Trail magic and trail angels

Be wary of people who make you uneasy. Practice logical caution: not all hikers, or people you meet in town, are “angelic.” Learn more.

Trail magic is an act of goodwill you can perform or a remarkable moment that you might experience on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Trail magic has multiple meanings and it’s one of the truly wonderful aspects of the Pacific Crest Trail experience.

The trail provides: the original meaning refers to the magical moments that happen on the trail.

These are the serendipitous moments or almost mystical happenings. It’s the experiences that are almost too hard to believe. Trail magic often happens naturally – it’s not structured or planned. It’s strongly related to the PCT truism, “The trail provides.” It can be a moment of extreme beauty, feelings of connectedness or a remarkable wildlife experience that becomes trail magic when a hiker really needs it to continue. It’s trail magic when you run into a childhood friend you haven’t seen in years. You’re offered a job around the campfire. You meet the love of your life at mile 2,278. You have poison oak and find the right balm for it in the hiker box. That’s all trail magic.

'Dirt Bowl' makes a snow angel in the Sierra on a magical day. Photo by Bri 'Twink' Leahy

‘Dirty Bowl’ makes a snow angel in the Sierra on a magical day. Photo by Bri ‘Twink’ Leahy

Trail magic is also the planned acts of kindness offered to hikers and horseback riders.

This organized type of “magic” includes gifts of time and attention. This positive outreach builds community and connects people.

The Pacific Crest Trail is not just a path through the mountains – it’s an experience that connects people to nature, trail towns and each other.

trail magic and trail angels on the PCT

Hikers head back to the trail after spending the night in town. Photo by Samuel Perriard

There are various types of organized trail magic:

  • Rides: the vast community of trail town locals who give rides to and from the trail because public transit doesn’t exist or is inconvenient.
  • Hosting: people who bring hikers and horseback riders into their homes, offering safe places to sleep, wash clothes, eat.
  • Feeding hungry hikers: offering picnics to hikers and horseback riders. People like to eat!
  • Offering professional services for free: like the foot doctor or dentist who waives their fees.

How to be a trail angel and provide organized trail magic.

Hundreds of new people are getting involved in providing rides, food, and places to stay on the PCT. It’s an informal system not organized by the Pacific Crest Trail Association. To be a trail angel, simply start by doing nice things!

Keep trail magic low impact and Leave No Trace.

With the increasing popularity of “trail angeling,” it’s important for people to consider their unintended impact on the trail and other people’s experience. Sometimes, kind acts have unintended downsides.

Overdone trail magic is no longer magical.

The Pacific Crest Trail exists in part to provide an escape from the city into the natural world. Let people have that refuge and escape. Frequent intrusions from trail angels or a loud party with signs advertising it and dozens of people — however well-meaning — can negatively affect someone’s planned solitude. The cumulative weight of many such encounters can be overwhelming and detract from one’s ability to “get away from it all.”

We travel the Pacific Crest Trail seeking challenge, solitude and independence. Let hikers have that opportunity. Photo of southbound thru-hikers in Glacier Peak Wilderness. Photo by Michael DeYoung.

We travel the Pacific Crest Trail seeking challenge, solitude and independence. Let hikers have that opportunity. Photo of southbound thru-hikers in Glacier Peak Wilderness. Photo by Michael DeYoung.

It’s also a place to practice self-reliance and personal growth to meet the challenge found along the trail. Consider whether you are intruding on that. For the philosophers wanting a deeper dive into this vision work, please read our Statement of the Trail Experience.

When considering appropriate forms of trail magic, please recall Leave No Trace principles, including being considerate to other visitors, respecting wildlife and disposing of waste properly.

Trail maintainers are trail angels.

We’d like to offer a plug and speak directly: there is a huge need for volunteers who want to work on trail maintenance crews and projects. Trail maintainers, section adopters, scouts, and the rest of the thousands of people in our formal volunteer program would like your help. By working on trail maintenance projects with other passionate PCT volunteers, you will help the trail, and you’ll help thousands of hikers for years to come. Consider volunteering in this way.

Offer food in person. Don’t leave food unattended on the trail.

When left unattended, food and beverages stashed beside the trail create a litter problem and introduce wildlife to human food. These caches often become eyesores as trash collects and is strewn about by animals, wind, and people. They are generally illegal on public land and limited resources are wasted cleaning up these sites. Never leave alcohol out on the trail: you might end up supplying alcohol to kids playing in the woods. By contrast, refreshments and food offered in person are more easily contained and cleaned up. Do not leave food or beverages unattended on the trail.

