Final Thoughts: Benton MacKaye Trail Potential Appalachian Trail Alternate

Now that we’re home from the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT), I’ve had some time to think about what useful information I could impart on others regarding this trail.

Here are my final thoughts:

I think the BMT is an excellent choice as an alternate for the first ~300 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT), especially for folks with prior backpacking experience as well as folks looking for a little more solitude at the beginning or end their thru-hike.

The BMT easily intersects the AT at the beginning (Springer Mountain), in the middle (Fontana Dam), and at the end Davenport Gap, so you can pick and choose your route.  I really think more long distance hikers should consider using this trail instead of the AT because of how crowded that section of the AT is during thru-hiker season.

The BMT is definitely a bit more difficult than the AT, but I think it was more of what we would have been looking for at the beginning of our AT hike.  There are practically no thru-hikers (we met only one), and not even many section/day hikers in many of the areas, depending on the season.  I think we would have enjoyed the solitude of this trail instead of the abundantly crowded beginning of the AT during thru-hiker season.

The BMT was better marked and somewhat better maintained that I expected, but in all honesty, expectations were quite low.  In some sections it’s well enough marked that you don’t need a map, but you definitely will in some of the less well maintained sections.

Given the blackberry bushes and green briers along with other weeds, I wouldn’t recommend this trail in season (late spring through early fall).  There are enough sections that would be completely overgrown to make the hiking less than enjoyable during the normal hiking season, and probably quite a bit harder to follow as well.  I recommend either early spring, late fall or a winter thru-hike– which lines up well with AT thru-hiker seasons in that area.

The easiest sections were northern GA (basically the first 100 miles of trail), and the Smoky Mountains (basically the last 100 miles of trail).  In both of these sections, you can up your mileage and even do some night hiking if you’re so inclined.  In the middle 100 miles, the trail was overgrown, narrow, harder to follow, significantly harder in terms of steepness, and I would not recommend trying to night hike, unless you enjoy wandering around lost in the woods at night.

Water was not an issue.  The longest stretch without water was maybe 10 miles at most (Topoco Lodge to Fontana Dam), but more commonly 5-7 miles at most, and often times you’re crossing many streams in a valley for half the day.  There are at least 3 stream fords, all in the Smokies, but there may be more if there has been any significant rain.

Camping spots are not all over the place like on the AT, sometimes you have to be a bit more creative about finding a spot.  A map is somewhat handy for this to find where there are gaps, or somewhat flat spots to aim for.  There are two shelters on the trail, one in Cherry Log, GA, and one in the Smokies (Laurel Gap Shelter).

The BMT is quite remote, and resupply options can be limited in the off season.  Depending on how many resupply points you plan on, I would definitely send a box to yourself at the Reliance Fly and Tackle and Fontana Dam Village (the front desk, not the post office).  These spots are easy walking distance off the trail, and are roughly well spaced if you only need to resupply every ~100 miles.  If you need more resupply points, you can hitchhike into Blue Ridge (50 miles in) for a full resupply, send a box to Coker Creek Welcome Center (3 mile walk off trail- hitchhiking is not an option), send a box to Topoco Lodge (on trail), or hitchhike into Cherokee for a full resupply.

We finished the trail in 20 days, averaging about 15 miles a day.  I think this is a fairly cushy pace for someone who is used to long distance hiking– it definitely could be done faster.  We did meet someone going less than 10 miles a day, so there are enough resupply points to make a slower pace feasible too.

In terms of weather, we got really lucky.  No snow, no freezing rain, only two small storms, and they both happened when we were already in our tent for the night.  There is at least one section where I would be worried to be stuck there with snow or ice, and that’s the trail between Topoco Lodge and the Hangover in Joyce Kilmer.  I think if there was snow, we would have gotten completely lost.  I’m sure there are other sections that would also be sketchy, but this one stands out in my mind.

My favorite sections of the BMT included Big Frog Wilderness, walking along the Hiwassee River, Joyce Kilmer, and the section of the Smoky Mountains where the trail moves away from Fontana Lake.

