The Trouble With Trail Magic

“A good traveler leaves no footprints”- Lao Tzu

Random acts of human kindness breathe life into the Appalachian Trail, marking the long distance hiking experience with an amount generosity that’s impossible to match. The subsequent moments are a vital part of what makes the hiking community unlike any other. But what happens when an innocent bystander discovers insulin syringes hidden under the flapper of a toilet lid in a local hostel? When a cooler is left unattended? Or when stampedes of hikers rush to a specific location, having heard about an upcoming hiker feed? Wrappers flap in the wind, an echo of good intentions that yield terrible results. 

A glimpse into the definition of “trail magic” is vital in putting altruism into perspective.The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Tenny Webster (SOBO 1996), quotes: “, while usually well-intended, can be troublesome for the entire Trail environment—including ecology (fauna, flora), Trail hiker culture, the treadway, and other Trail structures”. Although generosity and altruism in themselves are irreplaceable pieces of the Trail’s personality, some approaches to trail magic contribute (often unknowingly), to devastating results on the surrounding environment. Is what we’re seeing truly “magic” if it yields negative results?

It’s only when extensions of the trail magic experience go awry that problems begin to arise. In Webster’s own words, “I would say that the ‘magic’ of trail magic is that the entire experience is serendipitous for both the giver and receiver, and altruism, naturally, would apply to the giver (though application of altruism to the receiver makes for a fun thought experiment).  If this argument jibes with you, it necessarily places many instances of alleged ‘trail magic’ we see on the Trail squarely outside the umbrella of what trail magic actually is”.  Magic, the key ingredient, disintegrates when the altruistic balance between the “giver” and “receiver” breaks, leading to the eradication of Leave No Trace principles. True trail magic, then, largely relies on mindfulness of the end result.

Trail magic is often the extra sugar rush that keeps hikers motivated to move forward. It’s a gift that evokes an unparalleled openness in an incredibly unique community. The magic, in itself, is a glorious phenomena. The excitement that bubbles in your gut as you see a cooler in the distance is a distinct part of the long-distance hiking transformation. Saturated in stranger’s generosity and open-heartedness, one cannot help but reciprocate. The domino effect ripples into the cosmos, rooted in the overwhelming amount of magic that can be found on trail. But cognizance of the entire “magical” experience is vital in protecting the future of long-distance hiking.

Growing Troubles

Hiker Feeds

Trail Magic on Appalachian Trail

Photo: Patrick Murray

Although calorically deficient hikers rejoice at the prospect of free food, broadcasting hiker feeds frequently causes massive gatherings. “Hosts for hiker feeds and the people dropping off coolers of sandwiches target the big crowds.  This works very much against the ATC’s efforts to spread out hikers by creating a mechanism that aggregate them,” says Webster. When specific dates and times are established to encourage feasts at trail heads, thick concentrations of hikers arrive, dismembering the ATC’s efforts to spread out foot traffic and lessen the impacts on the environment. Even if the trail magician does a phenomenal job of eliminating evidence of trail magic, the number of hikers that congregate in a specific area still ultimately damages the environment. 

Unattended Food

Sometimes its worse. Photo:

Sometimes its worse. Photo:

Leaving unattended food caches on trail ultimately, at best, causes mini landfills. Trash is redistributed into the surrounding areas, intoxicating affected habitats as it acclimates wildlife to human food.

“The real damage–the damage that hikers feel days, weeks, months and possibly years later–are the bad encounters with bears as a result of them becoming habituated to human food.” Webster adds, “The aphorism, ‘A fed bear is a dead bear’ still rings true today if the problem bears get aggressive and persistent enough.  In any case, altering wildlife behavior is a pretty terrible outcome”. Not only do unattended food caches become aesthetically unpleasing but they also become dangerous as they adjust wildlife conduct. Bears become a little bit too courageous, having tasted the generosity of unattended stashes. Trail “magic”, then, potentially becomes just as treacherous as it is helpful. 

Is Trail Magic All Bad?

As a former thru-hiker, I feel inclined to vouch for “magic”. Many of my most incredulous moments on trail were marked by human kindness, which in itself is essentially an artery in the trail network. But the need to preserve the trail’s beauty and sustainability of the thru-hiking culture demands mindfulness from the trail’s “angels”.

