.  We would double this for 2 people.

Pack Coldest to Warmest

When you actually pack your bucket or bear vault, pack the most perishable things on the bottom

If you place the bucket straight up in the ground (making a deeper hole), the bottom will stay cooler than the top. If you know you’ll only get a deep enough hole sideways, repack your cache marking one side as bottom.

We like to line our buckets with a trash bag for extra water protection.  It’s also handy if we need to make a new rain skirt or pack cover on trail.

🌯 If you look at our resupply above, we place the most perishable things at the bottom of the bucket: the tortillas. 

🧻 Next, we place a few squishy things on top to protect the tortillas like toilet paper and wet wipes. 

🍫 Afterward, the chocolate bar and other items with chocolate go in next.  I’ve definitely melted chocolate by forgetting and putting it closer to the top…don’t make that mistake!

Lastly, we Tetris everything else into the bucket. If you’re just using Opsaks, place the more perishable items in one and bury them underneath the other.

Check Nearby Water Sources

Before you dig your hole, know where water is before your cache and after your cache.  If you see a decent water gap, bury some water gallons as well. 💦

If you’re going to all the effort to cache food on a thru-hike, you might as well make the hole a little bigger for water.

Even if you don’t have a huge gap, bury a gallon for yourself anyway.  That way, you can sit near your cache and sort your food without worrying about running out of water.

Look for Nearby Camping Options

When you scout out your spot to cache food on a thru-hike, make note of nearby camping options. 

⛺️ It often takes us an hour to sort through our cached food and sometimes, we prefer to camp early to do so.

Other times, you might want to come in late to your cache and it’s good to know if you have options for camping or not.

The Secret Cache Ingredient…The Cache Meal

A cache meal to eat as you sort your food cache.
The Cache Meal

This was our BIGGEST MISTAKE when we did our first caches back in 2017.

On the Hayduke, we did four caches in a row without a town.  That covered 21 days of hard, off-trail Utah canyon terrain. 🏜️

At the time, we drank a bit more and thought about placing a six-pack of good beer with each cache.  This seemed like a great idea while sitting and sorting the food. 🍺

What we didn’t realize was that we were missing our town restaurant meal.  You know…when you get to town and you’re starving and you beeline it straight to a restaurant and gorge yourself?  We didn’t have that.

After we finished the Hayduke, we talked with The Tourist at the Lazy Lizard Hostel. 🏡

We told him about how hungry we were at our caches.  The Tourist looked right at us and said, “You guys didn’t add a cache meal?!  Like a can of Chef Boyardee or something?!”

Karma and I were speechless.

Now, we drop the beer and add a big cache meal to eat while we sort our food.  We usually add a soda with it and a can of peaches for some fruit. 🥫 🍑 🥤

Lesson: Don’t be 2017 us! Add a cache meal!

How to Cache Food Ultimate Points & Conclusion

A backpacking couple burying a food and water cache on the desert winter thru-hike.

I hope I’ve answered all of your questions on how to cache food on a thru-hike. 

In the end, what I really want to drive home is:

  1. Check caching regulations before you cache. 📝
  2. Make your cache as animal-proof as possible. 🐻
  3. Don’t forget the cache meal! 🍽️
  4. Bury your cache and set a private GPS waypoint away from trails, routes, or roads. 📲
  5. Pack out everything OR rebury and road trip back to get everything. 🚮

Overall, please be considerate when caching to other public land users.  No one wants to go for a hike and find someone else’s poorly done cache.  Your cache can look like trash, especially in the desert. 

Drop any questions below!

She-ra

Friday 2nd of February 2024

Solid advice!!! Thanks for the tips.

mandyredpath

Friday 2nd of February 2024

Thanks, She-ra!

Dana Garden

Sunday 21st of January 2024

Great article, thanks for writing it, y'all! Want to put in a word for recognizing and avoiding cryptobiotic soils. Really cool Journal.

mandyredpath

Sunday 21st of January 2024

100%! That's a good add! I wrote more about that in my Hayduke specific post. Thanks 🙌

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