A look at the concept known as trail magic and the controversy around it.
Trail Magic is the term used to describe the wonderful, unexpected things that happen to thru-hikers during their hike. – The Thru-Hiker’s Hand Book, 1998 edition.
Back in the dark ages of thru-hiking (when dinosaurs roamed the earth while wearing Limmer hiking boots and almost setting the forest on fire with a Whisperlite), the concept of trail magic was a simple affair: A cold coke or beer from a stranger at an overlook. Perhaps an occasional unannounced cookout by a trailhead that perhaps a dozen hikers may have stumbled upon. Or the offer of a bed and a shower from some (soon-to-be former) strangers who enjoyed the story of your hike while you all camped together at a lean-to in New England.
Over the years, the concept of trail magic has differed, become more elaborate, and has changed the trail experience.
These thoughts are not an article about how trail magic has “ruined” the trail experience. It may have changed the experience. But ruin it? Well, that’s a presumptuous statement in my opinion. A lonely, underpopulated trail is one person’s delight but another hiker’s agony.
Rather, it is a look at the trail magic phenomenon itself. What it was, what it has become, and, being hikers, the controversy.
What is trail magic?
The older definition quoted at the beginning of this article is perhaps the best and most basic definition of the trail magic. Unexpected surprises.
But trail magic has changed in the definition. It now encompasses large hiker feeds announced weeks in advance. Elaborate affairs that would not look out-of-place at an organized race.
The prevalence of these organized hiker feeds has become such a common event on the Appalachian Trail, that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has written guidelines and basically asked people to keep the events off the trail itself.
The old definition has been supplanted by the newer concept of organized hiker aid stations in my opinion. Trail magic sounds perhaps a bit more folksy. But if you have participated in a longer foot race, the similarity between a runner’s aid station and a hiker’s aid station is rather remarkable.
The Pacific Crest Trail has started to see these newer hiker aid stations spring up as well. Water caches, though existing in the past, have become more common, elaborate and expected.
Though hikers and trail organizations have warned against counting on volunteer placed water caches, based on recent stories, hiker have frantically called people essentially begging for water.
Again, more as if designated aid stations are expected rather than an unexpected and welcome surprise. The hiker aid stations have become a de facto part of the trail experience. A Leadville 100 trail runner has come to expect, and plan for, an aid station at Hope Pass. In the same way, many PCT hikers have come to expect, and prepare for, aid stations at certain parts of the trail.
A hiker aid station that was an occasional occurrence was an incredible delight. Now it is common enough where there these sites are, again, actively planned for and counted on as part of a hiker’s experience.
Who are these kind people who give out trail magic and set up hiker aid stations?
“Trail Angels” is another definition that has evolved over the years. In the recent past, it was a name bestowed by hikers on a kind soul who gave a cold soda out of their cooler to a random hiker or perhaps hosted the impromptu BBQ for a few hikers.
Now the definition has taken on a life of its own. People are now calling themselves trail angels and mostly making supporting hiker aid stations their hobby.
They spend much time, and money, stocking sodas, water and other creature comforts for hikers.
Pretty amazing. So amazing, it has often become a focal point of many recent accounts of hiking the long trails.
What has happened, though, that a minority of hikers have abused the generosity of the angels and have caused the trail angels to become disgruntled. Hikers calling the angels up essentially demanding water, or leaving trash behind and more.
On the other hand, perhaps it is not surprising that if there is essentially a hiker aid station on the trail, that some hikers treat it similar to a runner’s aid station? Where it is an expected resource and volunteers re-stock and clean it up? Just to emphasize, I am not saying that is a correct view point by any means. But it is the *perception* because of the similarities.
I also think these increasingly popular hiker aid stations have become more prevalent because it allows people who may not have the time or physical ability to hike a long trail to be part of this admittedly interesting community.
So what is the big deal about these hiker aid stations? They do not harm anything.
That’s a sticky widget.
