Bears, Bugs, Blisters, and Boredom: Common Concerns

The Appalachian Trail is a very safe place. It is certainly less dangerous than most cities and you are probably safer walking along the Appalachian Trail than you are walking out your own front door. With that said, however, it is not without its dangers. While conducting research for my upcoming thru-hike and discussing my plan with friends, I began to get a pretty clear picture of the concerns people have when thinking about such an adventure. Here is a short (and incomplete) list of things that come to mind, along with my plan for dealing with them.

Bears

First, let me say up front that I am not truly concerned about bears but it is included here because it is such a popular topic of discussion. I have had close to a dozen black bear encounters while hiking, almost all of them on side trails in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. All of these ended with the bear either bolting away from me as fast as it could, or watching me, in a calm and seemingly disinterested fashion, from a safe distance off the trail while I hiked on by. This does not mean that I do not take certain precautions. For example, if I am hiking in dense foliage where I can’t see around the next bend in the trail, I make some noise. When listening to music or audiobooks, I keep the volume low or leave one earbud out to maintain situational awareness (also a good practice in rattlesnake country). On my last shakedown hike, I began experimenting with cooking my dinner and brushing my teeth about an hour before I planned to stop for the night, thus ensuring my campsite remained relatively free of any tantalizing smells that might attract bears (and as a side note, I really enjoyed this routine and will continue to do this during my thru-hike). I sleep with my trekking poles assembled and within easy reach – on two occasions, clacking them together and shouting scared off a bear that came nosing around my campsite. Most importantly, I always hang my food (and other smelly items), or use bear poles, cables, or boxes if available. This is as much for the bear’s sake as for my own safety and peace of mind (“A fed bear is a dead bear”).

Black bear.

Bugs, Part One

Sometimes the trail seems to be little more than a playground for swarms of things that bite (black flies), sting (bees, hornets, etc.), suck (mosquitoes) or launch doomed kamikaze attacks targeting my eyes, ears, and nose (gnats, no-see-ums). I have long since accepted the fact that I am a magnet for such swarms. But while hiking through clouds of mosquitoes and gnats for hours at a time has occasionally driven me to the brink of frenzied madness, it has never resulted in the premature end of my hike and this is the primary measure by which I gauge the nature of threats encountered on the trail. In these situations I use liberal doses of insect repellent and, in extreme cases, put pants and my rain jacket on to protect exposed areas. I have never used a head net on any of my long section hikes or recent shakedown hikes, but I am considering bringing one along for my thru-hike.

I get itchy just looking at this picture.

Boredom

The trail can be a beautiful, magical place. It can also be repetitive, frustrating, and even mind-numbing in places. Hiking all day, every day, whether in the dreaded green tunnel, or cursing your way along a seemingly endless series of pointless up and downs (PUDs), or even hiking from one majestic view to another nearly identical gorgeous view to another nearly identical beautiful view, can produce a certain malaise in even the most bubbly and optimistic of hikers. To put it bluntly, hiking can sometimes be boring (there, I said it, don’t be a hater). This is particularly true when one sets out to hike for weeks or months at a time. To help combat this, enter the mighty smartphone. For my thru-hike, I have loaded it with music, audiobooks, and podcasts. I have also committed to writing entries for this blog and am learning the ins and outs of video production and vlogging, creative pursuits that I expect will keep my mind occupied and distracted during those times when the hiking itself becomes a bit onerous and predictable.

Illness (Giardiasis, Norovirus)

Now we are finally getting to those issues that truly concern me and that genuinely have the potential to take me off the trail. These include a variety of illnesses and diseases one can contract along the trail, with the most well known being giardiasis, norovirus, and Lyme disease. Giardiasis is a diarrheal illness caused by the microscopic parasite giardia. Giardia “is found on surfaces or in soil, food, or water that has been contaminated with feces from infected humans or animals. … While the parasite can be spread in different ways, water (drinking water and recreational water) is the most common mode of transmission.” Symptoms can last one to two weeks or longer, a situation that could severely impact a thru-hiker’s often tight schedule.(1) To avoid contracting giardiasis, I will be either filtering or chemically treating all of my water and employing common-sense good hygiene practices. Norovirus is another nasty bug one encounters along the Appalachian Trail. If you are unfortunate enough to contract norovirus you will spend several days throwing up or making frantic runs to the privy or bathroom. Norovirus is transmitted by “eating food or drinking liquids that are contaminated with norovirus, touching surfaces or objects contaminated with norovirus then putting your fingers in your mouth, or having contact with someone who is infected with norovirus (for example, caring for or sharing food or eating utensils with someone with norovirus illness).” Of particular concern for thru-hikers, “Norovirus can spread quickly in closed places like daycare centers, nursing homes, schools, and cruise ships…”(2)   Or shelters.  To avoid this unpleasantness, I will not be sharing food with anyone, will avoid handshakes when greeting my fellow hikers and instead rock the iconic (and much cooler) fist bump, employ common-sense good hygiene practices, and only very rarely stay at shelters where the often-crowded and not-always-sanitary conditions provide the perfect environment for the illness to spread. I don’t see this as a great hardship since I tend to prefer tenting anyway. Another factor in mitigating my risk for contracting norovirus is that I have elected to do a flip flop hike rather than the traditional NOBO hike. This will allow me to avoid the extreme overcrowding and overflowing shelters that have become characteristic of the southern sections of the trail during the traditional NOBO season and the greater risk such conditions pose in terms of person-to-person transmission of norovirus.

