How to Survive Waterborne Diseases on the Appalachian Trail

How to Survive Waterborne Diseases on the Appalachian Trail:

(this list is completely satirical and I suggest you read my story after for actual good advice)

  1. In order to ensure survival of a waterborne disease, one first needs to infect oneself with the disease. Do this by drinking unfiltered water with microscopic fecal matter in it, preferably that of the cattle or beaver variety. Make sure never to wash your hands after making a bowel movement and perhaps touch the butt of someone else already infected. If going for the Cyrptosporidium kind, go swimming with someone else who may potentially be carrying the parasite. It’s that easy!
  2. When beginning to feel ill, hike as long and as far as possible so you can look tough in front of your friends.
  3. As symptoms emerge, you will be able to finally take great revenge on those snakes that surprise you on the trail. Don’t worry, it will be automatic. The stomach cramping will be so severe that when you see a snake, it will startle you into vomiting on it.
  4. Go through your pathetically small amounts of toilet paper as fast as you can so you can start experimenting with the natural leaf varieties.
  5. Try eating different foods and then time how long it takes for them to come out. Take bets with the friends you started to hallucinate after severe dehydration and fever sets in.
  6. With said severe dehydration, play the “Can you lift your bag?” game. If you find that you are loosing this game, do not worry, just lie down on the ground until someone else picks you and it up.
  7. Once someone has picked you and your bag up off the trail, play the, “How many cars will pass before one takes you to town?” game. You could also try the “Should I go to the hospital?” game.
  8. Inevitably you will find yourself at the hospital due to severe dehydration, and you get the great pleasure of seeing how many liters of fluids you can absorb. Make sure to really show off those hiker legs in the hospital gown.
  9. Make sure you do not let your bowels release all of the good stuff because you will need to save a bit to give to the doctors! This is how they will confirm that you achieved infection.
  10. The fun doesn’t stop after the hospital! You also get to play the “Find the pharmacy that carries the medicine for your rare parasitic infection” game and the “Time how long you have to lie down after walk up some stairs” game.

But Actually…

My trail name is Squirt and around mile marker 1,200 I was infected with Cryptosporidium, a waterborne disease. Interested in hearing about my magical adventure with Crypto? Read on!

Let me start off by saying, I filter all my water and practice excellent trail hygiene. I shower every few days on the trail, but wash my body off with water almost every evening. I sterilize my hands after going number 2 on the trail and wash my hands as soon as I can in town. But inevitably, things happen and as I was leaving Lickdale, PA, I noticed that I felt incredibly tired and weak as I set out into the woods. The effort made me feel like vomiting and for the first time in a few weeks, I did not feel hungry. I focused on walking, hoping I just had a bit of a stomach bug that would clear up soon. I walked slowly and realized something was really strange when my gut reaction to seeing a black snake was not only to startle, but to almost vomit on it. I convinced myself that I ate some bad breakfast and the extreme nausea would be over soon. Eventually, my friends Kylie, Whoopie and I were hiking together and I distracted myself with conversation for the remaining 7-8 miles to the road. By the road, I started to feel hungry again and thought that I was over the bug. Another hiker named Ambush, Whoopie and I went into town to a grocery store where I bought some foods I thought might be a little bit easier to digest than my jerkies, like a sweet potato. A kind woman named Maria brought us back to the trail and by this time, I was feeling fine again. She offered her number in case we needed help in the morning, but I made it clear we would be hiking on the next morning. I was originally going to be hiking further that day, but because I was feeling really tired, I thought it would be a good idea to stay at the 501 shelter in Pine Grove, one that is close to the road.

Unfortunately, almost immediately after I had eaten a few snacks from town, my stomach began cramping violently and I felt incredibly ill. I smiled through it, knowing that silly breakfast would soon come out and be down with. I drank some ginger tea and set up my tent. I had bought marshmallows for everyone to roast at the shelter, so I collected wood and asked the guys to build a fire while I washed up. I felt more and more sick though, and eventually went to bed without roasting a single marshmallow. I didn’t sleep much, however, because my stomach was churning loudly and cramping throughout the night.

The following morning, I knew I was in no shape to hike and I would have to try to get into town for the day. Luckily, I was close to the road and so while everyone hiked on, I got packed up and ready to hitch hike 30 minutes to the next town where I would meet up with them and hike on the next day. Once they left, however, the stomach cramping became so bad that I knew hitch hiking was going to be miserable nearly impossible. I asked the universe several times as I walked towards the road to give me a miracle because I was going to need one. EXACTLY as I come out to the road, GUESS WHO PULLS OFF THE ROAD?! MARIA!!!!! She goes, “Hey Squirt, do you need anything?” What a miracle. With tears in my eyes, I graciously accepted her help and explained that I thought I had food poisoning and needed to get the next town. She brought me back to her house where I slept, washed up and used the bathroom. She helped me wash my clothes let me hang out until the afternoon. I kept going in and out of feeling nauseous and having to use the bathroom. By this point, I was using the bathroom more frequently and with more urgency. Food made my stomach cramp and almost immediately came out the other end. After I slept and felt a little better, she brought me to the next town where I had a hotel room booked for the night. The car ride was nearly impossible to tolerate due to my nausea, but looking like a pale/green ghost, I eventually made it to the hotel where I saw two of my favorite hikers, Starstuff and Swasey. I was going downhill fast, and while the hotel receptionist explained the room to me, I had to stop her to run to the bathroom. Starstuff had to help me get my bag to my room because I could no longer lift it. Once in my room, I laid down on the bed, where I realized I was so tired, I could not even muster the energy to move or turn the TV on. Realizing I would definitely not be able to hike the next day, I called my mom, thinking I could recover at home for a few days. “Could you even make the car ride home though, Julieann?” my mom had said and I realized, I was so sick, there would be no way I could handle it. My older sister quickly posted on her facebook to see if she knew friends in the area that could help, and I did the same. Within a few hours, I had a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend who was a half hour away and could come pick me up in the morning. Social media is a miracle.

