Trail angels, as their name implies, are lovely people. They are hiking fans and people who love nature, the trails and the great outdoors. And they love helping people.
The Appalachian Trail, considered the granddaddy of America’s long-distance hiking trails, is perhaps most famous for its trail angels. The angels there stash water and food for hikers to enjoy. But they do so much more, too.
One fellow in Arizona sets up his RV at an Arizona Trail (AZT) trailhead for a week or so. He welcomes hikers to stop by even if he’s not there. He makes sure to have lots of water on hand – water is a rarity on this desert trail – plus beer, snacks and more.
Another fellow is currently advertising on the AZT Class of 2019 Facebook page that he will also have an RV set up with supplies at a different trail crossing. In addition, hikers can ask him to grab items they need, like more stove fuel. If he’s able to fulfill your request, he will do so. He is asking for payment for the special requests, but not for the other items.
Most of the associations that run our 11 National Scenic Trails (and likely other trail associations, too) have lists of people who have volunteered to help hikers by being trail angels. The lists generally specify what people are willing to do, such as shuttle you to trailheads, put you up at night, let you use their laundry facilities, etc.
Yet while these angels are freely volunteering to do these things, we hikers must treat them well. What does that mean?
- Always offer to pay for gas if they’re shuttling you somewhere.
- If they’re putting you up at night, be a quiet, neat and clean guest. You may also wish to spring for pizza for dinner, or for coffee the next morning.
- Be polite. Say “please” and “thank-you.” I’ve been astonished, and mortified, to learn from trail angels that more than a few hikers act entitled to their kindnesses. Please don’t be one of them. That’s being true “Hiker Trash.”
- Don’t overstay your welcome. One rather famous hiker was welcomed into a trail angel’s home during a hot spell. The guy began to enjoy his stay a little too much, and after several days had to be shown the door. One night’s stay is plenty, unless you have extenuating circumstance.
Be aware that if you offer trail angels money for assistance, namely money for gas, some will politely refuse. You have to respect that, too. But you can also encourage them to take the money and donate it to the trail association or local trail association chapter instead. Today, trails organizations are constantly starved for cash. Every $5 or $10 or $20 donation they get is golden.
Unwitting Trail Angels
Besides official trail angels, there are loads of people across the country, and around the world, who don’t even realize they’re trail angels. When I was hiking the Ice Age Trail in 90-degree weather, I ran out of water on a few road walks. Desperate, I stopped at several people’s homes and asked if they could spare water and ice cubes. Everyone enthusiastically gave me plenty of both.
When I was hiking the Florida Trail in 2017, many Floridians told me to be careful. They said there were a lot of unsavory characters in the state. More than one male said he would never hike the trail without a dog and a gun. Well, guess what? I ran into lovely people everywhere.
Three times when farm dogs threatened me, people driving past quickly stopped and blocked the dogs so I could keep going. One day, after walking hours in a cold rain, I popped out of the woods and onto a residential street. Two people driving down the road stopped when they saw my water-logged body and asked if I needed a ride into town. One guy took some trash I had.
On the Camino de Santiago in Spain, a man stopped when I flagged him down for help (a farm dog was threatening me and my husband). He let us hop into his car, then drove us about 20 minutes to a hotel in the nearest town. Another time on the Camino, I arrived in a small town in need of water. But it was siesta time and the shops were all closed. I told a local man my problem, and it turned out he had keys to the grocery. Even though he was on siesta, he opened it up and gave me some water, gratis.
Pay It Forward
These are all trail angels in disguise. Thank them, be gracious to them and pay it forward. How? Help people in need. And if you live near a trail, sign up to be a trail angel yourself.