After my tirade calling out thru-hikers who hike with zero money, I thought it appropriate to examine another money-adjacent aspect of the thru-hiking world, trail angels.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of trail angels, they’re basically people who help hikers during their thru-hikes. A trail angel could be someone who picks up a hiker hitchhiking into town, someone at a trailhead who shares a beverage with a hiker, or someone who invites a hiker into their home for a shower, laundry, and place to sleep.
Trail angels render this assistance to hikers without the expectation of compensation. It’s here, within the realm of monetary exchange, we find the crux of this “trail angel” trouble.
The short of it? If you’re asking hikers for money, you’re not a trail angel.
Since the long-distance trails of the United States have risen in popularity, so has the prospect of “trail angeling”.
Many of the original trail angels, former fixtures of the long-distance hiking community, have retired in recent years citing either personal considerations or the influx of hikers as a reason for shuttering their services. That said, hikers will find no shortage of replacement trail angels springing up along the trail.
Historically, if a trail angel goes above and beyond for a hiker (or hikers) – especially if the trail angel in question opens up their home – hikers with the means will leave a donation for the trail angel. Some trail angels refuse donations from hikers. Other trail angels require donations from hikers (if you’ve never quite understood what a paradox is, this example is for you).
Requiring a donation (something that by definition is voluntary) strips meaning from the word; there’s no such thing as a mandatory donation. We have words for this; they’re payment, charge, or cost. A compulsory donation is like a margarita with vodka and grapefruit juice; it’s not a thing.
Before you raise your fists in protest, I don’t have a problem with hikers paying in exchange for goods or services. I have a problem with people operating under the banner of trail angel while demanding payment from hikers.
Let’s call these people what they are, unlicensed businesses (or trail pirates, if you prefer).
You’ll most commonly find these folks operating shuttles between towns and trailheads. Not only do these trail pirates take money from hikers, but they also take money from legitimate businesses operating around many trailheads and trail towns. But they can take other forms as well.
Providing accommodation to hikers and requiring a donation? You’re not a trail angel, you’re a hostel. Making meals for hikers and requiring a donation? You’re not a trail angel, you’re a restaurant. Doing hiker laundry and requiring a donation? You’re not a trail angel, you’re a laundromat. Taking candid photos of all the hikers you come across? You’re not a trail angel, you’re a creep.
Should hikers offer donations to trail angels who go above and beyond to help them during their thru-hikes? Absolutely, they should. Should hikers feel compelled (or be required) to surrender payment by those rendering services? Absolutely not.
The “angel” part is fundamental to the term “trail angel”. Trail angeling is predicated on the work of altruistic individuals who help hikers with zero expectation of anything in return (although some people take this too far and I’ll be examining this in an upcoming post). Sometimes (if not oftentimes) the greatest trail angels are the ones who are completely unfamiliar with the term – or even unfamiliar with the trail.
Trail angels help hikers without the expectation of anything in return, simple as that. Long-distance trails existed and were hiked before any gained notoriety and before anyone was attempting to establish themselves as a trail angel. Offers of assistance by and serendipitous encounters with trail angels may add value or joy to an individual’s hike, but they are by no means necessary (related reading: Why Water Caches Are Bad for Hikers).
So if you’re out there operating under the guise of “trail angel” and you’re charging hikers to facilitate your “angeling services”, I ask you to reconsider what it is you’re doing (hint: you’re operating an unlicensed business), and I ask hikers to call out these trail pirates for what they are.
Just as people shouldn’t be out thru-hiking without sufficient finances, trail angels shouldn’t be out angeling if they’re going to require hikers to subsidize their efforts. Trail angeling is not a for-profit enterprise. If you’re trail angeling, you should be operating at a loss; nobody is forcing you to be out helping hikers (and ultimately, the hikers don’t need you).