That night I laid in bed, groaning in my sleep (according to my friend Whoopie that was tending to me while I was sick). I had to use the bathroom several times and by morning, I was so weak that I could not stand up to pack my bag. We had to walk to post office to get our packages and wait for my pick up, but I was so tired I had to use Whoopie to hold on to. Once in the post office, I had to LAY DOWN ON THE GROUND!!!!! The kind post office woman let me use the bathroom several times as I waited to get picked up by my friend of a friend of a friend of a friend who I had never met or seen before.

My friend of a friend of a friend of a friend is named Andy. Andy knew Steve, who knew Ron, who knew Sheldon, who knew my friend Carrie. Andy happens to be as amazing wonderful and awesome as my friend Carrie, so it was essentially like getting picked up by a best friend. Andy and his friend Steve picked me up and whisked me away to heaven (Wegman’s) where I was able to get enough broth and kombucha to last a food poisoning life time. After drinking the broth and taking an anti-diuretic at Andy’s incredibly beautiful house, I began to feel much better, finally holding in fluids. I was still very tired, weak and slow, hoping I was done with the food poisoning and just needed to sleep. That night, however, when I stopped the anti-diuretic medications, I was still sick and I called my doctor’s clinic. The doctor on call suggested I go to clinic in the morning because I probably had something like Giardia. Food poisoning, apparently, should not last three days and no one else around me sick, ruling out norovirus. Good point.

I felt better in the morning, but to be safe, went to a minute clinic with my saviors, Andy, Steven and now also, Todd. Todd called it from the beginning that I had Giardia or Crypto. He’s a wilderness trip leader, and had not only a lot of advice about the trail ahead of me, but about randomly trail illnesses. Unfortunately the minute clinic rejected me because they do not address abdominal problems (just in case you did not know!), so I tried a walk in clinic. They also did not want to address my case so I was sent to the ER. All that effort I put into avoiding my high ER deductible for nothing…

I felt like a baby for going to the ER because it did not feel like an emergency to me. My stomach was getting better and I was holding in food, but I felt like it was important to rule out Giardia, just in case. I received a fluids by IV because I was apparently still dehydrated, and the doctor ran some tests but told me I was probably fine. The tests would take a few days to hear the results from and I should be fine to jump back on the trail once I felt hydrated and stronger. When I left the ER, the boys took me to a movie, where I got a message from the doctor asking me to call and speak to a doctor there as soon as I could. Now, that’s a heart sinking sound! Apparently, according to the doctor, I tested positive for Cryptospordium, a highly contagious waterborne parasite similar to Giardia. I needed to stay out of pools immediately for a few weeks and he suggested I take a medication to help clear it out of my system faster. Although this was not great news, at least I knew I was not a baby for going to the ER. That was a great move.

So here I am, at Andy and his wife, Lindsey’s house, sterilizing all of my backpacking gear, trying to eat and drink as much as I can to make up for the calories and weight I lost during my little Crypto episode. I could not tell you how I managed to pick it up on the trail. Perhaps I put my hands in a stream that was infected and then touched my food? Maybe while washing my face in another stream I got a drop in my mouth? Maybe it was from swimming in an infected lake? Maybe I touched infected animal poop? Maybe another infected person didn’t sanitize their hands in the privy and touched the door? Who knows. Regardless, I had to accept that I needed to take almost a week off the trail to get my strength back before heading out there into the woods.

Will I be super paranoid and crazy about filtering all water that touches me from now on? No way. It took me 1,200 miles and 3 months of everyday stream and unfiltered water exposure to get sick. I will still always filter my water before drinking it, and be careful not to get unfiltered water in my mouth while washing off at night. I will continue to sanitize my hands after going to the bathroom and before I eat. But honestly, I have to hike in the woods, and I am aware there are dangers of all kinds everywhere. I just have to be smart and if I (or you) feel sick, take it easy and stay close to a road in case you need help. We are strong and loving people, and I am so thankful for all the people who helped me out during this whole thing. It is amazing to feel that no matter how alone and in trouble we may think we are, if we ask for help, the trail will provide.



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Comments 2

  • Justin : Jul 22nd

    Hope your feeling all better.


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