The thru-hiker/trail angel relationship has been put under strain with the increasing popularity of thru-hiking. And it's not just because thru-hikers are hitting the trail with zero money (but that's not helping).
For this article, we're going to define trail angels as being anyone who regularly makes themselves available to hikers or who self-identifies as a “trail angel”. No, this is not necessarily what a trail angel is, nor is it how we should interpret the term (for more on the ambiguity of trail angels, check out this post on trail pirates). However, for the sake of simplicity, in what follows, “trail angel” describes anyone offering assistance to hikers.
We've reached a point where many thru-hikers (or worse, thru-hiker parents/partners/relatives), instead of paying for lodging when weather rolls in or taking advantage of public transportation options (or hitchhiking) now immediately turn to Facebook groups, locals known to the trail community, or other social media channels to solicit help. Thru-hiking requires that you navigate challenging times both on and off the trail.
But how did we get here? To this point where thru-hikers have become embarrassingly dependent on trail angels? To this point where thru-hikers have come to rely so heavily on trail angels that many trail angels now (mistakenly) believe themselves to be a prerequisite to a hiker completing a thru-hike?
Let's take a step back to see where things went wrong.
Imagine a relatively unknown, long-distance hiking trail with a few hundred thru-hikers per year. Someone living near the trail picks up a hiker hitchhiking into town one day. They chat with the hiker, learn about the trail, decide this thru-hiking thing is neato, and invite the hiker to stay at their home. Whether or not they knew it, this person is now a trail angel (technically, they could be considered a trail angel as soon as they picked up the hiker).
A year passes. During our trail angel's daily commute, they begin to see more hikers hitchhiking. They decide that in addition to picking up hikers, they'll leave their phone number at the trailhead so that hikers can call for a ride as well. They soon find themselves making multiple trips per day to the trailhead.
The next year there are even more hikers on the trail and in addition to rides, hikers begin soliciting a place to stay from this trail angel – who now is somewhat well-known. Yes, they love helping hikers and being a part of a community, but the increasing number of hikers paired with growing demands soon overwhelm our trail angel.
To continue to be able to support hikers, they begin charging for rides and a place to stay. This now removes them from the category of “trail angel” in the truest sense of the word and puts them into a gray area of “off-the-books business operator”. But we won't go any further down this rabbit hole here; we're focused on the hikers.
Now, imagine this same thing happening up and down the entire trail. What begins as well-intentioned people wanting to help hikers turns into a tangled mess of altruism, profiteering, and people “just trying to cover costs”. Meanwhile, thru-hikers, after being repeatedly offered food, assistance, and/or help from strangers, come to expect it (which leads to its own issues). If you're a thru-hiker, I have something to tell you that you may not like but that you need to hear.
You're not special and nobody owes you anything.
Thru-hiking is not easy. If you're struggling, suffering, or otherwise not enjoying the entirety of your hike, chances are you're doing something right. You're going to get tired, you're going to get rained on, you're going to be cold, you're going to get bit by insects, you're going to have bad days; this is what you are signing up for when you begin a thru-hike.
Fortunately, for you, many people unfamiliar with the trail that you encounter will not immediately recognize this and instead of giving you a dose of reality, they'll probably try to help you. Don't misinterpret their ignorance; being a thru-hiker does not somehow make you more deserving of unsolicited kindness from strangers.
One of the things I strive to do for would-be thru-hikers – more than help with gear choices or logistics – is to temper expectations. Yes, thru-hiking is glorious, but with great glory (oftentimes) comes, as previously mentioned, great suffering.
Sometimes that means having to wait 6+ hours on the side of the road in the blistering desert sun trying to get a ride into town. Sometimes it means getting giardia, shitting your pants, and holing up in a hotel for a few days (remember to wash/sanitize your hands regularly and not reach into bags of food – especially other people's bags). Sometimes it means having to watch happy families escape the rain at a trailhead in their dry and heated vehicles while you, wet and borderline hypothermic, hike another three hours and set up your shelter that's still wet from last night.
“Oh no, an unexpected storm rolled in! I just came off the trail and myself, along with all my gear, is soaked. Do any trail angels have room to put up a hiker tonight?”
Cringeworthy, I know. Let's unpack what's wrong with the far-too-common occurrence.
Sure, some trail angels would happily help you out in this situation, but (justifiably) not all. The term trail angel is rooted in the above example of the passing motorist picking up our thru-hiker. This motorist, or trail angel, simply appeared when the hiker needed them. Now, I don't believe in angels for the same reason I don't believe in vampires or merfolk (RIP Aquaman), but I'm pretty sure that angels don't serve at the beck and call of us humans.
Trail angels appear unsolicited – when you need them most. And sometimes they don't appear and you're just left to get your life together on your own. It's the same with trail magic. You can't ask for trail magic. If you approach a day hiker and ask them for a beer, even if they give you one, that's not trail magic. That's just you bumming a beer off someone.
So thru-hiker, do yourself a favor and stop begging for charity from strangers. If someone takes time out of their life to help improve the quality of your hike – whether that means offering you a much-needed beverage or a place to stay – be grateful, say thank you, and recognize that you are now in this person's debt. You signed up for a thru-hike and the challenges that come with it, the world owes you nothing.
Don't get me wrong, anonymous thru-hiker, you're doing an impressive thing, but you're also
kinda on vacation. You got yourself into whatever mess you're in; you need to get yourself out.