Health and Body: 5 Rarely Discussed Realities of Thru-Hiking the AT
Hiking is hard on the body. As a thru-hiker, you start this journey with the expectation of blisters, sore muscles, and fatigue. But are you aware of some of the other physical effects on the body? These issues may not come up with every hiker, but they were very common in 2015.
Ass Chafe is Real
I had never chafed a day in my life before hiking the AT. The first time I ever experienced this unique form of torture was early in the trip when I attempted to do a 15 mile day in the rain with insufficient rain gear. My cheeks were toast. Every step was pain. I tried holding my butt cheeks apart while walking, but that got old quick. Then I tried giving myself a wedgie, which worked much better than holding my butt. Eventually I had to call my day short because I just couldn’t handle the discomfort.
Naturally I invested in better rain gear, so I didn’t experience chafe again until Virginia when it got hot. This time the chafe didn’t come from rain, and it wasn’t only on my butt; I also chafed on my groin where my panty line hit. Before the chafe got bad, I picked up some baby powder from a gas station in Marion, VA. Baby powder worked better than nothing, but it didn’t fix the problem. The powder was messy; it didn’t stay on well, and I to reapply every 45 minutes. That’s a lot when you hike all day. There were some other issues with baby powder as well, but I’ll leave those to your imagination.
The days got hotter, and I was starting to do consistent 20+ mile days. Needless to say the chafe got worse, and unfortunately I was nowhere near town. I tried several things to lessen the pain during this multiple-day chafe stretch. I doctored my skin with Neosporin every chance I got. I took my pants and hiking underwear off as soon as I made it to my destination for the night. I even ditched the underwear one day in an attempt to ease my groin chafe, but doing so allowed my butt cheeks to rub freely – therefore just transferring the pain to a new part of my body.
When I finally got close to a town, I went straight for (a shower first and then) the outfitter where I was guaranteed to find this mystical substance called BodyGlide. I bought the smallest stick possible, and wore it almost every day for the rest of my trip. Don’t get me wrong – I still experience chafe, but believe you me – I never had that intense of chafe ever again.
So what can you do to avoid the very real experience of ass chafe?
- Start your trip prepared, and carry body glide – even if you don’t use it for the first two months. I would say that 90% of hikers I talked with about this subject experienced some form of body chafing at one point or another. One friend even had to get off trail because the chafe was too much. Don’t let this happen to you!
- If you do chafe, try washing the area in water with biodegradable soap. I heard many times that chafe is a result of not staying clean enough. (I know that I stayed as clean as I could and still chafed quite often – I’ll let you be the judge of this, though).
- Rearrange your clothing the best you can so that you minimize the areas where your skin rubs.
- …And if you still can’t avoid it, just pretend you’re a cowboy.
Women and the Urge to Pee
You carry a lot of weight in your pack (probably anywhere between 25 and 55 pounds). That’s a lot of stress on your body. To help you bear that much weight, your pack comes with a hip belt which is designed to evenly distribute your pack’s weight onto your hips.
That’s a good thing, right?
In my experience, tightening my hip belt seemed to put a lot of pressure on my lower stomach area as well. In fact, when I would release my hip belt to take off my pack, I would often get the sudden urge to urinate. It seemed like the instant pressure release triggered an instantaneous bladder response. After mentioning this odd sensation to other hikers, it seemed that this sensation only happened to women who had been backpacking for a while. In some cases, women who weren’t expecting the sensation weren’t able to control it at all; they would pee on themselves.
How can you avoiding peeing on yourself?
- Be aware of the issue! Tighten your hip belt and make sure it’s a snug fit, but don’t tighten it to an extreme in an attempt to get more weight off your shoulders.
- Anticipate the sensation before unbuckling your hip belt. If you know to expect this sudden pee urge, you’ll be mentally equipped and can better attempt to control it.
- Trade out your shorts for a hiking skirt, kilt, or dress. This makes going #1 in the woods much easier all around — no chance of peeing your pants AND no need to take the pack off.
Sex in the Woods (You Dirty Hippie)
One of the most common questions I get when I discuss how my partner and I met and started dating on trail is regarding sex. Now, I don’t want to get too personal into this topic, but I do want to comment on what’s appropriate and what’s not.
When you hike the Appalachian Trail, most of the time you either camp in a tent or sleep in a shelter. Neither of these places are ideal for personal time between you and your partner. Most designated tent sites and shelters will be a shared space with other hikers. Regardless of whether or not you say a word, sex makes noise. One of the biggest characteristics about the Appalachian Trail is respect – respecting nature, your fellow hikers, and yourself. Don’t be “that couple.”
Where can you do it while you’re in the woods?
- Get creative! You can have sex anywhere away from the trail. It’s a good idea to find a hiding spot where no other humans will be, but make sure you’re not on private land or near a road.
- If you don’t plan on taking too long, dropping your pack on the side of the trail isn’t a bad idea (as long as the area isn’t heavily populated with bears and you don’t plan on taking TOO long). That way people know you’re in the surrounding area, and they should keep moving if they have to poop.
Some Bodies’ Reactions
You’ve all heard it: by the end of the trail it’s said that thru-hikers take on the appearance of Greek Gods and Goddess. While it’s true that many people lose a significant amount of weight, not everyone’s body will react the same way. Some people lost weight so rapidly, they had to take time off trail to recover. Others lost weight, but gained it all back in muscle. Some, like me, lost a significant amount of fat, but it never became a problem (except for continually having to buy new bras). Still, others didn’t notice a weight change in their body much at all.
Other effects specifically regarding women’s bodies involve testosterone levels and menstrual cycles. Testosterone Levels in women are boosted during physical activity. In my case, daily hiking not only gave me this incredible (and normal) adrenaline high, but also increased my sex drive. Many women also experienced irregularity in their menstrual cycles due to weight loss, change in environment, stress, etc. Personally, I skipped my period for four months (and have no complaints about it).
What can you do to care for your body?
- If you’re hungry, eat. If you smell ammonia when you sweat (i.e. your body is eating your muscle mass because you have no more body fat for it to consume), eat more. If you aren’t losing weight like you thought you would, it doesn’t mean you aren’t hiking hard enough. Remember that you could be burning 8,000+ calories per day. Be open to that and what may happen with your body! More importantly, pay attention to your body’s physical needs and cater to them. Take care of your body well, and it will return the favor.
- Ladies, don’t freak out if you miss your period.
- Investigate birth control options before you leave.
- Keep tampons (or the diva cup) on hand just in case you become irregular.
- Plan to invest in buying condoms (or some form of contraceptive) if you know you plan on being sexually active!
(and lastly) HEMORRHOIDS!
Some people (including myself) got hemorrhoids while hiking the AT. This didn’t happen to me until I was in the North. I attribute this mostly to the terrible diet I was pretty much forced to eat due to my ever-increasing need for calories and low budget, but it could also have stemmed partially from trying to poop too quickly in privies or poor hiding spots.
You’ll know a hemorrhoid when you get one. Things just won’t feel quite right down there. You may also decide to check on things (make sure to be sanitary!); if you feel something that bulges out a little bit like a swollen piece of skin… it’s probably a ‘roid. If you’re not sure, you always have the option of seeing a doctor.
If you think you have a hemorrhoid,
- Stay calm! Don’t sit on cold rock, and keep it extra clean by using wet wipes.
- The next time you’re in town, get yourself a small little tube of preparation-H. I
- f you notice some swelling down there, don’t wait to take action! Get some cream as soon as possible. I can attest (from first-hand experience) it’s super uncomfortable to hike with a swollen butthole.
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