Trail Magic & Leave No Trace: A Hiker’s Responsibility

There are many articles and blogs about Leave No Trace Ethics with respect to Thru-Hiking.  They all have important information, but I often feel like they miss an important point.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn this into a debate about how to wipe your butt.  If that is really what you are looking for, just go to any of the PCT Facebook groups and ask about how people dig a hole.  It will surely start a lively debate.

 What I feel is missing from most Leave No Trace articles is a mention of what a hiker should do when they encounter trail magic.  Many of the articles I have seen place the burden of responsibility on the trail angels.  Many articles ask individuals not to leave trail magic, but to personally hand someone their little piece of heaven.  This is fair and I fully support this opinion.  Unattended food can be eaten by wildlife, which can cause problem animals that will expect food from humans.

Still trail magic is left along the long distance trails.  So, what’s a hiker to do?  The answer is obvious, consume something tasty.  What happens then?  This is where I used to stop thinking and continue on, satisfied having just eaten a honey bun or pop tart.  Free calories.  LIFE. IS. GOOD.  But it doesn’t end there.  What happens with the trash you just accumulated?  You know, the empty can of soda or candy bar wrapper.

Here are possibilities and let us imagine the magic is in a ice chest so that small animals do not get into the food:  I have put these in order of worst Leave No Trace practices to best.

1. Hitch into town and “piggy back” off the existing trail magic by putting your own treats there for other hikers to enjoy.
2. Leave the wrapper generated by consuming trail magic in the ice chest along with the past few day’s worth of trash, wrappers, and old fuel cannisters there as well.
3. Leave the wrapper generated by consuming trail magic in the ice chest.
4. Consume your caloric prize as you walk away with its associated trash.
5. Eat your treat and walk away with the trash generated by you and a little more trash from the cache.

6. Walk away with the whole cooler and deposit all the magic into a hiker box in town so that animals don’t get into it.

Trail Magic Gone Wrong

Trail Magic Gone Wrong (PCTA.org)

The first scenario is terrible, as cases like this can easily get out of control and just turn into something that resembles a garbage heap.  The second can result in an overflowing ice chest with garbage winding up far from the source.  The third, I believe, is the most common practice.  The fourth through sixth are what I would like people to consider standard practice to reduce impact.  These behaviors will also eventually lead to a cleaner trail!  Obviously walking away with the whole cooler is a bit extreme, but in some circumstances, I have been motivated to given the snowball effect of some trail magic.

While thru-hiking, you look to other hikers to see what is socially acceptable.  Just because something is common practice does not mean it is the right thing to do.  Not much thought goes into these small choices because hikers are tired, hungry, dirty, smelly, and trying to make X more miles before the end of the day.  We are so grateful to get calories that we didn’t carry 20 or more miles.  Little thought is put into these fleeting but impactful decisions of what to do with the trash.

Just look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  In order to think critically of how to handle the situation, you need to be quite high on this theoretical pyramid, probably around the level of self-actualization.  All your other needs have to be met before you can think on that level.

A pyramid representing Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

A pyramid representing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

You might think, “But disposing of that trash is not my responsibility!  The trail angel who left the trail magic should come back and pick it up!”

This is not necessarily what happens.  You cannot be sure that someone will take the remains of trail magic.  Sometimes people are only by the trail for the weekend and really want to help thru-hikers, and so they leave something without the intention of taking the trash away later on.  Trail angels might see “drive-by trail magic” as helping hikers, when in fact they are also creating a situation where trash is left in the woods.  This is especially true if thru-hikers do not take responsibility for the trash that they have willingly generated by eating the food.

I hope this article will help hikers think about how to handle different situations with regards to trail magic. Just remember, you are directly involved in how the wilderness is perceived by everyone who visits after you. It is your responsibility to make sure someone visiting nature for the first time sees the world for its beauty and not as a garbage can.  On many city streets, people are paid to pick up trash.  In the wilderness, we are all responsible.

Wherever you are on the Leave No Trace spectrum, please help inform other hikers who might be too hungry or tired to make the best decision.

How do you handle encounters with trail magic?  What have you done when you encounter a large amount of trash possibly from old trail magic?  Please share your ideas so that we can all discuss how to practically tackle this problem.

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8 thoughts on “Trail Magic & Leave No Trace: A Hiker’s Responsibility

  1. Great thoughts John.

    Something else for we thru-hikers to remember is that the rest of the hiking community (day hikers and weekenders) think of the “thru-hikers” as the elite to be modeled after and do as we do. If they see us picking us our messes or instead leaving trash and the like then they will do likewise.

    Actions speak very loudly.

    ’til later
    Gandalf

    Liked by 1 person

      • Well I really messed up. So here’s what I did. Pepper and Trama are coming thru my neck of the desert, and they are coming fast. With my work schedule, its a long shot, but I go for it anyways. They were at Cajon Pass the night before so I figure they should reach the the 173 road crossing about 4-6 pm. I reach the road at 4:30, probably to late but not sure. These guy were flying. So I load up my pack with some magic along with a bucket & lid tied to the back. I head northbound but should have headed south as I learned later from trama that I missed them by 30 minutes. I hike a little over a mile and left the magic on the side of the trail with a letter of encouragement along with a cool little proclamation. My thinking was to leave it far enough in so it wouldn’t be disturbed by us locals, but I unfortunately didn’t give much thought of consequence of such an act. I returned a couple of days later but the bucket was gone. I searched the area really good thinking maybe some coyotes got it but there was no sign or trace of it. What probably happened was Mr. Ranger found it and did the responsible thing and took it back to civilization along with the letter which had my e-mail address on it. Which cancels out my ranger theory cause I would be facing a fine of some sort. Moral of this story is, I just need to get over my fear of thru hikers and meet them face to face with trail magic instead of potentially trashing the desert. The thing is, will they get over fearing me cause I am kinda scary… Excellent post by the way…
        Just Bruce

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hey Bruce! Trail Magic and Leave No Trace Principles exist on a sliding scale, and nobody is perfect. The fact that you went back a few day later is already much better than some! When we got your trail magic, we were very touched and we did take it all with us even though we wished we could share it with others. We just couldn’t be sure we weren’t just leaving trash, since we knew we wouldn’t be back, and we weren’t sure if you would be back either. For Trail Angels that still want to leave magic rather than personally handing it out, the best way is to keep it in something critter proof, and label the date that you left it, an the date that you plan to return. And don’t worry, if you have food in your hands, no thru-hikers in their right mind would find you scary!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Very good post. My husband (currently thru-hiking) and I did a day of trail-angeling outside Big Bear a couple weeks ago during a 3-day hookup. Our cabin happened to be about 20 yards above the trail, so we were able to constantly monitor our cache–we could see hikers stopping from our deck. We collected trash a couple dozen times throughout the day and restocked the treats and beverages. We also left a trash can next to the magic for empty chip bags and cans. Jeremy also grilled some chicken, but we left a sign near the treats box and iced beverages directing hikers to our cabin if they wanted that. After trail-angeling for about 8 hours that day, I strongly believe that anything except water needs to be constantly monitored by the angel, and yes, the hiker should haul out their trash from the trail magic if the angel doesn’t leave a good way to do that. Happy Trails! 🌲

    Liked by 1 person

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