Please let us know if you have any questions about the BMT, and we’ll be happy to try to answer!

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Amicalola Falls to Blue Ridge, GA

11/13/17

BMT miles: 3.3

(Total miles 12.3)

We got to the Amicalola Visitor’s Center with the help of our friend Francisco who gave us a ride from Asheville stopping along the way to mail some resupply packages and fuel up with fast food from various notorious fast food chains. We were especially impressed with the quality of American engineering of Francisco’s Ford pickup truck which had a cup holder in the front seat which could accommodate a two liter bottle of soda.

Seven years ago we came to the same spot to start our Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I remembered our shuttle driver, “Survivor Dave,” picking our packs up from the back of his van and asking us, “So, you’re going to carry these heavy packs all the way to Maine?”

Today we quickly snapped some silly photos at the famous arch, and continued on up to Amicalola Falls. Francisco followed us up to the falls and snapped some pictures before bidding us farewell and heading back.

We continued on up the approach trail towards Springer Mountain, the beginning of both the Appalachian Trail and the Benton MacKaye Trail. The approach trail adds about 9 miles to the length of either trail but seems worth it for the beautiful falls at the beginning.

The trail was crowded until we left the falls, and then it died down. We ran into one lady who stopped and asked us if we were headed to the Hike Inn.

“No, we’re hiking the Benton MacKaye Trail,” I replied. “we’re from Asheville, and we’re hiking back home”

“Oh, I’m doing a 10 mile loop” she replied, and proceeded to explain exactly how.

“So where are you headed today?” She asked.

“Somewhere past Springer Mountain, I guess ” I replied.

“Wait, you’re camping outside tonight!?” She proclaimed

“Um, yes,….” I answered.

“It’s going to be 34 degrees tonight!”

“We’ll be fine” I said.

“Uhh, ok, have fun guys” she said, giving us a sideways glance. She started heading away from us.

“I guess she missed the part where I said we were walking home” I said to John , smiling.

We hit Springer Mountain just as the sun was setting between the mountains, and again, it was so weird to be back to the start of the Appalachian Trail. Seven years ago I had no idea there was another trail that started here.

A few hundred feet further, past the AT shelter, we found where the BMT diverged, and found a commemorative plaque.

I thought about how odd it was that the Benton MacKaye Trail started here. According to the plaque, Benton MacKaye had thought of this as a route for the Appalachian Trail, but all I could remember from my history of the AT was that he had envisioned the trail actually starting at Mount Mitchell and finishing on Mount Washington. I guess he must have had many more ideas that I had no clue about.

Darkness started falling, and I let my eyes adjust. Soon I needed to take out my headlamp. Stupidly, I had jerry-rigged an old headlamp that had a small piece of plastic fall off of it where the batteries were being held in, and my repair totally wasn’t working. It just kept turning off and on and off again. We’ll need a new headlamp once we get to town. No way we’re dealing with this.

We finally set up camp at one of the many intersections of the AT and the BMT, and ate some mashed potatoes in the tent before settling in for the night.

I slept pretty terribly- my shoulder hurt most of the night and it was much warmer than I had anticipated so I kept shedding layers and kicking off my extra sleeping bag. John wound up putting the warmer of his two sleeping bags back in his backpack in the middle of the night.

11/14 17.1 miles

We had set the alarm on John’s watch for 6:30am, and it turned out that was the perfect time to wake up. It was just light enough to start packing up the tent without needing a headlamp. We got going and the trail intersected the Appalachian Trail a number of times. The Benton MacKaye Trail is slightly longer than the Appalachian Trail around here, so the mileage on the signs along the AT pointing to Springer Mountain really confused me.

The trail passed along Long Creek where there were many spur trails to waterfalls, which John enjoyed taking pictures of using a new setup he’s trying out with his trekking pole as a tripod.

