Germophobe Tips For Avoiding Trail Sickness

You know me. I’m the guy who uses paper towels to open bathroom doors, refuses to shake hands, and lives with a bottle of hand sanitizer attached to my hip. Yes, I am a card carrying germophobe. I can’t deny it.

I used to think that hiking in the pure mountain air shielded me from most human germs. That was until I read about the dreadful norovirus outbreak of 2013. The mini-epidemic sickened as many as half of thru hikers who passed through Hot Springs and points north and south that year. It was so bad that the CDC sent out a team to investigate. Since then, even non-germaphobes (i.e., normal people) have started to worry about norovirus, and most prospective thru hikers have read or heard something about the gut wrenching gastrointestinal illness. In an effort to keep ahead of what has become a yearly concern in the thru hiking community, the ATC has gone so far as to set up an e-mail address ([email protected]) for hikers to report suspected norovirus cases.

So what is a germophobe like me to do? Since not hiking is not an option, here are a few strategies I plan to employ on my thru hike this year.

Use hand sanitizer frequently

Frequent hand washing with soap and running water is the best defense against norovirus, but this can be hard to do on the trail. That’s where hand sanitizer comes in. Unfortunately, standard alcohol gels are not nearly as effective against norovirus as they are against cold and flu viruses. The good news is that a number of liquid alcohol sprays have proven to be much more effective than their gel counterparts. A quick Google search will yield several options, most of which have to be ordered online. I plan to carry some to start my hike and resupply from mail drops along the way.

Avoid shelters and hostels

This is an easy one for me because I always prefer the peace and quiet of my own tent to the company of groaning snorers and hikers ending their days at midnight and starting them at five. There’s not a whole lot you can do to avoid germs in the cramped confines of shelters and hostels (do I even need to mention privies?). This is especially true if hikers share food or touch the same pen at the trail register. Motels are risky too, but since most hikers, myself included, will want to stay in a soft bed at some point, I’ll just have to take my chances there.

Keep your guard up in town

Let’s face it: towns stops are often the highlights of a thru hike. Towns are also the most likely places to get sick. We get off the trail, malnourished and exhausted, our weakened immune systems susceptible to the cold, flu, and stomach viruses still rampant in towns during springtime. Hikers visit many of the same places—restaurants, motels, and grocery stores—and touch the same door knobs and surfaces that other hikers touch, not to mention sick locals. Being careful not to touch your mouth, eyes, and nose with unwashed hands is a good way to protect against these germs.

Choose water sources wisely

That pristine mountain stream may appear to be safe, but if someone is washing their dirty hands and clothes upstream from you, or worse yet, emptying their stomach therein, you could be in trouble. This is especially true if you use a filter because most filters do not eliminate viruses. Many purification tablets do, and this is the best bet (other than boiling) if you want to ensure virus free water. As for me, the speed and convenience of a filter is too good to pass up, but I will have a few tablets on hand if I catch wind of a CDC level outbreak.

So that’s it. None of these steps will completely eliminate my risk for norovirus, and there’s little I can do about breathing in cold and flu germs. Well, I suppose I could wear a gas mask, but I would never be able to hitch a ride again. I am confident, however, that my efforts will increase my chances for a healthy hike, and if you are a germophobe like me (or became one after reading this), maybe these tips will help you have a healthy hike too.

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