Norovirus Alert: Appalachian Trail Hikers Urged to Stay Vigilant Amid Outbreak

Thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail this season are being urged to take extra precautions as reports of gastrointestinal illnesses, suspected to be caused by norovirus, have surged along sections of the trail in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

The National Park Service (NPS) Office of Public Health has sounded the alarm, emphasizing the importance of hygiene and sanitation to protect against this highly contagious virus, which spreads like wildfire each year along trail.

Often dubbed the “stomach bug” or more descriptively referred to as “spewmageddon,” norovirus is notorious for its rapid transmission through direct contact with infected individuals, contaminated food and water, and even by touching contaminated surfaces.

Symptoms, which typically manifest within 12 to 48 hours of exposure, include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, fever, headache, and body aches. While most people recover with a few zero days in town, the virus can linger and continue to be contagious for a period afterward, potentially leading to dehydration, lack of proper nutrition, and fatigue.

Staying Healthy Amidst an Outbreak

To combat the spread of norovirus and protect yourself and fellow hikers, thru-hikers are advised by the NPS to practice the following:

Stay isolated if sick: If you experience symptoms of norovirus or have been ill in the past 72 hours, it’s crucial to isolate yourself from others, especially when it comes to food preparation. Opt for a quarantined hotel room or solo tent, rather than sleeping in a communal shelter or hostel.

Thorough handwashing: Although this can be challenging when dirt and grime are a right of passage on a thru-hike, a pocket-sized Dr. Bronner’s bottle goes a long way. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after using the bathroom and before eating, preparing, or handling food. Hand sanitizer is not an effective substitute for handwashing; rather, it’s a supplement. Use clean water and always wash at least 200 feet away from water sources.

Proper waste disposal: Utilize disposable wag bags to carry out and ensure proper disposal of infected waste. In the absence of wag bags, always dig a cathole at least 8 inches deep, and at least 200 feet away from food preparation areas, water sources, trails, and campsites.

Water treatment: The NPS recommends filtering and disinfecting water for drinking and cooking purposes. Note that point-of-use filters alone may not remove norovirus from water. Carry a back-up water treatment solution, such as a UV or chemical treatment to purify water. Boil water for at least one minute to effectively disinfect it before consumption or cooking.

Avoid sharing food/drinks: Refrain from sharing food or drinks with others and minimize contact with commonly touched surfaces such as water dispenser nozzles, trail logbooks, or privy door handles.

For more information and resources on norovirus prevention, visit the CDC’s website. Thru-hikers who have questions, concerns, or need to report an illness are encouraged to contact [email protected]. Stay informed, stay vigilant, and most importantly, stay healthy out there on the trail.

Featured image: The exterior of a pit toilet bathroom at a trailhead. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region photo

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