The trail seemed very easy for most of the day. Gentle ups and downs, but nothing too strenuous, and for the most part not too many rocks and roots. We passed over Toccoa River Bridge, which somehow was an attraction because we passed several groups of people hanging out and walking around that area.

After about 15 miles of hiking, I was pretty tired. I’m definitely not in “thru-hiker shape” and my legs started shaking a bit on the downhill. Just as I was starting to complain about how much downhill there was, we hit a road, and the trail headed straight up a mountain from there. My legs were definitely tired on the uphill too. I couldn’t win. I dragged my feet up the mountain moaning and groaning a bit, and finally we decided to stop hiking at about 17 miles into our day. I knew I could have hiked further, but we’re not in a rush, so what’s the point? It’s good to be out hiking again without a planned destination for each day.

Before we shut our eyes, we looked at the databook and found out that there was a 4 mile road walk towards the end of tomorrow’s day of hiking and we had little option but to complete it at the end of what would now be a 21 mile day. That’s because there’s no camping along the road. So much for unplanned hiking!

11/15 21 miles

The day did not go as planned. The 21 mile day wasn’t exactly planned to begin with, but neither was the difficulty of the first 17 miles of it. The trail itself was well maintained and easy to follow, but it went up and down about a million little hills, sometimes quite steeply.

The layer of dead leaves and acorns added to the challenge, especially on the downhills where we sometimes felt like we were going to slide right off the mountain.

It turns out that John not only eats twice as much as a normal person, he also drinks twice as much too. I figured we could make do with about a liter of water for every 5 miles of hiking, but John managed to guzzle about 5 liters in the first 10 miles of the day. I started to wonder if there was something wrong with him. Water sources were a bit more tricky today than they were yesterday, with unreliable sources being quite a haul off of the trail.

Finally we found a good water source a mile uphill from a road crossing and we sat down to drink and collect more water. As we packed up I noticed that my pole was missing, and we both started to panic. We each were carrying one pole and we needed both of them in order to set up our tent. I also really had to go to the bathroom, and I told John I was going to go further up the hill to dig a hole. John told me he was going to run down the mountain to the road crossing to check for my pole there.

After I finished pooping and filling in my hole, I slid back down the hill to where the water source was and checked one more time for my pole, and found it! It was camouflaged in with the dead leaves. I shouted down the hill to John with no answer. I knew I had to run after him since I had no idea how far back he would go, not knowing that the pole was vin my hand.

I ran maybe a quarter mile downhill shouting the whole way until I heard John answer. He was headed back up. He had just done two extra miles looking for my stupid pole.

We groaned and headed back to where we had dropped our packs and took a break.

The trail didn’t get any easier, and eventually we made it to the top of a mountain with a fire tower, but we were not able to climb it.

We made it to the road at about 4:15pm and started our road walk. Along the way we hit a general store that claimed to have a diner. I got very excited and ran over to it in hopes of having a meal. It was closed. The sign on the door said “starting this week, closed on Wednesdays”. I looked at my watch. It was Wednesday. What were the chances? (Shush.. I know… about one in seven).

A few minutes later, we hit another restaurant, and we could tell by the number of cars parked outside that it was definitely open. We rushed in and asked if we could eat there, and where we should stow our backpacks. They let us bring them to our table, and we sat down and ate a burger and a chicken sandwich with French fries. Of course it was delicious.

By the time we left, the sun was just setting. We had about 3 more miles of road walking before the trail headed into the woods. We took out our headlamps, trying to stay visible to oncoming cars, and power walked with renewed energy down the road.

Finally, in darkness we found where the trail veered into the woods, and we staggered the remaining half a mile to find a place to camp for the night. Just as we crawled into the tent, a light rain started. We were thankful to be dry, well fed, and ready to sleep.

Again I slept terribly. My shoulder ached all night and I couldn’t get comfortable.

11/16 8.3 miles

We got up and packed up the tent. I headed in the directly of what I thought was the trail while John took a picture of the falls we were camped next to.

