One very special aspect of a thru-hike is the strong sense of community that surrounds many long-distance trails. I learned very early on during my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail what a vital role this community plays in a hiker’s journey.
If you think that you have to physically hike the entire distance of a trail to feel like a member of a trail community, you are mistaken. There are many ways you can get involved — one of the most popular is through an act well known as trail magic.
Trail angels are those who go above and beyond to assist hikers. They play a vital role in a trail’s community. They are a big reason why we love these trails so much. I have met a variety of trail angels who have more than cemented their legacy in the AT history books.
What is Trail Magic?
To put it simply, trail magic can be defined as an act of generosity toward a hiker when they are not expecting it; whether that be providing food to eat, a drink on a hot day, a ride into town, or even a bed to sleep in. These are just a few examples, but trail magic really has no boundaries.
No matter the exact type of trail magic, as a trail angel, you have the ability to make a lasting, positive impact on a hiker’s journey. I have had days completely turned around for the better simply because a stranger offered me a gatorade on a 90 degree day; or a fresh piece of fruit in the midst of a tiring four-day stretch. It really can be that simple.
Trail angels love doing what they do simply because they find joy in assisting hikers; some have even hiked the trails themselves and want to give back. I know I am looking forward to setting up some awesome trail magic for passing AT thru-hikers this year, which runs 30 minutes from my front door in the Hudson Valley.
If you live within driving distance of a long-distance hiking trail and want to become more involved in its community, then providing trail magic to hikers passing by is the best way you can do so; you just might make a large impact on a hiker’s entire journey.
Don’t know where to start? Here are six possible ways you can assist hikers during their treks. Am I missing something on the list? Let us all know in the comments section below!
1) Provide Hikers with Food and Drinks In-Person
This is the ‘classic’ trail magic, in my opinion. I’d say that the majority of trail magic I received happened when crossing a road and finding a table display of goodies with a friendly human or two nearby. In the early days on trail, I could bet there was a good chance of stumbling upon some form of food and beverage display almost every day.
These trail magic displays never lacked in variety, and included: burgers/ veggie burgers, hot dogs, cookies, brownies, chips, fresh fruit, soda, gatorade, beer… I could go on and on, really. Some displays even had backpacking staples like ramen, knorr, mashed potatoes, bars, etc.
If you are a trail angel, this kind of trail magic is special because it gives you some one-on-one facetime with hikers. Hikers could sit there all day and talk with you about stories from the trail. You’ll get to see first-hand hikers express their gratitude.
2) The Drop-and-Go Option
Maybe you don’t have the time or intention of setting up a massive food display for thru-hikers but still want to provide refreshments. Leaving a cooler stocked with drinks/ snacks in the woods near a road crossing is always an option.
It wasn’t uncommon at all that I came across a cooler filled with all sorts of beverages while making my way down trail. A simple Gatorade or soda can go a long way for a thru-hiker on a hot sunny day. On trails where water isn’t very abundant, trail angels often place ‘water caches’ on dry stretches for hikers. This plays a huge role for those hiking out west in desert landscapes
If you opt for this drop-and-go method of trail magic, it is important to constantly throw away the trash left in the cooler. You are responsible for cleaning up the garbage left behind. The coolers can get overflowed with trash and can attract unwanted wildlife. No one likes coming upon a trailhead to find garbage sprawled along the ground left over from trail magic. It is vital to use Leave No Trace practices when setting up trail magic, especially this method of trail magic.
3) Shuttling Hikers
Other than food/ beverages, hikers will always appreciate a ride into town or back to the trailhead. I am not here to advocate for the benefits of hitch-hiking, but I will say that this is the most popular way hikers get to and from town, whether you agree or disagree with hitchhiking.
If you can put up with the hiker stench, then offering hikers rides to and from town is a tremendous help. It may seem like a simple gesture, but I speak from experience that it goes a long way. On more remote trails, especially, like the CDT, it can be very difficult to get a ride into town; hikers might spend hours trying to flag down a ride.
