Of Sorcery & Socks: A Tale of Trail Magic

Appalachian trail sign on a tree

It’s a magical thing, the trail.

Often thought of as just a path through the woods, the trail is much more than that. It’s a living entity with a heartbeat… put your ear to the ground and you can hear it thumping.

There’s a vitality to it that often goes unnoticed. And we’ve come to expose it. Mysteriously, long-distance hiking paths like the Appalachian Trail (AT) have always had this sort of energy. Most people just aren’t aware of it.

A clump of mushrooms growing on a tree on the Appalachian trail

The beauty of Trail Magic is that it’s not just one thing, or something you can necessarily see, but rather a communal feeling. One that’s shared. Rooted in emotion, selflessness, and gratitude of unconditional (often epic) proportions. It spreads through the trail’s very arteries and veins, feeding it… giving it life.

Don’t believe us? Here’s how we know.

Just a Tiny Pinch of Magic

If you’ve spent any time on the AT, you’ve likely heard the lingo. It’s a lexicon that sounds mostly gibberish and made-up – like NOBO and SOBO – or bizarre trail names like “Sir Owen VanGrizzle Duke of Beartown” that make you question their origin. But chief among this vernacular and a mainstay of trail talk is the almighty phrase – Trail Magic.

Earlier in July we joined forces with trail angels Jeff and Nancy Comstock to host Trail Magic for hikers on the AT. If you don’t know Jeff and Nancy, check out our previous Trail Magic blog post.

Thru hikers standing and seated around the trail magic site

This year, we convened at a remote campsite just east of Rutland, VT, to meet hikers on their home turf. Our trail angels were already hard at work whipping up fresh maple sausages, fried eggs, and cheeseburgers with bacon and pickles by the time we showed up.

Trail Magic events like this are usually always about the food. And nourishment. But more than that, they’re inherently an offering of companionship and conversation. Sometimes people – especially hikers who are trekking alone – need somebody to talk to. We all do. And no amount of food could ever satiate that.

Delicious food being cooked on a portable grill to feed the thru hikers

These events generally occur randomly during a thru hikers’ journey and are rarely, if ever, sought out. Trail Magic could be as simple as stumbling upon a Styrofoam cooler brimmed with cold drinks. Or it could be finding an essential piece of gear in a hiker box that someone left behind for you to find.

The sweetest form of Trail Magic, however, is the campout – that’s what we came to do.

Home Is Where You Set Up Camp

The campout is a mirage-like meet-up of stinky hikers and good-hearted, fair smelling folk from the real world. It often looks like this: warm food, cold drinks, chairs, trash bags to dump empty wrappers and old tuna packets in – and when Darn Tough gets involved – free socks.

Thru hiker and Darn Tough volunteer looking through a box of fresh socks

It’s a moment for thru hikers to stop, take a load off, and refuel before getting back to work. Because when you’re out there hiking every day, week after week, month after month, it can certainly feel like work. But, you know, the fun kind.

Not many people know about Trail Magic, let alone its fundamental rank within trail culture. Even for some at Darn Tough, the phrase is foreign and difficult to comprehend – especially if you think a traveling magician hiking to remote sections of the trail to perform cheap tricks for smelly hikers is worthwhile. Or maybe it is.

But fortunately, that’s not the case here. But it’s worth clarifying, so that when we do say the magic words, you know exactly what we mean.

Hikers We Met & What They Packed

On this day, deep in the woods with Jeff and Nancy, we didn’t see too many hikers – probably because of all the rain we got in the few days leading up to this trip. But nevertheless, we managed to squeeze some stories out of the hikers we did see.

We recently put together a gear checklist outlining all the essential gear that we recommend packing for a thru-hike.

But there’s always something more, something we might have missed. So, we made sure to ask hikers about their gear – particularly which items have helped them the most and any they thought were unique or worth sharing.

Their answers may surprise you.

Smores — NOBO — Michigan

Thru hiker "Smores" standing on a bridge wearing sandals and darn tough socks

Smores trotted into camp sporting a pair of hiking sandals and Darn Tough socks, proving (for all you sandal haters) that anything is possible. He was admittedly homesick and wanted nothing more than to hug his mom… until he smelled the burgers sizzling on the grill. One of the first hikers we saw this day, Smores devoured a few patties and sat with us chatting about his gear. A notable item he’d been carrying since the beginning (that most other men likely didn’t have) was a pee bottle – or urine receptacle.

A closeup of feet in hiking socks and hiking sandals

Might seem counterintuitive considering the forest is the greatest pee bottle there is, but his reasoning for carrying one might surprise you. Mid-way through the night, say around 3 AM, when the mosquitos are nesting their stingers in your tent’s outer mesh and the spiders are scurrying the forest floor hoping you’ll unzip so they can crawl deep into your sleeping bag, it takes a lot of courage to want to battle these impending night terrors just to go pee.

