The Trail is the Teacher: Living and Learning on the Appalachian Trail, the story of my 2016 thru-hike of the (then) 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail is now available at Amazon a both an e-book and paperback.
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This article appeared originally on May 24, 2019 at The Trek.
Note: This story has been updated to include new information regarding the total number of murders on the trail. According to Brian King, publisher for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, there have been 10 murders in eight incidents on the trail since the first murder was recorded in 1974.
The Appalachian Trail community was shocked when one hiker was killed and another critically wounded in a recent pre-dawn attack on the trail. Ronald S. Sanchez, Jr., aka Stronghold, a US Army veteran from Oklahoma, was pronounced dead at the scene after he and several other hikers were menaced and attacked by a knife-wielding assailant in southwest Virginia on May 11.
An as-yet-unidentified female hiker also was badly injured, but survived the attack and was taken to a hospital after fooling the assailant into thinking she was dead, then walking six miles to find help.
Police arrested James L. Jordan of West Yarmouth, Mass., who went by the trail name Sovereign, near the scene. He faces federal charges—the AT is part of the national park system—of murder and assault with intent to murder and is being held without bond pending a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation.
Jordan was previously arrested April 21 in Unicoi County, TN, following reports that he threatened hikers. He pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and providing false information, was fined, and released on probation. A trail angel convinced Jordan to board a bus for Maryland on May 2, but he was spotted back on trail just days later.
“The Appalachian Trail is a relatively safe environment, a refuge that welcomes more than three million users a year,” Suzanne Dixon, president of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, said in a May 14 statement. “Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, the trail is not absolutely safe.”
The immediacy of the recent attacks has led to anxiety and speculation about the danger of assault on the trail. But an analysis of crime and population statistics shows that the AT is literally hundreds of times safer than the United States at large.
(Asterisks (*) indicate numbers that reflect the least-favorable scenario for the annual AT murder rate, such as rounding up, using a lower population number, or extending the period of data to include the most recent incident, in order to “steel-man” the argument.)
Here’s another way of looking at it (US averages derived from these statistics):
Statistics, of course, can be tricky. But no matter which way you look at it, you are many hundreds of times less likely to be murdered on the AT than in the US at large.
Statistics for assault and sexual assault are harder to come by, but the ATC receives reports of just about one assault per year and one rape every three years on the trail.
“Assaults are rare. It has been a few years since a sexual assault has even been reported, although we are certainly aware that this is a crime that is underreported,” the ATC responded to a hiker query in 2015. There was a rape reported at the Trail Days festival in Damascus, VA, that year.
For comparison, in the US at large there were more than 135,000 reported rapes and more than 810,000 aggravated assaults in 2017 alone. And statistics for assault and sexual assault tend to track closely with murder and overall crime rates.
Of course, calculations and statistics are of little comfort to anyone who has been involved in, or in proximity to, a violent incident, on the trail or anywhere.
That’s no surprise, given that human brains are generally wired to respond to rare but anomalous events—terrorist bombings, airplane crashes, shark attacks, murder—even as they habitually underestimate considerably greater dangers inherent in familiar activities such as driving (40,000 annual motor-vehicle deaths in the US; that’s 12.19 per 100,000 population, or 1,300 times the AT murder rate), texting (which causes more than a million auto accidents each year), and fireworks, which send more than 10,000 people to emergency rooms every year.
“The great irony is that by paying attention to isolated incidents and scares… we don’t pay attention to what are much more proximate and serious dangers and therefore put ourselves at greater risk,” says Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Worry About the Wrong Thing. “I like to talk about the fact that if you are in an airplane you are infinitely safer than if you are in a car but it’s very hard to keep that in mind.”
The AT has plenty of “proximate and serious” dangers: In 2016, for example, five percent of AT thru-hikers contracted Lyme disease, according to an ATC questionnaire, and as many as 40 percent of the 60 percent of NOBO thru-hikers who drop out by Damascus leave due to injury.
