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Thru-hiking 101: Warehouse vs Retail Food Prices

When it comes to purchasing backpacking food, taking advantage of warehouse stores like Costco or Sams Club can save time and money. Here are some tips to help you shop smart for your hiking food.

Paul Bodnar      Educational       7/16/2020

Managing the cost of hiking food while thru-hiking can be complicated, especially when planning large quantities of resupplies in advance. Taking advantage of warehouse store prices and quantities can save considerable time, money, and headache, but likely can’t be your only source for groceries.

View of an aisle of products in a Costco store.
A huge stack of nutella on a pallet at Costco.

A typical warehouse store (i.e. Costco) is around 145,000 square feet and stocks around 4,000 different items.  A typical grocery store (i.e. Safeway) is around 46,000 square feet and stocks around 40,000 different items. This means that a typical grocery store may have up to 10 times more variety than a warehouse store, and won’t require walking around as much. As such, it is easier to find exactly what you want at a grocery store than at a warehouse store.

Warehouse stores are great for stocking up on basic bulk items to save money but shouldn’t be considered the only place to shop for backpacking food. Also shopping at a grocery store will help to add variety to your diet. Varying your planned food greatly increases the likelihood you will enjoy your food on your long-distance backpacking trip (the importance of which cannot be understated).

The average savings at a warehouse store is 39%.

I compared the prices of some common backpacking food at warehouse and grocery stores, and the average cost savings was 39% (when comparing cost per serving). This is primarily because items in warehouse stores are either larger in volume or required multiple individual container purchases. 

Pros of Warehouse Shopping

  • Up to 50% savings over grocery store prices

Cons of Warehouse Shopping

  • Requires an annual membership which typically cost $60 a year
  • Most food requires repackaging which costs time and money
  • Limited “backpacking type” food (i.e. smaller variety of options)
  • Items must be purchased in bulk quantities, sometimes making it difficult to purchase the exact amount you need
  • Can lead to more waste as food is more likely to expire before consumed
  • More likely to purchase less variety of food, which can lead to getting sick of the food on trail
  • Things are not as easy to find in warehouses
An aisle of food at a grocery store.
An aisle of food at a grocery store.

Recommendations

I recommend only shopping at warehouse stores after you have identified trail foods that you like — it’s definitely not cost effective to experiment with a new flavor of Nutella when you have to buy 5 pounds of it. I only use warehouses to stock up on items I know I like, eat a lot, and that provide the greatest cost savings. 

Warehouse Shopping Tips:

Most warehouses allow you to shop with a member. If you already know a member, ask if you can tag along on their next trip and look around at your options before committing to a membership yourself!

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A lake reflects a nearby wildflower meadow and trees.
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Photo courtesy of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association

Trail guides that get you to places you’ve dreamed of.

As the makers of Guthook Guides, Bikepacking Guides, and Cyclewayz, we help you navigate the most popular trails around the world on your smartphone. Our hiking guides and biking guides work completely offline. Let Guthook guide your next adventure!

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About the Author
A man wearing an Arizona Trail baseball cap stands in a field in front of a mountain.

Paul Bodnar

Paul has always liked hiking and thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 1997 after college. After years of working in chemistry, he wanted to create a career involving the outdoors, so he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail again in 2010 to do research for his guide book Pocket PCT. He realized that creating a smartphone app for navigating the outdoors would make it easier to keep the data current and provide a better way to navigate. While hiking with Ryan (aka Guthook) in 2010, they decided to work together to create the first comprehensive smartphone guide for the Pacific Crest Trail. Now with the help of a team of great people they have created over 50 guides for trails around the world.