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Ask a Thru-Hiker: What Do Hikers Owe Trail Angels?

They offer rides, places to stay, food, and more, and never ask anything in return. But thru-hikers still owe a debt of gratitude to trail angels. Here are some ideas on how to repay it.

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Do you dream about hitting the trail for a long—really long—hike? In Ask a Thru-Hiker, record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your burning questions about how to do it.

Dear Snorkel,

One of the most magical parts of going on a long hike is learning to accept the kindness of trail angels—strangers who help hikers along the way, in all the many ways that we need it. Now that I’m done with my hike, I’d like to give back. Beyond saying “thank you,” what are some creative ways thru-hikers can show gratitude to trail angels?

Hiking the Appreciation Trail

Dear Appreciation,

Whether it’s a ride into town, a place to stay, or a trailside burger cookout, trail angels can boost a hiker’s mood on a hard day of walking. Some trail angels are well known in the hiking community for opening their houses to long-distance walkers. Other trail angels may be unfamiliar with thru-hiking or the trail, but are willing to pick up a hitchhiker. Whoever they are, all trail angels have one thing in common: They don’t have to help hikers, but they do it anyway.

As you discovered, learning that people are willing to help strangers out of the kindness of their heart is one of the best lessons thru-hiking offers. In a world where it is easy to believe that everyone is out for themselves and we must be independent, accepting and receiving can be an act of hope and healing. 

Thru-hiking often puts us in situations that feel desperate—hunger, fatigue, and even occasional injury. In these situations, it’s easier to be open to trusting others. Showing gratitude is a key part of the process. Here are some creative ways thru-hikers can show trail angels how much trail magic means to us.

Trail Angels Who Offer Rides

Whenever I hitchhike, I like to offer the driver some cash to cover gas, usually $5-10 if the ride is short. 95% of the time, drivers decline and tell me they were headed that way anyway. (Note: if the driver went out of their way, I offer a lot more and expect them to take it). But it sends the message that thru-hikers want to contribute to the local community and that thru-hikers are courteous and thoughtful hitch hikers. In some trail towns, like Julian, CA, or Trout Lake, WA, retired locals hang around trailheads to give hikers rides and hear fun stories. Since they likely weren’t heading that way for any reason but to help hikers, it’s a good practice to at least cover their gas or offer to buy them a slice of pie or a huckleberry smoothie. 

Trail Angels Who Open Their Houses to Hikers

Some trail angels let hikers camp in their yard or have set up a hiker bunkhouse in their garage. You may find their address or phone number listed on an online trail forum, with a trail organization, or through word of mouth among hikers.

A trail angel’s house is not an establishment where you are required to pay. But among the thru-hiking community, making a donation of $20 to $40 is a best practice. Trail angels who do your laundry, let you shower, and receive packages can easily spend $10,000 of their personal income each year just on helping hikers. Costs from water, heat, soap, and electricity to charge your phone all add up. If the trail angel feeds you, that adds more to their bill.

Your donation keeps the lights on and ensures that the trail angel can afford to continue to operate in future years, and in some cases, even expand hiker-helping infrastructure like adding a shower. It’s also a way to insert some money into the local economy of trailside towns and reinforce the value of outdoor recreation in rural communities. If you can afford a beer in town, then you can afford to donate to a trail angel. 

Non-Monetary Ways to Contribute

Making a donation is not a get-out-of-being-helpful card. When you stay at a trail angel’s house, they aren’t there to serve you. If you want to avoid feeling obligated to share trail stories and just want to kick up your feet and watch TV, stay at a hotel instead. 

When staying with a trail angel, ask if they have any chores or tasks that need to be done around their home. Can you cook a meal? Clean their kitchen or bathroom? Do you have handy skills to fix a leaky faucet or build a shed? The strength to move a heavy item?

This is especially good practice if you are staying with a trail angel for multiple days to recover from an injury or wait for friends to catch up. 

Following Up

Many thru-hikers befriend their trail angels and stay in touch for the length of their trail, either by texting or emailing photo updates of where they are, sending postcards along the way, or swapping social media handles. 

After I finish my hike, I print photo thank you cards and send them to trail angels, hiker hostels, and helpful business owners and post offices along the way. I recently ran into a hiker who worked at a gear store that received one of my thank you cards from a trail I hiked years ago. He instantly recognized me and told me how much he enjoyed having that follow-up after I finished my trip.

After thru-hiking the PCT, I sent a thank you card and a check for gas money to an elder trail angel who drove 40 miles up a dirt road several times a week to cache water. She wrote back saying how much she appreciated getting a card, since she didn’t often get to meet hikers while caching. She also mentioned that since she was on a fixed income, she appreciated the gas money.   

Thanking trail angels can go a long way towards building goodwill towards hikers. Who knows? You may even build lifelong friendships that are as rewarding as the hike itself.

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