The recent murder and assaults on the AT are disturbing and tragic, and hikers should always be alert to their surroundings, whether in town or deep in the woods. But would-be thru-hikers (and their friends and families) should know that, any way you look at it, the trail is not just “relatively” safe, but extraordinarily safe.
This trail profile appeared originally in The Trek.
The idea for the Foothills Trail, a National Recreation Trail located in far western South Carolina, began in the 1960s as an effort to preserve and protect the beauty of the Appalachian Foothills. A trail corridor linking Table Rock State Park in the north/east to Oconee State Park to the south/west, was completed in 1981.
The trail features sturdy bridges crossing over numerous rivers, beautiful waterfalls, a jaunt around a corner of Lake Jocassee, and, on the eastern half of the trail, steep climbs of up to 2,000 feet that rival anything on the southern Appalachian Trail.
Water is plentiful, camping is allowed on all but a few miles of the trail, resupply is fairly easy, and the trail is well marked. Although mostly well-built and -maintained, as of October 2018 there were quite a few blowdowns, including a couple that force hikers into significant bushwhacking and route-finding back to the trail.
Once as high as the Rocky Mountains or Alps, some 480 million years of erosion have substantially decreased the elevation of the Appalachian Mountains (which extend, believe it or not, into Scotland). But the eastern/northern third of the trail, in particular, is as steep and rugged as the southern Appalachian Trail.
Overall, south/westbound hikers (SWOBOs?) gain approximately 10,900 feet of elevation, while north/eastbounders (NEBOs?) gain about 10,000 feet (the Foothills Trail Conservancy does not offer exact totals; approximations are based on an overall elevation profile).
The tread on most of the trail is largely free of rocks and roots, except for a few limited areas, making for pleasant hiking. Well-built bridges cross major waterways and the FTC has laid hundreds of wood-block steps into the steepest sections of trail.
Length: 76.2 miles (the Foothills Trail Conservancy rounds this off to 77 miles).
Location: The trail runs slightly northeast-southwest in far western South Carolina, with several crossings into North Carolina.
Trail type: Shuttle end-to-end.
Scenery: Mostly forests, dominated by rhododendron, mountain laurel, oak and pine, with occasional panoramic views, rivers, waterfalls, and the summit of South Carolina’s highest peak.
Terrain: Easy to moderate on the western/southern part of the trail, with occasional short, steep climbs. Moderate to strenuous on the eastern/northern portion of the trail. Exposure is minimal, and many climbs feature artificial, wood-block steps.
Navigation: The trail is well-marked with white blazes and easily navigable, though as always, you can get off track if you aren’t paying attention. The Foothills Trail Conservancy store offers a complete guidebook, map, and pocket profile. Scott Lynch’s pocket guide, Hiking South Carolina’s Foothills Trail, is another popular option.
The Foothills Trail is a fun, challenging traipse through classic southern Appalachian terrain. The trail epitomizes the green tunnel phenomenon, but that just makes its periodic panoramic views even more rewarding. If you like water, the trail offers constant swimming opportunities, waterfalls, and flowing rivers to lull hikers to sleep.
This is a four-season trail, hikeable even in winter. There is abundant wildlife and hikers have a good chance of seeing deer, snakes, toads, frogs, raccoons, waterfowl, raptors, and more.
This is a worthy trail in its own right, but many hikers use the Foothills Trail as a kind of shakedown, warm-up, or training-wheel expedition for an AT thru-hike. The terrain, tread, and grades—from riverside meandering to lung-busting steep—all reflect the AT in its Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina incarnations. The climate is mild due to lower elevations, which usually means oppressive heat and humidity in late spring, summer, and early fall—good training for the AT’s mid-Atlantic in July.
While there are often more people around features such as Whitewater Falls and Lake Jocassee, hikers will find plenty of solitude on most of the trail, including quiet, secluded campsites.
