Getting My Trail Name, Thru-Hiker Stank, and Healing Companionship

Written on June 22, 2019

My Trail Name

Early on in my journey, when people would ask me what my trail name was, I would say, “I’m just Sara for now.”  That kind of started to catch on to the point that I would walk into camp in the evenings and people would say, “Hey! Just Sara!”  From there, people shortened it to JS, and for several days it seemed like that would be my name.  JS.  

One evening while having dinner at a shelter, two people would not accept JS as my trail name, insisting it was too early on in my hike to settle for that.  The next morning, the three of us decided to hitch to a hotel rather than hike in the rain all day.  After spending a whole town day together, I was given a new and improved trail name—Taps.  Because I’m a drummer.  It feels good, and it’s sticking, so that’s me now.  I’m Taps.

Taps on trail.

Lessons Learned from Boy Scouts

I will be the first to say that I LOVE it when I’m camped with a group of Boy Scouts.  They always build a fire, which is lovely, and in my experience, Scout leaders are teaching these boys how to grow into respectful adult men.  

I was lucky enough to spend one evening with a particular group of Boy Scouts who took outdoor survival very seriously.  They had attended classes taught by a man in Pennsylvania who had been on that show Alone.  They were all Pennsylvania natives, and I spent a lovely evening with them around the fire soaking in all the survival knowledge and PA facts that they had to share.  

  1. They taught me how to tie a clove hitch, which is a strong knot that won’t compromise your line, and can easily be untied when needed.  In knowing how to tie a clove hitch, I can now tie together my trekking poles to create a sturdy point to rig up my hammock tarp as a three-sided dwelling, no trees necessary.  That is so useful to me because now I never have to worry if there will be decent trees to hang a hammock; I can set up a shelter under any circumstances.  
  2. They taught me that burning the wood of mountain laurel is poisonous.  
  3. They taught me how to get my lighter working again if it’s wet. 

HUGE lessons that really leveled up my survival skills, and they were extremely respectful the whole time.  It was an all-around great experience.  

Why Are Thru-Hikers So Smelly?

The infamous thru-hiker stank.  For those who know, no explanation is necessary.  For those who don’t know, for my own entertainment, I’ll try to paint a picture for you.  Mind you, this is all from the perspective of a woman, and men probably have a completely different experiences.  Also, I’m not here to sugarcoat facts, I’m here to be real. 

First of all, the obvious one—the BO.  We are walking multiple miles a day in hot weather.  We’re sweating.  A lot.  And to save weight, nobody is carrying deodorant. It wouldn’t help anyway.  Also to save weight, we are wearing the exact same top and bottom (and bra, undies, and socks) every single day.  So these clothes are holding days of sweat on sweat on sweat.  If it is humid, and dewy, and foggy at night (which it absolutely has been), those clothes ain’t gonna dry out overnight.  So then in the morning, we put damp, mildewy clothes onto our ripe, unwashed bodies, and sweat in them some more.  Clean water is like gold out here, and I don’t know anyone who is going to waste their precious energy to collect extra water to wash their clothes or their bodies out in the middle of the backcountry.  

Days on days of living in one giant cloud.

Showers are a little easier to come by, but access to a washer and dryer is a real treat.  I was 15 days in before I ended up in a hotel where I finally got to throw all my wet and stinking clothes into an actual washer.  Otherwise we’re handwashing the essentials at spigots or showers or sinks and doing our best to air-dry.

My things were extra stinky for that first washing because the day before, the trail led directly through a beaver dam.  Even after my socks came out of the wash, I had to hand-wash them in the sink because they still smelled like beaver dam.  My shoes have never recovered so I still get a good whiff of it from time to time several weeks after the fact… especially when they are wet. 

The beaver dam.

So I’m managing all the smells that come along with the BO issue, but then, I ran out of toilet paper in the middle of a section between towns.  I dealt with the situation by employing the drip-dry method and saving my precious remaining baby wipes for more important business.  One day of that and I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work, so I sacrificed my spare pair of undies to use as a pee rag.  That system seemed to work OK. I made it to town, got some TP, had my mom order me a Kula Cloth, and figured everything would be fine until I made it to the mail drop with my specially made, antimicrobial pee rag. 

Then it rained for four days. 

Every smell became 100 times worse in four days of constant wet and no sunshine.  My pack in particular was just so wet, and never would dry before getting more wet, and the smell of BO and mildew was rank enough to really make me feel aggressive every time the wind shifted. 

The worst part of it all was the makeshift underwear pee rag.  It became so soaked from the rain and would never dry out.  The smell was enough to knock you down; this little piece of cloth was so powerful.  Anything that merely brushed up against it instantly took on its smell.  That means my pack where it had to hang, that means my hands because I sill had to use it even though it was nasty, and that means the handles of my trekking poles because hand sanitizer did nothing to get the smell of outhouse off me.  I became so distraught by the smell that I actually took the time to collect extra water and try to hand-wash the pee rag with soap and water.  All it did was make everything smell wetter and worse.  

The Right People at the Right Time

After four days of traversing Northern Pennsylvania rocks and boulders while smelling like the porta potty at a music festival, I reached my breaking point and could not stand it any longer.  In my stinking and wet rain jacket, weeping off and on, I walked a blue-blazed trail through cold rain into Palmerton, PA, and decided to take a few days off.  

I was one of the lucky ones who went across Knife’s Edge in the rain. Extra slippery indeed!

At first I felt guilty for wimping out of the woods two days before I had originally planned, but I am constantly reminded that when I go with the flow and follow my instincts, good things follow.  I ended up at Bert’s Steakhouse, which has a little hostel in the back, with a group of guys who were also breaking their schedule to get a little reprieve from the rain. They were a fun and welcoming tramily and I fit in with them immediately.

We showered, we washed our clothes, we let everything dry out on hot pavement in the sun.  We drank, we laughed, we ate, we stayed up late.  It was exactly what I needed.  The break was completely a mental rest, and had nothing to do with any kind of physical strain.  When I’m living out in the elements, the elements are almost exclusively in charge of my psychological well-being.  When I needed it the most, the trail, the universe, gave me a reprieve.  

What a wild ride! 

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Comments 2

  • Julie : Jul 10th

    I truly appreciate your “keeping it real”. I love following Trek writers on the trail so I can learn as much as possible for future adventures. This was entertaining, informative, and an excellent example of problem solving on the trail. Please keep us informed of the good, the bad and the ugly…and the awesomeness you experience on the AT.

  • Sophie : Oct 27th

    Really informative post! I’d never heard of a Kula cloth but now I’m going to get one for my thru-hike next year – thank-you! Also, love hearing the realness of the stink, I have no idea how I’m going to deal with it!


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