But that’s where the bottle comes in handy. It takes a little maneuvering and finesse, he told us, but contort your body just right, hold steady, aim, and fire away. He noted this strategy might not be as effective for females, but it’s a hack that’s saved him many a late-night bug bite. He also added that it’s important to keep your pee bottle and water bottle separate in case you wake up parched and fiending for a drop. But hey, at least it’s sterile.

Rabbit Foot – SOBO – St. Louis, MO

The first Southbounder we saw was named Rabbit Foot. He heard there was Trail Magic from a passing hiker and bee-lined it from a nearby shelter to our camp for a break. He talked of the recent storm (and subsequent flooding) and how people on the trail started calling him Moses because of his propensity for fearlessly crossing fast-flowing streams.

A thru hiker seated in a chair, telling stories at the trail magic

One piece of gear he carried – more sentimental than functional – was his late father’s compass. His dad passed about a year and half ago, so he decided to honor him by carrying his compass the whole way. He didn’t use it for navigation, he told us, but with tears in his eyes conveyed its significance as a form of spiritual guidance.

A certified welder, Rabbit Foot worked his whole life before retiring and deciding to thru hike the AT. As his trail name suggests, he also had a rabbit’s foot hanging off the outside of his pack, which his son picked out before he left. Its importance, he said, spanned many generations before he ever got on trail, and was a means of positivity and hope that, along with his dad’s compass, was enough to get him thru to the end.

Bird Dog – NOBO – Chicago, IL

Bird Dog came sauntering down the trail hunting a scent he’d picked up a mile or so before – you can thank Nancy’s home cooking for that. He dropped an interesting, albeit unofficial, statistic about thru-hikers, telling us that in his estimation, 80-90% of them were already wearing Darn Tough socks. He was also rocking a pair but was happy to go digging for more in the box of socks we thrust before him.

We’ve seen hikers carrying things for others to sign – like a flag, journal, or piece of wood – but never an entire backpack. Bird Dog’s Hyperlite bag was already full of sharpie signatures by the time he reached camp (which over the course of 1,600 miles makes sense), but he still managed to find some room for our team.

Bird dog's hyperlite backpack, covered in signatures

Like a blank canvas yearning for color, his hyper-white, Hyperlite backpack is a great conversation starter and a piece of gear, he told us, that came about organically. Now, it’s part of his identity. And we imagine once he gets home, that bag will likely get framed or hung up on his hiking wall of fame. If you’re reading this, Bird Dog, send us a picture of your bag in its final form. Even if you’re still using it, we’d love to see how many Hancock’s it takes to fill.

There's a Method to Our Magic

We’ve yet to produce our best sock, but with your help – and thru hikers everywhere – we know we’re getting close. Instead of us just going out there to help hikers, this time we set out with the intention of asking them to help us.

We were fortunate to be joined by members of our Product team who were invited to source feedback and talk directly to hikers about Darn Tough and our socks. Things like how we can improve them, make them more durable, or fit better.

It’s an invaluable opportunity for us to be able to meet thru-hikers where they’re at – hundreds if not thousands of miles into their hike – to identify pain points and/or problem areas that they’ve experienced with our socks thus far. We literally peeled the dirty socks off the feet of these hikers to examine them, explaining why certain areas wear out before others.

A thru hiker with one sock off, examining it

Using this data, we’re able to go back and re-engineer certain styles – whether it be adding more cushion, updating tech features, or mapping out where to add flex windows – based on what we see from hikers in the wild. Which, if we’re being honest, isn’t something we see other brands doing.

A Darn Tough volunteer explains sock features to a thru hiker

It’s what sets us apart and it’s why after thousands of miles, Darn Tough is still the most trusted brand by thru-hikers. It’s a testament to our socks’ durability, which is still unrivaled in the industry. Not saying we’re perfect… far from it. But we’re working on it. And that same mentality, that same method, is how we got to where we are today.

The Trail Provides... And So Can You

If you want to get involved, volunteer organizations like the Green Mountain Club (GMC) and Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) are always looking for help on the east coast. Part of the reason why our trail systems are so world-class is thanks to everyone behind the scenes working tirelessly to keep our trails clean and well maintained.

A group of thru hikers smiling wearing new darn tough socks

But wherever you’re reading from, you can contact your local trail organization to learn more about getting involved near you. Ask about Trail Magic and if anybody knows of any angels in your area who need help. Feel free to organize your own, but working with others is the easiest way to get your foot in the door.

On that note, we want to again say thank you to our trail angels, Jeff and Nancy, for everything. Because without you two, it wouldn’t be possible. A sincere and heartfelt thank you to you both.

Jeff and Nancy standing on a trail bridge, smiling