If you’ve ever hiked a portion of a long-distance trail—or one in its entirety—you may have experienced trail magic. In recent years, trail magic has taken on a life of its own, with ‘trail angels’ going to great lengths to boost tired hikers’ morale by stashing anonymous gifts, or ‘caches’, along the trail. We’re talking elaborate trail feeds, icy drinks, and hidden candy bars.

While these trail gifts are left with the best of intentions, they can have unintended side effects. For one, these types of trail magic can have a detrimental impact on wildlife. What’s more, most hikers are long-distance hiking because they’re trying to ‘get away from it all’ and build self-reliance. Trail angel encounters can inadvertently create exactly the kind of interactions that hikers are aiming to avoid.

But trail magic can also encourage thru-hikers to keep going, so there’s a fine balance between facilitating a magical moment and letting things be. If you want to try on some trail angel wings, there are ways to do so without disrupting the balance. Here are some tips on how to create some trail-friendly magic that’s beneficial to passing hikers and doesn’t harm the environment.

Best Practices for Responsible Trail Magic

There are thoughtful ways to spread trail magic without disturbing the natural world, harming animals, or disrupting hikers in their groove. The following tips will help you to disperse nuggets of trail magic without overstepping boundaries.

Trail Magic and the Trail Angels Who Spread It

trail magic

Hiker offering a little trail magic.

Trail magic, which can be defined as an unexpected act of kindness or serendipitous event, can be anything that brings you an overwhelming sense of gratitude. This could be a ride into town when you most need one, a clean trail privy, or a wildlife encounter that leaves you with something to remember for the rest of your life. Trail magic can come from an act of kindness, or simply a set of magical circumstances on the trail.

That time you stepped into a clearing on a long hike and saw a mother moose with her calf? That’s trail magic. Or when a kind stranger offers you a lift from town back to the trail? That’s trail magic, too.

Trail angels come in many forms, from the literal creators of a hiking trail to a person who turns up at a campground and passes out ice cream to hikers. Some trail angels offer up their homes as overnight pit stops to thru-hikers, or as a place to do laundry.

Cache Tips for Trail Angels

bear aware food storage sign on a trail

Be aware of wildlife when considering a trail magic cache.

Want in on the trail angel fun? We don’t blame you! Giving gifts for no reason other than kindness—without expecting anything in return—boosts your own happiness. Often, it is passed on, creating a chain of events that can work small miracles.

So, a cache. What’s an appropriate anonymous gift to leave? As long as it follows the Leave No Trace rule, you’re on the right track.

What to Include

Although it’s tempting (and no doubt appreciated by hungry hikers), avoid leaving a cooler full of food along the trail. Instead, leave a note of encouragement, a dry pair of socks, or an envelope with a bit of money in it for those zero-mileage days spent in town. Think about the little things that make a big difference; clean socks are always welcome for weary feet!

Where to Put the Cache

Rather than leaving a cache of treats for a thru-hiker to happen upon (or, more likely, a wild animal to consume), leave a cache at a popular stopping point. If you know that thru-hikers frequent a campground at a state park along the trail, ask a park ranger where you can safely leave a well-secured cache. You could also leave a box of goodies with the local post office, where thru-hikers pick up their resupply boxes.

To be a responsible trail angel, leave caches in places where wildlife won’t get into it. Any other way, and you’re interfering with wildlife and wilderness.

Respecting the Trail

a woman holding plant shears around a group of trail volunteers

Trail angels help keep trails open and hikeable.

Minimize environmental impact

The most important factor is how your trail magic may impact its surroundings. Be angelic by asking yourself these questions before deciding where to leave your gift.

  • Are you treading on delicate or unofficial paths?
  • Are you leaving something in the wild that does not belong there?

If you answer yes to either of these questions, stop. The point of trail magic is to offer a gift to someone who needs it at a time they least expect it. This doesn’t necessarily mean on the trail itself, but can be leaving a cache at their next resupply stop.

Don’t leave unattended food or drinks

Leaving a cooler of food or drinks attracts animals, which has enormous ripple effects. Animals that encounter human food begin to associate humans with food, which results in unsafe interactions and, often, the death of the animal.

If you want to share food or drinks, keep a stash of magical goodies in your car; when you see a thru-hiker hitching in to town, offer it then.

The Ultimate Trail Magic Gift is Your Time

This guide isn’t meant to deter you from being a trail angel. Want to know the ultimate in trail magic giving? Volunteering your time to help maintain the trails. Time and again, this has proven to be the absolute best trail gift one can ever give. Look for volunteer opportunities at national parks or recreation areas near you, and you’re on your way to becoming a bona fide trail angel.

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