There are multiple easy access points to the Foothills Trail. Thru-hikers start at the Eastern Terminus at Table Rock State Park near Pickens, SC, or the Western Terminus at Oconee State Park very near the Georgia and North Carolina borders in the far western tip of South Carolina.
The FTC website lists shuttle services that cater to long-distance hikers. Table Rock State Park is about an hour’s drive from both Asheville, North Carolina and Spartanburg, SC. Oconee State Park is about two hours from both cities. Oconee is about 2.5 hours and Table Rock is about three hours from Atlanta.
There are also ten other easy access points between the two termini for non-thru-hikers.
Thru-hikers travel both north/eastbound and south/westbound, but there’s no question that those who travel south/westbound have it a bit tougher. As on the AT, south/westbound Foothills Trail hikers walk straight into a buzzsaw, tackling the highest, most challenging terrain immediately and gaining some 3,000 feet in the first 9.8 miles to the summit of Sassafrass Mountain … on day one.
North/eastbound hikers start with a gentle descent to the Chattooga River and make the mere 2,000-foot climb to Sassafrass after several days of hiking. The western half of the trail covers significantly less grueling terrain overall.
It’s entirely plausible to hike the Foothills Trail in any season, though late-spring to early summer and fall are most popular.
Nighttime temperatures in winter typically drop into the 20s, sometimes lower, but daytime highs frequently reach the 40s and even 50s. In summer and early fall, the heat and humidity can be a killer—hikers who can tolerate walking in gear literally soaked with sweat will avail themselves of frequent opportunities to swim and wash off chafe-inducing salt and grime.
Insects can be troublesome, especially mosquitoes and biting flies in warmer months. And many a Foothills Trail hiker has found herself sprinting away from the occasional swarm of irritable hornets, especially in fall. The incidence of Lyme disease is very low in South and North Carolina (less than .5 confirmed cases per 100,000 residents), but the black-legged (or deer tick) is present, so be diligent about tick checks.
With the exception of the winter months, chances are that weather will be warm and often extremely hot and humid. Most of the year, hikers can leave cold-weather gear at home.
There are no shelters along the trail, and rain is frequent, so hikers should have a good shelter such as a tent, tarp, or hammock.
The Foothills Trail, though steep in places, is not especially rugged, so trail runners are more than adequate.
Bears frequent these mountain areas, so it’s important to bring and adequately hang a bear bag, or use an Ursack setup. A bear canister is probably overkill. Don’t forget the insect repellent… you’ll want it.
Camping is allowed on most of the trail’s 77 miles, with the following exceptions: 1.7 miles along the Whitewater River on Duke Energy property, starting at around mile 30 (northbound); Table Rock State Park, except in designated campsites at park headquarters. No permits are required, but if you camp in either Oconee or Table Rock state parks, there is a fee.
The standard guidebooks for the Foothills Trail provide detailed information about plentiful camping spots, and there are numerous spots to camp along the way that aren’t listed in either book.
Along the sandy banks of the Chattooga River and just above Laurel Fork Falls are two of many excellent camping spots on the trail.
Mileages listed heading north
Chattooga River Valley (miles 10.6-15.5): Many excellent places to swim and camp along the river, which was one of the locations for the movie Deliverance (but don’t worry; there don’t appear to be any crazed hillbillies in the area).
Whitewater Falls (miles 30-31.7): Six different falls that tumble a total of 800 feet, making it the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River.
Lake Jocassee (mile 48.5): The rocks beneath the bridge over the Toxaway River make an excellent spot for lunch, rest, or drying out your gear.
Laurel Fork Falls (mile 54.3): A scenic cascade with several streamside campsites just one-tenth of a mile to the east.
Sassafrass Mountain (mile 66.4): At 3,553 feet, the highest point in South Carolina, with 360-degree views from the fire tower on top (note: the tower was closed for construction in late 2018).
Bald Knob (mile 72.5): Expansive view of upstate South Carolina from knees of Pinnacle Mountain.
