By Jessica Porter

Trail magic is a term that is often misconstrued. By the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s (ATC) definition, Trail magic is a serendipitous experience on the Appalachian Trail. Mostly, it’s unplanned acts of kindness by strangers, though a liberal interpretation might include a mesmerizing sunset after days of soaking rain, or a wildlife sighting so thrilling it makes your heart pound.

I experienced this concept first hand during my 2014 thru-hike. In Hanover, New Hampshire, a nearby couple overheard my partner and me struggling to find a place to rest our aches and pains. They invited us to their home, where they fed and entertained us for two days. It was the first time they had helped hikers, and that random act of kindness will always shine through as a top memory of our journey.

In the last few years, the term Trail magic has expanded in the hiker community to encompass many other forms of kindness on the Trail, including hiker feeds, leaving a cooler full of treats by the Trail, setting up tables of food and snacks, and cooking ornate meals at shelters. No one disputes these efforts go above-and-beyond in the kindness department, but they are technically not considered Trail magic, and may do more harm than good.

“By definition, any pre-planned event wouldn’t be Trail magic because it’s contrived. It doesn’t make something planned any less of a kind gesture, but it’s not Trail magic,” says the ATC’s Trail information specialist Tenny Webster. “It’s not value laden, this definition; it just honors the random, dumb chance — the serendipity — of an experience for everyone involved. This may sound restrictive to some folks, but shouldn’t something magical require a high bar, anyway?”

These types of acts are increasing dramatically, most likely for two reasons: There are more hikers on the Trail, and social media is a growing hiking component. “The number of hikers has been increasing at 20 percent per year for several years,” says Cosmo Catalano, Jr., current chair of the ATC’s Trail and Camping Committee. “Numbers are going up, and current hiker feeds are getting larger because there are more people.” Add social media connectivity to the mix, and news spreads much more quickly than ever before about hiker feeds and other events. Nearly all thru-hikers share their journeys on social media, spreading knowledge about components like Trail magic to a much broader audience. “One person setting up a barbecue at a Trailhead in Maryland isn’t really an issue. But it’s not one person — it’s multiple people doing it at multiple Trailheads,” Webster says. “The frequency is bewildering — it’s happening more than it used to. Collectively, it’s overwhelming.”

It’s not the worst problem to have, because it ultimately comes down to the fact that more and more people want to help thru-hikers, or any type of A.T. hikers, on their journeys — whether they are a former thru-hiker, section hiker, members of a nearby community, or family and friends of hikers. The problem lies in the fact that these acts aren’t true Trail magic, because they are planned and come with issues many “Trail magic” providers are unlikely to take into account.

Impacts on Experience

Particularly in the South, hiker feeds have become a common event many thru-hikers look forward to, which is understandable considering they are a great time to load on up calories and catch up with Trail friends. However, these events create an influx of hikers in one particular area, whether it be a shelter, road crossing, hostel, or generous homeowner along the Trail. These bubbles of hikers create increases in populations along the Trail that many other hikers may be trying to avoid. “Plenty of people are heading out on the A.T. as a respite from the human trappings that accompany things like hiker feeds,” Webster says. “Providing a place for that basic level of discovery is still very important to the ATC and most A.T. hikers. We’re conservationists after all. We’re protecting a noodle of a National Park for anyone to enjoy the Appalachians in all its scenic wild-ness, including the opportunities for solitude, respite from the trappings of civilization, and self-sufficiency and reliance. We try to provide this for anyone willing to try it.”

More people in one place also means an increase in illnesses such as norovirus or other stomach bugs, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramping. These viruses can be spread from person to person, so that means via water sources, shelter surfaces, and direct contact with other hikers.

Impacts on Ecosystems

There are few things that make a thru-hiker more excited than seeing a cooler during a tough day, but there are consequences to those coolers. They attract animals. This almost certainly means a big mess of trash will be left around the cooler, but it also makes animals used to seeing humans — a growing A.T. problem. It’s not uncommon to see shelters with warning signs about wildlife, or even shelters shut down due to black bear activity. The ATC is making an effort to spread out thru-hikers to prevent mass amounts of people at shelters and cut down on bears’ association of hikers with food. These coolers and unattended food just add to the problem. In addition, leaving coolers on the side of the Trail is actually illegal in many areas. On public land, it is considered “abandonment of property” by state and federal land managing agencies.

Most people also don’t take the environment around their planned event into consideration. Often, events are held in wilderness areas that are home to rare plants, insects, and animals. By increasing the amount of people in these areas, those ecosystems are threatened. Since most people who plan these events love the Trail, damaging the area is likely an unintended consequence — but one the ATC deals with on a regular basis.

A recent example occurred in Virginia. The ATC learned about a multi-day party planned for thru-hikers near Mount Rogers. “This set off all sorts of alarm bells with the Mount Rogers Appalachian Trail Club because it’s a very sensitive area with lots of rare plants and salamanders,” says Kathryn Herndon-Powell, the ATC’s education and outreach coordinator. “The ridgerunner and the club have been trying for years to get rid of several large campsites right near the parking area that are surrounded by rare plants.” The ATC stepped into action and contacted the party organizers on social media. The organizers were extremely receptive to the ATC’s concerns, and decided to move the party to a less-sensitive area. In fact, the ATC learned the organizers were 2016 thru-hikers who wanted to give back and immerse themselves in Trail culture again — a common sentiment from former thru-hikers.

