Things That Go Phubt in the Night (CDT Days 37-40)

“Phhhhuuht,” something I’d never heard before snorted outside my tent at 3 in the morning. I let out a sigh of my own as I rolled over and grumbled, “Go on now, Git!” And, hearing whatever it was shuffle off, I promptly fell back asleep.

It was my last night in New Mexico and I’d found the perfect campsite in a high Wilderness meadow. It was an awesome spot that would give me both a sunset and sunrise view, and (I almost managed to convince myself) it would even give me a tiny bit of protection from the wind. Although I’ve mostly been cowboy camping, I decided to pitch my large, ghostly white tent as the sun began to set over the distant mountains. It would actually provide some shelter from the wind, but more importantly it would make me look bigger and more visible to the elk and the mountain lions that might be roaming through the meadows.

The sun cast the most beautiful golden light onto everything as I pitched my tent against the battering 40+ mph winds. I’d never used my free- standing tent in winds this high, but I figured this would be a good test since if it didn’t hold I’d just cowboy camp per usual or retreat into the nearby trees. The gravel wasn’t holding the stakes very well against the high winds so as the sunset hues shifted from gold to red I built tiny cairns over each stake so that they would hold firm against the wind.

I finished up and sat with my pack watching as the sun dropped into the haze of distant forest fires, the entire orb of the sun, a huge red ball of light lingering on the horizon for a moment before slipping behind the mountains. What an incredible last sunset and night in New Mexico!!

I crawled into my sleeping bag, happy and content, and tried to convince myself the tent really would hold against the wind despite the shimmying of the center pole and the flapping of the tent fabric. Eventually I managed to fall asleep.

At around midnight I woke up, either from the pressure on my bladder or the surprise at the sudden stillness as the winds finally faded away. I crawled out of my tent and just stood outside gawking at the night sky. The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon, filled with shimmering stars and a depth that you only can see on dark, cold, moistureless nights at altitude. It was truly breathtaking. I got lost in the stars until I started to shiver, which reminded why I’d left my tent to begin with, I had to pee.

If my pajamas were thicker or the night warmer, I would have lingered outside longer. Instead, I tied the flaps of my tent open and pulled my sleeping bag forward a smidge so when I laid down I could still keep my eyes on the stars. All cozy in my sleeping bag I drifted off to sleep gazing at a truly spectacular New Mexico night sky.

“Phhhhuuht,” something snorted outside my tent, waking me up just a short while later. “What was that?” I wondered groggily. After ~6000 miles of backpacking I thought I was pretty familiar with most of things that go bump in the night. The two things I least want to be woken by are mountain lions and bears. If you’re lucky enough to hear a mountain lion it sounds cat- like and this definitely didn’t sound cat- like, and bears tend to grunt more and smell like wet dog. Besides, I’ve heard lots of bears and this didn’t sound like a bear. A herd of elk had kept me up snorting and buggleing at me a couple nights before, but this was something different.

It snorted again. It was behind my tent so I still couldn’t see it. Definitely not a cat, not a bear, not a cayote, not elk, not deer, not porcupines. “Go on! Get out of here!” I instructed whatever it was, and it seemed to respond, so I went back to sleep.

“Phhhhuuht!” It was about an hour later, probably 3 am, and my snorting creature had returned to wake me from my slumber. “Ugh,” I let out a sigh of my own as I rolled over and grumbled, “Go on now, Git!” And, hearing whatever it was shuffle off, I promptly fell back asleep.

Sometime between 4 and 4:30 in the morning I woke up again, not from any noise, everything was quiet and still, but because of a bright, blood- red light that didn’t make any sense. I rolled over and opened my eyes to see where the weird light was coming from. There was a sliver of red light rising like a flame from behind the mountains on the distant horizon. “Ah,” I smiled letting out a sleepy, yet contented sigh. A tiny sliver of the moon was rising through the haze of far-away forest fires. It was beautiful, and I watched, transfixed, as the tiny flame slowly grew into the much more recognizable crescent of the waning moon. The previous night, my sleep-addled brain had watched the same phenomena through a misty, mossy, tree-covered forest and had been very confused, initially convinced that humans had settled nearby with a campfire, then realizing that wasn’t possible, I had dreamt that it was fairy fire until I finally woke myself enough to realize it was a brilliant red moonrise and not a fire at all.

By the time the moon finished rising, the sky was beginning to brighten with the impending sunrise. I decided that it wasn’t worth trying to go back to sleep at that point. Sleep simply wasn’t meant to be on my last night in New Mexico. Instead I sat up and started lazily preparing for my day.

“Phhhhuubt!” I looked up from my snack bag, and there in the predawn light was a pronghorn antelope looking right back at me. “Ahhhhhh, that’s what you are,” I exclaimed with surprise. I didn’t know there were antelope in New Mexico! I fully expected it to run away as soon as I said anything, but it didn’t. As soon as it noticed that I noticed it, it walked three teps towards me, then stopped and posed.

“Well, that’s unusual,” I muttered while pulling out my camera. The wildlife never knowingly walks towards me. I wondered if antelope get rabies as I snapped a quick photo of it. Rabies will make animals walk towards humans. Before I even finished the thought the antelope bounced away. The way the antelope bounced, almost straight into the air, was so comical it completely distracted me from any worries. I sat there chuckling for a moment and watching the early pastel colors filling the sky before getting back to packing.

Not 5 minutes later I looked up and the antelope was back. As soon as I noticed it, it posed for me, walked three steps towards me, posed again, and then bounce, bounce, bounce it was gone. “Weird,” I exclaimed and went back to packing.

“Phhhhuubt!” I looked up and the antelope was back again. Apparently she’d gotten tired of waiting for me to notice her so she began snorting to get my attention. Pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce.

As soon as I started packing up she’d be back and would perform the same routine: pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know how i’m supposed to respond,” I apologized. Was this some sort of weird mating dance? I was sporting all the same colors as the antelope with my ghostly white tent and my sand colored pants, shirt, and hat.

Pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce. The routine continued as the sun rose, round and red in the distance. It was beautiful, and I have to admit that I enjoyed having the company of another living creature to appreciate it with (even if I knew it wouldn’t work out). Hiking alone through New Mexico I hadn’t had the opportunity to enjoy much company.

Pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce. The antelope kept coming back, even when I emerged from the tent and started taking it down. Pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce. I packed the tent up and started hiking. Pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce. She followed me awhile as I hiked down the hill and out of sight.

Pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce. I was kind of sad when I realized that she wasn’t following me anymore, but she had definitely made my last night in New Mexico very memorable!

Water, water, everywhere! (CDT Days 35-37)

I had water, but I walked down to the mountain spring to check it out anyway, almost as though I needed to make sure it was real. I leaned down scooped some up and splashed it on my face. It was cold and awesome.

Less than half a mile later a gushing, babbling brook cut across the trail. I looked at all the all the crystal clear pools of water tumbling down the hillside and burst into tears. It was real. There was water here. There was water everywhere here. I hadn’t realized how much the lack of water in New Mexico had been weighing on me until that moment.

After weeks baking in the desert hiking miles and miles to the nearest shade tree it feels surreal to suddenly find myself hiking through purple and green fields of wild irises, listening to the leaves of the Aspens rustling in the wind and getting startled nearly to death as herds of elk crash through the underbrush.

Clomp, clomp, clomp

The elk run down the hill

Clomp, clomp, clomp

I hear them still

There is just so much green! Who knew that New Mexico could be so lush?

P.S. there are still plenty of cattle. Also, I know that they’re is a gap of harsh desert Days missing from the blog right now, i’l try to fill in that gap, but in the meantime I’m going to start keeping these more current posts coming.

You Gotta Keep ‘Em Separated (CDT Days 10-12)

“6 miles, it’s only six miles to the next tree,” I murmured to myself trying to convince myself that it wasn’t that far. I only had to hike six miles through the unrelenting heat and blazing sun of the New Mexican desert before I’d get to a tree and some hope of shade, after the tree it would be another 14 miles to get to the next water (a cattle trough).

I popped open my chrome dome (a shiny silver desert umbrella), tied it to my pack, and adjusted it so that it would shade as much of my body as possible. I would try to create my own shade until I got to the mythical tree which I hoped was up ahead somewhere. This was definitely not the tree-covered landscape of New England where there is so much water it’s in the air. Here there wasn’t enough water to sustain even one tree, not one!

