Learn More

Trail Magic

What is 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, however Trail magic can include:

  • Finding what you need most when you least expect it.
  • Experiencing something rare, extraordinary, or inspiring in nature.
  • Encountering unexpected acts of generosity, that restore one’s faith in humanity.

Trail magic ​was born and has flourished on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail within the context of the A.T. Experience—the policy that guides Trail managers to ​preserve the wild, scenic, and natural elements of the Appalachian Trail that allow for the unique feeling of being a part of the natural environment.

Acts of generosity in this wild and primitive setting of the Appalachian Trail–where basic amenities of civilization are intentionally absent–are often received in a heightened sense of wonder and gratitude by hikers. These acts of generosity are referred to as “trail magic.”

Keep it Small and Leave ​No Trace.

We want to help provide context and guidance that encourages these  acts of generosity to be sustainable and positively impact all members of the A.T. community and environment.

Sometimes these acts of generosity (no matter how well-intentioned) may result in additional work for volunteers or may compromise the natural environment. Hikers who only have a few hours or days to enjoy the sanctuary of the A.T. may not appreciate distractions from the natural environment.

Be aware of the potential impact of your actions. Keep it small and leave no trace.

Acts of ​Generosity with ​Unintended ​Negative ​Consequences:

‘Hiker feeds’

Thru-hikers are famous for the ravenous appetites they develop while hiking long miles on rugged terrain. Opportunities to easily obtain food are infrequent.  At the same time, those who admire thru-hikers often want to directly support their journeys. As a result, “hiker feeds” have become popular; however, when not planned properly they can cause overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and create more work for volunteers.

Before planning a feed, consider the following:

ATC Guidelines

  • Volunteer with an A.T. Trail-Maintaining Club or Trail Crew instead. The existence and health of the A.T. depends on volunteers. The most valuable and essential gift you can give to hikers is to help with Trail maintenance and volunteer recruitment.
  • Choose Developed Locations Off-Trail. such as state parks that the Trail runs through, or out of sight of the A.T., in locations that will not be damaged by participants, such as paved or gravel areas. Hiker feeds should not be on or block the A.T.
  • Keep events small; A.T. regulations require groups to be 25 or fewer; smaller is better.Larger groups require a special use permit. Large gatherings in the backcountry can detract from the A.T. experience for some and lead to trampling of plants, soil compaction, and disturbance of wildlife habitat.
  • Hiker feeds should never be along remote sections of the A.T. or in designated Wilderness.
  • Hiker feeds should only serve commercially pre-packaged food. In town, if cooked food is provided it should come from an approved, sanitary kitchen.
  • Hand washing facilities should be provided at hiker feeds. Norovirus and other food-borne illnesses are a real concern.
  • Alcohol should never be served at hiker feeds.
  • All garbage should be collected on site and disposed of in town at an appropriate site, not carried away by hikers.
  • Collecting fees or donations is prohibited on the Appalachian Trail. 
  • Avoid areas with a high concentration of feeds, especially Georgia in March and early April. Consider an alternate time or location further up the Trail when hikers have more of an appetite, or serving those often overlooked: southbound or flip-flop thru-hikers, or trail crews.
  • Do not publicize a feed. This can lead to unsustainable clumping of hikers.
  • Choose a location that does not deter hikers from supporting a local business.
  • Contact the local A.T.-maintaining club or ATC regional office to find out if there are any special recommendations or considerations. Rare plants or sensitive cultural sites may be impacted in ways not readily apparent.


  • Crowding. Hiker feeds, especially when advertised in advance, may congregate and merge hikers into an unsustainable ‘bubble’ that moves along the Trail creating new campsites, expanding existing sites and causing crowding. Large-group dynamics may create a party atmosphere with alcohol and drugs.
  • Health and Hygiene. The threat of spreading norovirus and food-borne illnesses is increased by such events which concentrate people in small areas without appropriate facilities
  • Increased Expectations of special treatment. An abundance of hiker feeds may increase some hikers’ expectations of being entitled to preferential treatment and giveaways.
  • Hikers may be made to feel like a captive audience—especially if feed facilitators promote their personal world-views.

Unattended Food

Hikers in the backcountry are often hungry and thirsty. While it may be tempting to leave food, this can create all kinds of problems.

ATC Guidelines

  • Don’t leave food or drink unattended. Provide offerings in person.
  • Carry out trash and leftovers.


  • Wildlife may find and eat unattended food and trash, leading to “food attraction” behaviors that are problematic for both wildlife and hikers. Bears are increasingly being drawn to human food and must be killed when they threaten the safety of hikers.
  • Hikers may be tempted to add their own trash, 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.
  • Leaving personal property on public land is illegal. The A.T. is on public land and no one is permitted to leave personal property, no matter how generous the intentions. Unattended items are considered abandoned property and are illegal.
  • An abundance of unattended food tends to increase expectations of free food available exclusively for thru-hikers.
  • The additional work of removing trash and unattended food falls on volunteers.

Trail Angels and Guidance for Providing Trail Magic

‘Trail Angel’ is a term of endearment given to people who have provided Trail magic in the form of direct kindness and generosity to hikers. Volunteer trail maintainers, though not typically referred to as “trail angels,” keep the magic of the Appalachian Trail alive.

Here are some tips if you are thinking of providing trail magic or helping preserve the magic of the Appalachian Trail:

  • Think carefully about the context and broader impacts to the Trail of your planned activities.
  • Hike the Trail, carrying extra food, first aid supplies, and water (in sealed containers) for any hiker who may appreciate these things. Novice hikers particularly may underestimate the amount of water they will need, or forget to bring it altogether.
  • Pack out trash, which accumulates most at trailheads and at shelters. Offer to take out hiker’s trash, which helps lighten their packs (trash cans are rarely found along the A.T., and hikers often have to carry an ever-larger bag for days).
  • Patronize hiker-friendly businesses in A.T. Communities, especially those that are designated A.T. Community Supporters, to help keep the services they offer available for future hikers.
  • Get involved with your local A.T. Community to help the town become more hiker-friendly or work with others in your town to set up a network of drivers to get hikers into, out of town.
  • Volunteer for a trail club if you live near one or consider working on a trail crew.
  • Learn best Leave No Trace practices (to help conserve the Trail).
  • Exercise caution. In today’s society, just like anywhere off the trail, individuals are advised to exercise a measure of caution when offering or accepting hospitality from strangers.  Trail angels and hikers should both practice safety awareness.

Caution for both hikers and prospective trail angels:

The National Park Service Visitor and Resource Protection division has received an increasing number of reports of theft, harassment and inappropriate behavior as a result of people taking strangers into their private homes and/or vehicles.  Kindness and helpfulness may be the predominant culture of the A.T., but people need to realize that not everyone who walks the A.T. or lives nearby is “angelic.” Being too trusting or naive can result in finding yourself in a very dangerous situation.