After 2020, social distancing might be a normal way of life now. We’ve adapted to becoming more aware of what we touch and regularly washing our hands. You’ve got it down by now, I’m sure. Though you’ve also got your sights set on backpacking the Appalachian Trail because let’s face it, all this virus talk still has us all wanting to run to the hills. Though every backpacker knows all too well societies well crafted “avoidance rules” just don’t readily translate into the backcountry for a multitude of reasons.
As Spring of 2021 rapidly approaches, so do the hundred of aspiring thru-hikers beginning their journey Northbound from the Southern Terminus on the Appalachian Trail. Through the ATC’s register your hike initiative, efforts to manage the crowds during high season in the over populated areas is somewhat taking shape. Though inevitably, hikers will still choose to go when it’s most favorable for them. This naturally equates to large crowds conglomerating together during the popular timeframes in somewhat closer quarters, creating a common setting for a viral outbreak largely due to less favorable controllable conditions for sanitation management.
If you’ve had aspirations of setting foot on a long distance hike, you’ve likely already heard about the Norovirus. Typically it’s the bad news that travels fast. Different than Coronavirus, the Norovirus is still quite powerful and an important discussion as it quickly and abruptly ends a life long dream for a considerable amount of hikers each year. However it’s not something to fear if you’re prepared! So let’s talk about it, because it is a real aspect of your hike and should NOT be something to stop you from going if you’re well educated on how to take preventative measures from it happening to YOU.
So don’t get caught up in all the incorrect facts out there about the Norovirus! We covered the truth about Norovirus in Episode #30, in which we shared how I purposely infected myself with Norovirus in a controlled research study to find the most valuable facts about to help you know before you go. It’s a riveting listen and still entirely relevant, though in case you don’t have the time for storytime, let’s break it down in a quick read so that you armed with the knowledge and confidence to hit the trail.
WHAT IS NOROVIRUS?
The Norovirus is a gastrointestinal virus typically most active in late fall through early spring, effecting well over 20millon people per year. Commonly known as “the stomach bug” or “cruise ship virus”, it produces harsh viral flu-like symptoms such as continual vomiting, uncontrolled diarrhea and intense stomach cramps to name a few. Increasingly uncontrollable symptoms can last anywhere from 12-48hours or more, making the wilderness an extremely uncomfortable place to be. The virus is spread through touch-to-mouth contact from a contaminated source. This includes direct contact with others, shared food, bear cables, privy doors and seats, or even water sources. Yes, I said water sources. Kind of an important component in your day to day hike for maintain hydration and nutrition.
Once directly infected with the Norovirus, you can unknowingly be contaminating everything you touch or consume with thousands of micro-contaminates for the next 12-24hrs before even showing signs that you have it. That’s a rather big deal when you are experiencing it with others your trail community and realistically not washing your hands as regularly as you would at home. Thus a main reason for the Norovirus’ quick and uncontrollable spread. It’s a virus that keeps on living, as an inanimate object can hold active contaminants for up to two days…long after you or another fellow hiker has moved further North along the trail.
While diarrhea is statistically still the number one illness in the backcountry and a main symptom of the virus, Norovirus packs a punch of epic proportions in which you’re basic first aid kit preventatives for curing the runs just won’t suffice. When the physical symptoms rear their nasty selves, they typically hit you with no warning whatsoever, catching you entirely off guard. Imagine a minor gurgle in your belly abruptly turning into you’re now out of time to dig that deeper-than-normal cat hole you so desperately need kind of moment. With relatively no time to prepare for what is your alarming reality for the next several days, you’ve just potentially produced an ideal breeding ground for mass contamination. Think about it. There is now improperly covered feces and vomit, paired with high trafficked human and wildlife areas spreading matter farther than the boundary originally created. After all in the wilderness, it’s never just as simple as defining or containing it to just that one isolated room in the house. Thus it may be a little more understood now how the Norovirus can spread through the trail community as rapidly as it does.
SO HOW DO I AVOID THE NOROVIRUS?