It's no wonder why they call her 'Smiles'. Photo by Warren Davis

Resting on a couch at a stranger’s home. It’s no wonder why they call her ‘Smiles’. Photo by Warren Davis

Water caches, especially in very dry stretches of the PCT, are a separate and more complex matter. They lead to decreased hiker preparedness — in effect making the trail less safe — because people come to rely on them. Not all caches are well maintained and they can be empty. What then? Caches also reduce the wildness that people go out to experience. They collect trash and some become camps. Please read our detailed essay about water caches and do not leave new water caches on the PCT.

Trail magic is given freely.

Public lands belong to all of us, not to any one business. As such, there are various rules that protect our ability to enjoy public lands free from unconstrained commercial use. While commercial uses may be allowed, they require permission from the agency that manages the land. Trail magic is given freely. Asking for money or collecting compensation (even donations) on the PCT are regulated activities. This includes offering rides to the trail. If you’re collecting money to drive to a trailhead on public land, that’s considered a commercial shuttle and it may require a permit.

'Tex' giving 'Fruit Cup' a styling fade at a trail angel's house. Photo by Lachlan Fysh

‘Tex’ giving ‘Fruit Cup’ a stylish fade at a trail angel’s house. Photo by Lachlan Fysh

In town, things are different. The protections afforded to the Pacific Crest Trail and public land don’t apply inside of people’s houses or in places of business. All that we ask is that people offering services in town in exchange for money follow state and local business rules.

The costs associated with being a trail angel can really add up quickly. Consider your budget closely before you overextend yourself.

PCT hikers are hungry. If you’d like to feed them, here are some guidelines:

  1. Offer food at major roads or in the frontcountry, not in the backcountry or in a wilderness area. The PCT is a rare opportunity for quiet reflection and a place to escape from our crowded world. Let the wilderness remain wild. Keep town stuff in town, and carefully consider your location.
  2. Keep your gatherings small. Don’t advertise or create crowds. Let people flow through naturally so that a crowd doesn’t gather. If a ton of people leave your feed at the same time, the next campsite will be damaged because it doesn’t have enough space for the large party. Group size limits on the trail are in place for this very reason.
  3. Choose a less popular location or time. There is already a large concentration of hiker feeds in Southern California in the spring. Head elsewhere instead. Or, provide picnics to southbounders, flip-floppers or section hikers.
  4. Don’t compete with local businesses. Our trail town businesses are wonderful to hikers — often, they’re trail angels themselves. Eco-tourism creates important revenue for small communities along the trail.
  5. Practice safe food handling. Have a hand washing station. Use utensils, not your hands. Serve packaged foods. Don’t make everyone sick — illnesses can quickly turn serious when hikers head back into the wild.
  6. Provide fresh, healthful and nutritious foods. Hiking and riding the PCT is hard work. Treat people to the perfect summer peach, a warming bowl of homemade chili, a freshly baked cookie.
  7. Hikers need rest and recuperation. Trail users are not a captive audience to party with. Limit alcohol and don’t allow illegal drugs.

A different, sustainable option: pay their tab at a restaurant. This is a surefire way to make someone’s day. You could even do this from home by simply calling one of the popular restaurants during hiker season and asking if there are hikers in the dining room that you could treat.  

trail magic and trail angels PCT thru-hikers walking photo

PCT thru-hikers finish the Southern California stretch in Kennedy Meadows South. Photo by Justin Helmkamp

How to connect with PCT hikers to be their trail angel:

  1. When you see hikers at road crossings, stop and say hello. Offer to help.
  2. Go to the places that hikers go: supermarkets, post offices, hotels, and restaurants.
  3. Hang out on the PCT social media channels. You’ll see hikers asking for help.
  4. Choose your time wisely. Look for a period when hikers are passing through, but it’s not peak season when there is already an abundance of trail angels. Northbound hikers and horseback riders typically start in April or May and make it to Canada by late September. Southbounders start in early July. Mid-summer is peak season for the mountains everywhere north of southern California.

How to be a trail angel for horseback riders:

Horseback riding on the Pacific Crest Trail has its own slew of logistical challenges. If you meet a horseback rider and have the facilities and desire to help, consider offering them:

  • A place to stay and boarding for their horses while they do town chores.
  • Connections to your friends in the horse community further down the trail who might want to help.
  • Help resupply them at their next road crossing by bringing food, pellets, and water. Remember, give it in person – don’t leave it unattended.
  • Help to shuttle their truck and trailer if they are using one.