The trail that I was on was clearly labeled with the white diamond of the Benton MacKaye Trail, but we I was headed downhill when I knew we were supposed to be headed uphill. I turned around when I saw the road that we had walked on the day before, and started heading back towards John. I soon saw him coming down at me.

“We’re going the wrong way” I told him

“I figured” he replied.

We headed back up the hill back to where we started for the day, and found a very confusing intersection. Basically, there was no way we could have not made that mistake, and also south-bounders would make a similarly dumb mistake. A alternate (blue blaze on the map) was also labeled with white diamonds as the BMT, and so the trail had us going in circles.

We found the trail going up the mountain finally and I spent the next 20 minutes contemplating what the trail maintainers must have been thinking when they blazed that section.

The temperature dropped as we climbed more than 1000 ft towards the top of Rocky Mountain. From there we slowly descended into a valley of old roads and there was a stream to cross with a few rocks that I thought maybe I could hop across. John didn’t bother, and just waded in, but I put one foot on a somewhat slippery rock and the lunged toward another as both my feet slipped out from under me and I went toppling into the water. I heard a snicker from John, and it would have just been funny had I not had to catch myself using my arms, and my stupid frozen shoulder throbbed in pain.

I dragged myself out of the stream pathetically and marched onward. Soon we were walking on gravel roads leading to the intersection of US Hwy 76, where we hitch-hiked into Blue Ridge and got into a hotel and headed over to an all you an eat Chinese Food restaurant. After eating ourselves into a coma, we headed over to the Food Lion to buy more supplies (we’ve learned never to shop on an empty stomach).

Our next stop is Reliance, and we hope to be there in about 4 days. Not sure if there will be internet signal there, but if there is, I’ll be checking in from there!

Hiking with Sciatica

As many of you know, I have been dealing with Hip Dysplasia now for several years since finding out that I was actually born with this hip abnormality.  I have had hip pain since my 2014 thru-hike of the PCT, and subsequently, I’ve had several hip surgeries to correct the problem.  In June I had my last hip surgery to remove the hardware (screws) in my hip, and my hope had been to have the whole Hip Dysplasia saga behind me after this final recovery period, and be back in top hiking shape at this point.

Well, life is never so simple.  About a month before my hardware removal, I started experiencing the symptoms of sciatica: nerve pain down my left leg.  My PT helped to diagnose the problem, and I tried exercises to help it, and then hoped that some forced rest with my last surgery would knock it out.  It didn’t, and the pain persists.

It has been about 12 weeks since I first developed sciatica nerve pain, and let me tell you, it is hard and unrewarding to be in pain for 12 weeks after going through two and a half years of surgeries and recoveries in order to get to this point.  The pain itself is annoying, but what’s worse is the lack of a timeline, the lack of prognosis, and the need to constantly cancel or reschedule hikes and trips due to pain without knowing when or how this will ever go away.  The sciatica pain flares up sometimes making it hard to even walk around the house, and other times it subsides and allows me to do some less strenuous hikes.

After a lot of research, I decided that I would cut sitting out of my lifestyle and try to do some flat walking on a regular basis as pain allowed.  In general, this seemed to be the recommendation for sciatica patients.  I started using a standing desk, and I would lie down instead of sit whenever I wanted a rest from standing.

That was going well until last Thursday when I decided to go to the movies.  I sat for almost 2 hours.  Big mistake.  When I stood up I couldn’t walk without shooting pain down my leg.  That night my mental health plummeted.  I saw no hope.  I would have to cancel another hike I was supposed to guide on Saturday, and cancel my personal hike for the weekend too.  I had no other plans for the weekend besides hiking.  Nothing to look forward to.  Just another day of trying to stand all fucking day long.  It felt like no way to live.  So unfair and so demoralizing.  With every step I was forcefully reminded with an electric shock down my the back of my left leg.

