Thru-hike Toothbrush Review (Backpacking/Ultralight)

Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different backpacking toothbrushes, and I’ve hated most of them… They’re usually too small to fit comfortable in my hand, awkward to use,  and/or messy! I also find the idea of spitting anything (even toothpaste, maybe especially toothpaste) into the bushes to be contrary to my leave no trace ethos… So brushing my teeth in the back-country has always seemed like a bit of an onerous chore… Unfortunately, going on a thru-hike and not brushing my teeth for 5 months wasn’t something I was willing to do, so I started experimenting with toothbrushes… After 5000 miles of backpacking, I’ve found a few that I like:

Colgate Wisp Max Fresh Peppermint Mini-Brushes, 24 count

The Colgate Wisp (5/5): By far my favorite backpacking toothbrush… I discovered them on my 2014 PCT thru-hike and have used them on almost all of my backpacking adventures since:

  • Usability(5/5): Easy to use, seems effective, minimal practice required
  • Weight(4/5): for a weekend trip (5/5) because I only take one… for a thru-hike with 5-7 days between resupplies I would take a few (0.3lbs shipping weight for 24 including packaging)
  • Cost (5/5): ~$0.21/each ($4.96/24)
  • Availability (5/5): Walmart and many convenience stores/gas stations
  • Convenience(5/5): I love that they are waterless… On the PCT where water was a premium I was loath to waste water on wetting my toothbrush, spitting out toothpaste, and cleaning my toothbrush… This little guy solved all those problems in one fell swoop
  • Hygiene (5/5): Disposable, so you can throw them away when they get funky. Individual results may vary, but I was willing/able to use each brush at least 2-3 times before the minty goodness wore off (more if I cleaned them and didn’t mind the loss of mintiness).
    • Bonus: does not involve sticking your fingers in your mouth!!

Rolly Mini-Toothbrush(3-4/5): The lightest weight option, which is awesome, but seems to requires some skill to use effectively (without sticking your fingers in your mouth… Note: if you are super sensitive to strong flavors you may find its mintyness  overpowering at first.

  • Usability(3-4/5): Some skill required to get used to rolling around my teeth… I’ve used them 5 times so far, and with practice I expect that I will come to appreciate them more
  • Weight(5/5): Certainly the smallest and lightest weight toothbrush I’ve encountered… Just make sure you don’t accidentally swallow it! (0.3 oz shipping weight including packaging for 6 or them)
  • Cost(3/5): $0.60-$0.99/each
  • Availability(3/5): Available at some Walgreens stores and on Amazon
  • Convenience(5/5): I love that they are waterless… and small… nothing to complain about there
  • Hygiene (4/5): Disposable, so you can throw them away when you’re done using them… the fact that you have to directly handle it to put it into your mouth (and to take it out), makes it more squeamish for re-use… for single use no problem (Mintiness lasted through 2, 2-minute uses for me)

GUM Folding Travel Toothbrush(4/5): For my 2013 AT thru-hike I eventually settled on this folding toothbrush because I found the lighter alternatives to obnoxious to use for such a long trip. I hiked over a thousand miles with it! For general travel I give this a 5/5… It is my favorite reusable travel toothbrush!

  • Usability(5/5): If you’re looking for a travel toothbrush that fits in your hand like a normal toothbrush, doesn’t break in two while you’re brushing, and still folds up nicely for travel, this is the toothbrush for you.
  • Weight(3/5): It’s not ultralight by any stretch of the imagination
  • Cost(4/5): ~$4.50 each, typically sold in two-packs, reusable
  • Availability(5/5): Available at Walmart and on Amazon
  • Convenience(4/5): They are handy and reusable… they still require water, toothpaste, and washing, but it’s a toothbrush, what do you expect?
  • Hygiene (4/5): If you have plentiful access to water and can wash them regularly then hygiene is not an issue… I didn’t have any issues beyond what I’d expect with a normal toothbrush.

Safety First Finger Toothbrush(2/5): I would call this (along with all the other finger toothbrushes I’ve tried) a failed experiment.

  • Usability(2/5): the bristles didn’t seem very effective for me, and having to put my finger in my mouth seemed dubious (especially as a thru-hiker)…
  • Weight(3/5): much lighter than a normal toothbrush, and lighter than my travel toothbrush with holes cut into it…additional weight could be saved by trimming excess bits off of it, but then you have the hygiene issue of having your dirty finger in your mouth… I’m not sure that its worth it :-P (0.8 oz shipping weight; leave a comment if you know the weight of just the brush)
  • Cost(4/5): $1.99 is not bad considering that its reusable
  • Availability(5/5): Easy to get at Walmart (or similar) at Dollar Generals along the AT, which is how I ended up experimenting with one.
  • Convenience(3/5): Required washing, toothpaste, and usual care and maintenance of toothbrush
  • Hygiene(1/5): Didn’t clean my teeth well, required me to actually put my exposed finger in my mouth to clean rear teeth, and if water etc got into it, it tended to linger… yuck!

Do you have a favorite backpacking and/or travel toothbrush? Share your favorites in the comments! (Also, if you know the individual weights of the toothbrushes I’ve mentioned, let me know and I’ll update the post… I don’t have a scale with me.

Links to other backpacking/travel toothbrushes/reviews:

‘Tis the Season for High-Vis Hiking… (Hunting, blaze orange, a high-vis gearlist and more)

DSC03833

The sound of gunfire shattered the stillness of the trail. “Oh, shit!” I thought. “It’s still hunting season!” Once again I’d forgotten that the winter hiking and backpacking season was also hunting season. I paused, trying to remember where my blaze orange was… Doh!! The answer was nowhere useful. I have a blaze orange hiking T-shirt that I wear in the fall, along with a blaze orange reflective baseball cap-I love them both. I also have a blaze orange expedition parka, but I don’t have any blaze orange for the in-between-winter season. Clearly, I needed more blaze orange backpacking gear. The only problem was that I needed it right then!

Up next, Mt. Washington?!

“Pop!” another shot went off, “Pop!,” And then another. I frowned as the AT was bringing me closer to the hunters and not further away from them. As a 4-season hiker and backpacker I share the mountains and the woods with hunters; I just want to make sure that I do it as safely as possible. That means being both seen and heard! Since I didn’t have enough blaze orange on, and my path was predetermined by the route of the Appalachian Trail, I opted to make my presence known with the only tool I had on hand: my voice. I started singing. Loudly:

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer,
Howdy hunter, let’s be clear!
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

As I hiked through Vermont singing, I remembered that I’d run into this same issue last year on a section-hike of the New England Trail during the week between Christmas and New Years. I’d known that the regular deer hunting season ended by the second-week of December, but I’d failed to take into account the ‘primitive firearms’ season which runs until December 31 each year. On that trip I ran into five hunters for every deer track I’d seen. Even though they’d surprised me, I hadn’t surprised them. All of the hunters had both heard and seen me coming long before I’d seen them; still, I’d like to give them as much advanced notice as possible!

IMG_4456

September through November I always remember that it’s hunting season and I wear my blaze orange, but for some reason in late December I forget that there are still plenty of people in the woods with guns that are shooting at things. I don’t want them to accidentally shoot me, so I want to make it as easy as possible for them to see me, and avoid me… blaze orange it is, but, how much blaze orange should I be wearing as I wander through the woods in the winter? (Check out the educational video below, which has information about how much hunter orange you need, and how visible it is).

The safe bet seems to be to wear the same amount of blaze orange they recommend that the hunters wear: a blaze orange hat during most of the hunting season and 500 square inches of blaze orange on the head, chest, and back during shotgun season. Perhaps due to my motorcycling background I figure if I I’m going with high-visibility for hunters, I might as well go high-vis all the way, so here’s my high-vis hiking gearlist/wishlist:

Once I have my blaze orange gear, the tricky part is remembering when hunting season actually is so that I’ll know when I’ll need wear it… The answer varies by state (check the listings near the bottom of the post), but it’s a good bet that you should be wearing blaze orange whenever you go out into the backcountry between September and May. For example, in Massachusetts hunting season started on September 8, 2015 (with deer archery season), and will extend until May 23, 2016 with the end of wild turkey season.