Since widening my personal lens and beginning to see the hiking experience from a place of longevity, I have begun to pack out other people’s trash. I have, no doubt, contributed to the disarray on trail in the past. It is then my obligation to ensure that I clean up after myself, even if I do so indirectly. Consider trail maintenance or educating the surrounding communities as similar approaches to keeping these ecosystems healthy. 

There are certainly veins of trail magic that rarely present negative consequences (e.g. when the Hanover, NH community welcomes strangers into their home). And even the veins that typically present undesirable ripples have the potential to remedy themselves. The ominous message is not that all trail magic should be eliminated but rather that the effects should be carefully considered before the magic occurs in order to maintain its integrity. 

The cause of many of the unwieldy consequences of trail “magic” is clear, but clearer yet is the solution. The trail is a living, breathing entity, forever shaped by our decisions while we’re a part of it. Conservation lies largely in our ability to see past the initial excitement of the giving and receiving of trail magic into the trail that we’re creating. Until the negative by-products of good-intentions are eradicated, the future of trail magic will be targeted. Cognizance of the human footprint is vital to the conservation of the Appalachian Trail. While,”trail magic and conservation are not opposite ends of a spectrum,” as Tenny Webster puts it, trail magic requires careful consideration of the implications associated with human life in the wilderness.

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Comments 16

  • Matt Perrenod (Homeless '15) : Jun 27th

    Thanks for this. I believe that the increasing incidence of hiker feeds and unattended food caches has an additional effect in changing how hikers approach their journeys. The rush to an advertised feed is but one way this occurs. There is also an increased anticipation, and reliance on these assists (for instance the now-reliable water cache at Horse Gap in GA), which cuts against the strengthening self-reliance that long-distance hiking offers. Having so many instances of outside intervention on your hike can’t help but alter it. And in my experience, the phenomenon is largely fueled by AT thru alums seeking to reconnect with an experience that they’really now altering for those coming behind.

    I hope that those organizing this “magic” will become more thoughtful about their collective impact, and seek other ways to remain part of the trail community, such as joining trail clubs, taking part in maintenance and trail construction, and helping to preserve the experience they value for others.

  • linda wright : Jul 1st

    as past and present AT and ADT hikers, we enjoy leaving trail magic. the boxes and coolers are left only for that day and policed at least once during the time period. i always leave a garbage bag and can/bottle collection box. i would never leave it where i know there is bear activity and never announce that it is there! here near the NY line we are now also including jugs of water as the area is experiencing a slight drought and some water sources are dry. if i can be there, it always fun to talk with those hiking and hear they trail stories and of course tell mine!

  • william herrick : Jul 1st

    We are slowly destroying what we came for on so many levels and the experience has dissolved into a vacant shadow of what it once was and is now forever lost. A Back Packer of the late sixties perspective is impossible for some to understand today.

  • Hummingbird Ellie : Jul 1st

    Praise to those who care enough to be a Trail Angel! Your kindness is appreciated by many more than those who reject it!

  • Cosmo : Jul 1st

    Yes, “generosity and altruism in themselves are irreplaceable pieces of the Trail’s personality”. But when they become the expected norm or “standardized” in some way, both those values are diminished. I’d argue that unexpected spontaneity has the most value to hikers. It certainly has been a part of some of my most treasured trail memories.

    The Trail itself really suffers from increased bubbles of hikers that can result from large feeds. Campsites can get really hammered. Instead of accommodating a steady, moderately high load of hikers in the normal flow of a season, when an event clumps a lot of hikers together, they often tend to land at the same site “downstream” of the location–meaning that site needs to accommodate a greater number of campers at those peak moments, increasing impacts both physically and socially.

    • Jamie : Dec 10th

      I think you make a good point. I can definitely see how announcing a hiker feed could cause over crowding of hostels and camps. Just by keeping it quiet and letting the hikers that are being fed to know not to post anything about it would be helpful.