In a normal season, there is plentiful water all along the trail. Hikers should fill up before ascending Sassafrass Mountain, particularly northbound; the climb is long and steep, and there are no water sources for 4.5 miles.
There are numerous road crossings, and hitching into small towns such as Salem, SC, or Sapphire, NC, isn’t too difficult. Some shuttle drivers also will do food drops for a fee.
It’s unfair to reduce the Foothills Trail to a warm-up for the Appalachian Trail. That said, it’s hard to think of a better trail to help newbies figure out if they are going to enjoy the AT.
The southern/western portion of the trail is fairly gentle, but don’t let that fool you. Especially in warm weather, the slog out of Laurel Valley, up Sassafrass, over Pinnacle Mountain, and down, down into Table Rock will tax many a hiker’s glutes and quads. Oh, and there’s the little matter of more than 500 steep steps up Heartbreak Ridge as you leave Lake Jocassee.
Hikers spend a good deal of time in the green tunnel—just like the AT—but ample opportunities to swim, gorgeous waterfalls, and occasional vistas to the south make this a truly enjoyable trail. There are plenty of non-thru options, as well, including the so-called “crown jewel” route, southbound from Laurel Valley to just below Whitewater Falls.
This story originally appeared in The Trek.
In more than 2,100 miles of hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2016, I never got a single blister on my feet. That was thanks, in part, to the miracle of Leukotape, which I applied at the most vaporous hint of a hotspot. But one hot, dry day on the Alabama Pinhoti Trail in November 2018, when bad intel on water sources resulted in a dry, 14-mile slog, my feet suffered mightily. Soaking them in the cool waters of a creek at sundown, I winced at the prospect of shoving my blistered, battered dogs back into my Altras for the next day’s miles.
Maybe, I thought, I should try hiking in the Xero sandals I’d brought along as camp shoes. Until then, I’d suspected that the handful of sandal-hikers I’d met on the AT and Colorado Trail might be a few Pop-Tarts short of a box, but my situation called for drastic action.
The next morning, I strapped on the Xeros, hoisted my pack, and began walking. Much to my amazement, I loved it. I finished my 85-mile section hike in sandals — both with and without socks. No more blisters, no rubbing, and my feet were just slightly more beat at day’s end than with shoes.
According to The Trek’s survey of more than 300 2018 AT hikers, 75% wore trail runners for the majority of their hike and 20% wore boots, continuing the trend toward lighter, less supportive footwear.
And then there were the hardy few for whom even trail runners were too heavy, restrictive, or uncomfortable, who opted to walk hundreds or thousands of miles of unforgiving mountains, grinding rock, and torturous, ankle-twisting roots in sandals.
Why do they do it? I spoke to several veteran sandal-hikers to hear about the advantages and disadvantages, and what to consider if you’re thinking you’d like to give sandals a try.
For many, wearing sandals is all about releasing your feet from bondage. “I just like that feeling, having the total freedom of your feet,” says David “Baloo” Miller, who has hiked hundreds of miles in sandals.
The light bulb went off in Miller’s head during a short section hike of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, when he saw a young woman who was thru-hiking the trail in Chacos. He bought a pair and decided it was “the best thing ever,” and has since switched to minimalist Bedrock sandals.
David “Peacefoot” Valenzuela has hiked more than 12,000 miles in sandals, including two thru-hikes of the AT and Pacific Crest Trail and a thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail. He had been wearing sandals for years, but only started using them on trails after seeing the legendary Tarahumara Indians of north-central Mexico run hundreds of miles through the desert on sandals made from leather and old tire treads.
“I just like the freedom of it,” says Valenzuela, who is eyeing a second CDT hike in 2020. “As far as hiking and running, once I went to sandals I never had another blister.”
Many hikers turn to sandals in desperation, seeking footwear that doesn’t leave them blistered, battered, and even broken.
