What the funk?

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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.

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My personal hygiene kit. It clips to and hangs with my bear bag at night.  It’s the equivalent of snivel gear for me.

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.

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The contents include tooth brush and paste, Dr. Bronner’s soap, waterless shampoo and waterless body wash, large microfiber wash cloths which double as towels, deodorant and Q-tips.  Fingernail clippers usually reside in my pocket for quick fingernail cleaning.

Here are eight hiker hygiene considerations.

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  1.  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.
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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!

Eating the Elephant

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Springer Mountain, Georgia, March 21 – 26, 2015 — My volunteer period is complete. I’ve hauled my last load of hiker trash out of the North Georgia hills.  It’s now up to someone else.  Some end of tour observations follow.

It’s a free country.  You can tell that from the range of people and their degree of respect for nature, the environment and the hard won Appalachian Trail infrastructure.  I just wish more hikers would come to the trail better prepared.

The overwhelming majority of people naturally do the right thing.  They practice “Leave No Trace” outdoor ethics by taking only photos and leaving only footprints.  Everything they truck in, they haul out from cigarette butts, Charmin flowers, and uneaten food to unwanted gear that’s unneeded or too heavy, excess clothing, or used dental floss.

My pleasure was being with these folks.  They’re plumbers, pipe fitters, surgeons, teachers, nurses and bus drivers.  They share a common love and respect for the outdoors and are excellent students of how to do well out here.  They love being outdoors and live to be one with nature.

A lot of hikers come to the AT overwhelmed.  They struggle to grasp all 2,189 miles at once.  It’s like the old aphorism about how you eat an elephant – one bite at a time.  The average AT hiker goes to town every five days.  If that’s so, hiking the AT is simply 35 consecutive five-day hikes.  Put that way, it’s much easier to get your arms around the magnitude of the task ahead.

My hope is that more hikers would better prepare themselves.  I follow a blogger from Colorado who wrote an interesting post this week about Colin Fletcher who wrote some of the seminal books on hiking including the all time favorite, The Complete Walker.  His post can be read at this link.  http://www.pmags.com/the-complete-walker-iii-colin-fletcher I just wish more people would read Fletcher, or at least check out the enormous amount of information available on line.

Here's a fellow dressed in cotton (cotton kills).  He also could learn a thing or two about packing.

Here’s a fellow dressed in cotton (cotton kills). He also could learn a thing or two about packing.

Others are far less attuned to ethical behavior in the back country.  They do what they do back home.  Twice hikers even tried to argue that I was hiding the trash cans from them.  These would-be-thru-hikers had a hard time appreciating that thru hiking is supposed to be a wilderness experience.  You pack it in.  You pack it out.  No trash cans.  End of story.  I was ignored more than once.

Food containers do not burn completely.

Food containers do not burn completely.

IMG_2368Nothing should go into the fire pits or privies that’s not supposed to be there.

Bill Bryson had it right in his book A Walk in the Woods.  It’s been made into a movie which will be in theaters later this summer. Bryson wryly observed the unprepared throwing their gear overboard and much more.  Why people come out here so poorly prepared is beyond me, and a hellova lot of others too. You don’t have to look far for classic examples. It’s a topic of continuing conversation among the properly prepared.

This was my final trash run.  The load included a discarded tent, new boots, wet cotton clothing and uneaten food.  Total pack weight was close to 70 lbs.

This was my final trash run. The load included a discarded tent, new boots, wet cotton clothing and uneaten food. Total pack weight was close to 70 lbs.

Considering how much excellent information is readily available on the internet or from recent books, there’s no excuse for being unprepared.  Some self-identify with so-called survivor show heroes and want to give it a whirl.  Others are just clueless.  Somehow almost all of them manage to learn one thing – that is to wind duct tape around their hiking poles.  A precious few don’t even find that out.

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There are two basic hiker types out here.  There are the thru hikers.  They are self-evident.  Only one in four will finish.  Still, this is their season.  They’ve got until mid-October to climb Maine’s Mt. Katahdin before it closes.  They’ve got to get going.

Some folks are old school.

Some folks are old school.

Then there are all the shorter distance hikers, sometimes called section hikers.  Of them, about half are on spring break – families and college students alike.  This is one of the only times during the year when they can come.  They identify with the AT brand and are in Georgia because it’s where the southern terminus of the trail is, it’s warm and the logistics are easy.  They’re not going away.

IMG_2296_2 IMG_2285_2There’s an interesting subculture among section hikers.  A significant number of these hikers want to share in the excitement of the great spring migration – to be there, to rub shoulders, to share the thrill and/or to relive their own adventure and reignite memories of years past.

Some come every year.  It’s muddy form of March Madness where they get to be on the court with the actual players themselves.  Later they will follow hikers they’ve met and root for them.  It’s hard to beat.

The challenge is that, in the first 30 miles of the trail, for every 10 thru hikers there are 8 section hikers.  The infrastructure is taxed to the max!  Even the privies fill up – ugh.

This is the second shift cooking dinner at the Gooch Mountain shelter.  These were some of the folks tenting in the rain.

This is the second shift cooking dinner at the Gooch Mountain shelter. These were some of the folks tenting in the rain.

Overcrowding has its downsides.  Earlier in the week, the Georgia Health Department issued a noro virus warning.  A case had been reported in the state.  Funky hikers who don’t know how to stay clean in the wilderness, living in close proximity, form a perfect petri dish.  In spite of the beauty, it can get really ugly out here.  Nevertheless, it’s worth it.

Blood Mountain on Saturday morning.  Some of the thru hikers showed me the trash they'd collected.

Blood Mountain on Saturday morning. Some of the thru hikers showed me the trash they’d collected.

Many hikers are tuned in to Leave No Trace practices and collect trail trash as the hike.  I gave one hiker (from Brooklyn, NY no less) a “Trail Karma” award for carrying out discarded clothing and other trash.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a "Trail Karma" award.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a “Trail Karma” award.

Someone creatively tried to hike the space blanket they no longer wanted.

Someone creatively tried to hide a space blanket they no longer wanted.

Still, hikers are excited to be on the AT whether the trail viscosity matches a hot fudge sundae on a summer day in Georgia or it’s frozen over.  In many cases they are living their dreams.

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

During my stay the seasons changed – at least twice.

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This year the Appalachian Trail is 90 years old.  It was built by volunteers and is maintained by volunteers as originally envisioned by its founder Benton MacKaye.  It’s thrilling to play a small role in that legacy.

Springer Mountain memorial to Benton McKaye who envisioned a hiking trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia.

Springer Mountain memorial to Benton McKaye who envisioned a hiking trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia.