“Trail magic.” Nothing so stirs the heart of a thruhiker. Or the stomach. (What’s the difference?)
You stumble through the desert heat to get to the shade of an overpass, or you barrel down the mountainside to get to a little pass. You’re exhausted. You’re going to take off you pack and sit and lie down and possibly die and that’s entirely okay with you. But then you notice something. A cooler hidden in the bushes? A little box with a rock on top and a shopping bag half-full of candybar wrappers? A pile of gallon water-jugs but you haven’t had clean water in a hundred miles? A guy with a grill making grand slam breakfasts at ten thousand feet and how the hell did he get up there?
After a hard morning’s hike – or day’s – or week’s – there is nothing better. It might fill your stomach. It might save your life. It will make you feel wonderful – loved and respected – and it will put a hundred miles in your gastank.
WHAT IS TMAJ?
Thruhikers love arguing over definitions. Are you a thruhiker if you skipped 20 miles out of 2650? Does it matter if you skipped because of natural reasons (wildfire) or your own necessity (broke your leg) or just because you didn’t want to hike those 20 thankyouverymuch? Trail magic is no different. I could go on and on. But I’m going to spare you – and delete the eight paragraphs I just wrote – and say: trail magic is when a non-hiker sets out to give things to hikers on the trail.
Non-hiker: anyone not currently on the trail where they’re doing magic. If you’re in the middle of a thru and you share your M&Ms with your tramily, you’re not doing trail magic. You’re a saint, or you’re crazy (and? and.), but you ain’t doin’ tmaj.
Sets out: I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve fallen into step with a day-hiker, and after a few miles, or a few minutes, they offer me something from their pack. It’s a wonderful thing. I may even have learned a thing or two about subtly encouraging it! But it isn’t trail magic. Magic is something one goes out specifically to do. Tmaj requires intent. (Yep, there’s the law school coming through.)
Hikers: Kind of the follow-up from the last one. If you’re just doing it for one specific hiker, that’s not trail magic. Part of the magic is that it’s granted to any hiker just because they’re a hiker. It’s a gift to the community. That’s why it’s so magical.
Things: Sometimes you’ll run across someone who’s out on the trail solely to offer services to thruhikers. A crunchy old DIYer offering to help repair gear, or an EMT who thru’d last year who’ll look at your bumps and blisters. They’re trail angels. Through and through. But angels perform services, whereas magic offers things.
On the trail: If you roll up to a hiker hostel and hand out the contents of a 30-rack, you’re buying yourself a lot of love and I strongly encourage this sort of purchase. But real trail magic happens on the trail. In the middle of your hike. In the middle of dang nowhere. It is a ray of sunshine cutting into the Green Tunnel, or a bit of shade along the Cheryl Strayed Highway. It is the intersection of the real world with our world. It’s a moment of civilization – and then you dive right back into the wild.
SILVER’S RULES OF TMAJ
1] ALL TMAJ IS GOOD TMAJ.
What I’m offering here is advice on how to do it better. But I want to make absolutely clear that the worst trail magic is still absolutely god damned magical and you should do it. You absolutely should.
2] LISTEN TO THE THRU.
It’s always great to get magic’d. But in certain places or contexts, it means so much more.
It’s nice to have a cup of cool water in the woods. In the middle of the Mojave, it’s better than a week in Valhalla. It’s nice to have a cup of coffee at dawn. At dusk, it might not be every hiker’s fancy. At a road where every hiker is going to hitch into town, they don’t need candy bars; they’re about to go smash townfood. Whereas 50 miles between towns, a candy bar is worth so much more… and to get real food, even hot food, is nothing short of a miracle.
Don’t let this deter you. It’s the sort of thing you learn. Listen to thruhikers. Just as we listen to the thru.
3] YOUR WEIGHT IS OUR WONDER.