Is hunting really allowed on national scenic trails like the Appalachian Trail?

DSC03391-2

Yes! Hunting is allowed along most of the Appalachian Trail, or at least 1,250 miles of it according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. For a large portion of the remaining 900ish miles, hunting is allowed just outside the 1000-foot wide AT corridor. On my thru-hikes I’ve encountered a fair number of hunters on the trails: on my 2013 AT thru-hike I ran into turkey hunters on the trail in Georgia and North Carolina in May, as well as moose hunters in Maine in October. On my 2014 PCT thru-hike I ran into hunters in the woods of both Oregon and Washington, and on the New England Scenic Trail I ran into dozens of hunters in late December.

I hike the trail, from dawn to dusk
Whene’er the skies are blue
I wear synthetic clothing
Like all the hikers do!

DSC07331

As a thru-hiker I’ve heard gunfire on the trail so often that I’ve started to recognize, and be able to tell the difference in, the patterns of sound between: people firing at clubs and ranges (there’s a spot on the AT in Pennsylvania where the firing range sounds disturbingly close to the AT), people randomly firing at objects and targets (hiking through the desert on the PCT provided plenty of data points for that), and hunters firing at game (see above)…

I like red meat and ice cold beer
I’m gnarly like a root
I climb up over mountains
There ain’t no need to shoot!!

As if the sound of frequent gunfire wasn’t enough evidence of gun use on the trail, on the PCT there were shell casings all over the trail… I ended up making a game of keeping track of each new type of casing I saw, just like I was keeping track of each new type of flower: there were casing from handguns, shotguns, and rifles in all shapes and sizes… Too many to count! Thru-hikers have a tendency to write-out the mile-markers for the long-distance trails using sticks, stones, and pine cones. But near mile 500 of the PCT the only thing around were shell-casings, so I made my mile-marker out of them :-P

IMG_2983

Since there are plenty of folks with guns out there, take a minute to review your local hunting seasons and land-use rules before heading into the woods this winter, and remember to wear plenty of blaze orange! Below are links to hunting information for the states that the AT, the PCT, and the Florida Trail cross through, along with a rough range of the current hunting season to give you a sense for why you want your blaze orange if you are thinking about doing a lot of winter hiking, or setting off on a thru-hike:

Hunting Seasons on the Appalachian Trail:

Hunting Season for the PCT:

Hunting Season for the Florida Trail:

IMG_0563

***

All together now, let’s sing (To the tune of Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song):

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer,
Howdy hunter, let’s be clear!
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
I sleep all night and I hike all day
I’ve got a pack, upon my back
And boots upon my feet.

I hike the trail, from dawn to dusk
Whene’er the skies are blue
I wear synthetic clothing
Like all the hikers do!

Cuz, I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I like red meat and ice cold beer
I’m gnarly like a root
I climb up over mountains
There ain’t no need to shoot!!

Cuz, I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
I’m not a doe and I’m not a steer
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I hear gunshots, I eat my lunch,
I go to the lava-try.
I follow the white blazes
Singing loudly and off key

Cuz I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got ten toes, ten fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I like Bambi stew, and duck confit
My whiskey strong and neat.
I should be wearing orange
Now wouldn’t that be sweet!

Cuz I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got ten toes, ten fingers too
An awful lot like you!

Women are on social media and in the outdoors?! This can’t be real life!!!

IMG_0563

The internet was suddenly a buzz, “outdoor women are faking it!” The world of social media was aghast because a 19-year-old model from Australia had exposed the raw underbelly of her reality… The photos she posted to her Instagram account were staged, shot by a professional photographer, and she wasn’t actually having any fun at all!!! Color me shocked, shocked I tell you! With headlines like: “Essena O’Neill: The Instagram Star Who Quit Social Media,” it didn’t start off as a story that would get my attention, but before long the internet had worked it’s magic and morphed her outcry into an area that fell squarely into my lap… an article that seemed to question the legitimacy of outdoor women on social media, “Op Ed: Is This Real Life? Outdoor Women on Social Media,” started showing up all over my social networks.

As an outdoors woman that uses social media, I couldn’t help but follow the link and take a look at its contents:

“Recently, Australian model and Instagram sensation Essena O’Neill posted a rant on YouTube that has since gone viral, insisting that  social media is not real…..”

“These assertions feel more and more applicable to the outdoor community on Instagram as a relatively new type of account seems to be popping up all over the place: the everyday-woman-turned-outdoor-model.”

“You’ve probably seen it before. The classic wide-angle shot of a woman standing in front of a sweeping vista, waist-length  hair tucked under a backwards hat or beanie made by a small start-up gear company, patterned-legging bedecked legs that don’t touch, accompanied by a generic quote telling you what happiness is. She’s not a professional athlete or photographer, just a gal with great hair who likes to get outside…”

The article went on to describe the tell-tale signs that these women are fakers… mostly that they look too good to be true: wearing inappropriate clothing, fresh make-up, and having clean/brushed hair… this was all just a lead up to their final argument, however, that outdoor women on social media are not to be trusted… that if they tag a company, or if you see product labels in their photos, they are probably posers… nothing more than corporate pawns… Advertisements masquerading as beautiful women!

IMG_7264-0

By the time I finished reading the article I was feeling self-conscious about my Instagram posts… I don’t have any corporate sponsors (never have), but outdoor gear companies put their logos on everything, and I’m sure that those logos show up in some of my photos… I’ve even occasionally tagged products that I’m using when it feels relevant to my photo or post… Were people going to assume that I wasn’t a “real” outdoor adventurer because I excitedly posted about my Oru Kayak when I first got it?

“No, of course not,” I laughed to myself, “that would be ridiculous!” But I found myself opening up my Instagram account anyway…  I’m not sure what I thought I would find, but I was genuinely surprised to discover that in the 12 hrs since the article had been published 30 people (~5% of my followers) had decided to unfollow my account… That may not seem like a lot, but in the two years I’ve been on Instagram the number of followers I have occasionally goes up, frequently stays constant, but never goes down by more than one or two people in a week… nevermind 30 in under a day!

Did anybody really think that I was the “everday-woman-turned-outdoor-model” that the article was talking about? That seemed pretty ridiculous to me… Sure, I take shots standing in front of sweeping vistas (more after my mom started complaining that I was never actually in any of my photos), and I have to admit that I tend not to post the pictures that I feel like I look horrible in, but really?! It seemed laughable, but I didn’t want anyone to think that I’d sold out, so I hastily added a line to my Instagram profile,”I don’t get paid to to this, I do it because I love it!”

I immediately felt guilty for feeling the need to post the disclaimer… I would love to get paid to be an outdoor adventurer, to write about those adventures, to photograph my adventures… Getting paid to do those things isn’t something that people should feel ashamed about! The line between genuine social media content, and ‘stealth’ social media advertisements is a huge issue, which is partially addressed in the follow-up article, “Our Audience Weighs In: What is “Real,” What Is “Fake” In Outdoor Social Media?”, but it seems like we should direct our ire at the corporations exploiting outdoor adventurers (and women) for cheap advertising, instead of targeting the individuals desperately trying to find ways to fund their passions!