If you want to offer rides:

Drive safely. Ensure that all people are wearing seat belts.

Don’t accept money or other compensation. The moment you accept money, your situation changes. The same might be true if you advertise that you’re offering rides (even if they are completely free.) Talk to your insurance company. Transporting passengers and receiving compensation for it is also subject to various state and local regulations, including special registration (consult with the California Public Utilities Commission, Oregon Motor Carrier Transportation Division, Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission) and fees.

'Courage' waits for a ride. Photo by Chris Pickering

‘Courage’ waits for a ride. Photo by Chris Pickering

If you are paying for a ride, you should inquire about the status of the business. In most places, for-hire vehicles, not operating through a ride-share app, are required to have a special registration number on the back of the car. In California, for example, look for, “PSC 1234” or “TCP 1234.” If they are bringing you to a trailhead, they likely need a permit from the land management agency.

Advice for hosting hikers in your home or on your property:

Hosting a hiker is a great way to connect with people from all around the world. Mostly, hikers are in need of the basics:

  • A safe place to rest.
  • A place to wash themselves and their clothes.
  • Food and plenty of it. This can get expensive. Consider whether your guests should eat at restaurants instead. If so, can they reach them?
  • Internet.
  • A way to get to and from town services.

We recommend starting out slowly with hosting. Before the first person comes into your home, know what you intend to offer and communicate thoughtfully with your guests so they can make an informed choice. Communication is key. Even the most established hosts started with inviting only one or two hikers into their home. From there, it’ll grow organically.

trail angel scout and frodo pacific crest trail

Scout and Frodo, center, host hikers starting the Pacific Crest Trail.

If you have enough hikers passing through your home, you might consider creating a “hiker box.” They are boxes where hikers can leave things or take things freely. Usually, they’ll have extra non-perishable food, fuel, and equipment. You’ll need to clean your hiker box a few times a season. They tend to collect mysterious unlabeled food items (it’s often powdered milk) and items that no one really wants like used old shoes or dead batteries.

Additional hot topics for trail magic — Leave No Trace

Don’t put up signs on the trail. There is a reason the trail isn’t covered in billboards. Advertisements are not appropriate or allowed.

Don’t build things, carry out couches or things like that. If you’d like to build stuff, we’ll put you to work! Join a volunteer trail crew. But please don’t build new facilities on the trail on your own. You’ll only waste precious resources because someone will be sent out to remove what you installed.

Be proactive in cleaning up trash. As a trail angel, you probably have a car. If you see trash at a trailhead, pick it up and take it home. Leave it better than you found it.

Be grateful and kind to trail angels.

As a hiker, you’re on your own. While the PCT is surrounded by wonderful people, don’t expect that someone will be there to help you or offer you a free room, board or rides. You’ve embarked on a wilderness journey. Uncertainty and self-reliance are part of the experience.

Be kind to everyone you meet – whether they are trail angels or business owners. Thousands of people will hike the PCT behind you — be an ambassador for the trail and other hikers yet to come.

Practice gratitude and kindness. Thousands will follow in your footsteps. "CC' relaxes at the end of the day - enjoying the setting sun and view of Mt Rainier. Photo by Lisa Frugoli

Practice gratitude and kindness. Thousands will follow in your footsteps. ‘CC’ relaxes at the end of the day – enjoying the setting sun and view of Mt Rainier. Photo by Lisa Frugoli

Watch yourself for feelings of entitlement. Don’t expect people will be there to give you things. Trail angels are a bonus. Offer to help them. Be proactive and do chores. Clean up messes if you see them.

If you desire an extra level of service, pay for a hotel room or hire a shuttle. Do not abuse alcohol or drugs around trail angels. Do not carry drugs in the vehicles of trail angels.

Practice logical caution: not all hikers, or people you meet in town, are “angelic.”

Trail angels are an informal system. Anyone can call themselves a trail angel and offer a ride or a bed. They are self-appointed volunteers and are not affiliated with the PCTA or the U.S. Forest Service, Park Service, or BLM. PCT hikers and riders should use caution and good judgment when coming in contact with new people. The same goes for trail angels using good judgment when it comes to interfacing with hikers. Just because someone says they are hiking the PCT, doesn’t mean that you should trust them blindly. Trust your instincts, even when someone claims to be an authority figure, a “trail angel” or a PCT hiker. Don’t worry about being judgmental or hurting someone’s feelings. Bad behavior has gone both ways in the past. Read more about this in our safety area.

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