Slide background

Trail magic

Trail magic has charmed A.T. long- distance hikers for decades, surfacing as serendipitous experiences. Trail magic just happens!

The ‘magic’ of 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, but spontaneity and randomness constitute the essence of Trail magic. Trail magic ‘just happens.’

Trail magic /tral – ma`jik/ noun 1. A serendipitous (unplanned) experience on the Trail.

When the ‘magic’ is lost….

Trail magic ‘just happens.’ If you’re planning to ‘do’ Trail magic or asking for it, the main ingredient—the ‘magic’—is lost. The ATC views Trail magic within the context of the A.T. Experience—a policy that guides us to protect:

“…the sum of opportunities that are available for those walking the Appalachian Trail to interact with the wild, scenic, pastoral, cultural, and natural elements of the Appalachian Trail environment, unfettered and unimpeded by competing sights or sounds and in as direct and intimate a manner as possible.”

While the intent may be gracious, instances of hiker feeds, unattended food, and water caches at A.T. trailheads or on the Trail can result in damage to the Trail environment and diminish the basic level of discovery the ATC seeks to protect for all Trail users, such as:

  • Opportunities for contemplation, enjoyment, exploration of the natural world;

  • The experience of solitude, personal accomplishment, self-reliance, self-discovery, a sense of remoteness, and detachment from civilization;

  • A feeling of being part of the natural environment.

Hiker Feed

’Hiker feeds’

’Hiker feeds,’ food catering stations located at Trailheads and on the Trail, range in size from small barbeques to large picnics with festival tents. Many facilitators cater to as many hikers as possible by locating a bubble of hikers to maximize the impact, which can be damaging to the Trail. Here's how:

  • An increasing number of areas of the A.T. are stretched to the limit due to a high volume of hikers. Hiker feeds congregate and merge hikers into an unsustainable ‘bubble’ that moves along the Trail creating new campsites, expanding existing sites and causing crowding and conflict among hikers.

  • The threat of spreading norovirus and food-borne illnesses is exacerbated by such events; hiker feeds are rarely inspected for sanitation rules.

  • A preponderance of hiker feeds tends to inflate some hikers’ expectations of future gestures or, worse yet, it creates a presumption of preferential treatment.

  • Hiker feeds may feel like an intrusion to hikers hoping to detach from civilization and experience solitude and self-reliance.

  • Damage to plants and soils often occur around areas where Hiker feeds are hosted.

  • Hikers may be made to feel like a captive audience—especially if hiker feed facilitators promote their personal world-views.

Unattended Food

Unattended food sometimes appears at a Trailhead or on the side of the Trail. Whether it’s a plate of fresh baked cookies, bags of chips or other packaged goods or a cooler full of sandwiches, this premeditated gesture does a disservice to the Trail environment.

  • Wildlife quickly find and eat unattended food and trash, leading to “food attraction” behaviors that are perilous for both wildlife and hikers. In particular, bears are increasingly being drawn to human food and must be killed when they threaten the safety of hikers.

  • Like hiker feeds, damage to plants and soils often occur around areas where unattended food is left.

  • Some hikers abandon their garbage, 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.

  • On public land, it is considered ‘abandonment of property’ by state and federal land managing agencies and is illegal.

  • Like hiker feeds, a preponderance of unattended food tends to inflate some hikers’ expectations of similar future gestures.

Abandoned Food
Bad Water

Water Cache

Water caches— jugs or bottles of water left at A.T. road crossings and Trailheads can be as problematic as they are useful.

  • Any water/drink containers left unattended along the Trail could become contaminated (and their purity should not be trusted).

  • Assumptions among some hikers that the people leaving water caches will pick up their trash results in abandoned garbage.

  • Like aid stations and unattended food, a preponderance of water caches tends to inflate some hikers’ expectations of similar future gestures, especially when conditions take a turn for the worse. Planning ahead and preparing for varied Trail conditions is essential.

Locating the ‘magic’ of Trail magic

Trail magic can be located on a spectrum. Since Trail magic is a serendipitous experience on the Trail, you can find examples of it on the right portion of a spectrum where instances increase in random, dumb luck chance toward a theoretically perfect serendipitous experience. Serendipity is mostly value free, though planned instances occurring in the opposite end of the spectrum have negative outcomes.

Serendipity Spectrum

Leaving a cooler of food on the Trail or creating a hiker feed at a road crossing may typify good intentions by generous people, but not only are they planned (not serendipitous), these efforts can unintentionally create long term negative consequences for the Trail culture and Trail environment.

Clearing fallen trees from the Trail (among the many other responsibilities of a volunteer Trail maintainer), or starting a hiker-oriented business in a Trail town (both take careful planning), or witnessing an epiphany-inducing sunset (you could expect to see this on the A.T.) don’t meet the traditional definitions of Trail magic, but are elements that help make the A.T. experience so magical in a broader sense.


Trail Angels

A ‘Trail Angel’ is a term of endearment given by hikers to people who have provided Trail magic. It is best understood as a term that’s bestowed upon someone by others, not self-proclaimed. Do you dabble in Trail magic?

ATC_RP12668_Giant Blowndown, Norm Sykora with crosscut saw by Jinx Sykora
  • One-on-one gestures that are serendipitous are appreciated and revered by hikers.

  • Getting involved with one or more of the 31 Trail maintaining clubs, A.T. Communities, or other organizations that support the Trail is not only good for the Trail and visitors to the A.T., but maximizes chances for serendipitous encounters with hikers, priming opportunities for Trail magic.

  • Hiking the A.T. requires grit, self-reliance, and perseverance. A hikers’ success hiking all 2,190+ miles is all the more sweet knowing she or he did it without becoming reliant on hiker feeds, unattended food, and water caches.

  • Backpacking is a leisure sport at its root. While thru-hiking is extraordinarily difficult and can sometimes feel like a job, hikers can stop at any time without life-altering consequences. This is an important perspective to keep in mind when examining the underlying motivations for giving non-essential aid to a hiker on their incredible journey.

  • The most appropriate place to set up a table full of food for hikers is one that is within an A.T. Community that hikers patronize.

  • Consider volunteering for a local food bank to serve populations along the Trail who are truly in need of food and do not have the opportunity to pursue a long-distance hike on the A.T.