>> Your playing fast and loose with the term "unsupported" does a great disservice to people like Reinhold, Demetri, myself and others who find a sacred beauty and completion in the art of travelling self sufficiently in the wilderness; receiving only water, air and the ground to tread upon from nature herself. Lumping us in with people who pick-up food from caches along the way is a confusing bit of language you're using. All the unsupported trips I've participated in or heard about have been without resupply. Once you resupply you've received a powerfull and trip altering dose of support.<<
The generally accepted definitions of supported vs. unsupported for Long Distance hikes are as Jim stated.
Generally people with unsupported hikes don't do food caches anymore. Though it was practiced many years ago on the AT. I don't know of anyone who's tried to cache the entire PCT or CDT. The logistics would be a nightmare. I personally have cached food and water on some sections when it was convenient.
Today people simply either mail food to towns located along the trail or resupply from local grocery stores.
As such the vast majority of thru-hikers are considered unsupported. Even though many do have a support team at home to ship food and gear as needed.
A few do have a support crew, generally a relative, who may shadow the hiker and meet at trail junctions with food or to drive them into the nearest town.
Again we're talking about people hiking 4 to 5 months and 2000 or more miles.
The phenomenon of people hiking several hundred miles without resupplying is fairly new relatively rare. I have heard of people doing it in the past though many of these stories are unconfirmed. Perhaps someday it'll have its own nomenclature, but in the long distance hiking world, Jim's diffinations are correct.
Back to some of Ryan's origional questions:
1) I am also concerned about a shelter, do I have too bring one with all the trail shelters? should I bring one just in case?
Yes - You should always have some form of shelter. Even on the AT. As you can not guarentee that there will be space in the shelter when you arrive.
1) will a mini zen stove and snow peak 600mug be too minimal for thru hike cooking gear?
No - Alcohol stoves, esbit, snow peaks have been used succesfully by many people on thru-hikes. A friend has over 5000 miles and 2 thru-hikes on his alcohol stove.
2) if It is in the summer do I have to bring a insulation jacket or vest, I mean how cold dose it get in a main summer?
A light 100 weight fleese is recommended around camp in the mornings and evenings. And maybe in the early mornings as you're warming up. Though on the AT in early Spring many carry warmer jackets as daytime temps often are quit cold.
The western trails tend to warm up during the day and I find very little insulation is needed for hiking. A good wind shirt is desirable.
3)I love my down bag and never thought it would be a problem on a thru hike, but after seeing Andy Skurkas AT gearlist including a synthetic bag, I began to question this.
I've used a down bag on all three trails with no problems. Today's modern bags have excellent shells with good DWR finishes. Though for the most part I'd recommend a W/B shell such as epic.
4)If I am mooving fast how much pack volume do I need for food?
In general the longest food stretch of any of the longest trails is 8 days and there are maybe 2 or 3 of them depending upon which routes you're hiking. In general people resupply every 3 to 4 days.
If you're ultralight you can get by with 3000 ci pack. It may take a little careful selection of gear. Generally 4000 ci packs are more than adequate.
5) there is also a question about resupply stops, is mail better because I am sure about what food I can get,
Resupply from towns frequently reduces your options especially in the small towns located near the trails. However, in recent years these towns have done a much better job providing hiker specific food.
Buying all your food in advance can save money on bulk purchses, however shipping cost can more than offset thoes savings.
Also you may find after a few weeks you've developed a vile distaste for some of that food that tasted so great in your kitchen. Now your stuck with a lot of bad food to be dumped into hiker boxes along the trail.
There are hiker generated town guides that list all the stores and their potential for resupply for each of the major trails. These guides will tell you about stores, PO's, hotels, tranportation options, distance of town off trail, difficuly of hitch hiking, etc.
Get one for the trail you're hiking early in your planning cycle. Study it get the most out of your hike.