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How to Be the Best Trail Angel

This is how you put pep in a hiker's step

Here’s how to be the best trail angel. (wundervisuals/iStock)
hiking

This is how you put pep in a hiker's step

When marching on the trail all day has you feeling like a pile of steaming dung, it’s helpful to remember that out there, somewhere, a kind stranger might have left a cooler full of cold drinks just around the bend. It’s called trail magic—those glorious random acts of kindness that happen, well, magically, just when you’re about to keel over and die after a day’s hike.

Of course, because it’s 2018 and everyone has to hate something, some folks loathe trail magic. Fine. Hate on. No one is forcing you to take a frigid soda on a 90-degree day. For everyone else, here’s how to be the best trail angel—whether you have a lot of time to devote to trail magic or want to do something less complicated.

Simple Is Fine

“Anything you can do is so appreciated,” says Tim Patterson, who experienced several instances of trail magic while hiking the 272-mile Long Trail through Vermont. You’ve probably heard stories about people throwing elaborate dinner parties on the trail with made-to-order steaks and pie. That’s amazing and worth aspiring to. But don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. If you have four hours on a Saturday, take a hike with a pack full of granola bars and hand them out to thru-hikers. Those bars will be appreciated.

Think Fresh and Cold

Fresh fruit and veggies are the best thing you can feed anyone who has been living off dehydrated meals for days on end, says Shawnté Salabert, author of Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California. It’s even better if that fresh stuff is cold. Brain freeze–inducing fruit remains one of Salabert’s favorite trail magic snacks of all time.

Patterson could not agree more. One of his most memorable experiences involved pieces of crisp lettuce atop a turkey sandwich. The sandwich was great, but the fresh lettuce? Absolutely divine.

If Possible, Stick Around to Minimize Impact

“I think trail angels should be present instead of just leaving coolers of items out in the open. I saw way too much trash around trail magic sites,” Salabert says. “It kind of ruined some of the magic for me.”

That’s one of the Appalachian Trail Club’s big concerns with trail magic—that it widens trails as people stand around coolers all day and trash may get left behind. Mitigate this by moving your station throughout the day and making sure all wrappers and cans are disposed of. If you’re setting up a large meal with grills and the works, use a true campsite.

Do What You Do Best

On the Long Trail, Patterson had been drinking nothing but instant coffee. While he was sitting at a lake one day, a fellow hiker pulled up, produced a true French press out of his pack, and began to make Patterson a real cup of joe. “He had whole beans, the grinder, everything,” Patterson recalls. It turned out that the fellow hiker was a barista. Patterson says that looking out at the water while sipping a good cup of strong coffee was one of the highlights of his trek.

Go Crazy

“My favorite trail magic was anything that was totally spontaneous, unexpected, and surprising,” Patterson says. For him, magic that happened in places he’d never expect it—like miles from a road—was particularly joyful.

Crazy can also mean delightfully weird. Salabert’s favorite trail magic experience came in Vidette Meadow in the Sierra Nevada when she turned a corner to see a massive Canadian flag strung across the trail. “Just after I noticed it,” Salabert says, “a man wearing a Mountie outfit came out and began singing, ‘O, Canada!’ It was bizarre and awesome.”

Feasts also stick in the minds of hikers for years—heck, even for a lifetime. The Mountie and his partner presented Salabert with hot spaghetti, sweet potatoes, and s’mores and gave her a bag of treats for the road. If you want to create the most memorable trail magic stop ever, bring food—lots and lots of it.

Be Everyone’s Cheerleader

Outside contributor Krista Langlois hadn’t been planning to rely on the kindness of bike angels on her 250-mile bikepacking trip from Durango, Colorado, to Moab, Utah. But on day five, Langlois realized she needed a serious morale boost. Luckily, she’d been given the phone number of two trail angels who would pick up and feed hungry, tired, and beaten-down bikers. While the food was memorable, Langlois says the thing that stuck out most was their parting gesture. Marty, one of the angels, hugged her and told her, “You got this.”

“While a cold beverage or a sweet treat are super appreciated, those things are even better when they come with support and encouragement—especially if the person on the receiving end is hiking or biking solo,” Langlois says. “It’s so easy to get stuck in your head and get down on yourself that talking to another human being and hearing you’re crushing it can mean a ton.”

Trail Magic for Haters

If you hate trail magic, we’ve got a suggestion for you, too! The real, true magic is in trail maintenance and building. If handing out sodas isn’t your thing, we look forward to seeing you out at the next trail work day.

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