Better Ways to Give Back

There are plenty of ways to give back to the Trail community and brighten a hiker’s day that do not negatively impact the Trail.

Put on a Backpack
First and foremost, get back to hiking on the A.T. Immersing yourself in the culture by participating in its most basic defining activity is important. Bring along a young family member or friend to introduce them to the Trail. Maybe pay for a hiker’s meal at a restaurant. And hike with a keen eye to spot (and collect) litter and the kindness to start a nice conversation with a lonesome hiker. Who knows where that will lead? Maybe it will prime a little Trail magic. At the very least, you will emerge with a small baggie of litter that is no longer mucking up one of our most awesome national treasures. It will make you feel good and it’s immediate.

Join a Trail Club or Becoming a Trail Maintainer
Thirty-one ATC volunteer Trail clubs maintain the A.T. Find the one closest to you, and see what work they have that appeals to you. Most have day-long maintenance trips anyone can join on a weekend. With just a little bit of experience and training you may be able to adopt a section of the A.T. that will be “yours” to take care of. Clubs also need volunteers who can write newsletter articles and maintain social media accounts, lead hikes, take photos, monitor rare plants, remove invasive species, and plan events. Winter is prime time in most areas for off-Trail boundary work for those who enjoy getting away from the crowds. Find more info at:

Want a really intense vacation?
Trail crews offer the chance to make a big impact in a short amount of time. The ATC and some of the larger clubs offer Trail crews that typically run for five days and offer the chance to build a piece of Trail with your own hands. It’s hard work, but incredibly gratifying, and you’ll build close bonds with your fellow volunteers. And, once a year, Trail-legend Bob Peoples joins forces with the ATC and the local Trail club to hold the two-day Hardcore Trail Crew after the Trail Days festival in Damascus, Virginia. The crew consists of dozens of current and former thru-hikers and local maintainers who come together for some heavy-duty Trail work. Find more info at: and:

Support an Appalachian Trail Community
If you live near the Trail, help a designated A.T. Community with their Trail events, or help them learn how to become more hiker-friendly. Or, if your closest town hasn’t yet received the designation, help them go through the process. Find more info at:

Join the ATC
Giving monetary donations may not be as fun as going out and interacting with hikers, but it’s a necessary and extremely important component to the Trail. By becoming an ATC member, you can help support all the hard work that goes into keeping the A.T. maintained and functioning for years to come.

Choose a Responsible Location
If you have your heart set on setting up a table full of food, set it up within a Trail community that hikers patronize or an established picnic area in a town park. Don’t set up near Trailheads, in parking areas, or pack your supplies into the wilderness, where your actions are more likely to have unintended negative consequences.

The social element is a valuable part of hiking the Trail for many hikers, but conducting true Trail magic and reducing the number of large events is a key component to ensuring the Trail is as beautiful for future generations as it is today. “The A.T. will always have a social element to it — and it will still be well present without things like hiker feeds,” Webster says. “The bonds between hikers, the magic that happens between hikers and A.T. communities will always be present. It doesn’t need to be contrived.”

To learn more about this and other Conservation and Trail Management policies visit:

Jessica Porter is a freelance writer and editor who thru-hiked the A.T. in 2014. For more information visit:

ATC’s Stance on the Appalachian Trail Experience

Encouraging the community to take Trail magic back to its roots is one way the ATC is working on preserving the Trail amid extreme increases in use. Here is the ATC’s official policy on the A.T. experience and non-hiking recreational uses of Trail lands, which serves as a good reminder about how we can all help protect the Trail:

The Appalachian Trail is, first and foremost, a footpath open to any and all who travel on foot. Its sole purpose as a recreational resource is to provide an opportunity for “travel on foot through the wild, scenic, wooded, pastoral, and culturally significant lands of the Appalachian mountains.” Except in isolated instances where historically recognized nonconforming uses are allowed by legislative authority, the footpath of the Trail should not be used for any other purpose. This policy is intended to provide a framework within which other recreational uses will be evaluated. The ATC may develop additional policy direction for specific uses as needed.

The lands acquired and managed for the Appalachian Trail, and lands designated within the A.T. management zone, not only protect the footpath itself, but provide primary protection of the Trail experience. The Trail experience, as used in this context, is intended to represent the sum of opportunities that are available for those walking the A.T. to interact with the wild, scenic, pastoral, cultural, and natural elements of the Trail environment, unfettered and unimpeded by competing sights or sounds and in as direct and intimate a manner as possible. Integral to this Trail experience are:

  • Opportunities for observation, contemplation, enjoyment, and exploration of the natural world
  • A sense of remoteness and detachment from civilization
  • Opportunities to experience solitude, freedom, personal accomplishment, self-reliance, and self-discovery
  • A sense of being on the height of the land
  • Opportunities to experience the historic and pastoral elements of the surrounding countryside
  • A feeling of being part of the natural environment
  • Opportunities for travel on foot, including opportunities for long-distance hiking

Other recreational uses of these lands should be considered compatible if they do not require any modification of design and construction standards for the Trail footpath or Trail facilities; cause damage to the treadway or Trail facilities; require an engine or motor; or adversely impact the Trail experience or the cultural, natural, or scenic resources
of the Trail.

ATC Policy on the A.T. Experience and Non-Hiking Recreational Uses of Trail Lands