My parents spent hours shuttling hikers to town one day in Vermont, and they loved the feeling they got from helping out and interacting with other hikers. A ride might seem simple to the ones providing it, but for the hikers, it means a portal to a shower and a meal.
4) Offering a Place to Stay or Hang-Out
You might be thinking “why would someone allow a stinky, raggedy hiker to stay in their home for a night?” I thought this same thing, but you would be amazed by the generosity of complete strangers; there are certainly those out there who are willing to open up their homes for an afternoon, or even a night or two, to allow hikers to eat, rest and recuperate.
When I hiked past my home in New York with my trail friend, Mr. Rogers, my parents were more than willing to allow him to spend the night at our home and feed him until he couldn’t eat anymore.
I was blown away by the generosity of my trail friend Fenway’s parents, who offered me and my buddy, Jackrabbit, a place to crash in their home in Massachusetts, right in the midst of a heatwave. The food, shower, and bed couldn’t have come at a better time; I couldn’t have been more thankful.
5) Picking up the Tab
It isn’t too uncommon to be enjoying a meal with your fellow hikers at a restaurant and having the waiter tell you “your tab has been paid by the nice folks sitting right over there”. This gesture is a very generous way of showing your appreciation for hikers, even if you wish to remain anonymous. Even something as simple as paying for the next beer or soda will never go unappreciated.
6) Volunteer For Trail Maintenance
This form of trail magic will often get overshadowed by the other options mentioned above, but is extremely important for hikers in their journeys. Volunteering for your local trail maintenance crew gives you the opportunity to step foot on the trail and make trail conditions better for passing hikers. Most trail maintenance typically consists of clearing debris/ blowdowns, cleaning trash, painting trail markers, or physically building structures for the trail like bridges or steps.
Hikers might never have the chance to actually thank you in person for your hard work as a trail maintainer, but I can guarantee that we are all very appreciative of the hard work. I always made sure to thank the trail volunteers as I passed them on my way down the trail.
More Than Just ‘Trail Magic’
I have been greatly moved by the generosity of strangers that I met on the AT, and I quickly learned that most trail angels hold a place in their heart for helping hikers. For some trail angels, it might be the highlight of their month, or even year, when they help hikers. Being involved in the trail community is a truly special feeling for the trail angels out there.
For instance, legendary AT trail angel, Bloodhound, is one person that sticks out the most to me. One night, at a remote shelter high up on a ridge in North Carolina, a gentleman carrying a massive backpack approached and asked ‘whose hungry?’ He then proceeded to make everyone at the shelter (several) root beer floats.
I was blown away. Bloodhound hiked 3-4 miles up a steep, rugged trail, carrying a very heavy load just to feed and hangout with us. Bloodhound even had his own trail angel t-shirt with his name on it. Seeing the joy and excitement on Bloodhound’s face while we enjoyed his treats really showed me that not only do hikers benefit from trail magic, but the trail angels providing the magic might enjoy it more than the hikers do.
Trail angels have etched their name in their trail’s history books for going above and beyond every year to help us in our journey across the country. Everyone on the AT has probably heard of Fresh Ground’s Traveling Cafe; a van that drives all along the east coast and cooks up amazing meals for hikers, all donation based. Then there’s Barney ‘Scout’ Mann who is famous for housing PCT hiker hopefuls every year in San Diego and shuttling them to the southern terminus. There are so many more, the list goes on and on and is always growing.
The communities surrounding America’s long-distance trails are quite special and unique; and if you want to become involved without hiking the trail in its entirety, then providing some trail magic and becoming a local trail angel is a great way to do it.
Max is a runner, hiker, and outdoor adventurer based in the Hudson Valley region of New York. In 2021, upon graduating college, Max pursued a long-time goal of his and thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. When not working, Max enjoys spending his free time running on local trails and exploring the mountains of the East Coast with friends and family. You can follow along with his adventures on his Instagram: @max_kiel_trail