Sustainable Trail Magic: How To Help Hikers Without Hurting the Trail
Every hiker learns to love those cardboard signs with hand-scrawled letters: Trail magic ahead! A Coca-Cola at the right time on a tough section of a thru-hike can turn someone’s day around.
Trail magic is a way for people to give back to the trail and help other hikers. However, the trail is becoming more popular every year. More than 3,000 people attempt a thru-hike each season, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
As more people hike, more people want to help them out. This narrow footpath we’ve all come to love is steadily being loved to death, both by hikers and the community that supports them. As the trail becomes more popular, is there a way to do trail magic in a way that helps hikers without hurting the environment? I posed this question to two trail angels and a volunteer with the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club.
Finding the Right Place To Set Up
Fresh Ground from the LeapFrog Cafe is a well-known trail angel who has been providing services for hikers for 11 years. These days, he serves hikers home-cooked meals from his van, takes their trash, and lets them recharge their electronics. Basically, he’s everything that would turn your day around on a thru-hike.
He started operating out of a van after realizing the effect his initial setup had: “I used to go into the woods, put a rope between two trees and set a tarp over it and set it up for days. Then I realized when we’d have two or three days of rain — you’d have such a horrible little area. You’ve got fifty people walking around in one spot while it rained — you know how bad it’s going to look. So that’s why I do what I do now. I think people can just be smart about it.”
The van helps Fresh Ground to maintain a mobile set up so no single hiker feed location becomes trampled.
There are generally two types of trail magic on the AT: hiker feeds and what I’ll call “general trail magic.” Trail magic could be a ride into town, a section hiker giving you their unused freeze-dried meals, or someone sitting at a parking lot with a cooler of fruit. Hiker feeds are larger-scale operations and usually provide meals to large numbers of hikers.
Ashley Luke, a volunteer with the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club said the area a trail angel sets up in can have a big impact on the sustainability of their hiker feed. “A lot of times hiker feeds are at a paved or gravel parking lot. That’s great because you’re not going to impact the environment. There are other folks who go into more wilderness areas or set up on forest service roads and that has more of an impact. It’s also not what you expect to find in the wilderness.”
Fresh Ground found a way to service hikers and preserve the trail. His van setup allows him to reach hikers from Georgia to Maine at any time in the season. “I try to provide a rest stop for hikers. I set up twice a day so I move frequently so there’s no footprint. When you stay in one spot, you leave a footprint.”
Whether you’re setting up a hiker feed or doing some weekend trail magic, choose somewhere that will best preserve the trail, like a paved parking lot. Prioritize the trail’s preservation above your kind service to hikers. If the trail wasn’t there, the hikers wouldn’t be either.
Even when set up in paved parking lots, hiker feeds tend to draw crowds of hikers. They’re not always the 40- to 50-person bubbles you might encounter at the start of the trail. Bubbles can be as small as 10 people and still have a sizable impact on the trail.
“One of the things we see here in Georgia is that the feeds get so big now that they create their own bubbles,” Luke said. “People hang out there for a long time. They realize breakfast has been served, and then, once they leave, they all end up camping in the same areas — areas that can’t sustain that many people because the hikers were originally strung out.”
“Some of them might have started hiking at five and some started at seven… Instead they all hung out and had breakfast together and hit the trail at 9:30. They end up being in this bubble that causes folks to be creating new tent sites and expanding existing tent sites beyond what their current capacity is. It’s a real impact on the land around here.”
I experienced this firsthand during my thru-hike at a hiker feed in Andover, Maine, where a trail angel was giving out whole lobsters next to Black Brook. This was an awesome experience — who expects to see a whole lobster cookout right on trail? However, the feed was just off the trail in an area that is usually used for camping.
As much as I loved the trail magic, I wish it had been set up further off trail. The hiker feed had the dual effect of occupying an entire camping area, making it an unrealistic option for anyone seeking solitude that night, and concentrating so many hikers in the area that all the nearby campsites became overcrowded too.
Roughly 15 hikers I had been leapfrogging throughout the day gathered at the trail magic. My hiking partner and I cut our day short to hang out at the trail magic — as I imagine many other hikers did too. We all sat there for a while, enjoying the serendipity of eating lobster in Maine.
As I traveled further down the trail and found more hikers from the trail magic set up at each available campsite, I started to panic. I wasn’t going to be able to find anywhere to sleep that night. Each campsite I passed by was at full capacity, with no spots left for my single-person tent.
Finally, after trekking an additional five miles, I found a campsite. It was starting to get dark, so it would have to do. I wound up pitching my tent haphazardly between two trees — almost certainly in a spot that had not been a tent site before.
Looking back, I realize I shouldn’t have done that — but I didn’t have many options. I could’ve stayed at the campsite where the trail magic was located, but I wouldn’t have gotten much sleep there either. I could’ve continued hiking, but there was no sign of a shelter or campsite for the next 10 miles, and it was already dark.