Avoidance of the Norovirus is directly related to personal hygiene on the trail. Though to suggest washing your hands with soap and water after touching something would be all but too easy but equally a bit unrealistic for trail life. Spoiler alert, I’m actually going to suggest this in a moment…but let’s get there first. If anything is going to help you lessen your exposure, we have to be realistic about a day in the life of a backpacker…and washing your hands every single time you do anything isn’t realistic in the least. So what about the extremely common and readily available hand sanitizer in every backpackers ditty sack you might wonder? It’ll certainly make you feel as though your going head to head with proper sanitization, but sadly it is not as effective against Norovirus and here is why. It will only take a few as 100 particles consumed to get you heaving for days, however you receive thousands of particles when coming in contact with Norovirus. Furthermore, regular disinfecting your hands with hand sanitizer only kills about 100 of those 1000’s of contaminants. Yup, only about one hundred killed…or one hundred consumed. You do the math. So here are a few pro-tips in giving you a better than average chance at reducing your exposure.
Avoid the shelters. Despite shelters along the Appalachian Trail largely remaining closed at this time, it can still be tempting after a long or challenging day of hiking. They are also the social heart of the trail, making it further appealing to a certain type of hiker. But don’t partake in the luring appeal, and set up further away to reduce your possible exposure.
Consider packing in-route snacks that have a wrapper you can use as a barrier from your hands touching the food itself. Eating bite-sized snacks or digging into the trail mix with your fingers is a normal part of an average day out on the trail. Washing your hands before digging in, well that isn’t. It’ll allow you to function as normal to fuel your body without needing to wash your hands aggressively with soap and water every time you need a little pick me up. If stopping for lunch or having dinner, that’s a better suited time to truly wash your hands with soap and water. And it may go without saying…but always wash your hands with soap and water after covering back up that cat hole! We use Sea to Summit soap leaves. They are super lightweight and packable and use limited water to rehydrate and rinse though still have all the effectiveness as if you’re at home.
Maintain proper hydration and focus on meal planning that will offer you the nutrition that your body needs in participating in such an active sport. You’re burning a lot of calories, but are you replenishing your body with the right kinds of nutrients you need! Maintaining your body’s nutritional needs is an imperative part of maintaining your health and immune system. The better balanced your immune system is, generally speaking the less susceptible to succumbing to the virus you’ll be.
PRO TIPS FOR INCREASING YOUR SANITATION ROUTINE IN THE BACKCOUNTRY
Now you might just think thru-hikers have a better than average chance this year at protecting themselves, particularly with the ongoing practice we’ve had through the pandemic. One full year of being aware and learning how to reduce our chances of coming in contact with a virus. Well…there’s probably quite a bit of truth in that. However as with any virus, taking a serious look at sanitation in the backcountry is a necessary layer that becomes increasingly more difficult to perfect in an setting drastically different than a controlled at-home environment.
The first 60miles or so of the AT largely are the most populated. So start off your Northbound hike with blench. Yup, BLEACH. You learned about it in 2020…and the Norovirus is no different. Readily packaged, compactable, lightweight properly diluted bleach wipes may just save your hike! Bleach is still the only 100% effective method of killing all particles of the virus. So next time you don’t have the time to wash your hands, tear off a small section of a bleach wipe to protect yourself…and others…more effectively!
But perhaps the most notable tip is to both understand AND practice proper LNT principles for disposing of your fecal matter as the virus is most prone to be carried through waste. If you don’t fully understand what you need to know this article is a good resource to start with.
NOROVIRUS IS FOUND IN THE WATER?!
As I mentioned above, yes, the Norovirus can also be contracted from contaminated water. Which lends to a lot of concern, seeing as though the average water filter are effective for bacteria, rather than virus. Am I suggesting that you always use a back up purification for virus too – such as iodine or chlorine tablets and ultraviolet rays? No, I’m not. Unless of course you’re eager to carry that extra weight, cost, have plenty of extra energy to devote to the effort on top of filtering or simply enjoy the often distained taste created from the products. It’s up to you. What I am suggesting is just be aware. AND equally perhaps it’s just good practice within the first 100miles of the trail to always bring your water to a rapid rolling boil for three minutes. Boiling your water after filtration is an easy, no fuss way to further protect yourself. Just make sure to have a sufficient amount of fuel to do so regularly.
In years past the ATC has quickly reacted to any reports indicating a contaminated water source, posting signage or spreading word of mouth for your knowledge. Though that’s not a guarantee. The potential for you to contract Norovirus through a contaminated natural water source is minimal and less likely than receiving it from touching common objects or sharing food with another.