IMG_5525

I thought very seriously about trying to get corporate sponsors when I set off for my second thru-hike… My finances were limited, and it seemed like a reasonable approach to try to keep doing the thing I love for as long as possible. Unfortunately many of the sponsorships seemed like a bad deal… “You want me to do what? And in return you’ll give me a pair of hiking boots?” I ultimately decided that I would rather be broke than to sell my soul for a pair of hiking boots, and besides, I hadn’t hit the bottom of the barrel yet… For the people that are out there trying to live the dream full-time, for extended periods of time, however, the issues involved with sponsorship can become very complicated. If you’re interested in the pros and cons associated with sponsorships and what’s involved in getting them for “everyday adventurers” check out these links:

Okay, so the issue of corporate sponsorships and social media are real, but is there more of a problem with the “everday-woman-turned-outdoor-model” than there is with the “everyday-man-turned-outdoor-model”?

Every time I thumb through my Instagram feed, I am faced with photograph after photograph of young, long-haired women in brightly colored gear against jaw-dropping natural landscapes.”

I suppose if all of the people you follow on Instagram are young, long-haired outdoors women with brightly colored gear, that’s all you’ll see on Instagram… My Instagram feed looks substantially different than that, and if I had to guess, I’d guess that majority of the people in my feeds are men, but since most of the people I met on the trail were men, that wasn’t too surprising. I assumed that the distribution of men and women in sponsored media was probably closer to 50:50, but it wasn’t something that I’d even paid much attention to.

IMG_3615

But it seemed like the original article was begging the question, “Is there a gender bias in outdoor advertising on instagram?” and “Are we being flooded by photos of young, long-haired women by outdoor companies on Instagram?” They were suddenly questions that seemed worth looking into, so instead of counting sheep as I lay in bed that night, I decided to count the gender distribution of Instagram photos from a few popular outdoor companies**:

  • Oru Kayak: 34% women (37 men, 19 women, n=56)
  • REI: 38% women (37 men, 23 women, n=60)
  • Mountain Lite: 30% women (32 men, 14 women, n=46)
    • women portrayed tended to have long, blond hair
  • Mountain Hardware: 26% women (34 men, 12 women, n=46)
  • Patagonia: 28% women (42 men, 17 women, n=59)
    • massive gender bias in depicted activities
  • Backpacker Magazine: 46% women (31 men, 27 women, n=58)
  • Outdoor Research: 18% women (50 men, 11 women, n= 61)
    • photos of women biased towards looking more staged and less rugged

I was stunned by what I found… although I hadn’t noticed it before, the gender distribution in the sponsored outdoor media I looked through was not 50:50 as I’d assumed! Of 340 sponsored photos, 36% (123) were of women, and 64% (217) were of men… If anything, these numbers seemed to imply that there are more men ‘faking it’ than women! Although all of the companies portrayed more men than women, three of the companies showed a startling bias in the way they portrayed women (Outdoor Reaseach, Patagonia, and Mountain Lite), trending towards showing women in less active, more staged-looking shots, with a seemingly strong bias towards portraying women with long, blond hair.

DSC09770

So, if you are asking the question, “Is this real?” there’s no reason to expect that the ‘outdoor women’ you see on social media are any less real than the ‘outdoor men’… Sure, if someone looks like they are wearing new, incredibly clean gear that may or may not be appropriate for the situation, it’s possible that the photo is staged, or that they are a novice, but that’s true regardless of the gender of the subject. It is also possible that if a woman looks freshly made-up, or if I guy looks freshly shaved, that the photo is staged… It’s also possible that they pride themselves on their appearance regardless of the situation that they’re in (I know women that carry make-up kits, and men that carry shaving-kits, even while backpacking).

“I think it comes down to whether your Instagram is about your life, or if your life is about your Instagram. The first category is full of women who are getting outside and doing them because they love it, whether it is their paid job to do so or not, and post photos that reflect the life they are living. The second is full of women who appear to be orchestrating their lives (and in some cases, social-media-driven careers) around posting a photo that will garner the highest amount of likes.

To me, this seems to defeat the entire purpose of going outside in the first place—of getting away from things you can plug in and interacting with the world around you. Of looking out and up at the grandness of our planet and not down at a tiny screen. Of being in the moment instead of orchestrating it.”

What it really comes down to is being an intelligent consumer of social media; do your research, know what you’re liking, and why you’re liking it. Stealth advertising, and targeted advertising campaigns are becoming a bigger and bigger part of our realities, and discussions about how we handle that now and in the future are important (this is the discussion that I believe “Op Ed: Is This Real Life? Outdoor Women on Social Media,” was really aiming it). The media (and advertising campaigns in particular) have a tendency to objectify and sexualize women in an attempt to increase sales, and discussions about how that impacts our culture and interactions with women and girls is important (this is the discussion that I believe Essena O’Neils original rant was targeted at).

DSC08708

Finally, let me sum up with my two cents about a question that almost always seems to come up when people are criticizing outdoors people (both men and women), who take pictures of, and post to social media about, the outdoors, “What is the purpose of going outside in the first place?” In my experience, the answer to that question varies a lot by person, and can even depend on the day… At the core, the reason that I go outside can primarily be summed up as “the pursuit of happiness”… Sometimes I want to get lost in the grandness of our planet; sometimes I want to connect with my environment; sometimes I want to disconnect from technology; and sometimes I want to create art by capturing the beauty of a moment in a carefully timed and orchestrated photograph that I can post to social media so that I can share a slice of the beauty and happiness I find in the outdoors with other people…

When it comes to hiking and taking pictures I get to do what I love, and I love what I do… Social media won’t change that.

DSC06725

 

**Note: I tried to count enough photos from each company to capture a broad enough sample to be representative of the overall content of the site; photos were counted consecutively, beginning with the most recent when I began counting; huge variability was present in sample sizes smaller than 10

A Walk in the Woods- Don’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover: A Thru-Hikers Book Review…

DSC07085

Misled… that’s how I felt about Bill Bryson’s book “A Walk in the Woods” when I tried to read it in 1998, and that’s how I felt about the movie when I watched it on Tuesday night… First, let me talk about the book (see the next post for my review of the movie).

  • Title: “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.”
  • Author: Billy Bryson
  • Publication Date: May 4, 1998
  • Print list price (2015 paperback editition): $8.62
  • Weight: 12.6 oz, 304 pages
  • Kindle edition: $7.99

I had never heard of Bill Bryson in fall of 1998 when I first stumbled upon his book, but I was an avid hiker, and I was intrigued by both the title of the book and the art on the cover… I liked to walk in the woods! It definitely looked like my kind of book… I picked it up, rolled it over, and read the summary on the back…

“The Appalachian Trail trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America–majestic mountains, silent forests, sparking lakes. If you’re going to take a hike, it’s probably the place to go. And Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaining guide you’ll find.” (Taken from the book description on Amazon.com)

Even better, it was a book about the Appalachian Trail (AT)! I had just finished an end-to-end hike of the 279-mile “Long Trail” in Vermont in August and was an aspiring thru-hiker… I purchased it on the spot, and couldn’t wait to get home to start reading it. I devoured the intro and all the details at the beginning, but Bryson’s humor, tinged with ignorance, arrogance, and negativity, started to grate on me… The writing, the history, and the details about the trail kept me reading, but I was finding it hard to like Bryson’s character… the pages dragged on, Bryson’s negativity and air of superiority seemed to intensify… I was waiting, waiting for the story of how he would grow to love the trail… waiting for the story of his personal transformation from arrogant a**hole to humble and caring human being…

One of the first white blazes of the Appalachian Trail near Springer Mountain in Georgia.

One of the first white blazes of the Appalachian Trail near Springer Mountain in Georgia.

About 60% of the way through the book I was so disillusioned that I couldn’t take anymore (read spoiler alerts at the end of post for details), and I set the book down… I wouldn’t pick it up again until 2013, after I finished my Appalachian Trail thru-hike…

  • Hiker: Someone who walks large distances, typically in a rural setting, for excercise or pleasure
  • Section-hiker: someone that hikes (typically backpacks) sections of the Appalachian Trail, with the goal of hiking it’s entire length over the span of multiple years.
  • Thru-hiker: someone that hikes (typically backpacks) the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in less than a year.