As the day wore on it got hotter and hotter and the landscape got more and more desolate. The trail was littered with the bones of creatures that had learned how unforgiving the desert could be. People started decorating the trail signs with bones and then making trail signs out of bones. Too much time in desert or maybe too much sun was giving us a wry sense of humor.

Although I’ve done desert hiking before (including ~700 miles of Mojave desert on my PCT thru-hike), the Chihuahuan desert in New Mexico was a whole new beast. The temperatures were in the low 100’s, but the real kicker was the abysmally low humidity ranging from 4% to 8%. The extremely low humidity meant I was going through a lot more water than I anticipated (1 or 2 liters more each day).

Eventually I made my way to the mythical shade tree and discovered that despite being a tree it didn’t provide much shade. Once again my chrome dome came to the rescue. I tied it to the tree to create some shade I could sit under and then checked in on my poor overworked feet.

In these extremely hot and dry conditions with 15-20 mile stretches between water lots of us were surprised to discover that our feet were developing blisters in places we’d never had blisters before: between the big toe and the next toe over and following down into the ball of the foot.

I ran into tons of hikers on the CDT that “never get blisters” yet all managed to get a variant of this blister, so I started calling it the “CDT special.” When I started developing the CDT Special I tried all the tricks I’d learned on my AT and PCT thru- hikes, but I couldn’t seem to prevent the blister on my right foot from growing, and I wasn’t able to prevent the one on my left foot from developing. I ended up taking a break for a couple of hours in the shade to pop the blister on my right foot, and let it air out before bandaging it up with lots of bacitracin and then hiking ever northward.

Later, I learned that the solution to this problem is toe socks, which keep your toes separated and keep the blisters from forming between them. I borrowed a pair from my friend Peru and didn’t have any more problems with blisters between my toes.

Labrador, pictured below, had the worst case of a CDT special I’d ever seen. To distract him from the pain of walking I made up a silly song about toes:

You gotta keep ’em separated

Yeah, yeah my toes are fine.

I used to feel 10, now I’m only feeling nine.

Yeah, yeah my toes are fine!

(During the peak heat of the day the desert is brutal, but everything is beautiful and awesome in the mornings and evenings when things are cooler.)

CDT Days 5-9: Rocking it!

“Is your pack full of rocks?” joked one of the other thru- hikers. At the time I could honestly say, “No, of course not.” However, less than 48 hours later, I was standing on the side of the CDT filling my pack with rocks.

Whenever I went for a walk or a hike as a kid I’d come home with my pockets full of interesting rocks I’d found along the way (If you ask my mom she’d probably tell you that the pockets of my jackets continued to be full of rocks well into college). After hiking thousands and thousands of miles and seeing millions and millions of rocks, I thought I’d been cured of my rock- collecting habits. I was wrong.

As I headed up into the mountains of New Mexico I started finding a weird type of volcanic rock that I’d never seen before. It reminded me of obsidian, but it was glassy white instead of black, and it had a slightly more fluid look to it. Some of it was translucent, some was blueish, and some off it had an orangey hue to it. Whatever it was it was clearly volcanic and it was something that I’d never seen before. Eventually I learned that it was a variety of chalcedony commonly referred to as agate. It was very cool, or at least looked like whitish molten rock that had been cooled quickly as it ran down the mountainsides ;)

I picked up a couple of small pieces that were particularly cool and interesting and suddenly found myself with rocks in my pockets.

As I continued my hike into Lordsburg I kept stumbling into veins of agate and found my eyes were constantly being drawn to the whitish rocks that were so different than any other volcanic rocks I’d ever seen before.

The desert temperatures were soaring with the first heat wave of the season, but I found the bubbly white veins of rock to be a pleasant distraction from the heat (especially on the up hills). The rock was definitely more bubbly as continued northwards and I wondered if that was because the rock there had cooled more quickly.

The sun was high in the midday sky when I discovered that the white rocks in trail had lost their fluid, glassy look, and were sparkling in the sun light instead.

I stooped down and picked up one of the sparkly rocks to look at it more closely. I erupted into a gigantic smile as I discovered that the rock was covered in small white crystals. My inner rockhound was unleashed as I looked up and realized that the entire hillside was sparkling with the kinds of crystals that I had dreamt of discovering (and spent countless hours searching for) as a kid.

“Oooh!” I exclaimed picking up a new rock and discovering more crystals, “Ahhh!” I exclaimed finding crystals with a more orangey tinge. Before I knew it both of my hands were full of small crystals and I was having trouble deciding which ones I should put down so I could pick up new ones.

My hands completely full, I stumbled onto a rock about the size of my fist that was covered in quartz crystals… “uh oh!” I didn’t have enough hands. My inner child froze with indecision, unwilling to put any crystals down, but equally unwilling to move on without picking up this cool new sparkling rock.

I took advantage of the sudden break in the excitement to do a little adulting. First, I put all the rocks and crystals down. I’d heard that rock collecting was allowed on public lands in New Mexico, but before filing my pack with rocks I wanted to double check. So I pulled up the New Mexico rockhounding guide on my phone as well as the basic BLM guidelines:

https://www.blm.gov/basic/rockhounding

Next I did a sanity check… how much time could I afford to spend looking for rocks? It was awfully hot and exposed on the hillside and I wouldn’t get another chance to get water until I got to Lordsburg… I was glad I’d carried extra water out from the water cache and figured that I shouldn’t spend more than an hour collecting rocks.

After a while I stopped searching for crystals and had to choose my favorites to load into my pack. It was so hard to choose, but one by one I wrapped each crystal-covered rock in my dirty laundry until I ran out of dirty laundry. When I hefted my pack onto my back it was about 10 lbs heavier.

“Leave it!” I admonished myself as I was impulsively drawn to each sparkling rock, “It is statistically unlikely that you’re going to find any crystals that are better than the ones already in your pack.” Besides it was getting hotter and hotter and I needed to focus on hiking up the hill.

About 10 minutes later, as I was struggling up the next hill I spotted a big crystal covered in dirt. “Statistically improbable,” I laughed as I bent down to brush it off and discovered a rock the size of a plate covered with large green and purple crystals each about the size of a quarter. It was the coolest rock that I’d ever seen in the wild.

All told I rolled into Lordsburg with about 15 pounds of awesome rocks in my pack and it turned out that the cool purple and green crystals were fluorite crystals (which glow purple under a black light as illustrated in the photo below).

CDT Days 2-4: There is no trail

I stood stood on the CDT, beside a cairn, scanning the horizon and looking for the next cairn, or any sign of where the CDT might be headed.

I’d already looked at my apps and maps and knew the general direction that the CDT should be taking, but I also knew that somewhere hiding out there in the desert scrub was a cairn that would help keep me to the trail much more precisely than my general estimations.

The trail for the first 14 or so miles had been pretty clear and obvious to follow (although truth be told within the first 5 miles I found myself going along a slightly different trail than the other folks on the same shuttle as me), but somewhere between the first water cache and the second water cache the trail petered out and disappeared.

Now it seemed like a trail would briefly coalesce around each cairn, then as soon as the trail dipped down into gully it would fragment and splinter into 3 or 4 trails as people took different lines up and out of the gully. The trail would disappear entirely once we emerged from the gully and entered the open desert on the other side.

“Aha!” I exclaimed as I spotted the wooden post standing about 5 feet tall in the middle of the cairn way, way off in the distance. None of the natural desert vegetation or elements in the area created straight edges like fence posts or cairns. Since there were no other human made objects in sight, I was pretty sure that what I was looking at had to be the post marking the CDT.

Now that I verified my heading I set off. Although the trail seemed well defined as the trail headed into the first ditch, I resighted the distant cairn that I was headed for, picked my line and memorized the intermediate landmarks that I would look for and orient by as I came out of the ditch.

Sure enough when I got to the bottom of the ditch (a long dry stream bed) the trail disappeared into a jumble of sandy gullies. I chose what looked like the best scrabble out the other side, oriented to what I thought was my line and then checked to see where my landmarks were.

“Woot!” I came out of the streambed almost perfectly aligned with the cacti I’d chosen as my landmarks.

