How to Be a Better Trail Angel

So you’re interested in being a trail angel?  Good for you! Maybe you’ve hiked a long trail and want to give back to the hiking community.  Maybe you’ve just realized you live close to a long trail and are inspired by the people hiking it and want to give them support.  Maybe you’re an avid hiker, or maybe you’ve never set foot on a trail. Trail angels come in many forms, and they are an integral part of the thru-hiking community.  Nothing can lift a tired hiker’s spirits like rounding a corner to discover a kind soul greeting them with a soda or some fresh food.

So what makes the best trail magic?  It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive.  Keep the following tips in mind and you’ll stand out to hikers as having the best magic while benefiting the trail and helping increase sustainability. 

Be Present

Hikers want to meet you, and you’ll find that meeting and chatting with the hikers you are helping can be very fulfilling. Trail angel Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman says, “I admire thru-hikers, and when I encounter them on trail, it’s like I’m meeting the rock stars of the hiking community and I feel like a groupie, simply glad to be in the presence of greatness, helping them in any way I can.” But it’s a two-way street. Meeting trail angels can be just as inspiring for us hikers. The generosity of strangers can be mind-blowing, and I find it humbling to meet people who spend their own time and money to come out and help people they’ve never even met.  

Roadside trail magic that doubled as a meetup for geocaching enthusiasts. Hikers and geocachers got to learn a lot about each other, plus we got breakfast sandwiches, doughnuts, and soda!

Fresh Food

On the trail, we eat a lot of crap.  Lightweight, non-perishable foods fuel us for the journey, but we crave real food. After being on trail for a few months, we start fantasizing about food the minute we leave town. That’s why real food makes the best magic. I’ve eaten enough Clif Bars to last several lifetimes. I’d never complain about free food, and I’ve gladly taken free Clif Bars to give me a few extra calories before my next resupply, but nothing compares to vegetables, fruit, or a hot meal.

Some of my most memorable trail magic experiences are memorable because of the food:

  • A man brought out fresh salad, sliced watermelon, and homemade cake.
  • A couple brought a cooler full of cold homemade fried chicken, vegetables, and juice.
  • A group brought out a grill and cooked hot dogs all day long, with all the fixin’s.
  • A large group set up a hiker feed with huge pots of soup and hot beverages.
  • If you want to be extra thoughtful, include something for the vegans, too; there’s a few of them out there.  

This trail angel and her dog camped out for the weekend, offering sandwiches, salads and sodas.

Beverages

It might sound strange, but we drink water all day long, often from lovely springs.  It tastes a lot better than tap/bottled water. And we know how much we need to carry between sources, so you can leave the water at home, unless you are doing trail magic in the desert.  In that case, bringing along a five-gallon jug of water so we can refill our bottles can be really nice. But we really love sodas! Or juice! Or coffee! Just remember, we want calories. We need calories. Diet soda isn’t really our thing.

Hot cocoa, hot coffee, brownies, and chairs. A great place to stop for a rest and chat.

What about alcohol? Well, that topic can be a bit more controversial. Some people are opposed to this form of trail magic, but most hikers appreciate a cold beer if it’s offered.  Use discretion and don’t encourage drunken behavior and I doubt anyone will have an issue with it. We met a trail angel this year in Colorado who hiked out along the trail with a 12-pack of beer in his pack. When he met a hiker, we would stop to offer them a beer, and also offered to pack out the empty if they felt like drinking it right then and there.  It was awesome.

Trash

One thing really simple, free, and awesome you can do to help thru-hikers is to offer to take their trash out. Even if you aren’t setting up “official” trail magic, it’s something you can do if you are out on a hike and encounter some hikers.  It might not seem like a lot, but getting rid of extra weight and clearing up some space in our packs is always a treat. If you are setting up some more elaborate trail magic, make sure to bring a trash bag so hikers can dump their trash there as well.  And as a trail angel, be sure to always follow the golden rule of hiking: Pack it in, pack it out. Whatever magic you bring to the trail, you are responsible for making sure it’s cleaned up properly.

Trail angel Coppertone drives his RV to various road crossings along the PCT in Southern California, offering up root beer floats. His rig is a welcome sight on a hot day.