Kelsi “Bearbait” Mayr first considered the idea while hiking the AT in 2016 after a new pair of shoes left her hobbling with shin splints in Virginia. A little farther up the trail, she met Mama Jewels, an older German woman, who let her try out her Chacos.
“I fell in love with the idea of hiking in sandals,” says Mayr, who walked the 900-plus miles from Delaware Water Gap to Katahdin in sandals, sometimes wearing socks.
Dustan “Firecracker” Bishop wore trail runners on the AT in 2016, but ran into problems with her shoes on the PCT in 2018. “They were too small and the back was too stiff, so they ended up giving me severe tendonitis,” she says.
Just over 100 miles in, she found some Chacos in a hiker box and ended up wearing them (with Injinji toe socks) until she got off the trail, which she hopes to finish in 2020… wearing sandals. “The Chacos ended up being awesome. Very comfortable overall and not too many issues.”
Stacia “Tinkerbell” Bennett turned to Chacos during her 2016 AT thru-hike, when the Smoky Mountains were giving her feet a daily beating. “I had instant relief from the pain. And they handled the rocky terrain better than my trail runners did,” says Bennett, who since has hiked more than 1,000 miles in sandals.
Some hikers say wearing sandals frees them from fretting about wet feet.
“When it rained, it just wasn’t a big deal to get my feet wet. Going through streams was no problem,” says Matthew “Five Star” Bosarge, who thru-hiked the AT in 2016 and is now serving in the U.S. Air Force. “And your feet dry out much faster than in shoes or boots.”
Bosarge was wearing sandals before he started thru-hiking, because of foot problems that developed after he tore an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee. When he decided to hike the AT, he saw no reason not to wear his Bedrock sandals.
“It was more comfortable to do everyday walking, so why couldn’t I do the whole trail in sandals?” he says. “After all, this is what people used to wear hundreds, thousands of years ago.”
Wet feet also inspired Valenzuela’s switch to sandals during a 1995 SOBO thru-hike of the AT. “You get very wet on the AT, from rain and streams, and my feet were soaked. Heading south, I kept asking NOBOs, ‘What do you do to keep your feet dry?’ They said, ‘You don’t,’ ” he remembers. “I was so sick of being wet, getting blisters, and my boots taking forever to dry out.”
Wearing sandals tends to slow a hiker’s pace, if only slightly. But that can be a good thing, some enthusiasts say.
“I think I take much more deliberate steps, because you can jam a toe or kick a rock if you aren’t careful. Overall, I think that helps my knees and joints,” Miller says.
Bosarge says hiking in sandals makes him feel connected to the trail. “I feel very nimble on my feet,” he says. “Climbing mountains just feels natural. It allows your foot to move, all those bones in there, to grip rocks and logs almost like it’s a hand.”
He also discovered an unexpected aesthetic advantage to sandals: “I loved the tan line they gave me.” Bishop agrees: “Very cool dirt lines.”
But even ardent enthusiasts acknowledge that sandal-hiking isn’t for everybody. There are plenty of downsides, including:
Slower pace, lower miles. “The limiting factor in how far I could hike in a day was not my heart or muscles or endurance, but taking care of my feet,” Bosarge says.
Tripping. “I think it added to my uneasiness on rock scrambles, because you can easily catch the top of the sandals while climbing,” Mayr says.
Injury. Valenzuela has dislocated and broken toes while hiking and running in sandals. “There is a steep learning curve,” he says. “You can’t just bomb through rocks like you can in boots and shoes.”
Grit, sticks and pebbles. Get used to stopping from time to time to shake things out. “Walking in sand sucked,” Bishop says.
Plants and animals. “If you don’t wear socks you’re more vulnerable to things like poison ivy or bug bites,” Bennett says. Not to mention poodle dog bush and snakes.
Frozen toes. You can wear socks in cold weather, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Valenzuela has permanent nerve damage in a couple of toes from exposure to cold.
