Tales From The Trail: The Dirt About Getting Dirty
In March 2013, I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail alone. I hiked North-Bound. My hike started on Springer Mountain, Georgia, and ended on Mount Katahdin, Maine. I began on March 26th and ended on September 30th. There are many stories from my 6-month long trip. This is one of them.
I have found that when people talk about backpacking, they tend to romanticize it. People imagine that it involves communing with nature, bathing in streams, and sleeping under starry skies. This can be true if you go for a nice two-day car camping adventure. But if you decide to invest your time on a backpacking trip, you might want to readjust your idea of camping.
Before I went on my Appalachian Trail adventure, I had similar thoughts about how camping was a charming, pleasant experience. But I learned that there are two versions of camping: the clean way, and the dirty way. The clean way involves a car, a cooler, and modern conveniences. These were the kind of trips I went on as a Girl Scout, the kind most people know. But when I went on practice hikes, I learned about the dirty way. Which is a backpack, shelf-stable food, and peeing in the woods.
Peeing outside was the first harsh lesson that I had to learn. While hiking a section of Pennsylvania with my parents, I mumbled that I had to go. My mother responded with, “Well, go find a tree.” Horrified, I squatted for what seemed like hours before I gave up. I waited for 6 miles until we got to a shelter that had a privy. I was not ready to commune with nature that way.
Thru-hikers have to deal with a lot of less than sanitary situations. Peeing outside being the tip of the grungy iceberg. They can not afford to bring anything superfluous. Because I carried everything on my back, it wasn’t worth it to lug around extra weight for the sake of cleanliness. My cleaning products included a small bottle of biodegradable soap and wet wipes. I always washed my hands before a meal, but I used them more to clean out my cooking pot. I used the soap for emergencies. By the time I got to a camp spot, I was so tired from walking that washing was the last thing on my mind. I only took a shower when I got into a town. And towns usually ran a week and a half apart. The longest I went without a shower was a little over two weeks, and it was miserable. Because of the dirt and sweat, I was itchy from scalp to feet. I developed a distinct dirt ring around my neck.
Dirt becomes your life on the AT. You are walking in it, sleeping in it, and if something falls, eating off of it. Everybody develops a smell. Deodorant is pointless. My one “comfort item” was a dress that I could wear while I was doing laundry in town. Otherwise, I was wearing the same sweaty clothes for hiking every day. When I got into camp, I would change from my hiking clothes to a second pair of clothes. The dirty hiking clothes aired out overnight. Any leftover clothes I used as a pillow. I carried two pairs of socks. I did not pack underwear. I did have a toothbrush. But I didn’t wash my teeth that often.
Don’t let this make you think that I didn’t try to stay sanitary. If a hiker wasn’t careful, they could be exposed to threats that force a hiker to go home. If you don’t filter your water, you might get Giardia. If you don’t check yourself for ticks, you could get Lyme Disease. There is a stomach virus called norovirus, that doesn’t show symptoms until it’s too late. I had to rely on word of mouth to avoid certain shelters in case someone had caught it there. Keeping my food stored high up was essential. Either a mouse could eat its way through your bag, contaminating everything. Or, a bear might come and destroy everything. Even a simple cold can be debilitating. The first month into my hike, I caught a standard cold. In my “normal” life, I would have armed myself with tissues and decongestant pills. Instead, I had to wipe my nose on safe looking leaves, or on my hiking gloves if necessary. I never packed medicine, so I dealt with a cough for weeks.
I did carry toilet paper. But that was for number two situations only. I had to learn to be comfortable with digging what hikers call a “cat hole,” and learn to find a proper, private place to do so. I used a small shovel for these situations. Bodily functions are not private on the trail. When you have to go to the bathroom, you tell your fellow hikers so they know not to wander in your direction.
Which brings us back to peeing in the woods. I did learn. But it took practice. I peed on myself before I got it right. Backpacking taught me that I had more tolerance for being uncomfortable than I ever thought possible. And it gave me an appreciation for the little things in life: water I don’t have to filter, a flushing toilet, a real pillow. In a way, it was the dirty part of the experience that kept me going. I knew that if I could survive with the basics, it would make every town stop better. Every sweaty, grimy step was another step towards my goal. Living in dirt made me feel powerful.
But fair warning, it will change you forever. I still can’t stop myself from eating food that has fallen on the floor sometimes.