A thruhiker carries their whole world on their back. A non-hiker focuses on the “their whole world” part. A hiker focuses on the “carry” part. Self-sufficiency sure ain’t easy but being a human pack mule is hard, hard, hard. A thruhiker will go to great lengths – absurd lengths – self-mortifying lengths – not to carry heavy things. As such, if you magic them something light, it’s lovely; but if you magic them something heavy, may you live to be a thousand years old.
This rule expresses the hiker maxim “a Coke is worth more than coke on a thru.” And by ‘hiker maxim’ I mean ‘thing I said to Arc, Raz and Woodpecker once’ :-)
4] IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS IN LIFE.
We don’t want steak tartare. We want hot dogs. We’d rather have two root beers than one glass of Chateauneuf. Sure I’ll eat six hamburgers but some days I’d rather have six squares of toilet paper. “Give me your trash!” are the four greatest words in the world.
-More people do trail magic on weekends and holidays, just because that’s when they’re free. Do tmaj on a Wednesday; be a legend.
-If the weather’s bad for you, it’s a bit worse for us. Do tmaj in the rain, or the snow, or desert heat; be a hero.
-There’s nothing worse than meeting a hiker going the other way who tells you there’s trail magic up ahead… and by the time you get there, they’re gone. It’s great to set up tmaj and stay there all day. It’s super, super great to do it until dark, regardless of when you get there. If you have to pull out early, maybe leave a little something behind for those who’ll come later.
-Every trail has a season. If you do tmaj on the AT in Georgia in April, you might see a hundred people a day. In Maine in April, you might not see a living soul. But on the other hand, doing tmaj in the off-season can be really incredible – you might only see one poor cold sobo, but you are going to give her the best thing that’s happened to her all day. If not all week!
-The farther away from town, the more appreciated the tmaj.
-If you’re doing tmaj near a town: match what the town has (i.e. offer real food, not trail food); OR offer something to prepare people for town (coffee and beer) (…coffee and beer). The latter works really well with trail angeling: just sit by the trailhead and offer rides to hikers… and here’s a Gatorade and a sandwich, too!
-The less expected, the more appreciated. There’s nothing cooler than coming across tmaj in the middle of the woods. Long trails are often intersected by roads in the strangest of places. Find out where the country roads are. Find out where the dirt roads are. Drag a keg to the top of the mountain and live in myth forever.
-If you live near a dry stretch of trail: hand out water, and be a hero.
-If you’re serving food, give hikers a way to clean their hands before eating. If you set up somewhere near a sink, great! If there’s any relatively clear water source nearby, bring some soap and paper towels. If nothing else: paper towels and hand sanitizer. Or a giant box of baby wipes.
-In fact, I recommend you insist. I’ve never seen a hiker respond to “hep! clean your hands first!” with anything other than a wry grin. Because we will not remember, and if we do, we will not be strong enough to force ourselves… but we know we should. (Hat tip to Fishtank and all the others who do this.)
-There’s no wrong answer. We’re thruhikers. If it eats, we gon eat it. If you give it to us, you are a saint.
-Food that can be eaten with the hands is generally your best bet. But if you have a bag of buns, honey, a thru-hiker can make anything into a sandwich. (Literally. Anything. DON’T ASK.)
-Vegan options are really appreciated by a lot of hikers. And not just vegans; all hikers are chronically lacking in the healthier food groups. (“What’s a vitamin?”) You’d be surprised how fast a bag of Clementines can disappear.
-Hot food is incredible. If you set up a gas grill, like Pigpen and Pollenmoon did on my thru, you’re going to be talked about for hundreds of miles. Pancakes? Scrambled eggs? Hot dogs? Hamburgers? There ain’t no wrong answer.
-The same with cold food. If you, somehow, can get us ice cream bars, you are the stuff of which dreams are made.
-Condiments can be a magical experience. Some days, the mustard was better to me than the hot dog. Sriracha will make you a lot of friends. So will plain old salt.
-In general, I would recommend not offering granola bars; oatmeal; or peanut butter. Because most hikers eat these foods most of the time and their novelty tends to wear mighty thin.
