I recently had this piece published on the excellent long-distance hiking site The Trek (thetrek.co — that’s .co, no “m”!)
It’s no mystery why hikers in the midst of a grueling long-distance journey love “trail magic.”
Whether you’re having a great day or feeling ground down, hot, cold, tired or sore, an unexpected treat or random act of kindness by a stranger— food, a ride to town, some sage advice, a swept shelter, a clean privy, just about anything — can provide an instant jolt of joy and gratitude.
But here’s a little secret: The people who provide all that generosity and serendipity will tell you that they get just as much out of it as hikers, maybe even more. Here is just a sampling of the rewards “trail angels” reap from their good deeds:
- The warm-fuzzy feeling of bringing joy to tired pilgrims, aka the “helper’s high” (which has even been demonstrated by science)
- Soaking up hiker vibes and stories (and politely ignoring the funk), especially for those who cannot undertake a long hike of their own
- The knowledge that they are “paying it forward” and “being the change” when they tidy up a privy, pick up micro-trash, or toss branches off the trail
So, everyone loves magic, right? Well, not quite. In recent years, this venerable tradition on long trails has come under fire from critics who say it’s ruining the experience and even harming the trail, especially on the A.T. There are some legitimate concerns, to be sure, but I think the problem has been overblown. You can do magic — you just have to do it right.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, tasked with preserving and managing the trail, has increasingly voiced concerns that more, and ever-more elaborate, trail magic may diminish the trail experience, negatively affect natural and human resources, and even generate a sense of entitlement among some hikers.
Some critics also have claimed, without evidence, that trail magic is responsible for luring more and more — and too often, more unprepared — hikers to the trail. Others accuse trail angels of scrubbing the AT experience of its challenge and making the trail “too easy.”
“Sometimes these acts of generosity (no matter how well-intentioned) may result in additional work for volunteers or may compromise the natural environment,” the ATC declares on its website. “Hikers who only have a few hours or days to enjoy the sanctuary of the A.T. may not appreciate distractions from the natural environment.”
There’s no question that, done improperly, some kinds of trail magic can cause problems.
Much as it pains me to say it, all those untended coolers tucked along the trail can cause problems. Inevitably, they attract animals, from stinging hornets to raccoons and bears, which may end up dead because they’ve become habituated to humans and human food. And distressingly often, trash ends up strewn along the trail.
Most trail denizens can recall the sublime experience of happening upon a “hiker feed,” in which some enterprising angel has laid out a sumptuous spread of food and drink at a road crossing. However, done without proper planning, such gatherings can lead to everything from damage to plant life to litter to an outbreak of viral illness.
Still, as a hiker who has both given and received trail magic, on the Appalachian and Colorado trails, I find the current wave of anti-magic sentiment a tad … overwrought.
In my thousands of miles of long-distance hiking, I have never met a hiker who seriously altered her plans to take advantage of rumored magic; magic is not as ubiquitous as some critics claim — on the A.T., I experienced no magic at all for more than 700 miles between Grayson Highlands, Virginia, and New York; I never expected magic — it was always serendipitous — but I always appreciated it; and the trail was plenty hard, and plenty wild, with or without magic.
“It’s frowned upon, a lot of times, if someone thinks that it’s altering your wilderness experience,” says the reigning AT trail angel, Miss Janet, who travels in her van from Georgia to Maine each year, assisting hikers in countless ways. “But shelters, privies and road crossings are all things that alter your wilderness experience. Someone standing there offering you a soda, I don’t see how that is altering your experience … unless you are the person who needed that soda really bad that day.”
I’ve also played angel on a few occasions, helping hikers at Partnership Shelter in Virginia and Kenosha Pass and Durango in Colorado. I’ve given rides to hikers, provided a charging station, snacks and drinks, collected trash, swept shelter floors, and spruced up a privy. And I’ve spent even more time doing less obvious forms of magic, including volunteering with the ATC’s Konnarock trail crew, “knocking down” the poop pile at a privy in New Hampshire (hey, it needed doing, and wasn’t nearly revolting as I imagined it would be), answering hiker questions from my perch in the “synthetic world,” dispensing and applying yards of Leukotape to pitiful hiker feet (someone tried to give me the trail names “Doc” and “Nursie”), cleaning the bunkhouse or bathroom at hostels, and more.
You get the idea — there are countless ways to do magic. You just have to do it right.
And honestly, rather than scolding angels, conjuring up problems that strain credulity, and placing too much blame on long-distance hikers — who, for example, make up far less than 1 percent of all AT users each year — those who want to protect the trail might do better to celebrate and promote magic in its nearly limitless incarnations while seeking to cultivate a spirit of giving and gratitude on the trail.
With that in mind, here are a few positive suggestions:
- Expand your definition of magic beyond chow and rides.
- Planning a hiker feed? Cool, but please do your best to follow Leave No Trace principles. The ATC offers guidelines for a successful, low-impact event.
- Like most hikers, I always appreciated coming across a cache of goodies in the woods. But to protect the trail and wildlife, please don’t leave unattended coolers full of food or drinks. Feel free with your generosity, but save it until you have time to enjoy your reward — hanging out with the people you are helping.
- Be willing to do whatever needs to be done, whenever and wherever you see it, even while hiking. Spontaneously clean up a shelter, haul out someone else’s trash, report a problem, offer what you have to someone in need — anything that helps hikers, volunteers, and the trail itself.
- Consider volunteering your time with an ATC trail crew or one of the 31 affiliated maintaining clubs that keep the trail open and healthy for millions of annual users, or the equivalent organization on your favorite trail (or a similar organization on another trail). I suspect most hikers would be astonished by the amount of work it takes to build, say, a series of rock steps, or a bog bridge.
- Donate to organizations that keep your favorite trail in good condition, such as the ATC and its local clubs, Pacific Crest Trail Association, and Colorado Trail Foundation.
- Be creative. Jim Tabor famously has been leaving hand-carved spoons along the trail in Pennsylvania for hikers since 2011; I ran into guy who had hoisted an iced-tea dispenser on his back, “Ghostbusters”-style, and served hikers on a steamy Pennsylvania ridgetop; on dry stretches of trail, nothing is more welcome than finding clean water left by an angel.
- No matter how you decide to give back, always keep the health of the trail in mind.