How to Help a Thru-Hiker

Trail Magic: How to Help a Thru-Hiker

Besides being asked if I’m going to hunt my own food, if I’m sleeping in the woods, if I carry a tent, if I carry a gun, if I’ve seen a bear or snake, a frequent question I get is, “How do I help you?” If you’re reading this because you want to help me, I appreciate your desire to help. If you’re reading this because you know someone trying to hike a distance trail and keep asking yourself, “How do I help them?” Then, you’ve come to the right place!

Trail Magic

One of the best ways to help a long-distance hiker is to offer trail magic. I define Trail Magic as an act of kindness towards a hiker which might help them succeed. Is that vague enough? Good, because there are a multitude of ways to offer trail magic. I have personally received a wide array of help- from a cooler filled with cold sodas, a vast spread of food spread across multiple tables, to being offered free lodging.

Think about the basic things in your life that keep you going. In the US, society provides nearly unlimited access to a grocery store filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy. You can lay in a real bed at the end of a hard day. You have access to indoor plumbing and hot water an arm’s reach away. To you, these are basic facts of life; to a hiker, these are luxuries. Make no mistake, we know this and accept this. But boy, do we ever miss the comforts of home.

Below is a list of things hikers like me would want in decreasing order of direct involvement from an angel.



The cream of the crop of trail magic. When I finished my thru-hike of the Vermont Long Trail, I was in bad sorts. I had not showered or slept in a real bed for two weeks. I had not cooked a real meal in four weeks. While trying to hitch out of town, I was offered a free place to stay. That first shower might have been my second favorite part of that week (behind finishing, of course). I will never forget that night.


Make food

Setting up a system to make fresh food will make any hiker’s day. And it will probably have them talking about it for months afterwards! Some highlights would include hot dogs, pancakes, and hamburgers. A portable gas stove and a table go a long way.

After a SOBO hiker told me that there was an angel making pancakes at the next road crossing, I booked it two miles until I found them. Was I tired from it? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes. Will I do this every time I hear someone say that? Yes.

Bring food

Instead of making it on site, simply bringing fresh food is sure to make any hiker smile. The first trail magic I ever received was a box of pizza, which another hiker and I evaporated in minutes. It’s always a classic.

In my opinion, fruit is the best fresh food you can bring to a distance hiker. Watermelon is a big winner. Apples and pears are also great! I have never received any, but strawberries would make a great choice too! Really any watery, sugary fruit is good, the higher water content the better.

Cheese is a clinically underrated gift to give a hiker. Ice cream can also make great trail magic. Exhibit A: the half-gallon challenge where hikers eat half a gallon of ice cream in PA! Just make sure to keep the ice cream cold.


Speaking of staying cool… supplying drinks is one of the best options. At a road crossing in Tennessee, a local had set up two big beverage dispensers full of lemonade and Arnold palmer. Soda is a fantastic thing to give out to hikers. It is high in carbs, calories, and so refreshing on a scorching hot day.

Treated water is a superb form of trail magic on western trails (looking at you, PCT). It’s also great magic on East Coast trails. On a deceptively hot day, I ran out of water twice and was given water as magic each time. It would have been a very miserable day without that extra help.

I’ve never received alcohol while on trail, but for some, it is a great and simple option. If going this way, beer is more popular, but minis have a better alcohol to weight ratio.

Miscellaneous items

If you’re opting to set up at a crossing, chairs get a big thumbs up. Side effects include hikers who stay for a very long time and exposit their whole life story to you. (At least I think I’m interesting).

Basic first aid like extra band-aids, ibuprofen (ibuprofen addiction anyone?), and Leukotape go a long way. Certain gear is also useful as trail magic. Extra tent stakes can be helpful, especially when you’re far away from an outfitter. Gas canisters can also be very useful. Taking any extra trash a hiker has is a great way to literally lighten their load.

Food’s not your thing? Don’t want to sit in the woods for hours waiting for someone to show up? That’s okay! There are other ways to help.


If you live near a trail and have a car, you’ve got everything you need to help hikers. There are many people who offer their services as shuttle drivers. Shuttle drivers make the trail function, especially in the beginning of thru-hikes. Taking people from trail, to towns, to airports, etc.

While the practice has largely died most everywhere in the US, hitchhiking is still very common along the long trail corridors. If you’re going into town and see a hiker on the side of the road going the same way you are, maybe stop and see if you can help them out. Hikers will usually have big backpacks on and poles in their hands or at their feet. Also, AT hikers have a colored tag somewhere on their bag.

What do you do if you live really far away from the trail? Or you can’t/ don’t want to do anything I’ve already listed?

Share their story

Every hiker has a different story. There are people from all different walks of life (get it?) with different reasons which brought them to the trail. One of the simplest and best ways to help is to share those stories. Talk about it with those around you. Spice up the office gossip by bragging about this crazy thing your friend is doing. If they’re using social media, blogs, etc., share it!

It might even inspire a few more people who always wanted to try to get out there and hike themselves!

Checking in

Check in with your hiker. It’s always good to hear from folks back home. And it’s always good for you to hear that your hiker hasn’t perished. One caveat- try not to take it personally if they don’t want to spend as much time talking as you do. For some, these hikes are about solitude; for others, they are about connecting with a community they wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with. Neither of these things can happen if they’re always on their phone the minute they get cell service.

That being said, you should definitely reach out! Especially if your hiker is a more remote trail or hiking during the off season. On the Vermont Long Trail, my last week on trail was after the leaf peak during a spit of poor weather. I did not see the sun while I hiked for seven days through constant rain or fog. For three of those seven days, I didn’t see another human being. Texts to friends and family made those days far more bearable. When in doubt, reach out!


If you want to help a hiker financially, there are a few ways. First, you can give them money in person (preferably no coins, as they are quite heavy). Second, you can also give money to a hiker through a digital app like Venmo or Cash App. Third, GoFundMe is a popular crowdfunding platform to help a hiker.

What does this money go towards?

For me, extra money almost always means better quality food the next time I resupply. For others, it might mean they get to actually take a shower for the first time in days. It can also go towards supplementing gear. Many thru-hikers have their gear dialed in when they leave for a trail. But certain things, like socks and shoes, are bound to break on longer treks.

If you know your hiker has been struggling with several bad days in a row or their shoes are 200 miles past their expiration date (sewing holes with floss only goes so far), then consider sending a little money their way.

Thank You

Congratulations, you are now a trail magic expert. Hopefully now, instead of asking “How can I help you?” You can speak with confidence and pride and say, “I can help you.” Trail magic is an amazing part of long-distance hiking and will always be appreciated. Thank you for your kindness!

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Comments 2

  • Harry Poppins : Apr 9th

    Thought 1: Excellent post. Trail magic is the bomb.
    Thought 2: Healthy food options, i.e. fresh fruit and veggies benefit hikers tremendously since those are in short supply and very important.
    Thought 3: Beer is not a good trail drink. Sugary sodas, slightly better, although I have used the sugar rush for hiking performance, so cannot cast stones. Having said that, I would not turn down a free beer ever.
    Thought 4: In my experience, chairs beat snacks any day.
    Thought 5: What would happen if we all did trail magic for everyone else in regular life and not just the trail?

    • Nick Thatcher : Apr 13th

      Fresh fruits and veggies are the best on trail! I think chairs are definitely great, but I have a solid preference for snacks. The world would be a much kinder and slower place if trail magic became everyday magic.


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