Although the first couple of times the trail disappeared it had been unnerving and disorienting, it didn’t take long for me to adapt my experience going cairn go cairn above treeline in the rocky, dark, wet, foggy, snowy/rainy mountains in New England to going cairn to cairn in the sandy, bright, hot, and arid desert of New Mexico.

One of the differences between the cairns I was used to and those on the southern stretch of the CDT was that the cairn posts in NM were often topped with a white or light-colored rock… As these cairns became spaced further and further apart, the white rocks on top of the posts suddenly started to make lot more sense… it was much easier to see the white spot out of plane with the desert than it was to see the dark straight pole in the dark background.

I found that I enjoyed the challenge and freedom of plotting my own course through the desert and having the opportunity to optimize my route for me. Besides, having to figure out the best path distracted me from how hot, dry, dusty, and foreign the New Mexico desert was to me.

Now, pretty much every time the trail of the CDT disappears and I find myself plotting my own cross- country course I think of a scene from the Matrix movie where Neo asks the child prodigy how he bends the spoon with his mind and I replace the word spoon with trail:

“Do not try to find the trail. That is impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth… There is no trail”

CDT Day 1: The Divide

CDT Day 1: The Divide

The continental divide trail (CDT) snakes it’s way through the United States (from Mexico to Canada) separating the East, whose waterways drain into the Atlantic Ocean, from the West, whose waterways drain into the Pacific Ocean. This dividing line runs through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.

Standing at the southern terminus of the CDT, looking onto the parched landscape of the Chihuahuan desert it was hard to imagine water flowing anywhere here, never mind Oceans brimming over with it. Looking North the dusty flat landscape was dotted with scrub and faded into hazy mountains. To the South was a barbed wire fence, old, rusty, and stretching from the eastern horizon to the western horizon. This unmarked, unmanned barbed wire fence was the border between the dusty desert of Mexico and the dusty desert of the USA.

There were 4 off us setting of on CDT hikes that morning. For the first 7ish miles we kept pace with each other sharing the excitement of the beginning of New Journeys together, but soon we parted ways as our bodies settled into their own unique rhythms and paces, and before long I had the desert to myself without another soul (or sole) in sight.

I was glad to be hiking through the desert in spring when the cacti were in bloom and lending some color to the otherwise bleak landscape. The towering cocotillo with their red flowers lent an other worldly atmosphere to the desert.

Despite it being spring it would be more than a hundreds miles before the trail would lead me to any natural water sources, so my first water stop would be a water cache maintained by the CDT about 14 miles from the start. We’d stopped on our way to the terminus to top off the water at one of those caches.

I swear the remaining 7 miles to the cache were all uphill in the scorching desert sun. A blistering heat that was desperately trying to share its blisters with my feet. Every couple of hours I’d stop, let my feet air out, and change the insoles of my shoes.

Pulling into the final mile before the cache I started making up lyrics to an old New Kid’s on the block song:

Oh oh oh oh oh, oh oh oh oh

Out in the desert, I’m hot stuff.

Out in the desert, having some fun

As long as the sun is shining,

I’m hot stuff.

It was only day one, but the silly little ditties had already begun :)

Cruising into the water cache I caught up with Root Beer and his friend Osito hanging out under a bush with a water jug recuperating. Although they headed out just a couple of minutes after I got there, I caught up with them as darkness descended and the desert began to cool.

I’d spent my last night on the PCT with Root Beer, so it somehow seemed fitting to stop and make camp with him on the first night of my CDT journey. I carefully avoided the cacti as I rolled out my sleeping pad and bag under the darkening desert skies and waited for the first stars to appear. My journey North to Canada had begun!!

Keeping it Raw? Actually Backpackers You Might Still Want to Treat Your Stream Water

Crossing Streams in the Andes

When I come across a bunch of raw water in the backcountry, what do I do? Sometimes I swim in it, sometimes I desperately try to avoid it in the hopes of staying dry, and sometimes I drink it. When I drink it, do I keep it raw? Very rarely. During my Appalachian Trail (AT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hikes, the most popular approaches when it came to drinking raw water were to:

  • Filter it: Sawyer Squeeze Mini (0.1 Micron Filter, $20/2oz)
  • Chemically purify it: Aqua Mira ($15/2oz) or bleach (2 drops/liter)
  • Purify it with Ultraviolet (UV) light: Steripen ($69.95/2.6 oz)
  • Choose wisely and take your chances: select high-flow springs whenever possible; otherwise select lower flow springs or small spring- or glacier-fed streams
  • Boil the piss out of it

When I read the title of the link that started showing up in my feeds yesterday, “Actually Backpackers You Don’t Need to Filter Your Stream Water” my initial thought was, #notwrong. Unless my stream water is chunky or green I don’t usually don’t filter it, I purify it. I was surprised when I opened the article and realized that the title wasn’t a bait-and-switch about other water treatment options, the article was really suggesting that treating backcountry water sources for contamination was unnecessary:

“Treating backcountry water sources for contamination is a fundamental tenet of outdoor recreation education, ignored at the peril of contracting giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis, or worse. In this case, however, popular opinion is wrong: The idea that most wilderness water sources are inherently unsafe is baseless dogma, unsupported by any epidemiological evidence… research to date has failed to demonstrate any significant link between wilderness water consumption and infection with these threats”

Don't Fall In!

It is certainly true that the popular opinion in the backpacking community is that you should treat backcountry water sources for contamination, is it also true that there is no link between untreated backcountry water sources and giardia or other water-borne illnesses? (Spoiler Alert: the CDC released epidemiological evidence in 2015 and 2017 linking giardia outbreaks to a backcountry water sources). I settled in and made myself comfortable, curious to see whether the Slate was going to impress me with their SCIENCE or or with their SPIN. Ok, are you ready for it?

“A 1993 study looking at the incidence of Giardia infection and gastrointestinal illness in backcountry travelers in a high-use area of California’s Sierra Nevada found only 5.7 percent tested positive, none of whom exhibited symptoms. Broader-scale approaches have similarly failed to justify concerns: Both a survey of health departments and a meta-analysis found that while giardiasis was prevalent enough to justify concern, there was no connection between recorded cases and drinking backcountry water.” 

I started by looking up the cited 1993 study, “Cyst acquisition rate for Giardia lamblia in backcountry travelers to Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe.”  (Zell et al, 1993):

  • 5.7% (2/35) of the backcountry travelers (1988-1990) acquired giardia cysts during their backcountry trips but remained asymptomatic
  • 16.7% (6/36?) of the backcountry travelers (1988-1990) experienced acute gastrointestinal illness (AGI), but did not show giardia in their stool. However, 1 of the 6 was diagnosed with giardia and treated with flagyl.
  • ≤25 giardia cysts per 100 gallon water sample (sampled at 2 gallons/minute) were found in the one trailside creek (Meek’s Creek) they evaluated in 1988

In summary, they showed that ~6% of backpackers acquired giardia in the backcountry, ~17% of the backpackers suffered from some sort of gastrointestinal illness, and they found giardia cysts in the one wilderness creek that they looked at. Given that their data was collected roughly 30 years ago, I was actually surprised that they found as much giardia as they did. Since the number of humans are one of the largest sources of giardia contamination, and the number of humans heading into the backcountry (and pooping in it) has been increasing over the last 30 years, I’d expect the amount of Giardia to be even higher now. For example, in 1988 there were 31 thru-hikers that hiked through the Desolation Wilderness on their way to completing their Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikes, whereas 717 backpacker passed through there on the way to successfully completing their thrus in 2016. I think it’s also important to note that the quotes in the Slate.com article about wilderness are all referring back to this one wilderness, which is wilderness as defined by the Wilderness Act, and not generic wilderness areas.

Desolation Wilderness

Although I enjoyed reading the 1993 paper, it didn’t convince me that backpackers in 2018 should drink raw, untreated water from streams.  I’d hiked through the Desolation Wilderness during my 2014 PCT thru-hike and opted not to drink the raw stream water then, and the evidence they’d presented so far wouldn’t lead me to make a different decision now. My general rule is to always filter, purify, or otherwise treat my water if there’s any chance that animals have been pooping, bathing, or swimming in it (especially if those animals are humans, beavers, or domesticated animals). Even though the glacially-fed mountain lakes and streams of the High Sierra were some of the most beautiful waters I’ve seen, I still always treated my stream water before drinking it because there was still a chance that someone or something higher upstream had been pooping in it. (As an aside, the backcountry contaminant I was most worried about as I hiked into the High Sierras was uranium, which is found in almost all of the groundwater of the high sierras; I shared my thoughts about the PCT water situation at the time in my trail blog: PCT Days 40-42).