I know other hikers have been in similar predicaments. Nobody intends to damage the trail, but it happens regardless. Keeping hiker feeds small can help to mitigate this problem, and here are a few ways trail angels could do it:
- Limit seating
- Limit total amount of food
- Post “maximum capacity” signs so hikers are mindful of crowd size
- Ask hikers to voluntarily limit their time so the trail magic does not get too big
- Don’t advertise the trail magic; let hikers find it on their own
Unattended Trail Magic
One of the most common ways trail magic can damage the trail itself is when it’s left unattended. This could be a 30-pack of beer left beside a lake in the woods, food left inside a bear box for hikers, or gear left in a shelter. Miss Janet, a well-known trail angel based out of Erwin, Tennessee, described one common scenario.
“My term for that is trail tragic. Trail Tragic is a styrofoam cooler that is sitting on a trailhead. This is my scenario for that cooler. Mom and Dad are going near the Appalachian Trail. They’re so nostalgic: We met on the Appalachian Trail … ten years ago. We’re just passing by it on our trip, so we’re going to do some trail magic! We’re going to fill this cooler with treats and put it at the trailhead with a sign that says it’s from former thru-hikers. But we’re in a hurry so we’ll just leave it there.”
Miss Janet paused. “They’re never coming back. They did trail magic in their heart and in their minds without understanding that everything in that box is going to be gone in a couple hours. Everything in that box will generate trash, and then some individuals might leave their trash there too. That particular brand of trail magic hurts all of us. It’s what hurts us across the board.”
This kind of trail magic (or tragic) can be harmful to wildlife and the environment. This is another situation I experienced firsthand on my thru-hike. Right after passing the Keffer Oak in Virginia, I came across a trash bag that someone had left on trail for hikers to leave their garbage inside. By the time I arrived, it was overflowing, and several cows were munching on plastic bags of Idahoan mashed potatoes.
After shooing them away, I wound up carrying an extra five pounds of trash to the next road crossing — more than 10 miles away. After I got to the trailhead, a section hiker popped out of the woods behind me and was kind enough to take the trash with him as he left in his car.
Something that started out as a thoughtful deed turned into a big mess and some dangerous dietary choices for a herd of cows. When in doubt, always pack it out. No matter what the unattended trail magic is, it tends to generate more trash because hikers assume someone is coming back to pick it up.
“Last year in Georgia, between the ridgerunners and the trail ambassadors, we hauled close to 1,500 pounds of trash off trail during the thru-hiker bubble,” Luke, the GATC volunteer, recalled. “A lot of that is gear. A lot of people start with more stuff in their packs than they need and some will dump it out of their packs along the way.”
For hikers desperate to shed weight, offloading excess gear and trash at an unattended trail magic setup can seem like a convenient — if irresponsible — option. Manning your trail magic setup at a trailhead not only helps the environment, but also allows you to experience the gratitude of hikers firsthand. You get to hear about their hiking experience while helping them out on their journey.
“I think at their heart a vast majority of people want to protect the wilderness and protect wildlife, and they may just not know the right way to go about that,” said Luke. “You just need to be gracious with people and help them to understand what the impacts are and how they could do something that has less of a negative impact. Which is mainly staying with your food.”
Preserving the Hiker Experience
Aside from detrimental impacts on the trail, hiker feeds and trail magic can sometimes negatively impact the hiker experience itself.
Luke illuminated the issue. “One of the things we see more of is hiker feeds that are set up in the middle of the trail. If you’re someone who’s just trying to have a wilderness experience or if you just ate at another trail magic, or if you’re thinking, I’ve got to get to this place tonight and I just have to hike — that’s a lot of pressure to have to walk through a hiker feed with people asking if you want a snack or if you want to stop.”
She said moving the trail magic even a short distance off trail lets hikers choose whether they want to participate. “People that are looking for a hiker feed will still see (it) if it’s a little bit down the way in a parking lot.”
Even if hikers are in a rush to make miles, it can feel awkward to turn down a stop at a hiker feed. No one should feel pressured or obligated to participate in trail magic. Sometimes, hikers prefer a more independent experience or just won’t want to socialize that day . Trail angels shouldn’t take this personally, especially when a feed is in the middle of where they’re walking.
Fresh Ground makes it a priority not to advertise his set up on trail. “We are getting more and more people out there. Trail magic has increased for sure. People want to be recognized for their trail magic. I get a lot of attention, but I don’t want to be recognized. I’m kind of like, out of sight, out of mind. You might have heard about me or got fed by me. What I do — it looks like a big setup, but it compresses down really small.”
He usually sets up in places out of the way in between towns so that he catches hikers in between resupplies — when they’re tired of ramen and tuna and have been missing a home cooked meal the most. “Give them what they need, not what you want to give them,” he said.
Although the AT is a popular trail, users still prize moments of solitude in its quiet natural spaces. With the influx of hikers and trail magic, this can be harder to find.
“I do think that when we get the volume of hiker feeds that we’re getting now, I think it impacts the opportunity for people to have an experience of solitude in the wilderness,” Luke said. I know it’s the AT and I know it’s not as much solitude on the AT as you might find on other trails — but even hiking around in the bubble there are times I’m hiking by myself. And if you’re experiencing that and every time you come to a road crossing and there’s someone there handing out hot dogs — if you’re looking for that wilderness experience or a little bit more solitude, it does detract from that.”