On Saturday I spent the morning lying on my living room floor while Dirt Stew was out guiding a hike.  I decided to take a Gapapentin for nerve pain to see what effect it would have.  I was so bored and depressed, but I did feel somewhat better physically.  I decided I wanted to spend a night in the woods and try to catch up with our friends who had planned a backpacking trip through the Middle Prong Wilderness.

Dirt Stew came home and I told him I wanted to go backpacking..  He tried to talk me out of it, for fear that I would do more damage, but there was no way I was spending the rest of the day standing around annoyed and depressed.  If I was going to do that, I may as well do it in the woods.

We packed up and headed out on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We decided to park at Devil’s Courthouse and find the MST and camp somewhere along it.  Once I started walking, I immediately started to feel human again.  It was so good to be outside and in such a beautiful section of trail.  The Hermit Thrushes were singing their mystic songs which echoed through the dense forest. It was surprisingly cool.  It had just rained, and the trail was full of puddles and mud and I was delighted to stomp through them getting my feet and legs dirty.  Sections of the MST were quite overgrown with brambles and the thorny bushes left cuts on my legs.  We wound up hiking for an hour and a half to Silvermine Bald which has some great camping spots.

View of Davidson Valley, Pilot Mountain, and the ridge that the Art Loeb Follows

We got to our campsite just after sunset and I sat on the soft forest floor rummaging through our food bags while Dirt Stew set up the tent.  My legs were covered in wet mud and scrapes and my shoes and socks were sopping wet and muddy, and I was hungry.  For the first time in weeks I felt alive again.

We ate and got into the tent just as darkness fell, and the minute I closed my eyes, I was fast asleep.  I woke up just as it started to get light out around 6AM, and I felt reasonably well rested.  We quickly packed up, knowing that we had to intersect our friends on the MST at Haywood Gap before they passed through there, and we didn’t really know when that would be.  We got up and packed up within 15-20 minutes.  “We’ve still got it!” I said with regards to how quickly we packed up.

We hiked back to our car and drove down the road to Haywood Gap.  We got out of our car and started getting our packs out of the trunk when our friends Donner (AT class of 2010) and company emerged from the forest on the other side of the woods.

“NO WAY!” exclaimed Donner as he saw us.

Good timing!  It was so good to see them again, and we donned our packs and followed the group into the woods to continue on the MST.  We chatted and caught up with friends we had hiked with before, and introduced ourselves to some new friends in the group, and all the while, I felt on top of the world.

We knew this section of trail, but the last time we had hiked it was in April, and the trail looked completely different now.  Back in April, the trail was covered in Trout Lily and May Apples, and now it was overgrown with stinging nettles, black berries and brambles.  It was still fairly flat and fast going, and with the distraction of talking with friends, the miles went by quickly.

We passed on intersection that obviously led over to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then passed another intersection that we assumed did the same thing until we started going downhill quite a lot.  Dirt Stew asked me if I wanted to turn around at this point since I was going to suffer if I had to do much uphill hiking.  We looked at the map and decided that we would keep going until the intersection with the Fork Ridge Trail, which is where the trail would really start to go downhill, and our friends would be taking that route back to their cars which were parked on 215 at the bottom.

Well, eventually we figured out that we missed the turn for the MST at the junction with the Buckeye Trail, and we had been heading down the Buckeye Trail for quite some time now.  We knew exactly where we made the wrong turn.  I wasn’t keen on going back up, and I also was having a great time hiking with my friends, so we decided that we would keep hiking with them down to their vehicles and then get a ride back up to our car.  I felt bad inconveniencing our new friends, but I also knew we could probably hitch-hike if we needed to.  I just wanted to keep hiking.

We got to the bottom of the Buckeye Trail soon after which there is a stream to ford.  Since my feet were already wet, I just walked through it, but others took the time to take off their shoes.  The water was nice and cool, and the stream was beautiful.  Bee balm and Turks Cap and Carolina Lilies were blooming everywhere.

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Eyeing a ford while the dogs lead the way through the cool water.

Stream with a nice waterfall

Do I look as happy as I feel?