Knee Deep in Raw Water

The next paper the slate article cited, the 1995 survey of health departments, was based on data more than 25 years old that found that 10.5% (2/19) of reported giardia outbreaks from contaminated drinking water were reported by campers/backpackers. The final scientific paper the slate article mentions was a meta-analysis published by Welch in 2000, which initially looked promising, but on further investigation, the only data that they included (met their inclusion criteria) about backcountry scenarios was from 1977. I wasn’t feeling wowed by the Science in the slate article at that point, so I decided that instead of  jumping into the way-back machine and delving into data collected from before I was born, I would see if there was a more recent discussion about giardia in the backcountry in the scientific literature.

It didn’t take me long to find it. In November 2017 the CDC released information about waterborne disease outbreaks collected during 2013 and 2014 (the years I did my thru-hikes of the AT, and PCT, respectively), which included outbreaks of giardia in backcountry settings and in national forests that were caused by drinking water from a river, stream, or spring. The 2011 and 2012 data also specifically cites giardia outbreaks that occurred from drinking untreated water directly from streams or rivers in outdoor settings. These giardia outbreaks are only the ones that met the CDC’s criteria and don’t include individual cases that may be scattered along the trail (e.g. my 2013 case of Giardia from the 100 mile Wilderness on the AT isn’t included in the CDC statistics).

CDC_table

Update: 2/5/2018. Selected outbreaks caused by backcountry, wilderness, and other outdoor water sources (river, stream, and/or spring) reported by the CDC. AGI: acute gastrointestinal illness, G.duodenalis: giardia duodenalis, G. intestinalis: giardia intestinalis

In addition to the epidemiological data from the CDC, I also found a meta-analysis looking at data in both the US and Canada from 1971 to 2014 (published in 2015) that stated that “Half of the outbreaks… were located in camps/ campgrounds/ cabins/ parks“, and found that 35% (101) of outbreaks were from camp/ campgrounds.

Stream or Trail?

After spending some time wading through the science (additional links available at the end of this post), I wasn’t feeling tempted to save money and lighten my pack by choosing to drink lots of raw, completely untreated stream water. The perspective shared in, “Actually Backpackers You Don’t Need to Filter Your Stream Water”, seems outdated in terms of the science, the technology, and the culture. Sure, back in the 1980’s and 1990’s the dogma in the outdoor community was that the average hiker needed to carry a $99.95 water filter that weighed almost a pound, but in 2018 most folks (myself included) are more likely to suggest lighter (2-3 oz) and less expensive (<$25) water treatment solutions. The scientific data from Slate’s sources show that giardia is present in at least some backcountry water sources, and the epidemiological data I found links giardia to at least some backcountry and wilderness water sources. Overall, the data suggests that there is some risk associated with drinking raw, untreated water. Whether or not you feel it is an acceptable risk is a completely different question.

Raw Water on the Appalachian Trail

I almost always filter or treat raw water from backcountry water sources. Although often my options when it come to backcountry water sources are limited, if I have a choice I have a preference. My personal preferences (along with the treatment options I use) are:

  • Springwater coming out of the side of a mountain (raw or purified)
  • Bubbling spring with a high flow rate (raw or purified)
  • Piped springs (purified or raw)
  • Beautifully clear waterfalls (purified or filtered)
  • Streams (purified or filtered)
  • Rivers or Glacial Lakes (purified or filtered)
  • Cisterns (purified and/or filtered)
  • Lakewater and pond water (purified & filtered)
  • Chunky and/or green water (pre-filtered, filtered &/or purified)
  • Cow pasture water (purified & filtered & boiled)

Raw Water in Iceland

Over the years I’ve consumed thousands of liters of water from backcountry water sources in the US, and I’ve only gotten giardia once…

 I got giardia from a pristine looking stream near a shelter in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine on Day 147 of my 2013 Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I was really shaken up from having a tree almost fall on me, and distractedly gulped down a whole bunch of my water 20 seconds after adding Aquamira to it. I realized my error almost immediately, but the water was clear and the stream was pretty, so I was cautiously optimistic. About 10 minutes later the trail led me to the beaver pond that my stream had flowed from. Doh! I summitted Katahdin, finished my AT thru-hike, and didn’t think any more about it until a couple weeks later when a gastroenterologist suggested that town food wasn’t my problem, giardia was.

Once was more than enough for me. For me, $20 and 2 oz seems like a pretty low cost (both in terms of $$ and weigh) to decrease the odds of having to go through that again.

Beaver Activity in the 100 Mile Wilderness

7 Questions to Ask Before Drinking Raw Water

As we do more and more research on the importance of microbiomes in human health, I expect that conversations about raw water will grow. Over time our interactions with backcountry water sources may evolve, and we may develop better tools to guide our interactions with raw water. In the meantime, here are 7 questions I ask myself, and would encourage others to ask themselves, before drinking untreated raw water from backcountry sources (or any other source really):

  1. Are you in a long-term monogamous relationship with your raw water source?
  2. Does you raw water get routine testing for water-borne infections (WBIs)?
  3. Does it have unprotected contact with the bodily fluids (or solids) of other people? strangers? beavers? livestock?
  4. Does it have a history of unprotected contact with bodily fluids or other substances that could negatively impact your health?
  5. Sure, it’s beautiful, but how much do you really know about it?
  6. Who and/or what was your raw water with before it was with you?
  7. Do you really know enough about its history to want to be fluid-bonded with it?

In general, I would strongly advise hikers and backpackers to treat the water they take from streams before drinking it. If you do decide to drink raw backcountry stream water, you might want to consider abstaining during periods of heavy rainfall when the risk of drinking raw stream water is higher than usual because waterborne contaminant levels in streams (even in the high sierra) are highest after large amounts of rainfall.

NOTE: Although I know a few people that got giardia on the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, I know a lot more people that got Norovirus or Lyme disease (see links below) on their Appalachian Trail thru-hikes.


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Related Posts I’ve Written:

Links to Additional Information About Giardia:

Doggone Cold! Winter Gear List for Dogs

Doggone Cold! Winter Gear List for Dogs

Winter on Mary's Rock

Here’s a list of the winter hiking and backpacking gear that M’s Seeing Eye Dog Edge used on our winter Appalachian Trail adventure in Virginia for New Year’s. This list includes the gear he used for climbing up to Mary’s Rock with wind-chills of -15℉, as well as the gear he used for his first winter overnight (with a record-breaking low of -2℉).

Winter Day-Hike Gear List for Edge

  1. Fleece-Lined Waterproof/Windproof Jacket (5/5): The jacket was easy to put on and take off, provided good coverage for precipitation, great mobility, and some added warmth. The jacket performed as described; I think it would have been perfect if the weather had been in the predicted range (lows of 15℉ to 25℉), but with temperatures dropping into the single digits and wind-chills making the effective temperature even colder, a warmer jacket with more coverage would have been better.
  2. Musher’s Secret Wax: It’s a barrier wax that helps protect paws that comes highly rated for winter trekking, but it accidentally got left at home this trip.
  3. Grip Trex Booties (2/5): I was surprised by how well edge tolerated the booties. For walking around the campsite and in paved/cleared walkways the boots did a good job, but while hiking the booties on his rear legs didn’t stay on very well, and we ended up losing two of them (both later retrieved by a kind stranger). To stay secured, I think the booties would have needed to come higher us his legs. It was also pretty clear that Edge had less traction with the booties than he was accustomed to. For icy sections of the trail we removed his booties because he seemed to have better traction without them, but his traction still wasn’t good enough on the ice. If I were to do it again I would try the Winter booties instead because they would provide more warmth and might stay on better in snowy conditions. Figuring out the traction issue is still an open problem.Edge Sporting his Jacket and Booties
  4. Quencher Water Bowl (3/5): This bowl worked pretty well. For winter something with an insulated bottom might be better as a water bowl, also something with a watertight seal or an easy pour lip to make it easier to keep the water that wasn’t consumed. The flexible nature of the bowl made it easy to break to the ice out of, which was nice.
  5. Food & Water: We carried extra food and water for Edge for winter hiking/backpacking. It takes extra calories to stay warm on cold winter days/nights, and winter air is so dry that you lose more water than you think. For our adventure I was guesstimating about 50% more food than usual based on the temperature and the planned exertion.
    • NOTE: Pay attention to how much they’re drinking, eating, and peeing:
      • Fewer pee breaks than usual may indicate dehydration
      • If pee breaks are really frequent and low in volume, check and make sure your dog isn’t cold and shivering.
      • If the color of their urine is really dark/yellow (or has a stronger smell than usual) it might indicate dehydration.
  6. Poop bags: It is what it is. For all day hikes dog poop should be packed out. For backpacking when the ground is frozen and you can’t bury it, you should pack out for your dog’s solid waste as well as your own (blue-bagging it as we used to say).
  7. Leash and/or harness: In most state and national park areas where dogs are allowed, they are required to be on a leash no longer than 6 feet at ALL times. Please be considerate of other hikers, dog-owners, the wildlife, and outdoor ecosystems when adventuring with your dog. Edge is a working dog, so his harness comes along with him too.