Other Ideas/Extras

Sometimes it’s those little “extras” that make trail magic that much better.  A few examples:

  • Chairs.  Believe it or not, a chair with a back is a real luxury to someone who’s been sitting on the ground every day. Bringing a few camp chairs along makes your trail magic a little more inviting.
  • Shade canopies.  For those areas that are particularly hot or particularly rainy, a shade canopy provides a welcome spot for hikers to rest and enjoy your magic.
  • Power packs for charging.  Thru-hiking might be a wilderness experience, but most of us use our phones to navigate and to listen to music or podcasts.  If you have a few power banks that allow hikers to get a little more juice into their electronics, bring them along. We love charging.
  • Log book. Hikers like log books because it’s how we can see who is ahead of us or behind us.  Trail angels like them because it allows them to have a record of all the hikers they have helped.  Consider bringing along a notebook and asking hikers to sign in to your magic. Log books can also be helpful when people go missing—it can provide confirmation that a missing hiker was seen at a specific date and location.  

A hiker feed in North Carolina. This group spent an entire weekend camping and cooking food for hikers passing through. Their fire pit and hot fire was a real treat on a very cold day.

Rides

If you live near a long trail and want to help hikers, but don’t necessarily have the time, money, or desire to go to the woods and feed people, stick to the original trail magic: rides.  Hitching in and out of town is part of thru-hiking, so if you don’t mind having some smelly folks in your car, stop and offer us a ride to town. We’re happy to regale you with stories of our adventures along the way.  

Maintenance

If you’re a trail enthusiast looking for a cheap way to provide magic, get out and do some trail maintenance.  You can do it on your own, or volunteer with one of the local trail organizations. Maintenance is what keeps the trail alive, more than any other form of magic.  It’s not as sexy, but it’s definitely more important.

Online

Some trail angels get online to see how they can help.  Facebook trail groups are often frequented by angels.  On the PCT there is a specific group just for trail angels.  It provides a place for hikers to ask for what they need and connect with angels who want to help.  Typically, it’s a place where people will ask for rides or a place to stay, so if that’s your thing, get online and see what it’s all about.

Sodas and free haircuts!

What to Avoid

Despite coming from the best of intentions, there are some forms of trail magic that should be avoided for the sake of the trail and the community.

Unattended Magic

As a general rule, food and drinks should never be left in the backcountry unattended.  It attracts wildlife, which can put hikers in conflict with bears and other animals. It also attracts trash and often this trash gets strewn along the trail, which diminishes everyone’s hiking experience.  However, there are some cases in which unattended trail magic is done properly. Coolers, when placed near a road, properly secured and regularly maintained, can be a welcome form of magic. Never leave a foam or disposable cooler.  Properly secured means a hard-sided container that wildlife cannot tear apart or open. The most important thing to remember is regular maintenance, to avoid accumulation of trash. This is becoming a hotly debated topic, because the accumulation of trash on the trails is a growing issue.  

An example of unattended magic that has been properly secured and regularly maintained. The large bin was full of snacks, and the small bin was for trash. Both bins are latched closed and secured to the tree, and the trash is picked up on a regular basis.

Similarly, water caches are a welcome sight to hikers in the desert, and are usually not attended by a person.  However, never leave a water cache (or any magic) with the presumption or expectation that hikers or anyone else will pack out the trash.  Pack it in, pack it out. You are responsible for the items you bring into the backcountry. If you are leaving a cooler or a water cache, then you need to return regularly to clean up after yourself.  If you are interested in leaving water caches, contact the agency that manages the trail such as the PCTA, ATC, or CDTC and ask about best practices, and read this article from the PCTA for more information about caching water.  

A water cache in the New Mexico desert. The bottles are secured together so the empties don’t blow away, jugs are refilled regularly, the cooler offers fruit, and there is a log book for hikers to sign in.

Being Taken Advantage Of

I’d like to think every hiker out there is on their best behavior, but sadly it’s not always the case.  Sometimes hikers take advantage of people, and sometimes non-hikers will embed themselves within the hiking community and take advantage of people.  Both situations are rare, and most angels I have talked to assure me they’ve never felt taken advantage of.  Follow your gut instincts and you’ll be fine.

Giving Hikers Money 

This year some folks claiming to be hikers contacted a local trail angel to ask for money.  It’s likely these were not hikers at all (no one on trail had heard of them), looking to take advantage of the generosity of the community.  If a hiker truly runs out of money, then it’s time for them to go home. If you want to help, get them a bus ticket.

It’s worth noting here that a trail angel gave me and my trail family money once.  She gave us a ride into town and we asked her to drop us off at Starbucks. When we got there she gave us $20 and told us the coffee was on her. We tried to refuse and she insisted, so we all went inside and enjoyed our free coffee. So there are exceptions to the rules; just use common sense.  

