I was out on my annual walk with some of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club ridgerunners last week.
On this particular walk I started asking about thru hikers about their previous hiking experience. Better than 90 percent said that they had little to no previous backpacking experience before toeing off on Springer Mtn. Admittedly it’s a small sample. Nevertheless, the answer to this question and other observations got me noodling about hiker hygiene …
In central Virginia I called someone to shuttle me into town for a resupply. I tossed my pack into the back of the van; then jumped in. The driver reflexively rolled down her window even before I could get my door shut.
I knew what she was thinking. “This guy’s a thru hiker and I bet he smells to high heaven.” She knew I’d been on the trail for five days and her expectations were reasonable. Hell, when I’m out maintaining my AT section, if the wind is blowing just so, I can smell the thru hikers long before they come into view.
Anyway, as she pulled away, I implored my benefactor.
“You don’t have to do that. I don’t smell.” She looked me in the eye, wrinkled her nose and said, “You’re right.” “How do you do that?” she asked as she returned her window to the upright and locked position.
The answer is simple. Personal hygiene is priority for me and a point of pride. I also don’t want to “smell like a Boy Scout” as my mother used to say to my brother and I when we returned from our camping trips. More importantly, I don’t want to get sick. It’s another level of Leave No Trace if you want to see it that way.
Hikers don’t have to stink if they don’t want to. I may may take it further than most, but staying clean isn’t all that hard and it has many benefits. Experienced hikers tend to be the cleaner ones.
Here are eight hiker hygiene considerations.
- You don’t have to stink. Using waterless shampoo and body wash each night is the trick. It’s a nice complement to the tick check, the weight is negligible, and it has the added benefit of helping to keep your sleeping bag from smelling like a dead gym sock. Rub it in and wipe it off with a microfiber cloth. You can buy the stuff and any drug store or REI. Hand sanitizer works as deodorant if you rub it in, but I carry the real stuff.
- Bury your shit! Not only is it an unsightly and smelly disease vector, but the Bible itself, Deuteronomy 23:13, says do it! Deuteronomy 23:13
- Wash your hands. I allocate two wet wipes per day for use when I relieve myself. I work from the top down, face first, pits followed by the business at hand. When done, they’re returned to the foil container they came in; then on to the trash bag. No monkey butt! I also use a dab of Dr. Bronner’s eco-friendly soap to wash my hands whenever I get water. I wash away from the source in a zip lock I carry for that purpose. I clean my fingernails each time I wash my hands.
- Treat or filter your water. I prefer iodine and the neutralizer pills to save weight and space, but I also have a Sawyer. The method is not important. The key is to make it a habit. Better safe than sorry.
- Dental care. Brush after breakfast and again after dinner. The key is the brushing action. You don’t need but a dab of toothpaste which you can either swallow or spit into the woods away from camp.
- Clean your dishes! This thru hiker was as filthy as her dishes. I cook only foods I can rehydrate in Zip Lock freezer bags or their original containers. If you cook in your pot, clean thoroughly with Dr. Bronner’s and scatter the gray water far away from camp. You can dig a sump and strain out any chunks with grass or vegetation. The chunks need to be packed out.
- Lyme disease. This is bad stuff. The most dangerous animal on the AT is the tick. Permethrin kills them on contact. You can have your clothes professionally treated here: Insect Shield or purchase permethrin spray at any Walmart, outdoor store or REI. They even have it at the AT Conservancy Visitor Center. I go overboard. I spray my pack, the inside of my sleeping bag and tent and wear permethrin-treated long pants. For those who don’t like chemicals, weigh the risk.
- Noro Virus. The aforementioned practices can do a lot to reduce your chances of catching this ugly bug. If you have a good relationship with your physician, you can get prescriptions that will stop vomiting dead in the water and doxycycline you can take on a prophylactic basis if a tick chomps you. Imodium stops diarrhea. I carry them in my first aid kit. So far, so good, but it’s a comfort to know that they are there. I had to promise that I’d immediately see a doctor if I took any of the prescribed meds.
Stay well. Smell good. Enjoy your hike!