Dear Trail Angels, Trail-Magic Providers, and Anyone Aspiring to Give Generously to Hikers,
In the past seven years, since I first set foot on the Appalachian Trail, I’ve come to think of trail magic as an exciting and heartwarming experience. I love trail magic, and what hiker doesn’t? Finding someone with a cooler of soda and snacks at a remote forest road, being invited into a stranger’s home for a hiker feed with joyful company, coming upon a roadside cookout with homemade chili and burgers– strangers helping strangers. What better affirmation of the goodness of humanity can there be?
But I want to give you a few examples of trail magic that I’ve seen in the last few years that I hope will give you pause.
Exhibit 1– An Appalachian Trail shelter in Maine, ten miles by trail to the nearest road, but on the shore of a remote lake. I came upon the shelter to find half a dozen plastic grocery bags hanging inside, filled with packages of hot dogs, hot dog buns, bottles of ketchup and mustard and relish, six-packs of soda cans, and various Hostess cakes. A couple from Boston had come up for the weekend, driven on remote logging roads to the other side of the lake, and paddled across to deliver a feast to hikers. Then left for home. By the time I arrived, a few of the soda cans had been emptied, crushed, then put back in the grocery bags. The hot dogs, buns, and condiments were untouched.
Exhibit 2– A road crossing on the Appalachian Trail, one hundred yards from a Forest Service trailhead. Just into the woods was a large cooler sitting on the ground, full of Hostess cakes, candy, and other treats. Next to the cooler were two 24-packs of beer and soda cans (cardboard cases, sodden with rain), and a shredded trash bag with crushed cans and empty wrappers strewn about. A note on the cooler said it had been left for through-hikers by someone who had hiked the AT last year. There was a bear-proof trash can in the parking lot about 100 yards away. Judging by the shredded trash bag, nobody had noticed it.
Exhibit 3– Another road crossing on the Appalachian Trail, this one more remote. Sitting on the ground in the middle of the trail are two boxes– one of Hostess cakes, one of granola bars. No note, nobody nearby.
Exhibits 4 through 87– Any given road crossing on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trail. Sitting on the ground just off the road is a small, battered, styrofoam cooler with a note saying “enjoy, thru-hikers! Courtesy of [local business or trail angel]”. There is no indication of how long the cooler has been there, but there is no food or drink in it– only empty cans and wrappers from what had been inside.
Do you notice something about these examples? Here is my message to current and potential trail angels:
Trail Angels: PLEASE DO NOT EVER LEAVE UNATTENDED FOOD ON THE TRAIL!
No matter how close to a road, no matter how well protected, no matter how soon you plan to come by and pick up the trash– you’re still leaving trash on the trail, attracting animals, and leaving a mess that someone else will likely feel the need to clean up.
I’m not saying you should give up on the idea of helping hikers. But if you don’t have time to stay with the food that you plan to give to hikers, find another way to give back to the trail. Giving food to through-hikers in person is a far more rewarding experience for you and for the hikers than leaving it in hopes that more people will find it. If you don’t have the time to sit and wait with the food, try something else:
- Offer rides into town.
- Pack trash out from a campsite.
- Volunteer to do trail maintenance.
- Listen to hikers’ stories.
- Share local knowledge.
And if what you really want to do is feed hikers, just take all of the leftovers and trash with you when you leave.
Thanks for listening, and please spread the word.