Trail Angels in Alabama: What They Do and Why They Do It

Long distance hiker and trail angel John Calhoun.
Long distance hiker and trail angel John Calhoun. John Calhoun
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At one time or another, most hikers have run into a scary situation on the trail. Perhaps it’s something relatively trivial, like missing a shuttle back to the car after finishing a long point-to-point hike. Other scenarios, however, can venture into dangerous (and potentially deadly) territory: running low on water, for example, or finding yourself without proper gear as a severe thunderstorm moves in.

In circumstances like these—and many others—a trail angel can save the day. These helpful souls, whose presence can seem heaven sent when things aren’t going right in the great outdoors, make it their mission to help hikers through myriad challenges they face on the trail.

While trail angels of world-renowned routes like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, are perhaps the most well-known, Alabama is home to many of these altruistic souls. Here, a deeper look into their fascinating stories and what it takes to be a trail angel.

What is a Trail Angel?

Callie Thornton has been a trail angel since 2011, when she started putting up hikers on the ECT in her living room.
    Callie Thornton
Callie Thornton has been a trail angel since 2011, when she started putting up hikers on the ECT in her living room. Callie Thornton

A trail angel can appear seemingly out of nowhere, giving their spare time, support, and resources to help hikers get from point A to point B safely, usually free of charge, and sometimes with creature comforts like fresh-baked cookies or cold drink. This kind of help can take on many forms, and often is anonymous, as Alabama hiker and trail angel John Calhoun explains.

"The role is up to each one who wants to help hikers," Calhoun explains. “Some just provide rides into town to a motel, store, or hostel. Some leave coolers full of drinks and candy along the trail near road crossings. Some set up cooking tents and provide hot food for lots of hikers who pass through gaps at road crossings. Still others will take hikers to their home and provide them with a room, shower, meals, and trips to the post office or supermarket.”

Callie Thornton, operator of the Coosa Hiker Hostel in Rockford, says that in addition to providing necessities for hikers, often in the form of a shuttle into town or another trailhead, she is often called upon to help in rescue situations.

"Half of my shuttles are rescues," Thornton says. “We are able to go out 24/7 and we have been in the woods in the middle of the night rescuing hikers that have experienced severe dehydration.”

But being a trail angel isn’t all about helping hikers physically: It also involves being stewards of the trail. Calhoun has logged many hours and miles—more than 8,000 hours and some 124,000 miles over the last 15 years, he says—to maintain trails throughout Alabama, helping to keep them safe for all to hike.

Getting Started as a Trail Angel

In addition to providing necessities to hikers, trail angels are good trail stewards who volunteer to maintain safe hiking trails for all.
    Alabama Hiking Trail Society
In addition to providing necessities to hikers, trail angels are good trail stewards who volunteer to maintain safe hiking trails for all. Alabama Hiking Trail Society

As both Thornton and Calhoun explain, being a good trail angel doesn’t involve signing up to be a part of a club or organization. Instead, it’s understanding that we’ve all needed a hand on the trail at one time or another—and embodying the desire to give back. Thornton, for example, was helping hikers long before opening her hostel in 2015, allowing them to sleep on the floor or feeding them supper.

"I think ECT (Eastern Continental Trail) hiker Ed Talone was my first guest on the floor, and it just continued from there," she says. “Ed had heard that he could get shelter with me and could possibly get his clothes cleaned as well, and it just grew from there. He was heading into a storm and even though I didn’t know him, I didn’t want him to suffer on the trail that night.”

Calhoun began when he met his first Trail Angel on the A.T.

"My first experience with a trail angel was on Easter weekend near Bland, Virginia, while I was on my A.T. thru-hike in 2001," he recalls. “I was helped many, many times on all my hikes in every state and province of Canada, too. I feel obligated to ‘pass it on’.” 

Although there are many clubs whose members create lists of fellow hikers who can be called on to help when needed, the most important aspect is an individual desire to give back.

"What you can offer as a trail angel changes constantly, but what doesn’t change is offering your kindness to people," he says. “Sometimes all that is needed is kindness and encouragement.”

Let ‘Em Know You’re Coming

Many trail angels put in untold hours helping to maintain trails.
Many trail angels put in untold hours helping to maintain trails. Joe Cuhaj

How does a hiker get in touch with a trail angel? Let them know you’re coming! If you’re a day or weekend hiker in a wilderness area or national forest, be sure to sign the register at the trailhead. Trail angels keep up with those, as well as the property managers, and in turn can keep up with you.

If you’re a thru-hiker of the AT, ECT, Great Eastern Trail, Pinhoti Trail, or any long-distance trail, visit the trail’s websites (such as White Blaze, the Pinhoti Trail Alliance, or Great Eastern Trail). You can also look up any of the trail’s supporting clubs, like the Alabama Hiking Trail Society, Anniston Outdoors Association, or the Vulcan Trail Association. These organizations network with each other, and if you’re embarking on a long-distance hike, the trail angels will know you’re coming—and will be ready to bestow some of their magic on you.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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