If you're planning on setting off on a thru-hike, you may encounter the terms trail angel and trail magic as you scour the internet for information to better prepare you for the journey ahead. So what are trail angels and trail magic? Trail angels are people who go out of their ways to make life a little (or sometimes a lot) better for hikers.
Trail angels can be impromptu one-offs (someone giving a hiker a lift into town) or well-established names in the thru-hiking community (someone who opens their home year after year to accept hiker resupply packages and provide a safe place to sleep and recharge). Trail magic can be a drink-filled cooler left at a trailhead for hikers or an entire barbeque dinner waiting for hikers at a campground.
The role of trail angels on long-distance trails like the Pacific Crest Trail has been in constant flux over the years. At their core, trail angels should not have to exist for anyone to successfully complete a thru-hike – they are bonuses.
Oftentimes, trail angels are hikers themselves and they understand what weeks or months on the trail will do to a person both physically and mentally (it turns them into a filthy and disgusting delusional maniac). But when it comes down to it, anyone can be a trail angel – regardless of backpacking experience (and they don't have to call themselves a trail angel to be considered one).
Generally, trail angels do not charge for their “services”. Anyone selling food, drinks, or supplies along the trail may be a welcomed sight to a weary hiker, but they are not to be considered a trail angel; they are an opportunist. That said, if you have the means, you should absolutely be offering donations to trail angels. They will likely be refused, but if someone (or someones) is going above and beyond for the trail community, they deserve some support.
Some trail angels maintain caches of food and drinks along the trail whereas others will accept hiker resupply packages, offer rides to/from town, or even put up hikers in their homes.
Needless to say, they're all (for the most part) glorious people.
Sometimes, when you are feeling down on the trail because of lack of food, water, morale, companionship, or sunshine, something unexpected comes along and makes all your troubles disappear.
This is trail magic.
Said magic can manifest itself in a variety of ways along the trail: a water cache in the middle of a long desert stretch, a surprise hiker picnic serving up freshly cooked meals, some cocaine-packing strippers joining you at your campsite, or even a magical woodland toilet facilitating the comfortable expulsion of bodily waste (reading material included).
However, like a leprechaun, if you are looking for it, you are not going to find it. The magic of the trail cannot be counted on or sought out. Yet should you find yourself showered in the magic of the trail, it will surely serve as a comforting reminder of why you decided months ago (years ago?) to embark on your hike in the first place.
A Word of Warning
As amazing as trail angels and trail magic are, you would be wise to avoid the mistake of expecting either.
The trail owes you nothing. The trail towns owe you nothing. The people using the trail at the same time as you owe you nothing. Yes, be grateful for and bask in the splendor of everything you receive on the trail (don't forget to say “yes“), but don't fall into the trap of suddenly thinking yourself superior.
Have fun out there, friends.