Avoiding “Spewmageddon”: How to Evade Norovirus on the AT

Post last updated by Diane Duffard, Oct. 2023.

Every year the horror story begins around the NC/TN state line – Norovirus has hit and lots of hikers are sick. It can travel faster than a rumor on trail, blazing itself for hundreds of miles in both directions. While most cases involve taking a zero and then recovering, some hikers become incredibly ill due to the lack of nutrition and hydration their overworked bodies are already experiencing. Regardless of the severity of the norovirus, getting the runs while you’re miles from civilization or throwing up all the way up the mountain is never pleasant.

What exactly is Norovirus?  Well, it is actually a group of viruses that causes inflammation of the digestive system (gastroenteritis) and lasts anywhere from one to three days.  When you’ve got inflammation of the digestive system, you’ll experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and cramping. These symptoms can also be accompanied by lethargy, fatigue, muscle aches, headaches, or a low-grade fever as well.

Stay away from this. Image credit: National Park Service

If you have the symptoms, then you will be contagious. As with most viruses, once you’ve contracted it the only thing you can do is wait it out as Norovirus isn’t something you can get a prescription to treat. If you’ve decided this doesn’t sound like much fun to you, here are a few tips to keep you a little more protected on your hike.

Don’t Spew at the Water Source

I can’t believe I even have to say this, but pooping and/or throwing up near a water source is a huge no-no. Contaminated water sources have been known to be the cause of norovirus outbreaks and, believe it or not, every single year someone mentions seeing evidence of a hiker using the bathroom in a stream. Just don’t do it. EVER. Likewise, if you see a water source that looks contaminated, pass it up. It’s the AT, I promise there will be another very soon.

When pooping in the backcountry, Leave No Trace (LNT) sets the distance at 200 feet away from water sources, trails, and campsites because “over one hundred protozoans, bacteria, and viruses have been identified in human wastes, including Giardia lamblia, Cryptosporidium parvum, various coliform bacteria, and viruses such as Hepatitis A.”

For a more in-depth look at disposing of waste in the backcountry, check out LNT’s Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly. Alternatively, enjoy a wonderful visual guide: Five Ways to Poop in the Woods: An Illustration.

A questionably smudged pit toilet near the Appalachian Trail. Sometimes it’s best to avoid these as well.

Fist Bumps – Not Handshakes.

Shaking hands is the easiest way to pass germs on trail. You’re hiking 8-12 hours per day and your hygiene isn’t going to be your highest priority. Instead of reaching out to shake someone’s hand, think about doing a fist bump instead.  Consider this the hiker handshake.

Wash Your Hands with Soap and Water!

While it’s better than nothing, hand sanitizer just isn’t a substitute for a good hand washing, and it doesn’t kill norovirus. Carry your Dr. Bronner’s in a convenient place on your pack and wash your hands as much as you possibly can.

When using soap in the backcountry, never do so in a creek, pond, or any other water source. Instead, use a water bottle or other container to pour water over your hands while you scrub, and do so well away from any water sources.

Avoid “Digging In” to Your Food (or Someone Else’s)

I know, I know, sharing food with other hikers is something everyone does on trail, but there are ways to do it without getting grubby hands all up in your snack mix. If you’re going to share food with people, pour the food into open palms – don’t thrust your hands into the bag and grab a handful. Trust me, your digestive system will thank you.

Do Your Laundry

If you’re showering, you need to wash your clothes. Period. Don’t want to pay for laundry? Wear them in the shower and wash them while you wash yourself. If you’ve been around hikers who have been exposed to norovirus, you can carry the virus on your clothes in the form of vomit/poo particles.

Have Backup Water Treatment

Because norovirus particles are small enough to slip through water filters, having UV or chemical treatment on hand as backup is a great extra step toward purifying drinking water. It’s also important to avoid standing water whenever possible. Whereas running water makes it more difficult for nasty things to multiply and grow, standing water makes a fantastic breeding ground for insects, viruses, and bacteria. That’s not to say you don’t need to treat running water, but standing water is far more likely to have a lot of gross stuff in it.

Photo credit: Tasia (Stinkycheez)

Choose to Camp When Staying at a Hostel

While this seems extreme, it worked for us. By the time we had made it to the Whites on our northbound thru-hike, I had contracted this nasty virus for a second time. We quit staying inside at hostels, choosing the camping option instead, and didn’t stay inside another hostel until after our hike was over. Not only was it cheaper anyway, but it kept us from sleeping in communal rooms when we knew the virus was going around again.

No Guarantees, but Avoiding Norovirus is Worth the Effort. Trust Me.

These are just a few ways you can try to avoid the norovirus on your hike. While it’s not a surefire way to completely keep from catching it, by employing the tips above you’ll greatly decrease your risk of getting sick. Did you get the norovirus on your thru-hike?


Featured image: A Madeline Newel photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldman.

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Comments 5

  • Frogmonkey : Jan 29th

    Another way to avoid is to leave before and stay ahead of the bubble.

  • Skinny : Aug 12th

    I did everything right and still got noro! Noro was real bad from hot springs to erwin in 2013, I managed to steer clear of it until I went to a restaurant off trail a few miles after over mountain shelter. Made it back to the trail and that was a night to be remembered, or forgotten!

  • Laurie Potteiger : Mar 10th

    Great article, Sprinkles!

    Hikers can help stop the spread of the virus in the following ways:

    1) report your illness to the local health department
    2) send an email to [email protected]
    3) completely fill out the survey that is sent to you

  • James and Suzanne McConnell : Apr 14th

    GSE will help knock it out quick. Grapefruit Seed Extract. Available at SufiLodge.org


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