Food resupply on longer trails in the UK can be a worry to some hikers. This need not be so. Being adaptable and seizing opportunity will suffice for most of the time.
Most hikers will prepare a day or two, possibly more, of meals prior to setting off on a hike. Others will be planning at staying at accomodation and will have arranged meals, perhaps that accomodation will also provide packed midday meals for between night stops. Beyond that it may be possible to have food resupply posted on to known halts, or cache food in advance. However for walks in the UK of many weeks or months in duration, it will eventually become necessary to rely on local availability for food resupply. Those who have not experienced this may worry unnecessarily about it. The fact is, that anywhere in the UK is never more than two or three day’s hike from some form of, albeit limited, food resupply opportunity. Though you may have to leave a trail to achieve that. The secret is not to get hung up with ‘must haves’ and be prepared to work around what there is on the shelves. Large towns will have a choice of supermarkets, artisan foodshops, possibly even outdoor gear shops with rehydrated meal offerings. But for much of the UK, such abundant choice will seldom be encountered on particularly long hikes.
Food is heavy. It is one of the heaviest things, beside water, you will carry on trail. Not having enough food is not good. Having plenty of food and eating and enjoying it is good.
Adaptability is key. Muster a basic understanding of what you require for sustained activity. It isn’t all about calories, though that is a key concern. A mix of carbohydrates and proteins, fats and sugars. Salts and taste.
Of less concern are vitamins. While vitamin tablets can be taken, these should not be necessary provided you also take the opportunity to load up on fruits and vegetables occasionally when the opportunity presents itself. Take a (heavy) piece of fruit or tomato for the first day back on trail. Think about carrying dense, heavy and fat filled food for the first nights halt.
We all hanker after a burger, pizza, steak or fish and chips after a few days on trail. There is a reason for this, it is the body and brain talking, recognising a shortage of some trace element, or even just pure calories. Listen to the message. Stop for the burger, but load up with the side salad at the same time.
Some long trails in the UK have well known, if not famous, ‘to be visited’ shops where the owners know what hikers are after. No doubt following numerous requests. Be prepared to pay a premium. These people have steep overheads and probably have to travel miles themselves, or pay a premium delivery fee, to get non-local goods to them. Suck it up, even if you think the price extortinate and you suspect being ripped off. The price of a Snickers in a city supermarket cannot be compared against the price in a shed on the edge of the fells.
In addition, you are bringing custom and money to a local community, ensuring that such a small shop can also continue delivering a service to those living locally. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic none of us are sure what small retail outlets will have managed to struggle on.
These little stores rely as much on us as we do on them. It is almost a duty to call in and put some sort of custom their way, even if your foodbag is full and it is only for a chocolate bar. But if you can pick up a locally made loaf of bread and some local cheese, why not? That is casual halts and lunches sorted for a couple of days.
It is easy to feel a little nervous about trusting to the availabilty of food. It may be necessary to call into roadside petrol stations, factor in a call to a pub or an overnight halt in their bunkhouse or in a hostel and take advantage of what they have. Some pubs and hostels may even stock an extremely limited range of foodstuffs, though these can frequently be heavy tinned goods (don’t forget a tin opener).
Some camp sites will also stock a small range of essential foods, but again, these may be more aimed at motorised campers or have to be booked in advance- such as fresh bread, (liquid) milk, tinned goods (which are often luxury goods such as fruit) or sweet treats for kids. At the very least you can probably stock up a trail mix here. Due to the long life shelf stability desired by camp site owners, fresh foods may be short in supplt and a lack of vitamins may result. This need not be a concern in the short term.
The larger campsites are not so much aimed at the pedestrian hiker foodwise. Perhaps enough for that nights halt but insufficent for following days. But even then, search the shelves. Fancy labelled chocolate smothered cookies can contain oats rather than flour, flapjacks of some form or another are almost universal. Packet soups can be supplemented with dried potato. Noodles can be found almost everywhere. Another thing to be remembered if halting at one of the large campsites, complete with its hundreds of caravans and motorhomes, is that many takeways too far to walk to will deliver to a campsite entrance. Perhaps an opportunity to tackle that hankering after a pizza?