“Stick jamming.” That’s what my AT trail pals and I call the ridiculous, yet surprisingly common, phenomena that occurs when your lead foot pins down a sharp stick at the exact angle to stab your other foot as it swings by, which can hurt even in shoes. “It does not feel good to impale your foot on a twig,” Bennett says.
Foot drain. “At the beginning of my commitment to sandals my toes were extremely tired and fatigued, I guess from gripping the sole,” Mayr says.
Brain drain. Sandal hiking requires constant concentration. “It can be so mentally exhausting to have to pay attention to every step,” Bosarge says.
Despite all that, many hikers remain dedicated to their sandals. “I’m planning on doing the PCT in 2020, hopefully in sandals, although I haven’t decided what kind,” Mayr says.
Bennett says she has no choice: “I can’t hike more than three or four miles wearing any other shoes before the pain becomes unbearable, but I can walk all day in Chacos.”
Miller says he sees no reason to go back: “Wearing sandals, I’ve never had a day where I thought, ‘Oh man, my feet are more sore than with shoes.’ ”
On the other hand, Bosarge plans to limit his sandal miles when he returns for a second AT hike with his fiancée (aka Dragonfly, whom he met at Fingerboard Shelter in New York during his 2016 AT thru-hike) at the end of his Air Force service in two years.
“I’m going to wear a lightweight trail shoe, mostly so I can move faster. I’m interested in the ones Xero is making now,” he says. “But I’ll bring sandals, too, and switch back and forth.”
Originally published at The Trek.
You’ve probably gotten a lot of questions from people who think you are out of your mind, many of which begin with, “Aren’t you afraid of…”
Veteran thru-hikers will tell you that while there are inevitable dangers on trail, stereotypical fears are usually overblown. Here’s a hard look at three common concerns on the trail—bears, Lyme disease and norovirus—how much you should (or shouldn’t) worry about them, and how to minimize their impact on your hike.
Let’s start with the bugaboo that friends and family fret about when they imagine you—a tasty human hors d’oeuvre—out in the wild for six months.
Bears are a fact of life on all three Triple Crown trails. The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is common on all three trails, while the brown bear, aka grizzly (Ursus arctos) is found only near the northern reaches of the CDT. If you see a polar bear, Ursus marinus, you’re either taking a zero in a city with a zoo or considerably off course.
Grizzlies and black bears were once hunted to near extinction. Today they are thriving, with as many as 465,000 black bears and 200,000 grizzlies (mostly in Canada and Alaska) roaming the continent.
So, how dangerous are they? Here’s a clue: Most long-distance hikers consider bear sightings a highlight, not a nightmare. Consider these stats:
There is no reliable data on nonfatal attacks on or near Triple Crown trails. But considering the millions of people who annually visit some part of the trails — the Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that more than two million people visit the trail every year, for example, and some seven million people a year visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, traversed by the CDT — your chances of a dangerous bear encounter are vanishingly small, considerably less than one in a million. Statistically speaking, you’re about 60,000 times more likely to be killed by a human than a bear.
That said, it pays to be bear-smart.
Conclusion: Be bear-smart, but your chances of having a negative encounter with a bear are extremely low, bordering on non-existent.
If you are a CDT or PCT hiker, you’re mostly off the hook for this one, as incidence of Lyme disease is negligible in the West (though it is rising faster in California than in any other state except Florida).
But if you are an AT hiker, Lyme disease should concern you much more than bears. Believe it or not, one out of every 20 AT thru-hikers will contract this tickborne disease in 2019.