Edge in his Puppy Palace

Winter Overnight Gear List for Edge

  1. Highlands Sleeping Pad (4/5): This worked great as a winter sleeping/rest pad. This is a keeper and I’d highly recommend it for long winter day hikes as well as backpacking trips. In a perfect world I would want it to be a little bit bigger for a dog Edge’s size since his butt was consistently off of the back of it.
  2. Highlands Sleeping Bag (3/5): The sleeping bag just wasn’t big enough for Edge. For small- or medium-sized dogs I might give this bag a 5/5, but it wasn’t really big enough for him to be able to curl up into it. I ended up mostly unzipping it and tucking it around him like a quilt, and it did a pretty good job of keeping him warm. I was impressed by how well he tolerated being all bundled up. I’d be interested in upgrade options. With record-breaking low temperatures we ended up wrapping Edge with a second sleeping bag (a 30F bag designed for humans).Shenandoah Campfire with Edge
  3. Reflectix groundcloth (5/5): Used on the floor of the tent (the same way the humans used it) to provide an extra bit of warmth and insulation; it also covered a larger surface area than the sleeping pad, so if Edge slipped off of his sleeping pad he wasn’t on the bare ground.Edge inside the puppy palace
  4. Hyperlite Ultamid 2 Backpacking Tent (4/5): The hyperlite ultamid 2 worked great as a winter backpacking/camping dog house, but it is very expensive as a puppy palace. It provided good protection and extra warmth, and with one side of the door staked down, the door could be zipped ½ way down to provide a doggy door that Edge could enter and leave the tent through in case of emergency. The tent was plenty big so a person could have easily slept in the tent with Edge. I really liked the way the floorless tarp tent worked as a winter puppy palace. (I’m allergic to dogs, so it also had the advantage of being easy to shake it out, and then shower it off/wipe it down to prevent future allergen issues with the tent).

Additional Links/Resources for Winter Backpacking with Dogs

6 Shiny Things for Winter Adventurers

6 Shiny Things for Winter Adventurers

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For me one of the shiniest (best) things is a beautiful winter’s day in the mountains with sunshine, bluebird skies, sparkling fresh snow, and glittering cascades of ice (Mt. Monroe, NH 2017).

During winter when the darkness comes too soon and lingers for far too long, all the shiny, sparkly, and glittery things seem to have extra appeal. The six things that made my list for this year’s winter gift guide ($7 to $70) and gear review all make dark winter days and long winter nights a little bit brighter, shinier, and more sparkly. So, without further ado, here are a few of my shiniest things (additional holiday song spoofs included in photo captions):

1. 1000 Lumen Nitecore HC60 Headlamp

Winter Nighthiking

“I’m dreaming of more night hiking, a thousand lumens lights my way! May your hikes be many and bright, and may all your adventurers have light! “

What it is: A 1000 Lumen headlamp (USB-rechargeable) for winter hiking/backpacking and home power outages.

The Shiny: The 1000 Lumen USB Rechargeable Nitecore HC60 ($59.95) is the shiniest headlamp I’ve found, and it makes the snow on a fine winter’s eve sparkle like nothing I’ve seen. It’s highest output setting, which I call “day light mode,”  throws light the length of a football field. Weighing in at ~5oz (3.47oz not including batteries) it’s not exactly ultralight, but it’s beefy 1000 Lumens makes my much lighter ~1oz  Petzl e+Lite ($29.95) with its meager 50 Lumens seem completely and utterly pathetic. Unlike my other electronic devices, the HC60 seems to do better as the temperatures drop instead of worse (I’ve tested it down to -20°F), and that’s makes it my number one choice for winter hiking/backpacking. I’ve used the HC60 for hundreds of hours of hiking/backpacking since receiving it as a Christmas gift last year, I absolutely love it, and I highly recommend it.

  • Features: 1000 Lumen (beam: 117m distance; 3400cd intensity; 100° angle)
    • Micro-USB Chargeable
    • Waterproof (IPX7) & Impact Resistant
  • Pros: 1000 lumens is impressive in a <5oz package.
  • Cons:  You may be tempted to do more winter night hikes, it doesn’t have a red light mode, and switching modes is a bit clumsy with thick gloves. The HC60 is a bit heavy for summer backpacking.
  • Upgrade: considering upgrading to the 1000 Lumen USB Rechargeable HC65 Headlamp, which fixes the button issue and has a red light mode.

2. “On Trails” by Robert Moore 📖

On Trails by Robert Moore

“On Trails we hike! New paths we’re always finding. Now there’s a book about trails and their worth.”

What it is: A popular nonfiction book about trails for whiling away long winter nights

The Shiny: The bright silvery trail snaking across the cover of  “On Trails” by Robert Moore ($16.00) and the word ‘TRAIL’ caught my eye as I walked through the airport book store. When I picked it up and read the back cover I was intrigued but couldn’t help but wonder if this book was actually going to be about trails. I’d felt misled by the last couple of books I’d picked up in airport bookstores that were written by hikers (see my reviews of: Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Wood and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild), but was hoping the third time would be the charm as I purchased Robert Moore’s “On Trails.” As I opened the book and began reading I discovered that “On Trials,” is a popular nonfiction book about trails that was written by a thru-hiker. A thru-hiker that has found himself asking many of the same questions that I’ve asked and wondered about as I explore the trails around me. I have to confess that I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but I’ve been enjoying it so much that I’m recommending it anyway. Based on what I’ve read so far I’d recommend it for hikers (and others) that enjoy popular nonfiction books.

  • Features: Available in paperback (11.4oz) and for Kindle (ultralight?). Published: July 12, 2016
  • Pros: Lots of interesting information about trails written from the perspective of someone that has spent a lot of time hiking them and thinking about them
  • Cons: A bit erudite and dry at times

3. Choucas Glide Hat 🎩

Choucas Hat

“The cozy and the sparkly, they both are good alone. Combine the two in a hat that’s good, for forest and for town.” (top: polartec band in the Glide Plus, bottom: breathable fabric in the Glide)

What it is: A lightweight, form-fitting hat for cool mountain nights year-round and for hiking and backpacking in mild-to-moderate winter conditions

The Shiny: Last weekend when I bought myself a birthday gift: a green sparkly Choucas Glide Plus Hat ($36.00) , which is a slightly warmer/beefier version of the sparkly purple Choucas Glide Hat ($32.00) that has been my favorite backpacking hat since my 2013 AT thru-hike. It’s not often that I stumble onto a piece of gear that I recognize as fashionable and not just functional, but my sparkly Choucas hats seems to combine the power of BOTH quite nicely. They are lightweight hats with a Polartec Windpro headbands that are the perfect combination of warm but breathable for my aerobic (and occasionally anaerobic) outdoor adventures.

