“Avert Your Eyes” and Other Hiker Lessons

The award for Most Sportsmanlike Behavior in the Thru-Hiking category goes to the two gentlemen who kept their eyes forward while I was using the “tree-cilities” beside the trail the other day.

I had to step off the trail to pee in the woods, and being a woman, this includes leaving my pack and poles beside the trail and walking to an appropriate spot.

Now, “trail etiquette” describes a myriad of do and don’ts: when passing, yield right of way to uphill hikers; if you arrive to camp late, you set up without being obnoxiously loud; etc.

Proper trail etiquette also means you don’t look around when you see a pack and sticks by the trail. We all know what you’re doing out there, so it’s eyes forward at all times, ma’am.

What I failed to realize the other day as I stepped off the trail was that the trail…curved.

Right around in the direction I stepped.

So where I thought I had walked a good distance off the trail, I had actually just moved closer to it as it curved around.

I discovered this when I saw a man walking within a few feet of me—head down, closely studying the trail and deliberately not turning his head.

Before I could…ahem…situate myself, a second man briskly walked by in the same posture: eyes stonily fixed ahead.

Bless you, gentlemen, for your concern for my modesty.

Honorable Mention goes to the felled tree that partially obscured their view.

The rules are different on the trail, and I find them refreshing.

We talk about privies and cat holes and toilet paper and peeing and pooping as though they were, you know, naturally occurring bodily functions.

The trail changes you. Thru-hikers have a completely different set of social mores.

Don’t know someone’s name? They are ‘Brother” or “Sister.” Or ask their name, and you’ll unblinkingly hear answers like “Mountain Squid,” “Jolly Rancher,” “Solo,” “Lazy Boy,” or “Cheese-It.”

Also, our brothers and sisters smell unpleasant. We are malodorous, mephitic, pungent.

To put it plainly, we stink.

Some are more fastidious than others when it comes to regular bathing, but some of us may only take a proper shower a couple of times a month.

(Which of those two categories describes yours truly is none of your business: hike your own hike.)

And almost none of us carries deodorant.

It’s too heavy, and do you know what?

No one cares.

We’ve been wearing the same socks for days. And those boots on our feet have been there every single day for weeks and weeks. Hell, they’ve probably been peed on a little.

My socks I’ve been wearing for over a month “airing out” on a tree branch.

Someone on the trail said the other day, “And I shall know my brother by his stench.” It’s very true.

Not only are we not showering, but the men aren’t the only ones who’ve stopped shaving.

Every ounce counts, and razors are heavy.

Again, the rules are just different here.

We have each other’s backs.

Have an extra hotel bed? A shuttle on the way? Heard of a good resupply spot? Found some Trail Magic at a gap? We tell each other through texting or the Guthook app.

Need a box “bumped” up the trail? Lost your lighter? Did your water filter break? Need suggestions for shuttle drivers? Just ask.

Yesterday, as some of us were sharing a shuttle ride into town, we passed two men with packs standing under an overpass out of the rain. The driver noticed them, and we recognized them as fellow thru-hikers. We told our driver we’d be happy to squeeze them in, and he did a U-turn and picked them up, too. We happily smooshed our unshowered bodies into his car and arrived safely at our hotel.

Downhill, Lazy Boy, Jesmine, and Jolly Rancher.

We judge harshly when you break LNT rules.

We believe in “Hike Your Own Hike,” but I’ve overheard (and participated in) many angry conversations about people who do not pack out their trash or who fail to dig proper cat holes.

Overwhelmingly, thru-hikers are people who cherish the land and the Trail.

I’m sure you’ll agree it isn’t possible to immerse yourself in this awe-inspiring, life-changing beauty and not want to protect it.

This view was worth every uphill mile I trudged.

We believe in “hike your own hike.”

“Hike your own hike” might be my favorite of all the Trail jargon.

It has multiple meanings; the English Language teacher in me loves it for that reason. 

Depending on context, it can mean any of the following:

  • Do your own thing
  • Stop judging other people’s choices
  • Make your own decisions
  • Don’t take other people’s problems on as your own
  • Don’t expect others to take on your problems or to hike at your pace
  • Don’t adjust your plans or your hiking speed to accommodate anyone
  • Be responsible for your own choices
  • Be accountable for your actions
  • Mind your own damn business

Though we seem to share many core beliefs, Thru hikers understand we all come to the Trail for different reasons. It’s called us, in a way. We have different backgrounds, come from different places, and bring different experiences. This is part of the miraculous beauty of the Trail because, here?

Here we embrace and celebrate diversity.

It turns out, H.D. Thoreau was right. He wrote (and I’m quoting this from memory), “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. To front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

The trail helps you see what is worth caring about. It helps you to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…to put to rout all that is not life.”

We don’t care that no one is shaving. We don’t care that no one’s had a proper shower recently. We don’t care if you’re peeing in the woods three feet away. We don’t care who’s high and who isn’t. We just don’t care.

We don’t care because, at the end of the day, those things aren’t worth what little energy we have left.

We do care if you need water or food or a place to stay. We care about preserving our precious woodlands. We respect independence and self-sufficiency. We care about your health and well-being.

Maybe part of the Trail’s Magic isn’t that we’ve stopped caring, but that we’re learning what’s worth caring about.

Happy Trails, my Brothers and Sisters.


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Comments 3

  • Pre-phd Dr. Meesh : May 8th

    Your words embody what we have here on this planet. Connecting with each other in understanding and accepting one another’s history and knowledge. I kayak, and when it is peaceful on the lake, I look around, feel the sun, feel the peace, look up at the sky, and, I think to myself …, how lucky we are as a planet, a species! This Goldilocks zone of existence! I wish, as I pray, and I plead, that we can maintain the energy of growth. You write as though you have read the Celestine Prophecy. Thank you for writing a beautiful essay.


  • James : May 8th

    Great article. Loved everything

  • JP : May 8th

    Beautifully well put.

    I am planning my first long-distance hike this fall and the picture of hiker culture that you and other paint is a lot of what draws me to the trail. In today’s world, it is so nice when you can spend time in a refreshing atmosphere such as the one you describe.

    Thank you.


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