-We can eat a lot. The farther you are into a thruhike, the more you can eat. If you offer someone a hamburger, they will eat it. But they might be perfectly, and reasonably, ready to eat 4 or 5. At the very least, be prepared before you offer them this boon. (The same goes for offering people food to pack out.)
-Candy – and children’s food in general – is going to appeal to us. Probably to an extent that will shock you. Roll with it.
-We are burning sometimes 10,000 calories a day. We don’t need diet soda. We don’t need “healthy” food if “healthy” means low-calorie. In fact, we probably don’t even need healthy food at all. It’s a nice thought! If you have it, we’ll appreciate it to no end! But we’re going to drop two ramen bombs before the day is through, so, don’t worry about giving us peanut butter cups. We can handle it. We promise.
-Cold is good. But warm is still really really good.
-It’s never not right to have water.
-If you’re giving out alcohol, it’s a really really good idea to offer water too.
-Sports drinks are wonderful. There are times when I’ve gotten to town and immediately drank three Gatorades. This experience in the middle of the day, in the middle of the woods, in the middle of a long water carry… priceless. Literally bloody priceless.
-Citrus juices don’t tend to go over very well. Fruit/veg juices, like V8 Splash, have a cult following. Drinks that are clearly made specifically for kids – like those little squeezy bottles full of Grape Drink – can be really wonderful in warm temperatures. Milk drinks, and protein drinks, are great if they’re cold. Coffee and tea drinks are great always forever.
-Single-serving is preferable. If you’re going to bring big bottles or jugs, you also need to bring cups for us. A lot of thruhikers do not carry clean cups. Hell, I did the PCT without a clean water bottle.
-If you give out beer, you are as unto a God. Period.
-What kind of beer, you ask? That is actually an interesting question.
The short answer is that, LORD but there is no wrong answer. However, the general answer is: mostly light beer; variety is great; radlers are great.
-“Mostly light beer.” A lot of hikers start out as microbrew conoisseurs. They don’t tend to stay that way. When you’ve been sweating up a storm for a few straight days, and been chronically dehydrated for what seems like half of forever, you probably don’t want a double chocolate stout. You probably don’t want a hoppy DIPA. What you probably want is lawnmower beer. Cold. Clear. Smashable. AMURICA.
-“Variety is great.” Out in the bushland, being able to choose between Black Ale, and Slightly Darker Black Ale, is better than a trip to Cantillon. Throw a few variety packs in a cooler and it’s just such a treasure to browse through it, I can’t even begin to tell you, it’s one of the best feelings in the world.
-“Radlers are great.” By which I mean, fruit beers; beers with fruit in them; or really anything that sits at the intersection of sports drink and boozydrink. Hard lemonade? Yes. Twisted Tea? #hikertrash4life. When I’m in town I usually get a gose if it’s available. In Wellie I bought a mixed six of Belgian sours and it made Christie almost as happy as it made Bram the Belgian.
-There are worse things to offer than low-alcohol beers. Session ales are hiker-friendly as.
-It’s wonderful, simply wonderful, to offer wine as well.
-You know those little one-glass bottles of wine? Those things are such a luxury in the woods. Seriously appreciated. Something with some sweetness, or some bubbles, is like the elixir vitae. A can of sparkling moscato might be $1.49 at a gas station and purchasable only with a fake ID, but in a burn zone on a mountainside it is worth its weight in silver.
-I was going to say that I’d never gotten a canned pre-mixed cocktail as trail magic, but then I remembered the RTDs I got from The River-Bogans on the Whanganui. And. Um. Yep. Endorsed. Silver’s Seal Of Endorsement.
FOOD TO GO
-It’s always lovely to give people food (or drink!) to go.
-This can mean giving them trail food (i.e. light, nonperishable, prepackaged, or ~), or just letting them pack out a second burger for later.
-If you are going to offer trail food, you want to either be A) far away from the next resupply; B) offering gourmet trail foods that most hikers can’t afford; or C) at a resupply point, and offering enough food to get the hikers to the next resupply point, thus to allow them to skip a town. (C is Advanced Magic, but can be quite wonderful.)