Carolina Lily


Bee Balm

We finished the hike on the gravel road leading down to 215 and caught a ride with Lindsay and Taylor back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We certainly owe them a favor for getting us back to our car!

Finishing the hike on a gravel road.  Dirt Stew is eyeing the lilies.

I can’t tell you how good it was to spend the night in the woods, spend a day with friends, and spend a good amount of time in nature walking.  It was the best therapy I could have asked for, and I plan on doing it again very soon.

In a week I will see a Spine Surgeon to hopefully find the source of my Sciatica Pain, and I now believe more than ever that the final cure for this will be another long distance hike.  I hope sooner rather than later I will find myself down that path.

Appalachian Trail: Sam’s Gap to Big Bald

We both guided hikes on Saturday morning, dragging some poor souls out in the dreary fog, wind and light rain.  We were in the tail of Hurricane Matthew and the conditions were a bit miserable.  I came home cold, wet, and wanting to curl up with a hot beverage.  Instead we stuffed some food in a bag and put our backpacks back on and headed back out to the Appalachian Trail at Sam’s Gap to go on a quick overnight to test the new tent and to put some miles on our legs.

Saturday October 8th: Sam’s Gap to Low Gap, 3.7 miles

We got to the parking lot sometime after 5 pm, and immediately upon opening the car door and stepping outside, I questioned our decision to come out.  It was so windy!  I have no idea why I thought wearing shorts was a good idea, but obviously I hadn’t mentally switched from summer to fall.  I was freezing, and barely had the patience to wait for Dirt Stew to get his gear out of the trunk.

We hiked quickly, trying to warm ourselves up.  Leaves of all colors were scattered on the ground.  There were quite a lot of green ones, which had recently been ripped off of trees by the excessive wind.  We passed one camping spot which was only a mile or so from the parking lot, and we decided to keep hiking as it was still early.

We almost regretted our decision to skip the early campsite because every subsequent camp site seemed to be more windy than the last.  Finally, however, as dusk approached, we found a somewhat sheltered spot at Low Gap and immediately called it home.


We ate dinner, set up camp and quickly crawled into our sleeping bags where we lay listening to the wind howling in the trees above our head, the branches swaying aggressively.  I felt vulnerable with only a thin layer of sil-nylon between me and the elements.  Somehow I eventually drifted off.

 

Sunday October 9th: Low Gap to High Rocks, 20.0 miles

We both slept somewhat poorly due to the cold and the wind.  I wondered how cold it got, but had no way of knowing.  Was my 20 degree bag really a 45 degree bag, or did it get colder than that?

I had kept my shoes in the tent vestibule rather than bringing them in with me like I usually do.  Luckily I looked in them before putting them on because they were full of mouse droppings!  Some mice must have thought my shoes were a better shelter than their usual spot.  Plus they probably had some residual heat from my feet for at least part of the night.  I cleaned them out, put them on, finished packing up and hiked on.

We reached Big Bald and there was frost on some of the vegetation.  We decided it therefore must have been at least in the 30’s at night.  Maybe my new-ish sleeping bag isn’t actually too poorly rated.

 

Proof it was cold

Up at Big Bald there were some guys who were setting up bird nets to trap, band, and release birds for research and educational purposes.  We got talking to them for a while before carrying on.

It was still quite windy, but there was now not a cloud in the sky!


We decided we wanted to try to get 20 miles in for the day so that I could train for a longer hike before my surgery in about 3 weeks.  So we hiked to the “High Rocks” before Spivey Gap before turning around and hiking all the way back to Sam’s Gap.




A few miles from the car and my right hip (the one that had surgery 11 months ago) was sore enough for me to want to take Advil.  This is nothing out of the ordinary since surgery, and I have been annoyed with my hip pain on each hike.  I rummaged through my backpack and I obviously didn’t pack the Advil.  Darn.  Well, this’ll teach me.  The last few miles felt like they went on forever, but I made it without problem.


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.