The aid stations do change the trail experience. From something that feels wild and remote to something more akin to a foot race regarding the amenities and support services. Notice I did not say ruin. Some people may enjoy the hiker aid stations. I know I enjoyed the occasional water cache or cooler of sodas when I came upon them. 🙂 On the other hand, they were a bit less prevalent and organized vs. now. So it goes…
But what is undeniable is that when left unattended, esp in the backcountry, problems can arise. Empty bottles can (and have!) blow away, trash can be left behind, and critters can make a mess. Leaving anything unattended is asking for trouble in the long run.
I guess it comes down to a matter of what kind of trail experience is wanted. A cultural and social experience that goes through the woods? Or a wild experience?
Neither one is bad. But prevalent hiker aid stations do make the trail experience lean one way vs. the other.
Why the sudden upswing in hiker aid stations and the controversy?
With more books about thru-hiking, social media becoming more prevalent and with the easier sharing of information, there is a snowball effect.
- People read about the cool experience
- People want to hike the trail OR participate in this cool experience somehow
- People post about the experience on their journals or Facebook page
- People share the above and repeat from step one
And those surprise cook outs from the dark ages of 2009? 😉 Well, when it can be shared in real-time with hiker buddies on social media sites, it is no longer as much of a surprise. A small, intimate cook-out can quickly grow to 40 hikers on something such as the Appalachian Trail. It has happened.
And with more people on the long trails, comes a larger amount of individuals who are not good stewards. Trash can be left behind. Some hikers can be entitled and demanding. And just as positive experiences can be shared easily, so can negative experiences, too. So more controversy is generated.
So what can be done?
The horse has left the barn; the train has left the station, the ship has sailed. And whatever other clichés can be used…
This very organized trail magic, which I obviously think should be called aid stations, is here to stay on the longer trails.
But a few things I may humbly suggest:
- I want to help out! I loved my experience on the trail and/or I want to participate in the trail experience. Some random handing of sodas out, in person, is very gratifying. And perhaps less disruptive of the trail experience overall vs. something much more permanent and organized. If you do want to do something a bit larger in scope, rather than give time and money to people on what amounts to their strenuous walking vacation, consider donating the time instead to a trail organization. All the trail orgs could always use volunteers. Stuffing envelopes, making calls, and doing trail work, of course, are among the many ways time can be donated. Being able to work on a trail is very gratifying. On trail projects I’ve done, I’ve often received beer! 🙂 Plus I was able to work in a beautiful place and give back to something I love. Donations are always appreciated, too.
- If you do these organized aid stations, try to keep the hiker feeds, water caches, coolers, etc. at road crossings rather than in the backcountry. Those who wish to not partake in the hiker aid stations can easily avoid them and perhaps have more of a backcountry experience. The hikers who do want these services can make use of them. And the backcountry is left in better shape. Win for everyone. And, really, as mentioned before, do not leave them unattended.
- On the other hand, hikers should not count on them being available. It is gravy. The aid station may look like something out of a planned race, but they are not. Volunteers stock them on their own time with their own resources. Plan on carrying water for thirty miles or resupplying for a longer stretch. A person hiking a long trail should hopefully be in shape for the trail they are planning to hike. 🙂 If you come upon a water cache or a trail angel who may run you into town, awesome. If not, carry on. You are prepared.
- But all these aid stations are ruining my trail experience! I’ve always said take the trail for what it is and not what you want it to be. The Appalachian, Pacific Crest and (to a lesser extent) the Continental Divide trails are becoming more popular and perhaps more of a social experience. I would love to have hiked the Appalachian Trail circa 1948 like Earl Shaffer. But it is 2014, and that is not going to happen. Instead, hike another long trail, or hike off-season, or (try to) move on when encountering the aid stations.
Finally, let’s not forget what is the REAL trail magic…the trail itself!
But the real trail magic (to me anyway) is the sheer joy of being on the trail itself. The magic of the trail is being in the mountains for a day, weeks or even months on end, seeing the natural world one step at a time, smelling the pine duff on a sunny day, being lulled to sleep by the sound of a rushing brook. And so on.
That’s trail magic.