-“Trail food that hikers can’t afford” always includes jerkied meat, dried fruit, and chocolate. Beyond that: the more gourmet of bars; ramen that isn’t Top Ramen; single-serving bags of pretentious chips; just anything you can buy at Whole Foods, really.
-Most hikers will eat tortillas (or ~), with or as most meals, most of the time. If you offer any other sort of bread, it will be well appreciated. Small loaves work great. And really, any fresh baked goods, especially if you also bring little bags to put them in. (Hikers have a thing about iced cinnamon buns. #protip)
-Hikers love packing out fruit. In my experience they are more likely to pack out fruit than they are to eat it at a tmaj setup. Clementines are great. Apples so-so but they work. If you offer little packets of peanut butter or nutella, apples or bananas will fly. But I have to say, a ripe or near-ripe avocado is some of the best tmaj in the universe. Ten out of ten. Hiker take. Hiker happy. Hiker love you forever.
-I’ve even seen people handing out premade sandwiches, individually wrapped. And may the light of heaven shine upon thee!
-There’s two ways to do tmaj: either stay there and give out food, or just leave food for hikers to take. There’s no wrong answer.
-If you leave food, make sure you do it in a way that is visible. Put it in a bright-colored container. Put it right on the trail.
-But do it in a way that is only visible from the trail. If you stop at the edge of a road, walk your tmaj up the trail a hundred yards. This assures that only hikers will get to it.
-Put a sign on it saying “TRAIL MAGIC.” You might also put on “THRU HIKERS ONLY” – or “PCT HIKER ONLY” if you don’t want to be down on LASHers.
-I recommend putting a date on the container. Especially if you’ve got perishable things on it – you don’t want to come across a bag of home-baked cookies but not know how long they’ve been there. I mean, you’ll eat them anyway, but you’ll be worried about it!
-Worry about critters! In general, you want to put your foods in a big Igloo cooler with a large rock on top. If you’re at a camp site, you can put tmaj into a bear box – just make sure it’s clearly marked inside the box, and there are signs telling you to look inside! If there’s a shelter with a door, you can put tmaj inside… but practice mouse safety as necessary.
-Critter safety is doubly important if you’re intending to leave your benifience on trail overnight.
-Make sure you put out a trashbag too. If you’re tmaj will generate recyclables, put out two bags. Always two bags, because otherwise you will get trash mixed in to your cans.
-Don’t forget to pick up the containers! Leave No Trace rules apply to you too. And, um, we sure as hell ain’t gonna pack out anything as heavy as an Igloo.
-If you’re putting out a register for hikers to sign, make sure to put it in the container. Mice will eat it. Promise.
THINGS THAT AIN’T FOOD
-In general: you want your trail magic to include some food or drink. But it can be really useful and wonderful for you to have other disposable items on offer. Such as:
-Toilet paper. The best thing to do is to get a big box of those little Kleenex packs and let people take one or two. If you’re feeling fancy, you can also offer those little 10-packs of baby wipes, hikers will snap those up like they’re golden geese. Otherwise just bring a few rolls of TP and let hikers rip off a bit for themselves. It’s very nice – and shows you know our lives.
-Buy a big thing of hand sanitizer, with a squirt top. Let hikers refil their little bottles of hand sanitizer. Pig and Pollen did this and I thought it was brilliant.
–The same goes for toothpaste. Or, get a few dozen travel sizes of toothpaste (or hand san) and hand them out. They will be taken.
-Zip-loc bags. Little ones. Big ones. Will be taken.
-AA/AAA batteries. Will be taken.
-The ability to charge things. If you happen to have a few battery packs and cables kicking around, bring them and let hikers charge their stuff while they’re at your tmaj. (There are some gadgets that let you charge off your car battery, which might be a hell of an investment for you if you’re tmajicking out of your trunk.)
-Band-aids. Oh oh oh, one year my mother gave out glow-in-the-dark Band-aids on Halloween, instead of candy, and literally every kid thought it was the best thing ever. And hikers, in case you haven’t noticed, are LITTLE KIDS. So. Um. Recommended.
