Hiking Washington's North Cascades National Park on the Pacific Crest Trail. | Tobin Akehurst/Shutterstock
Hiking Washington's North Cascades National Park on the Pacific Crest Trail. | Tobin Akehurst/Shutterstock

Want to Get Outdoors and Help People? Try Being a 'Trail Angel'

No wings required.

Here’s a scenario: You’re ready to embark on a five month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, over 400 miles longer than the Appalachian Trail at 2,650 miles. You’ve got your gear and your permits, sharpened your backcountry skills, and, sure, watched Wild.

But then you land in San Diego and realize that getting to the trailhead in Campo requires three legs of public transportation that drops you two miles from the southern terminus on a largely dirt path with barely any signage. A car will take less time, but cost upwards of $150. Camping conditions in Campo are inhospitable, and it’s too late to find accommodations in San Diego. So what do you do—besides wish for a little trail magic?

You call Barney and Sandy Mann. Also known by their trail names Scout and Frodo, the Manns are legendary “trail angels”—volunteers who provide shelter and support to thru-hikers. For two months every year since 2006, the Manns have opened their San Diego home to hikers taking on the challenging PCT. We spoke to Barney: retired lawyer, avid backpacker, co-author of The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail, and general fount of positivity, about his life as a trail angel. As told to Vanita Salisbury.

My wife and I intended to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail ourselves in 2007. To do this, you have to really, really want to do this. Because as romantic as it might seem, being out in nature and doing this pilgrimage-type journey, there’s a lot of pain involved. You’re in some real wretched circumstances at times.

A trail angel is anyone who does something kind for a hiker—driving people into town, providing a meal, handing out water, offering a shower. There’s a guy who hikes in, deep in the Sierra, to an area where it’s the longest continuous trail in the country with no roads. He’ll bring in root beer and ice cream cooled by dry ice. People walk up on the trail, and this guy is serving root beer floats.

Imagine if you had the opportunity to help people out in this amazing cusp in their lives.

As long as there have been trails, there have been people helping out. Something about being in the outdoors creates an atmosphere where people maybe need a little extra help, and someone wants to offer it. I’d say start very, very small. The Appalachian Trail goes through a lot of crowded sections—go sit at a trailhead during the season. Bring some drinks in a cooler and some snacks. Chocolate milk in those little boxes, and beer, are the favorite drinks of hikers. (I’m in the chocolate milk camp.) If you’re interested, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has a page where they outline guidelines.

Barney and Sandy Mann on the trail in 2007, 35 miles from the Canadian border. | Photo courtesy of Barney Mann

We planned for our PCT hike years in advance. To help fan our desire to do it, we thought hey, we live in San Diego. We can put people up in our house, take ‘em out the next morning, get to know them. So the first year in 2006 we put the word out, and over the course of the season we had 17 hikers stay with us. The next year over 35 stayed with us. In 2019, we had over 1,200. Over the years we’ve had 6,000 hikers come through. We’ve put out the word again for this year.

It’s all about logistics. It’s like a marine beach invasion. We’re picking people up at the airport, bus, or train. People flying in from out of the country—these days, a third are international—they often want to pick up things in the States. Last time we did it before Covid, we had thousands of packages shipped to our home.

This is all no charge, no gifts, no donations. Don’t hide $20 somewhere—please don’t.

Every morning, anywhere from four to 12 cars are leaving our little cul de sac to take hikers to the terminus. We have this phalanx of volunteers that help us out; in 2019 I wrote 81 thank you notes. We started having live-in volunteers—people who had stayed with us before and want to give back.

It’s this wonderful, positive feedback loop. Imagine if you had the opportunity to help people out in this amazing cusp in their lives. And they are vulnerable—they’re excited out of their gourd or they’re scared out of their gourd. Imagine that you, yourself were once in this same position. That you, yourself once had random acts of kindness shower down on you.

An after-dinner briefing on the basics, including trail safety and Leave No Trace. | Photo courtesy of Barney Mann

People find us in lots of ways. We’re in an unofficial handbook: Yogi’s PCT handbook. We’re on the PCTA website. Probably a good majority is word of mouth. Ninety percent of people set up their stay with us ahead of time. But we’ll get frantic emails—someone came in that week and realized “there’s no transportation out there”—and we’ll pick ‘em up and they’ll stay overnight. We have space in our back yard where we can sleep a lot of people.

We like to feed people well. Frodo likes making Italian stuffed shells. Almost every night there’s a good salad. I’ll set up stations of five or six cutting boards, and ask who wants to help chop, and we’ll have someone sautéing and cooking. There’s always dessert, and fruit, and something fresh baked in the morning. It’s a lot of fun.

This is all no charge, no gifts, no donations. Don’t hide $20 somewhere—please don’t. Save it for the trail. Personally, if there was one thing I wish there was more of in the world, it’s kindness. We get to send out this insidious wave of kindness.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. Tell her more about this "kindness."