For good, or for bad, Bill Bryson’s book is a constant topic of conversation on the Appalachian Trail. Most thru-hikers seem to have disliked the book, and the trail registers (log-books at AT shelters, where thru-hikers leave notes for each other, kind of like the notes that high school students pass to each other during class) are full of comments poking fun at Bryson. Most non-hikers, and many shorter-distance hikers I met along the way, however, loved the book.

“Have you read that book? that book by Bill Bryson?” People asked me over and over again in town and on the more popular sections of the AT… “Well, part of it,” I’d hedge. “Oh, you should finish it! It was just so good, and so funny!” Eventually I started thinking that maybe they were right… Maybe there was something that I missed? Maybe if I went into the book expecting a travelogue about Bill Bryson, instead of a book about a thru-hiker I’d enjoy it? When I first tried to read it I was 19, and Bryson’s character was supposed to be 41, maybe reading it now that I was in my 30’s would be an entirely different experience… Besides, I hate to leave things unfinished.

Did I like the book any better when I read it 15 years later? Not really… I no longer felt misled, and I was able to see a lot more merit in it, but I still didn’t like it… On the plus side, I managed to finish it this time around! Here are some of its merits and pitfalls:

Biography/Memoir Rating (4/10):

  • “A Walk in the Woods” is framed around Bill Bryson’s journey exploring and researching the areas around the Appalachian Trail. It is not a book about Bryson’s personal growth and development. It is not a book about a hiker or backpacker.
    • Do: read “A Walk in the Woods” if you like Bill Bryson’s previous books.
    • Don’t: assume that you’ll find Bryson’s character likeable.
    • Don’t: assume that there will be anything motivational or inspirational about the book.
    • Don’t: expect Bryson to respect the trail or the people he meets along it.

Adventure/Travel Book Rating (7/10):

  • “A Walk in the Woods” is a travelogue full of fun facts connected to the Appalachian Trail, colored by Bill Bryson’s unique sense of humor, and tendency to see the worst in things. It is not a book about a hiker, and it’s not a book about a thru-hikers journey.
    • Do: read “A Walk in the Woods” if you are a huge Bill Bryson fan, you’ll love it.
    • Do: read “A Walk in the Woods” if you’re curious about the areas the AT passes through, like a bit of comedy, and don’t mind a sense of humor that is tinged with ignorance, arrogance, and negativity.
    • Don’t: assume that all your backpacking friends love the book.
    • Don’t: assume that the book and the movie contain the same content.
    • Don’t: expect Bryson to respect the trail or the people he meets along it.

Backpacking/Wilderness/AT Guidebook Rating (1/10):

  • Although “A Walk in the Woods” provides facts of interest about the trail, it does not contain any advice or guidance on appropriate backpacking behavior or etiquette. “A Walk in the Woods” is not a book about backpackers or backpacking.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: learn Leave No Trace Practices before heading off on your outdoor adventure.
    • Do: find good maps, and keep track of the weather before heading into the wilderness.
    • Do: be tolerant of the different people you meet along the trail.
    • Don’t: throw your gear into the woods because you are tired of carrying it.
    • Don’t: get into a car with people that are drinking/drunk.

Conversation Starter with the Thru-Hiker You Just Met (0/10):

  • Regardless of whether the individual thru-hiker you’re talking to loves, hates, or simply hasn’t read the book, rest assured that they have had many, many, many conversations about it.
  • Recommendations
    • Don’t: ask the thru-hiker that you’ve just met on the trail if they’ve read (or watched) A Walk in the Woods. Try asking them what they love about the trail instead…

JES_AT_2013-6

If you want details about why I hated the book the first time around, and still didn’t like it the second time around, here’s an in depth look at my first experience of reading the book in 1998:

(begin spoiler alert: Chapters 1-8) The first time I read the book, I just kept waiting, waiting for the story of how Bryson would grow to love the trail… waiting for the story of his personal transformation from arrogant a**hole to humble and caring human being… It didn’t happen. Just a little over a third of the way into the book the going got tough, and Bryson got going… Why hike, when you can drive? I threw the book down in disbelief, and went to bed… He’d hiked ~205 miles of the AT at that point (< 10% of the trail). The next day I picked the book up again, determined to have an open mind… So what if Bryson was calling my dream, “boring,” or a “tedious, mad, really quite pointless business…” He was just going to skip over the crowds and regulations… I could understand that… he didn’t share my dream, but he was still going to hike and explore the AT, and maybe the story of his transformation was still yet to come? Besides, they’d hiked ~205 miles (from Amicalola Falls, Georgia to Newfound Gap, North Carolina), was skipping 20 miles really all that bad? I read a couple more pages… Bryson was acting like an entitled elitist a**, and when he couldn’t get a cab to take him 20 miles, he decided f** it, if we’re gonna skip 20 miles, we might as well skip 450 miles… Gah!!! This book was not for me! It was not about what I thought it was going to be about… but I’d never left a book unfinished before…

  • Yellow-Blazing: following the two yellow lines down the road (typically in a car), instead of hiking on the trail and following the single white blazes that mark the Appalachian Trail
A misty Georgia morning.

A misty Georgia morning.

(continue spoiler alert: Chapters 9) A week later, I picked it up again. Chapter 9 started out ok, relating the history of some famous AT thru-hikers, mostly in a positive light except for Emma “Grandma” Gatwood whom he referred to as “a danger to herself.” Unfortunately, within a couple of pages his attitude shifted again and he snidely finished his description of thru-hikers, “I don’t mean that hiking the AT drives you potty, just that it takes a certain kind of person to do it.” Perhaps I could ignore his tone, and just read the words? What he actually said wasn’t all that bad… “I was still going to hike the Appalachian Trail; I just wasn’t going to hike all of it”…. “It didn’t seem altogether essential to do the other 4.5 million (steps) to get the idea of the thing.” I threw the book down again… Does doing less than 10% of a thing really give you the idea of it? Not only that, he was supposed to be rediscovering America… Can you really do that is you skip over the parts that you’re not used to, that make you uncomfortable, and that don’t match your ideal of the thing? Arghh! I’d read 40% of Bryson’s book… I’d given him more of a chance than he’d given the Appalachian Trail, surely I had more than enough justification to quit this thing!

JES_AT_2013-7

(continue spoiler alert: Chapters 10-12)  No, I decided, no I would give him a chance… there was still hope, I was less than halfway through the book… it could get better? He was still going to hike on the AT, and I loved the AT… maybe he would still grow to love it! As I plodded through Chapter 10, it seemed as if he might… “If there is one thing the AT teaches, it is low-level ecstasy-something we could all use more of in our lives,” he utters as the trail begins to grow on him. Yeah! I rejoiced as the negativity in Bryson’s prose finally started to lift, and the storytelling become more engaging (In Chapters 10-12 they hike another ~260 AT miles of the AT, from Roanoke, Virginia (Catawba, VA?) to Front Royal, Virginia).

(continue spoiler alert: Chapter 13) At the end of Chapter 12 when Katz decided to go home and Bryson took a break, I thought there was still hope for the book… I’d read 50% of the book, and they’d hiked 500 miles… that’s pretty damn respectable! Bryson claimed that he and Katz were now “hikers” and “mountain-men”… I thought the book was finally going to be about hiking… I was wrong… Bryson decides not to resume hiking in Virginia, not only has he abandoned his thru-hike, he’s not even going to backpack anymore… Relentlessly, I tried to keep reading as Bryson drove himself to Harpers Ferry, then skips up to Pennsylvania on his road-trip… I completely lost interest in the book at that point… Bryson wasn’t a likeable character, he’d left his comic foil, there was no adventure, and I just couldn’t read it anymore… I was beyond irritation and disgust now, I was just disinterested… I’d managed to read ~60% of the book, and Bryson had managed to hike ~25% of the trail…

(end spoiler alert: Chapters 14+) I didn’t read them until I re-read the book 15 years later.