-Leukotape will be snapped up hard. Moleskin probably. Compeed definitely. Duct tape not a bad idea.
-Packets, as from fast food restaurants, will often be taken and packed out. Hot sauce packets. Soy sauce packets. Honey packets. Mayo packets – we call thems WHITE GOLD on the trail. I love those little packets of powdered lime to put in my ramen (#protip). Packets of sports drink or just single serving tubes of Crystal Light.
-Bottles of Advil/Tylenol will get used at the tmaj. The same goes for Pepto-Bismol, and multivitamins, and – if I’m there – caffeine pills. If you buy blister packs of these pills, cut them up into individual pills and people will indeed pack them out. (Shout out to the Burney Guest Ranch for selling individual pills at cost. People listen to us! I truly can’t convey how wonderful this was.)
-Hikers love things that present the vague illusion of health. If you put out a box of Airborne packets, those things will goddam disappear.
-It’s not a bad idea to have a dozen little matchbooks or boxes of matches, just in case there’s a hiker who needs it. They probably won’t, but an unexpected lighter death can be real trouble – and an unexpected ten-cent book of matches could make you a hero.
DAT W33D THO
-Not my area of specialty. But let me just say that hikers are not generally averse to such things. And that includes packing out some for later.
-Some trail magic will require you to perform some task in order to get access to it. Silent Pete made us rake a bag of leaves at the cemetery where he set up. Some hikers don’t like this. I, personally, love it.
-The same is true of making hikers help in meal prep. But I would generally caution against this, only because… hygeine. :-(
-It’s a nice thing to have hikers sign in at tmaj. This whether or not you’re there. It lets us express our gratitude, which feels good! But also, lots of registers increases community safety. I recommend it.
-Logbooks are generally a middle-schooler’s spiral-bound notebook. Put in a sample entry of DATE – NAME – COMMENTS and hikers will do the rest.
-Make sure to include a few writing utensils. If it’s going to get below freezing, use mechanical pencils, or #2s and include a little sharpener.
-Make sure to keep the logbook protected. A zip-loc usually suffices.
-I’ve seen magic that brought a big pup tent for hikers to gather under. On a hot sunny day, that’s pretty special.
-Magic ofen brings a few little folding chairs for hikers to sit on. Oh, God, this can make you feel like the damn Monopoly Man.
-The tmaj at Scissors Crossing put down some mats and gave out massage balls and a few foam rollers. That was so cool. Tons of fun.
-Just a little radio playing quiet music can be lovely.
-I mean, if you just happen to have a hula hoop… :-)
-You can totally put out a koha box. That’s fine. Most people don’t, but it’s not uncommon.
-Asking for donations is frowned upon. This is a gift, not a sale. And when you’ve been stumbling through the woods for days, coming upon the sudden promise of tmaj, and it’s someone taking advantage of that situation to sell you something… that is not how we say cricket. Do not want.
-If you’re a religious person – or organization – please be gentle about it. Putting out some literature or Bibles is fine. That lets us choose if we want to engage, and many do. But active evangalizing is frowned upon.
-Some hikers just want to grab and go. Don’t force them to stay and talk. You’re a hero for not breaking their flow.
-Some hikers will want to stay and talk. You might well do more by chatting with them a bit than even by feeding or supplying them.
-Some hikers will get vortexed in. Especially if you have chairs set up. You can discourage this or not – but you can do worse than setting an alarm for every hour, just to let them know how long they’ve been there :-)
-Make sure you use hand sanitizer yourself. Wash your hands with soap and water when you get home.
-Don’t spend more on us than you can afford. This does happen. We ain’t worth it! We appreciate you beyond what we can convey, but don’t hurt yourselves to help us. Unless your name is Terrie Anderson you fucking QUEEN.
-Thank you for even considering doing trail magic. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to be the recipient of it. It’s special in a way that’s hard to convey. Thank you.
-…I mentioned the beer, right?
davekov dot com