I hope my previous posts didn't come across as intentionally being mean to people. I'll try to give them whatever information I can, and be generally friendly, but at some point, there's just no more I can do unless I take charge of their trip and responsibility for their enjoyment. I've done that often enough with new hikers, but we planned it before the trip - I don't feel any responsibility to pick up strays on the trail.
Having said that, if someone wants to hike a ways with me, and seems genuinely interested in being outdoors, I'll gladly do so and tell them anything they want to know about backpacking or the area we're visiting (assuming I've been there before.)
I won't change my trip to accomodate them, but I won't chase them off. And I don't tolerate very well the totally oblivious, reckless person who is out there acting selfishly, disregarding other people's safety or enjoyment, or abusing the trail (littering, destroying vegetation, etc.)
No, Glenn, I don't think you (or any other responder) come off as being intentionally mean to those that ask this question. Just that some of us find it more annoying than others (probably because of having heard more clueless people ask it). I don't find it as annoying as some, probably because I still remember being one of those relatively clueless people when I started out hiking.
I still remember doing a hike with my best friend in college, to the top of Mt. San Jacinto above Palm Springs. It was the first time either of us had hiked any distance (it's 10 miles RT, 2400 ft elevation gain up to a 10,800 ft peak). We didn't bring any food or worse, any water! Our level of ignorance is amazing to me now, looking back at it - but several people offered us water along the way, and I never neglected to bring water after that. I was completely blown away by the beauty of the granite, trees, meadows, completely unlike anyplace I'd ever been.
I like Lori's idea of making them pay for it with an "educational moment" - that's probably the most helpful way of answering the question, in the long run!
There have been occasions where I've been more active in trying to help than others - like the two guys looking for their third person. I told them to write down a description of him on the back of their map and sent someone ahead to turn it in to a ranger. I've given water to a clearly dehydrated guy insisting that he was going to Half Dome - when the leader of the group showed up I ordered the guy to take his friend BACK to the valley medical center - but left them there to make their final decision on their own. (The guy told me he'd had diarrhea for three days, and decided to go 16 miles with no food and little water? and the trip leader let it happen?)
Most of the time I give specific info when asked. But people are notoriously bad at giving info to me - I've been told (unsolicited) half a mile and it ends up being two miles, or vice versa, and sometimes people will say things like "there's a rattler on the trail!" and when I get there it's a gopher snake.
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki