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Trail Magic


What is Trail Magic?


The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) didn’t invent Trail magic, but for more than 90 years, we have managed and cared for the Trail where this concept was born. People’s interpretation of Trail magic varies widely, however Trail magic can include:

  • • Finding what you need most when you least expect it.
  • • Experiencing something rare, extraordinary, or inspiring in nature.
  • • Encountering unexpected acts of generosity, that restore one’s faith in humanity.

Trail magic ​was born and has flourished on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail within the context of the A.T. Experience—the policy that guides Trail managers to ​preserve the wild, scenic, and natural elements of the Appalachian Trail that allow for the unique feeling of being a part of the natural environment.

Acts of generosity in this wild and primitive setting of the Appalachian Trail--where basic amenities of civilization are intentionally absent--are often received in a heightened sense of wonder and gratitude by hikers. These acts of generosity are referred to as "trail magic."

Keep it Small and Leave ​No Trace.

We want to help provide context and guidance that encourages these  acts of generosity to be sustainable and positively impact all members of the A.T. community and environment.

Sometimes these acts of generosity (no matter how well-intentioned) may result in additional work for volunteers or may compromise the natural environment. 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.

Be aware of the potential impact of your actions. Keep it small and leave no trace.



 Acts of ​Generosity with ​Unintended ​Negative ​Consequences:

Hiker Feed

‘Hiker feeds’

‘Hiker feeds,’ food catering stations located at Trailheads and on the Trail, range in size from small barbeques to large parties with festival tents. These events cater to as many hikers as possible by locating a bubble of hikers to maximize the impact, which can be damaging to the Trail and alter the Trail experience.


  • Crowding. Hiker feeds, especially when advertised in advance, may congregate and merge hikers into an unsustainable ‘bubble’ that moves along the Trail creating new campsites, expanding existing sites and causing crowding. Large-group dynamics may create a party atmosphere with alcohol and drugs.
  • Health and Hygiene. The threat of spreading norovirus and food-borne illnesses is increased by such events which concentrate people in small areas without appropriate facilities
  • Increased Expectations of special treatment. An abundance of hiker feeds may increase some hikers’ expectations of being entitled to preferential treatment and giveaways.
  • Hikers may be made to feel like a captive audience—especially if feed facilitators promote their personal world-views.



  • Avoid areas with multiple feeds. Rather than targeting the peak of thru-hiker season, consider an alternate time or location.
  • Keep events small and choose developed locations off-Trail, such as state parks that the Trail runs through. Large gatherings in the backcountry can lead to trampling of plants, soil compaction, and disturbance of wildlife habitat.
  • Research and honor local restrictions and guidance. Check with the local land-managing agency to find out if permits may be required, and the local A.T.-maintaining club or ATC regional office to find out if there are any special recommendations or considerations.
  • Choose a location that does not deter hikers from supporting a local business.

Unattended Food

Unattended food and drink sometimes appears at a Trailhead or on the side of the Trail. Whether it’s ​candy, fresh fruit, baked goods, or other treats, this gesture does a disservice to the Trail environment.


  • Wildlife may find and eat unattended food and trash, leading to “food attraction” behaviors that are problematic for both wildlife and hikers. Bears are increasingly being drawn to human food and must be killed when they threaten the safety of hikers.
  • Hikers may be tempted to add their own trash, believing that the people leaving unattended food will pick up their trash. This trash retains food smells and becomes an easy target for wildlife to consume.
  • Leaving personal property on public land is illegal. The A.T. is on public land and no one is permitted to leave personal property, no matter how generous the intentions. Unattended items are considered abandoned property and are illegal.
  • An abundance of unattended food tends to ​increase expectations of free food available exclusively for thru-hikers.
  • The additional work of removing trash and unattended food falls on volunteers.



  • Don’t leave food or drink unattended. Provide offerings in person, and carry out trash and leftovers.

Abandoned Food

Trail Angels and Guidance for Providing Trail Magic

‘Trail Angel’ is a term of endearment given to people who have provided Trail magic in the form of direct kindness and generosity to hikers. Volunteer trail maintainers, though not typically referred to as “trail angels," keep the magic of the Appalachian Trail alive.


Here are some tips if you are thinking of providing trail magic or helping ​preserve the magic of the Appalachian Trail:

  • Think carefully about the context and broader impacts to the Trail of your planned activities.
  • Hike the Trail, carrying extra food, first aid supplies, and water (in sealed containers) for any hiker who may appreciate these things. Novice hikers particularly may underestimate the amount of water they will need, or forget to bring it altogether.
  • Pack out trash, which accumulates most at trailheads and at shelters. Offer to take out hiker's trash, which helps lighten their packs (trash cans are rarely found along the A.T., and hikers often have to carry an ever-larger bag for days).
  • Patronize hiker-friendly businesses in A.T. Communities, especially those that are designated A.T. Community Supporters, to help keep the services they offer available for future hikers.
  • Get involved with your local A.T. Community to help the town become more hiker-friendly or work with others in your town to set up a network of drivers to get hikers into, out of town.
  • Volunteer for a trail club if you live near one or consider working on a trail crew.
  • Learn best Leave No Trace practices (hint: there's more to it than just not leaving trash behind).