Despite my misgivings about the book, I was cautiously optimistic about the film adaptation…. The preview was funny, the cast looked promising (especially Nick Nolte), and I had to admit, Bryson’s book contained a lot of comedic material. I wasn’t expecting a movie about the trail, I was expecting a movie about the book… A movie about a cynical and arrogant guy facing a mid-life crisis…  a movie filled with well-scripted dialog and funny scenes with the Appalachian Trail as a backdrop.

Coming up next… My thoughts and review of the new movie based on “A Walk In the Woods.”

Growing Tensions: Baxter State Park, The Appalachian Trail, and Scott Jurek

“We really don’t think that the top of Katahdin should smell like a bar…” – Jensen Bissell, Baxter State Park director.

Champagne wasn’t the only thing that erupted as Scott Jurek celebrated his new Appalachian Trail speed record at the summit of Mt. Katahdin last week… The ongoing tensions between the long-distance hiking community and the Baxter State Park Authority erupted too…

The relationship between long-distance hikers and Baxter State Park has been under increasing strain in the past decades as the number of thru-hikers has exploded from between 5 and 40 a decade (between the 1930’s and 1960’s) to almost a thousand a year (2013, 2014).

With these increasing numbers, Baxter State Park has seen an increase in ‘bad behavior’ amongst AT hikers, and hasn’t been shy about voicing their displeasure. In November of 2014 the director of Baxter State Park sent a letter to the director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, specifically citing the following grievances (amongst others):

As a ‘modern AT hiker’ I thought that Baxter State Park was being a little harsh, and I found myself getting really defensive as continued reading their list of grievances, “I’m not like that… Most of the AT hikers I know are not like that!” But I have to admit that some are… and we were all getting grouped together in the eyes of Baxter State Park… The folks at Baxter State Park have done a lot to accommodate AT hikers over the years, but they were getting sick and tired of dealing with unappreciative AT hikers that didn’t respect their rules and their mission… It was amidst these escalating tensions that Scott Jurek’s summit photos were released…

Scott Jurek celebrated on the top of Mount Katahdin after setting a new record for the fastest hike of the entire Appalachian Trail.

Photo by Bob Najar, iRunFar.com

Champagne exploding, people cheering, and Katahdin’s sign were all prominently displayed in Scott Jurek’s summit photos… I cringed and thought, “Uh-oh… This is why we can’t have nice things!” The most publicized hike in AT history, and a perfect (and I’m sure completely unintentional) disregard of Baxter State Park’s rules…

A couple of days later Baxter State Park posted a scathing note on Facebook (in a tone similar to the previous letter), informing everyone that they’d issued Jurek citations: “for the drinking of alcoholic beverages in public places (BSP Rule 7 and Maine State General Law), for littering (BSP Rule 4.5) and for hiking with an oversize group (BSP Rule 2.2).”

Photo by Chris Kraft. From Runner’s World…Scott Jurek signed in with an official group size of 12 people.

The first citation, about public drinking, has been an ongoing issue at the summit of Mt. Katahdin. Even though I don’t blame Jurek for wanting to celebrate his accomplishment with a bottle of Champagne at the summit, I certainly can’t blame Baxter State Park for issuing him a citation for such a blatant, and public, disregard for their rules! The second citation, however, seemed like a bit of a stretch… the ‘litter’ that Jurek is accused of leaving in the park is spilled champagne… “The littering occurred when champagne sprayed into the air hit the ground.” Covering the summit of Katahdin with a gooey, sticky mass of champagne, soda, and/or Gatorade would significantly detract from the wilderness experience, so I can sort of see where Baxter is coming from, but is it really litter?

  • litter: things that have been thrown away and that are lying on the ground in a public place (Merrian-Webster dictionary)

The final citation was for group size… and I have to admit that the group-size rule confuses me in these contexts… What defines an affiliated group?… Were there more than 12 people at the summit of Katahdin to celebrate Jurek’s accomplishment? Yes! Were they an affiliated group, or were they a mass of individuals independently inspired by Jurek’s achievement? If a group of 12 (or more) is intentionally climbing Mt. Katahdin together, that’s a pretty cut-and-dry group. On the other hand, if 12 or more people are inspired to climb Katahdin by the same thing does that make them a group?

  • affiliate: to closely connect (something or yourself) with or to something (such as a program or organization) as a member or partner (Merrian-Webster dictionary)

When I climbed Katahdin as part of my thru-hike, I climbed it with two fellow thru-hikers, but when we reached the summit 8 to 10 thru-hikers were already there… By the time I left the summit a couple of hours later, there were closer to 20 thru-hikers there… Are all of the thru-hikers that happen to show up on a given day considered a group? How would that be different from classifying all of the day-hikers that show up on a given day as a group?

Baxter State Park has been controlling access to the area for the last 25 years by limiting the parking spaces, and overnight campsites (which they did on the day of Jurek’s hike as well), but this strategy hasn’t been effective for limiting the number long-distance AT hikers that are walking into the park, sometimes more than 15 miles, to reach the summit of Katahdin.

In addition to the ongoing issues with AT hikers, Baxter State Park’s Facebook post raised new issues about corporate sponsorships, blasting Jurek for hosting a ‘corporate event’ on the summit of Katahdin… In a world where social media is capital, the lines between personal, professional, and corporate are starting to getting blurry…

Look at the clothes that you hike in, they’re probably covered with corporate logos and names… If you wear them, does that mean that you’re hosting a ‘corporate event’? For hikers/adventurer that are searching for ways to make ends meet as they pursue their dreams full-time, its not uncommon for them to seek corporate sponsors. For most, these sponsorships don’t come with a salary, or any $$s at all! Instead, they come with free gear (a pair of socks, shoes, a pack, or a tent), and a nifty new title as a brand ambassador. Although high-end athletes like Scott Jurek probably get better sponsorship deals from companies like Clif Bar and Brooks, the issues surrounding sponsorship, ‘corporate events’, and social media are bound to get more and more heated, and apply to more and more people, in the coming years!

Luis Escobar | Reflections Photography Studio

In their November letter (long before Jurek completed his thru-hike), Baxter State Park suggested that, “ Options to address these concerns would require a commitment to sustainable use of the AT and preserving wild experiences along the trail. Permit systems are in place on other popular long-distance trails in the U.S. Relocating key trail portions or the trail terminus would be another option.”

For those of us that have had the honor and privilege of including Mt. Katahdin in our Appalachian Trail thru-hikes, the idea of having to re-route the trail so that it terminates elsewhere is absolutely heartbreaking… but being able to terminate our AT thru-hikes at Katahdin is a privilege… If we lose that privilege, it won’t be because of Scott Jurek (even though he did manage to step right into the middle of this steaming mess with cameras rolling)… He may be a very visible example of some of the issues between the AT hikers and Baxter State park, but he didn’t start the problem, and he won’t be the one that the staff at Baxter State Park have to deal with tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day.

Slide1

~6% (9/153) of thru-hiker summit pictures I found by googling “thruhike Katahdin”  featured alcohol…

Large trail-related media events like Jurek’s accomplishment (Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’, and Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods”) lead to surges in park use, which intensify ongoing issues between wilderness management and recreational use. It is up to us to help the parks and other landowners along the trail with their efforts to preserve the the trail and all of the wild places that we love… If you are planning on hiking on the AT in Baxter State Park, please familiarize yourself with the park’s rules, let the staff know that you appreciate their efforts, and treat the park (and it’s staff) with respect.

