Appalachian Trail Hygiene: Stink, Stank, Stunk
Hygiene. How in the world does one stay clean for six months living in the woods? That’s not a trick question. It’s a thought I’ve been pondering for several months. In my research, it appears that deodorant is a luxury item and toothbrushes are cut in half to “save weight.” Um, I am pretty sure I will use my entire toothbrush.
Contact Lenses and Eye Care
Amoebas?! My eye doctor cautioned me against using standing water to wash my hands. Getting an amoeba in your eyeball is less likely with flowing rivers. So to wash my hands, I will be searching for flowing water, filtering it, and using Dr. Bronner’s soap before messing with my contact lenses. Soap is a must. Clean hands are non-negotiable.
He also advised me to switch to the daily contact lenses to avoid the messy nightly cleaning of the monthly contacts, which would accumulate gunk over time at a more rapid pace on the trail. The dailies will also save an additional 4 oz of weight by not carrying the lens cleaner. I can just dispose of my contact lenses each evening and replace them with a new pair in the morning.
Pro Tip: An eye infection might not always be obvious, having a red eye is definitely a sign that something is up (per my eye doctor). It might not feel painful, but if it is red that’s a sign of a possible infection. In contrast, amoebas will cause a lot of pain and seeking immediate attention from an eye doctor is a must. Our eyes are a live tissue and infections are much more serious than those on our skin. Seek medical attention in town if you think your eye(s) might be in trouble.
Why not just use my glasses? I might. But, glasses fog, get broken, fall off, get lost, offer no sun protection, and are pretty hard to use in a downpour. Considering that the Appalachian Trail is a rainforest, I will likely hike many days in the rain. I’d like to maintain clear visibility without the wet glasses on my face.
Avoiding a greasy, tangled bird nest will take deliberate attention. I am a big fan of dry shampoo, but considering the weight of a dry shampoo can, I am willing to let it go for a few months.
Instead, I am bringing a small baby powder container to sprinkle in my hair roots (and on my feet for a bit if moisture management). I’ve used it on other hikes to absorb all the moisture and oils from my scalp and it worked exceptionally well. The baby powder seems to last longer than the dry shampoo spray, so a little will go a long way.
Having a comb or a brush to maintain your hair daily is also a must. For perspective, I am only hiking for 5-7 months, but it takes 2-5 years to grow hair back depending on its original length. It takes one full year for hair to grow approximately 6 inches. Since my hair is on the fine side, it damages pretty quickly—so it’ll be extra important for me to wash it regularly in town, brush it daily, and keep it out of the sun with a hat for added protection.
Body Odor (BO)
Bacteria are actively thriving on our skin. Yup. Once you sweat, the contact of sweat with the bacteria creates an odor, and not talking roses here (according to Mayo Clinic). It’s not the sweat that creates the smell, it’s your skin bacteria that does.
How do you manage all that skin bacteria? Daily showers, of course. But, not very practical for the Appalachian Trail thru hiking. It’s not a bad idea to shower in resupply towns, swim in rivers, jump in lakes, and check out all the waterfalls. Any body of water will be an opportunity to get some of the gunk off the skin.
The longer the hair, the more odor there will be on the body. Hair traps bacteria from the skin and sweating creates more stink. That applies to hair on the face (for men), legs, arm pits, and all other regions of the body. Each person will have to decide: razor or no razor—but for me, a razor is a must. (Disclaimer: Ask me again in four months and that answer might totally change as I swap the weight of a razor for an extra Snickers bar.)
Merino Wool vs Synthetics
Fabrics make quite a difference. We all know not to wear cotton while hiking—most hikers will swap ‘killer-cotton’ for quick drying polyester instead. But, there is even a better alternative: merino wool. The natural fibers of merino wool are unparalleled to anything man-made. The natural anti-microbial properties reduce the moisture on the skin, thereby reducing the contact with the bacteria that creates the odor (Source: MasterClass.com). Even when wet, merino wool will be warmer than any synthetic. Thus, my garments are mostly made from the merino wool fabric. For the complete packing list check out my full AT gear.