Naysayers

Thru-hiking is growing in popularity every year.  There are more hikers, more trail angels, and more trail magic.  Some people don’t like it. They complain about the use of electronics.  They complain about the crowds. They complain about hikers who slackpack or take alternates.  They complain about trail magic. The complaining is especially loud in online spaces. Hikers and angels alike do best by ignoring these complainers.  There are plenty of trails that don’t have the crowds of the PCT and the AT, and they can go hike those if they want a solitary experience and no magic. The rest of us love trail magic and the angels that provide it, so on behalf of all hikers out there: Thank you!

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 6

  • Laurie Potteiger : Oct 25th

    How and why was trail magic was born on the Appalachian Trail?

    No doubt the reason is the culture of generosity that permeates the Appalachian Trail. The A.T. was conceived and built by volunteers, and that spirit of generosity has set the tone for what the social part of the A.T. experience is all about. Although we wouldn’t have the A.T. with government agencies and ATC, volunteers are the soul of the Trail. Benton MacKaye, the trail’s founder was first to say that.

    Volunteer work is soulful, and it has a glamorous side too (at least if you’re a hiker).

    Crushing rock with a sledgehammer, flying boulders through the woods on a high line, shaping a mountain’s surface with a pick mattock to create a new trailway—these are some of the things volunteers do on trail crews with names like SWEAT (Smokies Wilderness Elite A.T. Crew) and Rocky Top. And you get to camp at a secret spot in the woods for days on end with your tight trail crew family—something no one else legally can do.

    Day to day maintenance may not seem quite as thrilling on the surface, but it can incredibly rewarding. When you maintain your own section, you get to see it in all seasons. You get to know it intimately. And it’s exciting to clear trail and know that hundreds or even thousands of hikers are going to have a better experience. When you’re out there on “your” section, many people will thank you. And almost all thru-hikers will thank you with profound gratitude.

    Boundary work is another form of volunteering that is pretty awesome, almost unknown to many hikers. It’s sort of like stealth volunteering. You’re out “on the line,” usually just out of sight of the footpath–following the survey markers and those mysterious yellow paint blazes, helping protect the Trail from encroachments and those who are doing harm to the Appalachian Trail corridor. And it’s something you can do in the off-season, most often conducted when leaves are off the trees.

    And then there’s HardCore, where you can get a taste of what trail crew is all about, working with the legendary Bob Peoples for 2 days on Mt. Rogers after Trail Days in May, or with “Ole Man” and maybe even the legendary Lester Kenway in Millinocket for a day in late September, when the glorious leaves are starting to turn.

    Does the Appalachian Trail need more trail angels? Maybe. We could have a hot debate on that question.

    But there’s no debate the Appalachian Trail does need more volunteers. The number of trail angels has been increasing dramatically over the years, but the number of volunteers has remained flat or declining. Even though the number of hikers overall as well as the number of thru-hikers are increasing, Trail crews are not being filled, and trail clubs are aging because they are not seeing new members.

    Thru-hikers do sincerely want to “give back,” but the percentage that now do trail magic instead of volunteering after their hike seems to keep growing.

    How to be a better trail angel?

    Help the A.T. community channel all that passion for the Appalachian Trail and those who hike it into recruiting more volunteers. Those amazing trail clubs and trail crews make the magic of the A.T. experience possible. Learn how exciting it can be yourself, and then spread the word. Be a part of that magic.

    To learn how: http://www.appalachiantrail.org/volunteer

    Reply
  • Laurie Potteiger : Oct 25th

    Thanks for the gracious reply, Megan, and for sharing those additional links for other trails!!

    Reply
  • Camelback Santa (John Cressey) : Oct 26th

    Excellent article/Well done! Thank you!

    Reply
    • Megan McGowan : Oct 26th

      Camelback Santa?! As in Phoenix? If so, I’ve definitely gotten a candy cane from you at the summit on Christmas. Thanks!

      Reply
  • jred321 : Oct 26th

    Excellent write-up! One point about the diet soda – don’t completely leave it off the list. A few times a year I will load up a pack with ice, soda, Gatorade, and beer and head out on the trail for a day hike. Any hikers who have the thru look I’ll ask if they are thru hiking and offer them a cold refreshment. A few years ago I ran across someone who was diabetic who was thru hiking. Since most trail magic is loaded with sugar he assumed he would have to turn down the offer. But I had some diet sodas with me and he was thrilled. Especially if you’re setting up roadside, a few diet sodas on hand isn’t a bad idea

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Laurie Potteiger Cancel reply