  • Galia Goodman aka Quill : Jul 1st

    My best trail magic memories as a section hiker (yes, we benefit from this phenomenon too) have been the totally unexpected moments that no one could ever foresee. I tend to avoid the “hiker feeds” and other mob scenes, and I really treasure the other, less expected gifts that I occasionally receive with total gratitude and wonder. On my last section hike, I met a guy who was handing out donuts, fresh fruit, and when I thanked him, saying that I really appreciated the fresh fruit, not having had any for about a week. I told him it would be great with lunch, since I was still a few days short of resupply. At that, he opened another bag and handed me an Italian Sub sandwich. That kind of generosity blows me away.

  • Gentleman : Jul 1st

    WOW!!! Are you going for a literary award? Say that in simple English please.
    Other than that . . . . there will always be pros and cons to trail magic. It is indeed sad when it becomes a negative but life affirming when it’s a positive!!

  • Putt-Putt : Jul 1st

    We never altered our plans to attend a “hiker feed.” We were glad when we encountered one no matter how small or large (normally small). Not sure about this year but we had primarily positive experiences even with unattended coolers or boxes. Usually there was some sort of garbage bag for the unattended items. Always appreciated was water for those dry areas of the trail or simply a means to correctly dispose of garbage. Encountering trail magic or whatever variety was an appreciated and important part of the AT experience for us.

  • Cue : Jul 1st

    I section hike mostly in Rocksylvania. I’ve distributed some magic a few times in the form of ice cold water and ramen. No one took me up on the ramen, but they really, really appreciated the ice water. It doesn’t take much to make us hikers happy. I think that magic in all forms is good. Those of us who receive magic are responsible to respond appropriately.

  • Arnold Guzman : Jul 1st

    I understand the author’s desire to return to the bygone days of ‘serendipity’ in trail magic. However, with the rapid increase of the trail’ s popularity, due in part to the proliferation of movies, documentaries, and books, comes a rise in the need for an increased response from us trail angels. I am the Backcountry Trail Angel, hiking in fresh food and ice cold drink deep into the backcountry shelters, bringing cheer and goodwill to all I encounter (while simultaneously packing out their trash), and I plan to intensify my efforts, as I have experienced nothing but good from my visitations thus far. Gone are the 1960’s, where the A.T. was a more secluded, quiet place of reflection, where tiny groups of soujorners passed in metered procession. This is 2016; hikers are getting signal in many areas, thereby staying connected to social media, and to each other, while many others are listening to loud concerts via earbuds. Larger numbers of hikers are traveling in larger and larger ‘bubbles’. I believe ‘Trail Angeling’ must adapt if it is to serve the needs of the evolving hiker culture and rising population.

  • Hyway : Jul 2nd

    Arnold Guzman has it right. Society today has no resemblance to the society of earlier generations. Very few people hike the AT for solitude and introspection anymore. For many the trail is just an extension of social media. Its a 2000 mile long party filled with people who would get lost within a day if they were on any other trail other than the well marked, well documented, well traveled Appalachian trail. The prevalence of “fund me” sites, along with the fast growth of hiker feeds, are allowing people to start and continue hikes that were started as impromptu decisions to join the party without adequate preparations. Its becoming easier and easier for people to “trail bum” there way through it.

    Right or wrong its a trend that isn’t going to go back to what it was no matter how many stories are written about the good old days. The ATC needs to come to grips with the true future of the trail and find new solutions to the new problems looming ahead.

    • Cloudwalker : Jul 16th

      Hyway, what do you suggest the ATC do? Isn’t there value in continuing to promote a traditional, back-to-nature experience? Seems to me this is the real value of the A.T., and we should push back against the loss of this in the face of creeping modernity.

  • retired Naugatuck firefighter, Tim Andrew : Jul 2nd

    As far as food left for hikers…wooden boxes, w/ some type of a pin going thru a loop so bears and other animals can’t get to it would work… …just leaving a cooler, or styraphone to be trashed by an animal won’t work… ….as afar as needles.. hyway is right…its a new generation doin strong drugs… what ever happen to: apple ripple, boones farm? lol

  • Alan : Dec 26th

    I’m thankful that I rarely meet so many critical thinking people in my travels. Some will complain or point out others mistakes wherever they go. Enjoy the more remote areas and ease up on the bitching. I realize critical thinkers are often upset whenever anyone disagrees with their selected passion so fuss to yourself about how smart you are and how dumb most others are, but find a little time to enjoy nature and once in a while – other people.


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