Smearing sweat with a wet wipe never really soothed my soul after a 10-hour vigorous hiking day. The wipes may seem like they are doing something, but I’ve always felt just as greasy and grimy before and after each use. Regardless, I am still bringing compressed, dry towelette pill wipes, which will at least save on water weight. This one might be purely a mental thing, but the thought of not wiping down my face each night just grosses me out.
You only get one set of teeth for your entire adult life. And those teeth can deteriorate fairly fast. Cavities can form as quickly as in six months. That’s the average duration of the AT thru hike. Coincidence? Yes, totally. But the bacteria that accumulates in your mouth not only causes bad breath but erodes your only set of teeth. Right? Right.
Developing a routine for brushing twice a day (once minimally) and regular flossing is another obvious practice. Whether or not you hack your toothbrush in half, it doesn’t matter, the important thing is that you have one. Who wants to come home to a root canal? No one.
Hand Sanitizer and Soap
Apparently some hikers take pride in how long they can go without taking a shower. That’s a whole lot of bacteria covering someone’s skin. That said, those same hikers who decide to abandon their bodies, leaving them for bacteria paradise, will sign trail registers, touch bear cables and boxes, open coolers from trail angels, and use picnic tables and shelters—i.e. touch everything you will likely come in contact with too.
Unless you want all that bacteria transferred to you, it’s probably best to clean/sanitize your hands whenever you touch anything another hiker might have touched. Maybe it’s my post-Covid paranoia, but maybe it’s a small thing to do to avoid a nasty stomach thing. Norovirus is real and not just on cruise ships.
I am using Dr. Bronner’s soap to thoroughly clean my hands in the evenings, which I poured into 1 oz containers and will be shipping in my resupply boxes. I am also using a sanitizer before eating anything and after touching all the communal things.
Feet – 5,000,000 Steps
Providing loving care to your feet will increase the chances of making it to the end. According to The Trek, a thru hiker will take somewhere around five million steps across mud, rocks, roots, water, ice, snow, divots, and uneven terrain. That’s a lot of wear-and-tear on your feet. And, almost a third of the hikers who quit, leave because of injuries, mostly to lower extremities such as feet. (Source: 2019 Hiker Survey, The Trek)
Icing feet in cold streams, cleaning them off from dirt and mud, and keeping them dry at night is a must-do practice. I always bring an extra pair of clean socks to sleep in, while my hiking socks stay fairly muddy and damp throughout the day. When it rains day-after-day, nothing on you will be dry (nor will it dry overnight), so keeping an extra dry pair of socks in my water proof clothing sack is a preventative measure to avoid trench foot.
Hotspots turn into blisters quickly—you only have about two hours to take action (Source: Blister-Prevention.com). It might seem like a drag to stop and fix your shoe and sock, or put a preventative bandage on, but once that blister forms it will take days longer to heal. Why not just take a few minutes to quickly readjust?
Hikers swear by Leukotape to treat blisters and hotspots. It stays put on sweaty feet and reduces the friction between the skin, socks, and shoes. Tip: Leukotape comes in a large, heavy roll, so I re-rolled mine into a smaller length over a plastic cap of an old marker for my First Aide kit.
Will I part with my toothbrush’s full size, deodorant, razor, and baby powder? That remains to be seen. Instead, I might carry slightly less water which is significantly more weight than any of those items combined. Just one liter of water weighs 2.21 pounds. If I carry a quarter of a liter less, I will cut .55 lbs of weight—equivalent to all my luxury items. Hmm…hygiene or hydration?
Staying clean while long-distance hiking may not seem like a top priority for some, but it’s a preventative measure to staying healthy. A good shower in town will rejuvenate your spirits too. And you need all the mental and physical health you can find to hike all 2200 miles. If I can increase my chances of making it to Maine by doing the small things along the way, why not? Only 20-30% of hikers actually make it, so why not bump up those chances?
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