Ask a Thru-Hiker: How Can I Be a Trail Angel?

So you want to help thru-hikers? There are a lot of great ways to do it. Veteran hiker Liz "Snorkel" Thomas talks you through them.

Photo: Matt Champlin / Moment via Getty

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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,

I live near a long trail and see thru-hikers every year. I’d like to help them out. Do you have suggestions for how I can be a helpful trail angel? What do hikers want most and how do you recommend I provide it?

Helping Hand

Dear Helping,

Thank you on behalf of hikers everywhere for your interest in helping us along our journeys, no matter how grubby or tired we are. For trail angels, it can be rewarding to see hikers’ pure gratitude for comforts as simple as cold water, a snack, or relief from the cold or heat. For hikers, the morale boost of a little trail magic can be a bright spot in their day, or even the push that keeps them from quitting and gives them the hope to carry on. 

There are many ways to be a trail angel. Some trail angels give their phone number out on hiker forums and offer rides from trailheads into nearby towns. Other trail angels may open up their house to hikers at no cost (although polite hikers should offer a donation). Other trail angels offer food or drink to hikers right at the trailhead. 

If you’re just starting out, I recommend you begin by doing in-person trail magic right at the trailhead, as it allows you to time exactly when you want to help hikers and doesn’t involve giving out personal information like your address. 

Giving trail magic in the form of food and drink can be one of the easiest ways to help hikers out. All you need to do is find a trailhead and set up a feed station for hikers. While major trailheads could be easier for you to access, that may already be a point where thru-hikers intend to leave the trail to go into town. In that case, they may be less interested in trail magic and more interested in getting to where services are available. Some of the best trail magic is when trail angels find trailheads off dirt roads “in the middle of nowhere,” where hikers will be especially surprised to find people with a treat. 

If you want to feed or provide cold drinks to hikers, don’t leave food or drink unattended. There are too many instances of wildlife like bears and rats getting into food left behind “for hikers” and trashing the trail. Plus, if you serve hikers food yourself, you get to see their happy faces. Thru-hikers are most interested in the type of food that is best served in person, like burgers. (Though to be honest, thru-hikers will eat pretty much anything.)

Slinging burgers and hot dogs at a remote trailhead can be fun, too, especially when you bring a tent or RV and get cozy for a day or two. Here are some of the things most hikers like:

Food and drink:

  • Cold sodas or fizzy water or hot coffee/cocoa (if it’s a cold day)
  • Any perishable food items: anything grilled up in front of them, fresh fruit of any variety, especially watermelon, vegetables, salads of any variety from green lettuce to potato salad, sandwiches, or ice cream.
  • Hikers appreciate breakfast all day. Better yet, a hot breakfast is often less expensive to make in large quantities. Consider making pancakes, eggs, hash browns, cereal with milk, and fresh fruit. 
  • While hikers will eat food like chips, candy, dried fruit, oatmeal, nuts and jerky, chances are they are carrying something similar in their backpack (and may be tired of eating it after 1,000 miles of hiking). Consider bringing heavy foods that typically require a grill to cook or refrigeration to store and will feel like more of a treat. 

Camp chairs. Hikers have been standing or sitting in the dirt for weeks or months. Sometimes, there’s nothing quite like sitting in a chair. 

Shade or protection from rain. If it’s a sunny day, consider bringing a pop-up tent, umbrella, or other way to shade hikers (and yourself). If it’s cold and wet, hikers will appreciate a chance to get out of the rain for a half-hour.

A way to charge electronics. These days, hikers use their phones as cameras, GPS navigation, emergency communicators, a way to identify plants and wildlife, and a way to stay in touch with loved ones at home. Those in an RV may consider bringing an extension cord and a power strip. If you don’t have an RV, a big battery will do.

Extra water. Most hikers will be most interested in drinking sodas or hot coffee on a cool day. But some may appreciate the ability to top off their water bottles, especially if they’re on a long waterless stretch. I’d recommend bringing a big jug of water rather than single-use bottles, as most hikers already have a favorite bottle they use. You can also use the jug for things like a handwashing station.

Baby wipes. Not every hiker will take you up on it, but some hikers will welcome the chance to wipe the dirt off their face, hands, and even body. Baby wipes are heavy and most hikers don’t bring them, or only carry one sheet a day. A big pack of diaper wipes will be enjoyed by many hikers.

Trash bags. The rules of Leave No Trace mean hikers have to pack out any wrappers or other trash they brought into the woods. Hikers generally dislike carrying the bulk and weight of trash, but we all know it’s the right thing to do. Hikers will be thrilled if you offer to take their trash so they don’t have to carry it all the way to the next town they visit.

Rides into town. It’s very likely that a hiker who is injured or having an especially hard time may ask you for a ride into town. Decide beforehand how you will handle these situations. Will you stop offering food to other hikers to give this hiker a ride? Will you ask the hiker to wait? Being aware this is a possibility and knowing what works for you helps prevent awkward situations. 

Hand sanitizer. OK, this one is more for you: thru-hikers get filthy. Never shake a hiker’s hand, and encourage them to use hand sanitizer (or bring a wash station) before they eat. This will protect you from getting stomach bugs like giardia or other diseases transmitted by poor hiker hygiene. 

It’s worth noting that trail angels shouldn’t expect money from hikers in exchange for food, other items, or rides. You can take donations, but selling items or charging for rides on public land is illegal and can result in a big fine. 

That said, you will get paid—in funny stories, gratitude, and maybe even some friends for life. I know thru-hikers who mailed trail angels postcards every month along their journey. I know many hikers who come back and visit trail angels in the off-season. I know hikers who did home construction for trail angels after they finished their hike. I even know trail angels who hired hikers for tech jobs. 

Ask hikers questions and get to know the hikers you help; follow their blog or Instagram, if they have one. In so many ways, the trail provides a space where we can share and get to know others in a way that never seems to happen back at home. 

From 2023