Sometimes, hikers become overly comfortable on the trail — and more so, they can become overly dependent on trail magic. Luke attended an Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA) Gathering about the future of guidelines around trail magic, where several other attendees had stories of hikers becoming reliant on trail magic. “A lot of people had stories about raised expectations. One of the people said he encountered a hiker on trail that was upset because he had run out of food and he was expecting a hiker feed and it wasn’t there.”
This can become a potentially dangerous situation depending upon how far away the next resupply is. The AT’s abundance of trail magic and proximity to towns can create a false sense of security. In reality, the Appalachian Trail is still a wilderness backpacking trip — a really long one at that. Hikers should be prepared for anything they might encounter on the trail.
Hikers come from all different backgrounds. Some are religious, some are atheist, some don’t really feel inclined one way or another. Some are vegetarian, vegan, or pescatarian. Just like in the regular world, hikers come from different walks of life and should be treated with respect at a trail magic.
“I have three main rules,” Fresh Ground said. “You have to wash your hands before I serve you. Don’t come behind my table when I’m cooking. Keep the conversation civil and joyful — not divisive and opinionated.”
Hikers can sometimes feel like a captive audience at trail magic. The trail angel is providing free food and drinks, which is hard for any hungry hiker to pass up. However, there’s a difference between doing a kind deed and forcing a worldview on someone who is momentarily vulnerable and just wants a burger.
“A lot of church groups come out on trail and will offer to pray with you. If that’s your faith then that’s a wonderful thing — but it’s not for everyone,” Luke said. “And again, it’s just a kind of pressure that I think when most people come out to hike in the wilderness, they just aren’t expecting.”
On trail, trail angels at hiker feeds prayed over me and my friends several times. This often made me uncomfortable because I’m not religious. I was always unsure of what to do. I didn’t want to offend them because I was grateful for the food they gave me, but I also didn’t feel comfortable being prayed over when it’s not a personal belief I have.
To avoid putting hikers in this awkward situation, it’s best to leave religion and politics out of trail magic. Additionally, it’s thoughtful to try and have options for dietary restrictions.
“People do trail magic based on what they want to give out. You might have vegetarians or vegans come up, or gluten free. If you don’t have an option for them, they might feel kind of left out. They always are thankful that I have something for them,” Fresh Ground said.
It’s tricky to find a balance between helping hikers and preserving the trail when doing trail magic. Make sure you research the area you’re going to before heading out. Different sections of trail have different regulations for doing trail magic. For example, in Tennessee, it’s not legal to hand out beer, whereas other states might be more lenient.
Again, it’s always best to set up at a paved trailhead and pack out all the trash after you’re done.
“It’s the responsibility of the person doing the trail magic to do the research,” Fresh Ground said. “I don’t think we need to put more work on the forest service or the state parks or the ridge runners. I think they’re doing all they can. If you want to do trail magic — reach out, talk to some people that have done it in that area and let them explain their rules and regulations for doing it, what’s the best thing to do — it depends on what time of year too. In the hot summer, hikers don’t want hot food, they want something quick and easy. Fruit, or something cold to drink.”
In addition, if there’s other people doing trail magic at the same location you are, there’s no reason to compete. You both want to do something kind for hikers. Why not bond over that and continue to provide both your services to hikers? There’s bound to be a service that one of you offers that the other does not, and vice versa.
Fresh Ground had a final piece of advice: “Try not to get close to hostels. Established hostels on the trail — they don’t make a lot of money anyway. So why not help them out and don’t make it harder for them. Try to give the hostels a little wiggle room.”
The AT creates an incredible and kind community centered around a common love of nature and the footpath that connects us all. It’s best to keep this sense of camaraderie in mind when providing services to hikers.
Other Ways to Show Trail Appreciation
In the words of Miss Janet, “We can’t stop people from being kind. We rely on it on the trail. We rely on kindness from each other, from individuals we meet along the way. Trail magic could be a feed, someone doing trail magic for you or an unexpected ride — it’s part of the nature of long distance hiking that these magical things happen.”
If you feel inclined to participate in trail magic, there are several guidelines on the ATC website about best practices. However, there are other ways to show your support for the long-distance hiking community that don’t involve feeding hikers.
Volunteering with a trail maintenance crew is a great way to directly give back to the trail. When I was hiking, I felt extremely grateful towards any trail maintainers. A few thoughtfully placed rock stairs can make all the difference on a steep descent. You could offer rides to town or carry extra food in your pack to hand out while hiking.
You could even donate to the local food pantry in your area in honor of AT hikers. Hikers aren’t the only ones who are hungry.
This article isn’t meant to dissuade you from doing trail magic, but to suggest more sustainable ways to. help hikers. If we want trail magic to continue in the future, we have to make sure we’re doing it in a way that lets all hikers experience the magic of the AT — today and decades into the future.
Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann. Photo via Abby Evans.
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