  • Features:  Polartec Windpro fleece band keeps ears warm and the thinner fabric on top allows for better ventilation while exercising. 25 fabric color choices.
  • Pros: Both functional and fashionable; made in New Hampshire, USA; after four years of heavy use my purple Choucas hat still has its sparkle.
  • Cons: Glitter and sparkles on a hat are great, but glitter and sequins are notorious for becoming MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) and violating Leave No Trace principles; If you think your hat might shed glitter or sequins into wild places leave it at home. NOTE: Glitter free options are available

4. Thermarest Z Seat with ThermaCapture 🏕

Now rest ye tired hikers then, you’re off to play again… ” (Climbing Mt. Monroe with my Z-seat tucked into my pack, Photo Credit: James ‘Whispers’ Fraumeni)

What it is: A seat for winter hiking/backpacking trips for resting, cooking, and camping.

The Shiny: Normally I think that the ground is a good enough seat for me, but in the winter I’ve come to learn the value of keeping my butt both warm and dry, so I’ve started carrying the reflective silver Z-seat with ThermaCapture ($14.95) with me for winter day hikes as well as winter backpacking trips. I’m not sure if I’ll think it’s worth the weight and bulk to carry for summer hikes, but I definitely enjoy having it around for my winter treks. By consistently using the Z-Seat when I plop myself onto the ground each time I put on MICROspikes, layer up, or switch to crampons, I’ve been staying warmer and my legs feel stronger.

  • Features: lightweight (2 oz), egg-crate shape helps keep it from slipping under my weight; convenient bungee cord tie for keeping it closed and for anchoring it to my pack and/or the ground so it doesn’t fly away.
  • Pros: Keeps my largest muscle group warm when taking breaks, cooking, and camping in the winter
  • Cons: Bulky and catches wind in exposed areas

5. Rain-X Water Repellent 💦

Oh, wipers, wipers, wipers, you smear my view all day, but once my windshield’s treated, the rain will bead away.” (Looking at a rainbow through my office window, MD 2017)

What it is: A water repellent for car windshields that improves visibility in wet driving conditions

The Shiny:  Although it may not be the most obvious gift for winter adventurers, the bottle of Rain-X glass-water-repellent ($7.68) that I bought and applied to my windshield a couple months ago has probably had the biggest positive impact on my winter adventures and safety. Improving wet weather visibility is especially important because the most common view from the mountains is the inside of a cloud, and the most dangerous part of most hikes is driving to- and from- the trailhead. The improvements in visibility in wet and snowy conditions I’ve gained from just a single application of Rain-X to my windshield are impressive. It was quick and easy to apply and it eliminated the annoying water smearing effects that I’d tried to get rid of by changing my windshield wiper blades. The beading is really cool and I end up not needing to use my wipers as much.

  • Features: easy to apply liquid, coats windshield hydrophobic silicone polymer
  • Pros: Improved visibility while driving in mountain weather
  • Cons: Needs to be applied at temperatures above 40°F

6. Kahtoola Microspikes 👣

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“Microspikes, microspikes, traction all the way! Oh what fun it is to hike on the icy slopes today!” (A hiker using microspikes to cross a snowy section of the AT on Franconia Ridge, NH)

What they are: Pull-on shoe coverings that provide light traction for winter hiking.

The Shiny: My Kahtoola MICROspikes ($69.95) may not give me wings, but they do make me feel like I have superpowers as I cross shimmering sheets of glare ice without hesitation (note: some restrictions apply). MICROspikes are great for winter and shoulder season hiking where light traction is required and I advise people interested in doing winter hikes with me to acquire a pair of MICROspikes or equivalent. I’ve been using my MICROspikes for every winter hike/backpacking trip since my PCT thru-hike in 2014 (click here for my 2014 review) and they’re still going strong.

  • Features: 12 small (1cm) stainless steel spikes connected to a stretchy elaster harness that pulls over your shoes; weight per pair ~11 oz
  • Pros: Provide traction in icy conditions, lighter weight than crampons, much easier to navigate mixed ice and rock terrain than crampons.
  • Cons: MICROspikes cannot be used for kicking steps into snow/ice and they are best when used with a relatively stiff soled shoe. I still prefer crampons for navigating steep ice floes and when kicking steps is required (For some hikes in the White Mountains of NH, I find that the MICROspikes are not enough and I switch to my full crampons).

For a more complete list of the gear that I use for winter backpacking check out: Winter Backpacking Gear: Light Weight Gear for Temperatures < 32°F/0°C


❄️❄️❄️ Happy Holidays to all and to all a good hike! ❄️❄️❄️

5 Ways to Keep Mosquitoes and Ticks from Bugging You! (Gear Guide+)

Black flies, ticks, mosquitoes, and other biting insects can turn the most peaceful outdoor paradise into a stressful tormenting nightmare. In this post I’ll discuss the bug repellent strategies and gear that have worked for me as well as those that are recommended by the CDC, and that are registered with the EPA (after being shown to be both safe and effective for human use in repelling ticks and mosquitoes).

1. Cover up

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Wearing long-sleeves, long pants, and gaiters in an attempt to keep the mosquitoes at bay hiking through the high sierra during my PCT thru hike.

The first step in keeping the insects at bay is to minimize the amount of skin the buggers have access to by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks, gaiters, and closed-toe shoes. This is fairly effective at keeping ticks from biting you, but as many of us have discovered, mosquitoes have an impressive ability to bite through clothing. Constantly wearing head-to-toe rain gear is an effective way to keep the biting insects at bay, but when the weather is hot and humid wearing rain gear as bug repellent is just a different kind of misery. Instead, I move on to option #2…

My thoughts: wearing long-sleeved shirts, socks, long-pants, ultralight gaiters, and closed-toe shoes is just a start. For repelling ticks I highly recommend using permethrin-treated clothes as described in section 2. For black flies, be sure to include a head/bug net. For mosquitoes, add a an EPA-registered and CDC-approved skin-applied bug repellent as described in section 3.

2. Wear Permethrin-Treated Clothing

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Permethrin is based on the naturally occurring insecticides found in chrysanthemums.

Permethrin is a man-made synthetic insecticide based on the naturally occurring insecticides (pyrethroids) found in chrysanthemums. It kills insects and anthropods (eg ticks) that come in contact with it by affecting their nervous systems (neurotoxin). According to the centers for disease control and prevention (CDC), “permethrin-treated clothing repels and kills ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, and other biting and nuisance arthropods.”

The environmental protection agency (EPA) has evaluated permethrin for treating garments and has approved it as both safe and effective for human use for this purpose. The EPA in their “2009 revised exposure and risk assessment evaluated multiple exposure scenarios for permethrin factory-treated clothing, including toddlers wearing or mouthing the clothing, and military personnel who wear permethrin-treated uniforms on a daily basis. All exposure scenarios showed that permethrin factory-treated clothing is unlikely to pose any significant immediate or long-term hazard to people wearing the clothing.” The EPA also states that, “there is no evidence of reproductive or developmental effects to mother or child following exposure to permethrin.” If you have concerns about the safety of premethrin you can also check out this FAQ, which goes into more detail. One of the major reasons that permethrin is considered safe is that it is poorly absorbed through the skin.

When applied to clothing, permethrin binds tightly to the fibers of the clothing (especially cotton clothing). Since permethrin is not water soluble, it remains bound to clothing through repeated washing cycles and is not readily transferred to your skin if/when the garment gets wet. Note that permethrin kills ticks/mosquitoes on contact, so does not prevent bugs from landing on you. As a result, permethrin-treated clothing works best when it is loosely fitting.

The two CDC-recommended and EPA-registered methods approved for permethrin-treated clothing are factory-permethrin treatment and self-permethrin treatment.

Clothing Treatments (CDC Recommended and EPA registered) Manufacturer Claimed Maximum Effectiveness
Permethrin

  • Factory-permethrin treatment
    • Clothing: 70 launderings.
  • Self-permethrin treatment (0.5% permethrin):
    • Gear: 40 days of direct exposure to sunlight.
    • Clothing: 6 weeks and/or 6 launderings
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Wearing my factory-permethrin treated pants and shirt at Choquequirao, Peru.