Related Articles:

Updated Timeline:

Baxter State Park Facts:

  • Staff: ~22 year-round staff, ~61 staff members on site during the summer. 1 staff member is dedicated exclusively to aiding thru-hikers, and is positioned near Abol Bridge for 15 weeks.
  • Governance: Baxter State Park Authority, a group of 3 public officials: the Commissioner of Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Director of the Maine State Forest Service, and the Attorney General that works closely with Baxter State Park Advisory: a group of 15 dedicated citizens.
  • Wildlife: 75% of the park (156,874 acres) is a wildlife sanctuary, 25% (52,628 acres) of the park is open to hunting and trapping.
  • Foresty: 14% of the park (29,537 acres) is set up for scientific forest managements (read that logging)
  • Recreational Use: 215 miles of hiking trails, 8 roadside campgrounds, 2 backcountry campgrounds

Additional Baxter State Park Rules Especially Relevant for Thru-Hikers:

For the original Scott Jerek photos, deal with the obnoxious ads, and check out:

New England’s 4000 Footers

Mt. Katahdin, October 3, 2013

Mt. Katahdin, Maine: October 3, 2013

New England’s 4000-footers showcase some of the most rugged trails and most spectacular views in the Northeast! So far, I’ve climbed 14/14 Maine 4000 footers, 35/48 New Hampshire 4000 footers, and 5/5 Vermont 4000 footers. As I continue hiking the peaks of the Northeast, I will post the links and pictures from my 4000 footer adventures here! If you have any questions about which mountains, trails, and hikes are my favorites, or if you have suggestions about additional information you’d like me to share, please leave a comment below!

Maine’s 4000 Footers (14/14): I completed 14/4 Maine 4000 footers during my 2013 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike. The remaining Maine 4000 footers I need to hike are: Hamlin Peak of Katahdin and North Brother, both in Baxter State Park, and Mount Abraham and Mount Reddington in the Carrabassett Valley.

  1. Katahdin, Baxter Peak – Baxter State Park, on AT (Completed: October 4, 2013: AT Day 149)
  2. Katahdin, Hamlin Peak – Baxter State Park
  3. Sugarloaf – Carrabassett Valley, 0.6 miles from AT (Completed: September 22, 2013: AT Day 137)
  4. Crocker Mountain – Carrabassett Valley, on AT (Completed: September 23, 2013: AT Day 138)
  5. Old Speck – Mahoosuc Range, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed: September 17, 2013: AT Day 132)
  6. North Brother – Baxter State Park
  7. Bigelow, West Peak – Bigelow Range, on AT (Completed: September 24, 2013: AT Day 139)
  8. Saddleback – Rangeley Range, on AT (Completed: September 20, 2013: AT Day 135)
  9. Bigelow, Avery Peak – Bigelow Range, on AT (Completed: September 24, 2013: AT Day 139)
  10. Mount Abraham – Carrabassett Valley (1.7 miles off of the AT)
  11. South Crocker Mountain – Carrabassett Valley, on AT (Completed: September 23, 2013: AT Day 138 )
  12. Saddleback Horn – Rangeley Range, on AT (Competed: September 20, 2013: AT Day 135)
  13. Mount Reddington – Carrabassett Valley
  14. Spaulding – Carrabassett Valley, 150ft from AT (Completed: September 22, 2013: AT Day 137)

Mount Washington, NH: February 2015

Mount Washington, NH: February 2015

New Hampshire (35/48): I hiked 20/48 New Hampshire 4000 footer during my AT 2013 thru-hike (some of them required short side-trips). 15/48 I completed with friends and family during day-hikes and shorter backpacking trips, but need to verify dates of those hikes (luckily mom has kept track, so I’ll have to check in with her). I guess that leaves 13 NH 4000 footers for me to explore for the first time!!

  1. Washington, on AT (Completed: September 10, 2013: AT Day 125)
  2. Adams, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed with mom, date=?)
  3. Jefferson, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed with mom, date=?)
  4. Monroe, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124)
    • Gorgeous 360 degree views!
  5. Madison, on AT (Completed: September 11, 2013, AT Day 126)
    • Gorgeous 360 degree views!
  6. Lafayette, on AT (Completed: September 7, 2013, AT Day 122)
  7. Lincoln, on AT (Completed: September 7, 2013, AT Day 122)
  8. South Twin, on AT (Completed: September 8, 2013, AT Day 123)
  9. Carter Dome, on AT (Completed: September 14, 2013, AT Day 129)
  10. Moosilauke, on AT (Completed: September 5, 2013, AT Day 120)
    • Sunrise/Sunset: July 2015: Trip Report
  11. Eisenhower, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124)
    • Gorgeous 360 degree views of Presidential Range
  12. North Twin, 1.3 miles from the AT (date? with Josh)
  13. Carrigain (date?: with Josh)
  14. Bond (date?: with family)
  15. Middle Carter, on AT (Completed: September 14, 2013, AT Day 129)
  16. West Bond (date?: with family)
  17. Garfield, on AT (Completed: September 7, 2013, AT Day 122)
  18. Liberty (date?: with Josh)
  19. South Carter, on AT (Completed: September 14, 2013, AT Day 129)
  20. Wildcat, A Peak, on AT (Completed: September 13, 2013, AT Day 128)
  21. Hancock (date?: with Josh)
  22. South Kinsman, on AT (Completed: September 6, 2013, AT Day 121)
  23. Field
  24. Osceola
  25. Flume (date? with Josh)
  26. South Hancock (date? with Josh)
  27. Pierce, < 0.1 from the AT,  (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124 )
  28. North Kinsman, on AT (Completed: September 6, 2013, AT Day 121)
  29. Willey
  30. Bondcliff (date?: with family)
  31. Zealand (date?: with mom)
  32. North Tripyramid (date?: with Josh)
  33. Cabot
  34. East Osceola
  35. Middle Tripyramid
  36. Cannon
  37. Hale
  38. Jackson, on AT (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124)
  39. Tom
  40. Wildcat, D Peak, on AT (Completed: September 13, 2013, AT Day 128)
  41. Moriah (date: with Josh)
  42. Passaconaway
  43. Owl’s Head (date?: with mom)
    • No views, isolated wooded summit
  44. Galehead (date?: with mom)
  45. Whiteface
  46. Waumbek
  47. Isolation (date?: with Josh)
  48. Tecumseh

Sunset at Lakes of the clouds, NH

Sunset at Lakes of the clouds, NH

Vermont (5/5): I hiked 1/5 Vermont 4000 footers during my 2013 AT thru-hike, however, I hiked all 5/5 during my 1998 end-to-end hike of the Long Trail.

  1. Mount Mansfield, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)
  2. Killington Peak, on AT, on Long trail (Completed: August 1998, and August 2013)
  3. Camel’s Hump, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)
  4. Mount Ellen, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)
  5. Mount Abraham, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)

Ticks & Lyme Disease at home and on the trail…

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 9.24.18 AM

2012 Master’s Project by Victoria Shelus

When a fellow 2013 thru-hiker was hospitalized with severe Lyme meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain) earlier this month, I decided to do some research and try to help raise awareness about Lyme.

“How many of my friends have had Lyme disease?” I wondered… I assumed that most of my friends with Lyme experience were hikers since I’d estimated that almost 30% of the northbound 2013 thru-hikers I met in New England had had it,  but I wasn’t really sure… so I turned to my Facebook friends looking for answers…

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 11.43.20 PM

What I discovered came as a surprise! 5% of my friends (22 of the people that viewed the post, n=440) have had confirmed cases of Lyme! And most of them, (68%, n=15) weren’t hikers at all! They’d gotten Lyme in their yards or in nearby parks… The youngest had been bitten before she even turned a year old! I guess with 5,665 reported cases of Lyme in Massachusetts in 2013 (a 12% increase from 2012) I shouldn’t have been surprised… but I definitely was! (Also, check out this link: How did 2014-2015s harsh winter effect tick populations?)

average_1994to2011

RI Tick encounter risk: Red=high, blue= low (Link Risk of tick encounters in Rhode Island by year)

2014

RI Tick encounter risk: Red=high, blue=low.