In fact, the AT passes through ten of the 15 states with the highest Lyme incidence (cases per 100,000 residents), according to 2017 statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control. The worst state may surprise you: Maine, with 1,850 cases, or 106 per 100,000 residents. But number three Pennsylvania is tops in raw numbers, with a whopping 11,900 cases, more than twice as many as the next two contenders, number 13 New York (5,155 cases) and number seven New Jersey (5,092). These AT states also rank in the top 15 for cases per 100,000 residents: number two, Vermont (1,092 cases); number five, New Hampshire (1,381); number six, Connecticut (2,051); number 11, Maryland (1,891); number 12, Massachusetts (410); and number 14, Virginia (1,657). Lyme disease is considerably less common in southern AT states so far — in 2017, 45th-ranked Georgia reported just 0.1 cases per 100,000 residents; Tennessee (0.2) was 42nd, and North Carolina (0.7) was 26th — but bites from the lone-star tick, Amblyomma americanum, can cause STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness, which can cause similar symptoms.
Lyme disease is a very specific disease: It is an infection caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which is carried by the black-legged tick, aka deer tick (Ixodes scapularis). The early signs of an infection are a lot like flu symptoms, including:
And in an estimated 70 to 80 percent of cases, according to the CDC, an erythra migrans rash may be present — which means that 30 percent or more people may not show the rash. The rash may appear anywhere on the body. It is not always present, may take up to 30 days to appear and frequently does not appear in the classic bulls-eye pattern.
If caught early, Lyme disease is easily treated with common antibiotics such as Doxycycline and Amoxicillin. If left untreated, Lyme can cause serious, even life-threatening symptoms, including heart disease and partial paralysis. You do not want to mess around with Lyme.
But here’s the catch: the disease cannot be definitively diagnosed, even through laboratory tests, for up to six weeks.
“Antibodies against Lyme disease bacteria usually take a few weeks to develop,” according to the CDC. “During the first few weeks of infection, such as when a patient has an erythema migrans rash, the test is expected to be negative.”
Another bummer: The ticks most likely to transmit the disease are in the nymphal stage. They are teeny-tiny little pests, the size of a poppy seed or even smaller. Hard to find.
But don’t worry: Doctors in Lyme-endemic states are hip to all this. Rejected by a doc-in-a-box clinic because my fever was “too high” (104 degrees), I staggered into an emergency room in Reading, PA, during my 2016 AT thru-hike. There, the no-nonsense doc swiftly prescribed doxycycline based on a) my symptoms (including a non-bulls-eye rash) and b) circumstances, i.e., living in the woods and infrequently showering. It sucked, but after a few days of misery, I was on my way north.
You may have heard stories of a debilitating, ongoing illness called “chronic Lyme disease.” The CDC is skeptical of this alleged diagnosis, preferring the label “Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome.” The agency cautions that some treatments prescribed by doctors for the syndrome, including prolonged courses of antibiotics, are not effective and can cause long-term complications.
Your best bet, of course, is to avoid contracting Lyme (or STARI) in the first place. Here are a few good rules recommended by the ATC.
Conclusion: Lyme-bearing ticks are be a lot smaller than a bear—800 million times smaller—but they should take up much more of your concern.
This nasty little bug is millions of times smaller than a tick, but it frequently causes distress and suffering among long-distance hikers.
Noro, as it is often referred to, is a tiny viral particle that causes diarrhea and vomiting. The most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States, noro annually causes up to 71,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths. It’s a tenacious little bugger that can survive on a dry surface for weeks.
There aren’t good statistics about the incidence of noro on trails — but the ATC typically puts out several noro warnings each year for AT hikers. It’s a people thing: the more crowded the trail, the more likely it is that the disease will be present. Suffice it to say that it’s common, and all-too-easy to contract by:
Symptoms usually develop 12 to 48 hours after exposure and the illness usually runs its course in one to three days. Disturbingly, people may continue to “shed” the virus for up to two weeks.
It’s hard not to be filthy on trail — it’s part of the fun, right? But there are plenty of things you can do to reduce the likelihood of contracting a nasty case of noro on the trail.
Conclusion: Norovirus is small—millions of times smaller than a bear or tick—but it’s brutal, and can cause miserable havoc on trail. You have a right to be worried about it, and don’t forget to wash your hands!
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