Factory-Permethrin Treatment 

According to the CDC, factory-treated clothing, ie “clothing that is treated before purchase, is labeled for efficacy through 70 launderings.” My experience and the research I’ve done suggests that factory-permethrin clothing is effective through 25-50 washings. The military finds effectiveness against ticks last for about 50 washings and the EPA suggests that repellency beyond 25 washes when wear and tear is included is more likely to be true. Gear list/review of my factory-permethrin treated clothing:

  • Ex Officio BugsAway Damselfly Jacket (15/15)
    • Weight (5/5): 6 oz, 100% Nylon
    • Effectiveness (5/5): I carry/wear this mesh jacket for all of my hot weather backpacking and kayaking adventures. It protects me from both mosquitoes and excess exposure to sun. I give this jacket my highest recommendation. It remained effective against mosquitoes for about 1 year of heavy use (I didn’t count the # of laundering cycles). I used it on the PCT, kayaking in Maine during black fly season, hiking all over New England during mosquito season, and trekking through Peru in temperatures up to 112F.
    • Durability (5/5): The mesh has held up well under brutal thru-hiker treatment and ongoing use. After the factory-permethrin treatment wore off, I have self-permethrin treated the jacket and continue to use it for all my desert/hot climate adventures.
  •  Ex Officio BugsAway Damselfly Pants (11/15)
    • Weight (5/5): need to find scale, but light weight, 100% Nylon
    • Effectiveness (5/5): Both in the US and abroad I’ve found these pants to be effective at preventing bug-bites. For example, while my cohort in Peru ended up getting eaten alive with red welts all over their legs I remained bug-bite free.
    • Durability (1/5): These are great travel pants for hot weather, but not so good for brutal backpacking use: the butt of the pants shredded after less than a month of use during my PCT thru-hike.
  • UV InsectShield Buff (10/10)
    • Effectiveness (5/5): Keeps the bugs from biting my neck, which is awesome.
    • Durability (5/5): I’ve had good luck with the Buffs lasting forever
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Wearing my self-permethrin treated leggings, gaiters, and hat at Machu Picchu, Peru.

Self-Permethrin Treatment

If you apply permethrin yourself you have the option of either spraying it on to you clothing/gear or soaking your cloths in it. The CDC recommends treating “clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents with products containing 0.5% permethrin,” and treating items “at least 24–48 hours in advance of travel to allow them to dry.” Note: According to the EPA: “Permethrin repellent products used for factory-treatment of clothing or as spray-ons for clothing are not to be applied to certain clothing such as underwear.”

  • Sawyer 0.5% Permethrin Premium Clothing Insect Repellent
    • Spray-on application method (~4/5): I use it on gear items for tick protection. I don’t have a good metric for effectiveness of my treated gear, but it seems to work. The gear I treat with spray-on premerthin, with the amount of premethrin I used to treat it in parentheses, includes:
      • hiking boots & camp shoes (~ 3 oz for both)
      • sleeping bag (~6 oz)
      • backpack (~ 3 oz)
      • tent body (~ 6 oz)
    • Soaking application method (5/5): I use it for clothing items for both tick and mosquito protection. I soak my clothing items in 0.5% permethrin (using the method described in the section-hiker post linked here) to treat my cloths because I am skeptical about getting complete coverage of my clothing using the spray-on method. My self-permethrin treated clothing seems to keep its protective properties through 6-10  washes. The clothing I treat by soaking it in permethrin, with the amount of premethrin I used to treat it in parentheses, includes:
      • OR Sparkplug gaiters (~2 oz)
      • MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat and midweight hat (~1 oz)
      • Sleep clothes (~12 oz): sleep shirt, leggings, and camp socks
      • Montane Featherweight Wind Pants (~3 oz)
      • Wrightsock Coolmesh 2 socks (~4 oz/pair)
      • Techwick (T1) long-sleeve hoodie (~4 oz)
      • Lightweight fleece hoodie (~5 oz)
      • Hiking leggings (~4 oz)

My Thoughts About Permethrin: Factory-permethrin treated clothing keeps its repellence 5-10 times longer than self-permethrin treated clothing and is worth it to me for my super-lightweight summer clothing. As far as I can tell, permethrin-treated clothing is the best product out there for preventing tick bites. For mosquito repellency the situation is less clear. Permethrin kills mosquitoes on contact, and does not actually act as a repellent, which means that the mosquitoes land on you (and may bite you) before they die. For loose-fitting clothing permethrin works fairly well against mosquitoes, but it is much less effective when used on tight-fitting clothing made from thin fabrics. As a result, I recommend purchasing 1 size larger than normal to maximize effectiveness of permethrin-treated clothing for preventing mosquito bites. Also, according to the CDC mosquitoes in some areas (such as Puerto Rico) have developed resistance to permethrin!

Other repellent treatments for clothing: DEET (EPA-registered) and picaridin (EPA-registered) may be applied to clothing, but they provide shorter duration of protection (same duration as on skin) when compared to permethrin, and must be reapplied after laundering. Both DEET and picaridin are repellents that can be applied to clothing that has been treated with permethrin to provide added protection. Note that DEET may damage plastics and some types of fabrics. I recently experienced this when the small bottle of 100% DEET in my pack leaked, melted through its cap, and fused itself to my bug net in a scary mess.

3. Use Bug Spray (Skin-Applied Repellents)

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The bug repellent picaridin is based on piperidine, a compound found in black peppercorns.

The CDC and EPA recommend using skin-applied bug repellents (wearing bug spray) in addition to using permethrin-treated clothing. The question then becomes, which bug repellent should I use? Since bug repellents are classified as pesticides, the EPA is in change of regulating them. Skin-applied bug repellents whose safety and efficacy data meet EPA standards are given an EPA-registered status. EPA-registered repellents can be classified as either conventional repellents, biopesticide repellents, or natural repellents.

Conventional repellents

Conventional repellents are synthetic repellents that directly kill or inactivate pests. The two conventional repellents that are both EPA-registered and CDC-recommended are DEET and picaridin. DEET and picaridin have the longest-lasting repellent effects of all of the skin-applied bug repellents evaluated and registered by the EPA.

DEET in concentrations of 5% to 99% is EPA-registered and approved for direct application to human skin. Unlike permethrin, DEET doesn’t kill mosquitoes or ticks, it just makes it hard for them to smell/detect us, and therefore less likely to bite us. Although the court of public opinion is convinced that DEET is horribly toxic, the EPA believes that it is safe for use as instructed at all concentrations, and for children and adults of all ages. Note that DEET may decrease the SPF of sunscreen and it may dissolve plastics and some fabrics.

Picaridin is a synthetic compound resembling piperine, which is found in black pepper. Picaridin is EPA-registered for human application in concentrations of 5% to 96.8%. It is commercially available as Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent as well as under other brand names.

Conventional Repellents (CDC Recommended and EPA registered)
Maximum Repellent Efficacy/Duration
Picaridin (aka icaridin)

DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide)

  • Mosquitoes:
    • 2 hrs (5% DEET)
    • 8 hrs (25% DEET)
    • 12 hours (100% DEET)
  • Ticks:
    • 2 hrs (5% DEET)
    • 4 hrs (25% DEET)
    • 10 hours (100% DEET)

My Thoughts About Conventional Repellents: I hate having to apply bug repellent directly to my skin, but on my thru-hikes (and other adventures) I carry a small bottle of 100% DEET for emergency bug-repellent use. DEET has worked well when I needed it, except for one stretch of the PCT where the mosquitoes were impressively aggressive and to my surprise seemed to be DEET-resistant; I applied 100% DEET and they bit me anyway. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it is scientifically possible that the mosquitoes in question were in fact DEET-resistant. After doing the research for this post, I’m going to give picaridin a try.

Biopesticide Repellents

Biopesticide repellents are naturally derived repellents, which are generally considered less toxic than conventional pesticides. It is also important to note that biopesticide repellents don’t need to stand up to the same degree of rigor as conventional pesticides to gain EPA-registered status. There are two EPA-registered and CDC-recommended biopesticide repellents: oil of lemon eucalyptus, aka PMD (p-Menthane-3,8-diol) and IR3535 (the active ingredient in Skin-So-Soft).