Where were my non-hiker friends getting Lyme? Lyme disease is named after a town in Connecticut and is endemic in New England so I wasn’t surprised that 93% (14/15) of my non-hiking friends with Lyme live in New England… but they weren’t getting it from backpacking trips to the wildnerness; they were getting it from ticks lurking in their yards and suburban parks. Since there are more white-footed mice and deer (the two biggest vectors for ticks and Lyme disease in New England) in the suburban areas of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island than in the wild areas it makes sense that those are the places where people are getting infected with Lyme… Clearly I need to start eying the tall grass, brush, and leaf litter in suburban parks and backyards with much more suspicion…

QDMA data from 2001-2006

It seemed strange, however, that  0% (0/7) of my hiking friends with Lyme were from New England… Another surprise was that 100% of my hiker friends that got Lyme got it during their during their thru-hikes (revision: 1 was on a 500 mile section-hike)! Maybe it’s partly because thru-hikers from other parts of the country don’t have the same level of tick awareness that people in the Northeast have? I remember being absolutely horrified the first time I saw someone drop their pack and lie down in the middle of a field of tall grass while I was hiking through North Carolina… Why? Ticks!!!! I had the same trouble on the PCT, even though people assured me that the PCT doesn’t have the same issues with Lyme… It was just engrained behavior for me…

A white-tailed dear I saw while hiking through Pennsylvania on the AT

A white-tailed dear I saw while hiking through Pennsylvania on the AT

Though a part of me loved the bucolic moments when deer wandered towards me on the trail… a bigger part of me was hungry and wished that I was going to be having have a nice venison steak for dinner instead of a boring dehydrated meal (Note: the CDC has this assurance, “You will not get Lyme disease from eating venison or squirrel meat”)… the biggest part of me, however, would start to feel imaginary ticks crawling on my arms and legs, so I would stop and do a tick check… “Is that a speck of dirt, or a deer tick?” I would wonder again, and again, and again…. On the trail I couldn’t shower as often as the CDC recommends for tick prevention, but I carried wet wipes with me and wiped down my legs with them every night as part of my tick check (~50% of tick bites in adults are on their legs).

It wasn’t until I hiked into Virginia on the AT in June that I really started seeing tons and tons of deer… I swear they were waiting around every corner of the trail. In the Shenendoah’s I saw tourists intentionally feeding the deer! I was horrified… Almost as horrified as I’d been watching people inside the AT shelters pick dozens of ticks off of their dogs and drop them just outside where they could re-attach to the dog or the next unsuspecting hiker that went by! Since dogs carry ticks, and can get sick from Lyme, tick checks are important, but disposing of the ticks appropriately is too!

DeerTicks

Later on in Virgina, I watched a fellow thru-hiker, Fingers, count as he plucked 48 ticks from his arms and legs after finishing a night hike… I hadn’t ever thought about it, but ticks don’t just quest (hunt for food) during the day, they also quest at night! In cool, humid climates adult ticks quest both day and night… When it’s hot during the day, the young ticks that cause 98% of Lyme cases quest at night (when their local humidity drops below 80% they dry out, dessicate, and die)... I had no idea that ticks came out at night… (I blindly asked 5 of the 7 thrus that had had Lyme if they’d done any night-hiking… all 5 had gone nighthiking in Virginia (or further north) prior to coming down with Lyme symptoms!)

atpictures-270

On the AT in Virginia with my parents .

It was July when I first discovered a tick on my person, “Ewwww, a tick!” I exclaimed looking at the lyme carrying Ixodes scapularis tick crawling on my hand! I was at a campground in the in the Shenendoah’s of Northern Virginia with my parents, “what kind is it?” my mom asked from the camper. I looked down at it, “A deer tick… it looks like a tiny poppyseed, but it has legs and is moving….”

Sizes of Ticks

“Wait, don’t brush it off, I want to see it!” cried my mom from the camper. “Really MOM!!” I replied incredulously! I have to admit that I was eying it curiously, but I was also in a hurry to get the damn thing off of me before it decided to bite. I watched it very carefully for the 3 seconds it took for my mom to come over and check it out (here are some tick pictures just for you mom!) As soon as she looked at it, I breathed a sigh of relief, flicked it into the fire, and headed for the showers. Mom was right to insist that we, the filthy stinky hikers, shower as often as possible… (Ticks usually take a couple of hours to attach so showering is recommended by the CDC as effective prevention). reportedcasesoflymedisease_2013

It wasn’t until I got to Pennsylvania that the first thru-hikers I knew started having symptoms of Lyme… I was sitting around hanging out with my friend Sir Stooge in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania when I noticed that he had a rash on the back of his calf (50% adult bites on legs, 22% on torso, 18% arms, 6% genitalia, 4%head/neck whereas 49% of bites on children were on head & neck). It was 4 or 5 inches across, with a partially cleared center… Bull’s eye (the classic erythema migrans rash)… A tick had found it’s target (a picture of his rash from his blog is below)…

dscn1303

Sir Stooge’s rash from a picture on his blog

“I’m not sure if it’s Lyme,” he told me. “I think I’m going to wait until we get to the next town to get it checked out,” he continued (One study suggests that only 54% of thru-hikers know how to identify the erythema migrans rash of Lyme Disease). “Why?” I asked with disbelief.  “Well, it’s only 3 or 4 days to the next town… I’ll go then,” he said still procrastinating… I looked at him skeptically. Lots of thru-hikers don’t get prompt medical treatment because they don’t have health insurance and transportation to hospitals and clinics can be a challenge, but he was insured and his parents lived nearby, “You have health insurance, you’ve got a ride, go! The speed at which you treat Lyme matters,” I insisted!

lyme-dz-rashes

He ended up going to the ER, being diagnosed with Lyme, and was put on antibiotics (Lyme is usually treated with b-lactam or tetracycline antibiotics: penicillin or doxycycline). While he was at the hospital they tested him for Lyme, but he said on his blog, “I called the hospital to get the results of my blood titer (to see if I had antibodies against the Lyme). And much to my surprise, I tested negative for any Lyme.” Luckily for him, he took the antibiotics and his flu-like symptoms and rash went away… Unfortunately Lyme tests done when the rash first appears are rarely diagnostic because it takes the body a few weeks to generate Lyme antibodies, which is why the CDC recommends a 2-tiered approach to testing for Lyme: begin with Lyme ELISA tests (false negatives are common in the 1st 2 weeks of infection and positive results just suggest that you’ve been infected sometime within the last 5 yrs), and follow up with IgG and IgM Western blots only if ELISA is positive (Positve ELISA + Positive Western Blot ~100% certainty of Lyme Diagnosis).

lymediseasemonth

CDC report on the number of Lyme cases per month

As I continued to hike North I ran into my friend Bud, who’d left me in the dust as blazed ahead of me during the southern part of the trail… He was standing dazed and confused in the middle of the trail, clearly struggling… “Well well well, look who it is,” he said with a weak smile. “You don’t look so good,” I said, “Are you ok?” I asked, split between shear joy at seeing a hiker I knew, and concern over his obvious ill health…. “Well, I was hoping to hike, but I just can’t right now,” he confessed before continuing, “I ummmmm, well… I got Lyme… real bad, it really messed up my head…. my memory…. I started repeating myself all the time… and… I don’t think I’m going to be able to get to town today… I can’t hike that far,” he lamented.