The well known ‘trail magic’ experienced on the popular US long trails is not particularly a ‘thing’ in the UK. Though you will see variants on it. People will set up honesty boxes at the end of their drive. When you are lucky, you will find clingfilm wrapped home made cakes and flapjacks. If the path passing is a popular trail such as the Pennine Way, Offa’s Dyke or West Highland Way, there is an increasing number of (frankly opportunistic, and why not) provision.
These will seldom provide much in the way of ‘proper’ meal stuffs and cannot be relied on as an effective means of resupply, to be regarded instead as welcome snacks and supplementary drinks. In glut season you will find windfall fruit such as apples being offered free of charge. However many farmside or small-holding boxes will not provide much of use- having things such as duck and chicken eggs and heavy jars of preserves and honey for sale.
As you may see, while it is possible to supplement food carried on trail with serendipitous encounters on trail, such opportunities cannot be relied on. The best routine I have found is to stock up periodically with three to six days of basic supplies. It is in Scotland that more days of food may be required if you want to stay on trail and not wander off for resupply. Always look for the dried and dehydrated forms. Water is a separate issue on trail but the UK is a wet place and while water take-up requires careful thought and occasional planning, I find water far less a problem than food, and food is not much of an issue. These will be mostly carbs that need not weigh a great deal, plus some tasty proteins in the densest form possible in the lightest wrapping to be found- perhaps dried salami, firm smoked cheese or tuna pouches. Even nuts, such as almonds, could be an option. I find going mostly vegetarian and carrying loose split red lentils with the aforementioned additions for curries does me well. Plus a few tasty treats such as chocolate or trail mix, and whatever drink stuff you like. I carry tea bags, milk powder, salty Oxo beef stock cubes and hot chocolate powder. Then simply run down and restock as opportunity arises. On long trails I may also be carrying peanut butter or Nutella, but never in a glass jar.
If not carrying a pre-packed granola, I always try and have a dry oat based mix in my food bag. It is usually possible to find many constituent parts for this in most shops that sell food.
That said, I always find breakfast a problem on trail. Eventually I get fed up with porridge oats. I will mix them up with choc mint whey powder and the like, swap out to fancy granolas of one flavour or another, change to trail bars, they all get a little tiresome after many days.
There is always a base mix carried that can be consumed if things get a little low in the food bag. This changing mix is carbohydrate and calorie rich and can, if necessary be eaten at any time, hot, cold, or if push comes to shove, dry. Again, proteins may be represented in nut form.
I try and build in occasional halts at hostels, sometimes an Inn or very infrequently a Bed and Breakfast. I don’t ‘do’ hotels on trail as I feel so out of place when doing so. If staying somewhere I try and book a breakfast. Even a Full English gets wearisome so I’ll mix it up if I can. This also gives the opportunity to try and snaffle a few extras for later down the trail- sugar sachets, hard boiled eggs, cheeses, even sachets of mustard or sauce to add to an evening meal. Perhaps five or six nights camping followed by a single night in a hostel is the ideal (also giving opportunity to recharge electrics) but hostels and the like are where they are and can also be booked up solid. Take it as it is.
If there is any lesson to be learnt here, it is don’t worry. The longer trails have mostly been around long enough that any outlet close by has a modicum of food on sale from which ‘something’ can usually be found suitable for taking on trail for a few days. If hiking away from a popular trail, there are invariably geographical and historical features- passes, crossroads, hamlets, that have dictated over time that people will funnel through, with a subsequent ‘supply and demand’ provision of something. It may be an inn, a petrol station, a shop, a post office. somewhere. It is often possible to resupply at these places. It is always worth just poking a nose in the most unlikely of places.
A knowledge of opening practice can help- don’t bother with Sundays most places, Wednesday afternoon closing still exists elsewhere, even Mondays may dictate locked doors and pulled blinds. So carry lightweight basics, pop in anywhere that may look like it could provide, supplement carried food with occasional halts for ‘real’ meals. Be adaptable.