What the? Oh, it is the microscopic parasite giardia.

Bugs, Part Deux (The Evil Tick and Lyme Disease)

These evil critters, and the Lyme disease they carry, are one of my top thru-hike concerns, ranking just below injury as something that actually has the potential to end my thru-hike prematurely, not to mention the possibility of suffering lifelong complications from the disease.  The now-standard prescription for dealing with ticks is to treat all of your clothing and gear with Permethrin and this was indeed my original plan. I soon learned, however, that freshly sprayed, wet Permethrin could be deadly to cats. Since I have a furry friend, I did not want to risk it. I do understand that if you treat the clothes outside the house and allow them to dry they should be safe for cats. But my partner left no doubt that she would be extremely displeased if I brought Permethrin anywhere within a five-mile radius of the house or our cat. So, needless to say, I returned the Permethrin and will now be relying on Picaridin to fend off the ticks, supplemented by twice-daily (at least) tick checks.

The evil deer tick.

Injury

This is by far the category that has me most concerned. In the past, I have had to end more than one long section hike prematurely due to knee or foot injuries, and this was in my “indestructible” teens and early 20s. Benefiting from the wisdom of having lived a few more decades, it is now clear to me that these injuries almost always resulted from trying to go too far, too fast, too soon, with a pack that was too heavy. For my thru-hike, I am trying to head off injuries of this sort by keeping my pack weight low (I am currently at a 16.5-pound base weight and still tweaking), using trekking poles for the first time, and, most importantly, planning on very low daily mileage for my first several weeks, probably something in the neighborhood of eight to ten miles per day. I already know that this will be one of the hardest mental challenges I will face early on in my thru-hike since my normal approach to hiking has always been to start very early and hike slowly but steadily all day long until daylight begins to fade. This slow and steady approach can result in fairly high mileage days without leaving me exhausted. On my shakedown hikes I went from the couch to knocking out 15 miles a day fairly easily, but this was always with the knowledge that I would be finishing the hike and getting off the trail in a matter of days and could then rest for several weeks or months until my next hike. This of course is not a luxury that thru-hikers typically have and even such a slow and steady pace, if repeated day after day in the early going, before muscles, ligaments, and tendons have had time to adjust, can lead to overuse injuries. In addition to taking it slow in the early stages, I have also done a fair bit of preparatory hiking, to include five shakedown hikes along the trails of Shenandoah National Park. My hope is that as a result of these hikes my body will not be completely shocked and appalled when first encountering the significant and relentless physical demands of a thru-hike. Finally, I did an extraordinary amount of research trying to find the proper footwear for this hike. I purchased several pairs of trail runners, mids, and low hiking shoes trying to find that perfect fit that would leave my feet happy (as happy as feet can be when walking 2,000-plus miles) and relatively blister free. I am hoping all of this research will pay off.

These are some of the main concerns I’ve run across as I prepare for my thru-hike. It is not an exhaustive list by any means, and does not address such things as dead trees looming precariously over your campsite waiting to crush you while you sleep, crumbly cliff faces, stumbles, falls and face plants on unyielding granite, or waking up to the realization that it is Saturday night, that the shelter you are staying in is near a road crossing, and that it apparently serves as party central for some members of the local community (although if they’ve packed in enough beer, this particular scenario almost always works out just fine.) Thanks for reading and hope to see you on the trail.

(1) Website, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/giardia/index.html.

(2) Website, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/norovirus/about/index.html

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Comments 4

  • Avatar
    Janet Evans : Apr 6th

    This was interesting, as my girlfriend is one of you. Lol Adventurous.She is headed to Mt. EVEREST, they leave Sat to fly into Lukla. Once she comes back from this, she will go on The Appliachian Trail, be gone for 5-6 mo. She is on Team 3 on Mt. Everest.
    Be safe in your travels.
    Janet

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Eric Matez : Apr 7th

      Good stuff…some day I hope to do the AT. I am an officianado of its highest peak, so if I can help… Up the Ammonoosuc Trail to Lakes and the summit I have successfully and unsuccessfully completed in all seasons for some 30+ years, it’s primarily the only trail I do. Probably you won’t be there in the winter. That’s a shame as you don’t have to worry about most of your list then. Oh well, enjoy and be safe…and thanks for the read, looking forward to more.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Roy : Apr 7th

        Thanks! I am really looking forward to it. And at some point in the future, I do plan to do a lot more winter hiking so I don’t have to worry about most of those things I listed. Not to mention, winter hiking is beautiful!

        Reply
    • Avatar
      Roy : Apr 7th

      This is AWESOME! I wish your girlfriend the best of luck on her great adventure on Mt Everest. If she conquers Everest, I think the AT will be a piece of cake for her!

      Reply

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