Oil of lemon eucalyptus is an EPA-approved way to market PMD (p-Menthane-3,8-diol), a synthetic version of the compound found in the oil of the lemon eucalyptus plant. The essential oil of lemon eucalyptus (pure lemon eucalyptus oil) is NOT EPA-registered and repellency of the essential oil only lasts for ~1hr.  According to the FDA, commercially available bug repellents listing Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus as their active ingredient are using the man-made synthetic version of the compound: p-Menthand-3,8-diol. Oil of lemon eucalyptus (PMD) at high concentrations has an efficacy similar to DEET over shorter period of time, but if you can find the information about it’s toxicity you profile you’ll be surprised to learn that the EPA considers oil of lemon eucalyptus to be more toxic than DEET at least in terms of potential for eye irritation. Having accidentally gotten DEET (Toxicity Category III) in my eye, I shudder in horror at the thought of accidentally getting oil of lemon eucalyptus (Toxicity Category I) in my eye. To me, the labeling practices for oil of lemon eucalyptus seem to be deceptive at best. It is commercially available as: Repel Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Repellent and Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent.

IR3535 is the EPA-registered bug repellent in modern Skin-So-Soft bug repellents. It is important to note that the Skin-So-Soft bath oil that was used as bug repellent in the ’90s does not contain IR3535. I remember the Skin-So-Soft bath oil as bug repellent as being woefully inadequate to the task, but have not tried the Skin-So-Soft containing IR3535. Although IR3535 is EPA-registered, the only commercially available forms I was able to find are combined with sunscreen, and the CDC does not recommend the use of combined sunscreen/bug spray products because sunscreens typically need to be applied more often than bug sprays alone. It’s also important to note that the toxicity profile for IR3535 is similar to that of conventional bug sprays. IR3535 is commercially available as: Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus IR3535 Expedition SPF 30.

Biopesticide Repellents (CDC Recommended and EPA registered)
Maximum Repellent Efficacy
 Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus aka PMD (p-Menthane-3,8-diol)

IR 3535

  • Mosquitoes:
    • 10 hours (20% IR3535)
  • Ticks:
    • 12 hours (20% IR3535)
  • Black flies:
    • 3 hours (20% IR3535)

Although the following natural repellents (classified as biopesticides) require frequent re-application, and are not recommended by the CDC, they are registered with the EPA as being safe and effective:

Natural Repellents (EPA Registered)
Maximum Repellent Efficacy
Refined oil of Nepeta cataria aka Hydrogenated Catnip Oil (HCO)

  • Mosquitoes:
    • 7 hrs (15% HCO)
Oil of citronella

  • Mosquitoes
    • 2-3 hrs (~5%)
  • Ticks
    • ~1 hr (~5%)
 Essential oil of wild tomato (lycopersicon hirsutum) aka 2-undercanone or methyl nonyl ketone

  • Mosquitoes
    • 5 hrs (7.75%)
  • Ticks
    • 2 hrs (7.75%)

NOTE: The CDC does not recommend the use of products that combine sunscreen and repellent “because sunscreen may need to be reapplied more often and in larger amounts than needed for the repellent component to provide protection from biting insects.” Instead they recommend the use of separate products where sunscreen is applied first and is followed by the use of insect repellent.

My Thoughts About Skin-Applied Pesticides: After looking at all of the repellent options currently EPA-registered and CDC-approved I’m going to switch from 100% DEET to 20% Picaridin. The improved safety profile of picaridin compared to DEET as well as the promise of greater efficacy against black flies and longer duration of protection have convinced me to give it a try. At first glance the biopesticides, especially the Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus sounded promising, but on closer review the fact that they can claim a connection to naturally occurring pesticides isn’t enough to convince me that they are safer than the conventional repellents and the need to reapply them more frequently makes them a poor choice for me. If you’re looking for a second opinion, the EWG guide to repellents list the pros and cons associated with the different repellent options. Whichever bug repellent you choose, be sure to check the concentration of the active ingredient and to read/follow the application directions carefully. Which bug repellents have your tried? Comment and let me know which ones have worked (or failed to work) for you.

4. Know your enemy!

DSC01712

Avoid the biting bugs by learning to love winter!

Know when and where the biting bugs are most active, and try to avoid them. Let’s start with when. The biting insects tend to be most active during the same seasons that people are most active: the spring in summer months. Below is some general information about the when and where for some of the most pesky biting bugs.

Black flies

Mosquitoes

  • Season: whenever temperatures are consistently above 50F
  • Most active time of day: depends on species.
    • A. aegypti & A. albopictus: typically bite from dawn ’til dusk, but may bite at night
    • Culex species: typically bite from dusk ’til dawn
  • What attracts them? Carbon dioxide from your breath, heat, and and other compounds secreted in our sweat and found on our breath.
  • Areas to avoid: swampy areas and areas with standing water; mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water

Ticks

  • Season: whenever temperatures are above freezing (32F), although they tend to be most active April to September. Ticks are least active when temperatures are below 32F and during droughts
  • Most active time of day:  during the most humid part of the day; ticks need moisture to survive, especially the tiny and troublesome nymphs. As a result, nymphs are most active at night and during the mornings on hot days.
  • Areas to avoid: tall grasses and leaf litter and elevations below ~3500 feet
  • Added advice: shower as soon as you return from your outdoor adventure, do a tick check, wash your clothing in hot water, and remove ticks promptly

Additional Thoughts: In addition to avoiding the buggiest areas in the buggiest times (e.g. hiking in the snow), I’ve found that hiking faster (>2 miles/hr) prevents the majority of black flies and mosquitoes from landing on me and biting me. It turns out that mosquitoes typically fly at 1-1.5 miles/hour (1.5 miles/hr), so the little data I was able to find supports the anecdotal evidence that I can outrun most mosquitoes!

5. Dealing with the Itch


When I was a kid loved playing  in the swamp down by the river, which meant that I’d frequently come home covered in both mud and bug bites. The itchiness would drive me nuts, so I started experimenting with things in the first-aid cabinet that might take the itch away: “after bite”-didn’t work, benadryl cream-didn’t work, calamine lotion-didn’t work, toothpaste-didn’t work, and then I tried IcyHot. It worked!! IcyHot completely masked the itch. I then discovered that if I hadn’t scratched the bite before applying the IcyHot, the bug bite would disappear by the time that the IcyHot wore off… I’d found a bug bite cure!

My Thoughts on IcyHot: As an adult I’ve realized that bug bite prevention works better than carrying IcyHot with me everywhere I go (and constantly coating myself in it), but when my bug bite prevention methods fail and I have a bug bite that’s driving me nuts I still head to the medicine cabinet and treat it with IcyHot.

Summary

When it comes to avoiding ticks and Lyme disease my basic strategy is to:

  • Cover up with long-sleeves, long-pants, and gaiters
  • Use permethrin treated clothing
  • Avoid tall grassy areas
  • (while backpacking) Do a ticks checks and change into dedicated sleep clothes (long-sleeved lightweight shirt, camp socks, leggings) before getting into my sleeping bag at night.
  • (while in civilization) Do tick checks and shower after returning from each hike/outdoor activity in tick-infested areas
  • Avoid unleashed dogs (they run through the tall grasses and bring the ticks back to me)

For mosquitoes, I try to avoid the skin-applied repellents, but when the mosquitoes/black flies are particularly irritating I end up including them. My mesh Bugs Away jacket is a godsend in hot, humid weather. For mosquitoes my basic strategy is to:

  • Cover up with long-sleeves, long-pants, and gaiters
  • Use permethrin treated clothing
  • Hike faster! I’ve found that mosquitoes and black flies don’t tend to bite me when I’m hiking at >2 miles/hr
  • Use EPA-registered and CDC-approved repellent on exposed areas (hands, ankles, neck/face) sparingly as needed; I typically carry/use DEET, but will be trying out 20% picaridin.
  • Use a head/bug net in extreme circumstances, especially when the gnats dive-bomb my eyes, fly up my nose, and start swarming so thickly that I inhale the dang things… For gnats I also use the thru-hiker trick of poking a tall blade of grass/wheat out of my hat since they seem to be attracted to the highest moving point; it seems to help a little, but is much less effective than a properly positioned high quality bug net.

Combining these strategies seems to work for me with most biting insects most of the time. The one glaring exception is horse flies. Horse flies are relatively undeterred by repellents, and will bite any exposed flesh they can find. When I’m in an area horribly overrun with horseflies my strategy is to either to dive into the closest body of water and go for a swim (staying under water as much as possible) or to dive into the safety and security of my tent for a nap.

Links

Previous posts I’ve written about ticks:

Previous posts I’ve written about mosquitoes: