Oh, Crap….

I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is, this is my last post until I’m officially on the trail! The bad news is, I’m going to be walking into a shitstorm. Literally.

When human beings get together, amazing things often happen. We create music, we solve problems, we work together to make a task easier, and we band together to support one another. But another thing often happens when humans convene… disease. The AT is not immune to this inevitability and, at times, can be more prone to it with over 3 million people setting foot somewhere on the trail each year.

Are you picturing a group of hikers huddled in a shelter, suffering from a little case of the sniffles? That is a possibility, but that’s not the battlefield I’m about to walk into. I am about to voluntarily insert myself into an outbreak of Norovirus. If you’re not a hiker, you may have heard of Noro as the cause of many cruise ship disasters, you know… the ones where people have shared pics of a river of sewage flowing down the hallways because the toilets are overwhelmed? Yeah, that’s the one. Norovirus is always a possibility on the trail, but on the AT it tends to peak around April on the southern part of the trail, when the NOBOs are plentiful. The sheer number of hikers taxes existing on and off trail infrastructure (privies, hostels, etc.) but is further complicated by uneducated and/or uncaring hikers that don’t follow proper backcountry potty procedures.

The literal know before you go:

  • First of all, know the regulations on human waste where you plan to recreate. Some areas require packing out human waste to protect fragile environments.
  • Find a spot that is 100 ft away from the trail and at least 200 ft away from water sources (streams, ponds, lakes)
  • If you just have to pee, try to find a spot that doesn’t have delicate vegetation and resist the urge to pee on a tree (the salts in your pee can damage young flora and can attract wildlife nibbling which can damage a tree). Absorbent pine duff or rocks are a decent choice. Pay attention to wind direction and slope so you don’t get any unwanted splashback. Never pee in a privy (that’s what makes them stinky!)
  • If you’ve got a bona fide #2 happening, use a trough or stick to dig a hole that is around 6 inches deep and 4-6 inches wide. This is always WAY more difficult that you think it will be, so start digging before you’re in an emergent situation whenever possible. A basic squat works, but there’s plenty of info out there on modified poo positions if you need it. When you’ve dumped out, use a smooth rock or leaves (make sure they’re not poison ivy or anything!) to wipe. A small amount of toilet paper can be used, but regulations in some areas means that may need to be packed out. Take a stick and ‘stir’ the waste in the hole to mix it with surrounding dirt and replace the dirt you dug out. Insert the stick into your divot to indicate to fellow hikers this is NOT an area they want to dig in for their own poo needs.
  • Wash your freaking hands! Hand sanitizer is nice, but it doesn’t kill viruses like Norovirus. Using a small drop of biodegradable soap, lather well and rinse your hands (squeezing your water bottle between your knees is an easy way to rinse).

No one enjoys doing this (although if you haven’t has a nice al fresco dump on a beautiful day, you don’t know what you’re missing), but it is necessary. Now that I’ve given you an idea of how it is supposed to be, let me paint you a picture of how it actually is. Day hikers might set out without a way to properly potty, not realizing that being out in nature doesn’t stop nature’s call. Some hikers won’t bother with making sure they’re far enough away from the trail and water, in fact, there are stories of idiot hikers actually pooing IN a water source. Others won’t dig a deep enough hole, if they even bother to dig a hole at all. Often too much TP is used, and is left strewn openly on the ground. And how about that handwashing? How many people do you think actually bother to take the steps to lather up and rinse?

Toilet paper on the CT.

Toilet paper left carelessly on the trail

And even if they do rinse with water, they’ve filtered from a water source, do you know that most mechanical filters don’t remove viruses? So if you’re rinsing your clean hands with water that has the virus in it (because of the above hiker infractions), you’re literally adding fuel to the fire. Oh, and I bet you were drinking that same water, right? Guess who just gulped down a gullet full of contagion? And now that you have the virus on your  hands, what happens when a kindly fellow hiker offers you some of their trail mix and you reach in? Yup, you just contaminated their food, which they’re about to eat and continue to share with other hikers. And how about all the places that backpackers on the AT touch? Think of shelters, picnic tables, privy handles and seats, shelter logs and pens, and shelter brooms. Add in the risk of shared spaces in town settings like hostels and shuttles and the fact you’re actually contagious for days after you recover and you can see why Noro is almost an inevitability.

Maybe you’re thinking it’s just a virus, how bad can it be? I’m going to spare you the details, but pretty much imagine your body is a fire hydrant only you’re spewing at BOTH ends. This lasts for several days. Can you picture being struck with this while you’re in your tent in the middle of the backcountry? How could you ever properly dispose of your waste, let alone wash your hands? It’s been so bad this year, several hikers have had to be evacuated because they were too weak to self rescue.

I definitely don’t want to experience this part of trail life. Unfortunately, in order to maximize my chances of avoiding it, I’ll have to avoid other experiences of trail life I was looking forward to, like hanging out in shelters, hiker feeds, and hostel life, at least until after the Smokies (when the threat of Noro tends to settle down due to thru hiker attrition). I’ll also be chemically treating my water after I filter it to help ensure it’s as pathogen free as it can be. And, at first sign of illness, I’ll be booking it to town and setting up in a hotel to ride this thing out. Hopefully, I can escape this trail plague!

Purple Lotus is a NOBO hiker in the AT class of 2024. Read her first post, an introduction of herself, here.

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Comments 4

  • jhonY : Mar 28th

    “A small amount of toilet paper can be used, but regulations in some areas means that may need to be packed out.”
    I feel packing it out the best option, always.
    LNT principle, “Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.”
    Some places you get to pack it ALL out, poop too, in a WAG BAG –Waste Alleviating Gel. Must be used on Mount Whitney Trail for instance.

    • Traci 'Purple Lotus' Withani : Mar 30th

      I agree, and in the future, there won’t be areas with different standards because we will need to pack it all out everywhere. But for right now, dealing with ‘amateur hour’ aka the start of the AT in Georgia, I would settle for everyone digging a hole and burying everything at this point!

  • William : Mar 31st

    Thanks for a wise and sensible article on an important and “delicate” issue. I agree to it all. However, I will underline a few points. Keeping a sound distance to water sources is as you mention very important, and then also be aware of slopes. Remember, water runs downwards! The human waste should not be brought down to any creek etc. during heavy rain fall.

    Keeping distance to the trail is certainly a valid hygienic argument. I will add that one should try to find spots where others will not tend to go for any other reason than just going to the toilet. In addition to the hygienic argument, there also is an aesthetic one. Even though a normal duty for everyone, most of us most of us prefer to avoid seeing a friend in such a situation. Some matters belong to private life, even if you have no door to lock.

    A last point: Alcoholic disinfection fluids do not have good effect on against norovirus. A thorough hand wash is needed.

    • Traci 'Purple Lotus' Withani : Apr 1st

      100% accurate!

      I have read many accounts of hikers who left the trail to do their business in private, only to be surprised that the 100 feet they went off the trail was directly next to a switchback! Passing hikers definitely saw a sight! So that’s another thing to be aware of! 🤣😂


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