He’d gone to the hospital and tested positive for Lyme and had already been on antibiotics for a week, but it was taking longer to recover than he’d hoped. It was a story that I would hear over and over and over again that August and September as I continued towards Katahdin… People without the characteristic rash, but with flu-like symptoms and a brain fog that just wouldn’t lift… Everything causes flu-like symptoms… With the rash, or a known tick-bite followed by flu-like symptoms Lyme is obvious, but without those two things? I wasn’t sure… actually, I’m still not… Thinking back on it, I had an awful lot of the symptoms while I was on the trail…

cardinal_lady-3

Light-sensitive headaches… well, it’s probably just a migraine… fatigue and muscle aches, well, I’m a thru-hiker! Swollen knees… once again, thru-hiker… Nausea, double vision, trouble standing? Must be heat exhaustion… Having trouble breathing and exhausted? Must be my asthma… Would I even know if I had Lyme? I never thought that I had Lyme on the trail and I was never diagnosed with it… but I was treated with Doxycycline (for 10+ days, the preferred treatment for Lyme) during my thru-hike, and at least once afterwards… If I ever did have Lyme, I am relatively confident that it’s gone now!

Dog tick

A dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) I found attached to my leg on the AT in Pennsylvania. Dog tick’s don’t carry Lyme!

Lyme is certainly a scary thing, but a  life without playing outside is an even scarier thing for me. The fact that mice are also carriers for Lyme, that ticks hang out in the leaf litter, that most people get Lyme from nymphs in June and July, and that the nymphs are at least as likely to bite at night as during the day were some of the things that were new information for me. Check out my previous post: “Deer are the scariest things in the woods…” for more information about prevention, and stay tuned for one more post where I’ll go into the tick’s life cycle and what that means for Lyme disease transmission and prevention.

Have you been bitten by a tick? Did you get Lyme? Do you know someone that has? Did you get the rash (I’m curious about how similiar most people’s rashes are to the text book rashes)? Do you know where you got it? I’d be interested to hear you Lyme stories… either in comments below, or email me: patchesthru at gmail dot com.

 

Finally som tick advice for backpackers/thru-hikers based on my experience:

  • Shower as often as you can!
    • carry wet wipes to clean off and check target areas
  • Ticks bite at night!
    • Don’t hike thru tick-prone areas at night especially if the days have been really hot and humid!!! The ticks are out, and it’ll take you longer to see them and remove them
    • Don’t camp (especially if you are using a tarp without and bug prevention) in areas with dense brush, high grass, or leaf litter… Ticks quest at night!!! They don’t jump, or fly, but they do crawl.
  • Be especially attentive at lower elevations!
    • If you’re hiking at elelevations lower than 2000 feet to extra tick checks… Ticks are less common above 2000
  • Check dogs regularly for ticks (and use preventative measures)
    • Don’t forget to dispose of the ticks appropriately
    • Consider keeping your dogs out of the AT shelters when people are sleeping in them… The only way ticks have been shown to enter the shelters is if we bring them there!
  • Check your pack for ticks!!! If you set your pack down in the tall grass or leaf litter, ticks can grab a free ride directly back to you… besides, you don’t want to carry anything extra :-P
  • Walk in the center of trails where possible… It’s better for you and its better for the trail!
  • Use repellents: permethrin kills ticks on contact or 20% Deet
    • Permethrin comes in a wash or spray that you can apply to your favorite clothing and is good for dozens of washes
    • 20% Deet is just as effective as 100% deet for prevention…
  • Know the symptoms of Lyme and seek medical attention as soon as possible if you experience any of them

The beautiful balds in TN.

Deer are the scariest things in the woods… Here’s why!

DSC07085

What’s the scariest thing that I’ve encountered in the woods? Most people guess that it’s the bears, or the rattlesnakes, or the people. It’s not. It’s the deer

DSC07331

Bambi (deer), Thumper (rabbit), and his fellow terrorists (skunks, squirrels, birds etc.) are loveable and cute, but they’re also masters of biological warfare! While we fawn all over them, they deliver their payloads of disease-laden ticks to our backyards, parks, trails, and campgrounds.

Borrelia burgdorferi

Corkscrew shaped Lyme bacteria.

Ticks have been roaming the earth since the time of the dinosaurs, and infecting humans with the corkscrew-shaped bacteria (spirochetes) responsible for Lyme disease for the last 5300 years…

1.10130_Dr_Egarter_Dr_Zink_sampling

Autopsy of the 5300 year old mummy “Otzi-the iceman” revealed borrelia spirochete DNA!

In the US alone, ticks infect an estimated 300,000 people with the bacteria that cause Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) each year. Lyme disease is currently on the rise (up 12% between 2012 and 2013 in Massachusetts)… and the worst thing about it? It’s targeting our poor, defenseless children!

agesex_700pxw

Distribution of Lyme cases by age: 5-15 year olds (playing in their yard), followed by 40-60 year olds (gardening) are the most likely to get Lyme disease.

Since June and July are the months that most people get infected with Lyme disease we need to learn how to protect ourselves, and our children, from this menace right now!

lymediseasemonth

Number of cases of Lyme disease in the US per month.

Let’s start with some simple guidelines from the CDC:

  • Wear Repellent!

    2colortrailsign

  • Check for ticks daily!
    • A tick typically is attached for 36-48 hrs before it transmits Lyme to it’s host… get them off before they infect you!!
    • Although ticks can bite anywhere, their favorite spots are: the head and neck (~50% of bites in children and 4% in adults), legs (50% in adults), torso (22% in adults), arms (18% in adults), and genitalia (6% in adults, but even higher in men… check your junk for the funk!).

    DeerTicks

    The size of the Lyme carrying deer tick at different stages of development.

  • Shower after outdoor activities!
    • Shower within 2 hrs of outdoor activities: ticks usually roam around for a couple of hours before settling in and attaching to a tasty bit of thin skin… Wash them off before they even attach!
    • Wash & tumble dry clothes on high for ~1hr when you get home to kill remaining ticks.
    • medical illustration of Erythema migrans

      Bull’s eye rash (Erythema migrans)

  • Call your doctor if you get a fever or rash!
    • ~3-30 days after being bitten by infected ticks 80% of adults and 60% of children develop a rash. The Lyme rash (erythema migrans) is typically red and expands to >2 inches in diameter (5 cm), frequently clearing in the center giving it the Bull’s eye appearance.
    • Arthritic knee

      Lyme Arthritis

    • ~4-60 days later: the Lyme spirochetes invade systemically and cause flu-like symptoms. They may also cause: multiple bull’s eye rashes in remote locations, arthritis in the large joints (Lyme arthritis), cardiac issues (Lyme carditis, which is 3x more likely in men than women), and brain issues (Neuroborreliosis, Lyme meningitis, Lyme encephalitis, and Lyme palsy).
clinical_700pxw

CDC’s report of Lyme disease symptoms in US patient

Remember that Bambi and his terrorist friends don’t just hang out in the woods, they also hang out in your backyard! Ticks love moist areas, leaf litter, tall grasses, and brush…

  • Have you done your yard-work? Reduce your chances of Lyme infection by 50-90% by removing leaf litter, tall grasses, and brush from around the edges of your lawn! Create a tick-free zone around your yard and suburban parks:
    • Mow your lawn regularly and remove tall weeds… I hate the idea, but another option is to apply pesticides to your yard 2x a year, which reduces Lyme infection by 68-100%
    • Lay down a three foot wide barrier of wood chips/gravel between your lawn and the woods to restrict tick migration. Consider fencing in your yard to keep out deer, raccoons, and other Lyme disease carriers.
    • Keep activities away from lawn edges and overhanging trees
  • Is your garbage covered and inaccessible? The critters that get into your gargbage (Mice, squirrels, skunks, rabbits, and raccoons) carry Lyme disease! Mice are an especially big problem: the white-footed mouse is one of the biggest carriers of Lyme disease (common in small patches of woods, 5 acres or less) !
  • Do you have pets? Dogs love to romp in the woods and tall grasses where they fetch ticks and bring them right back to you! Check your dogs for ticks before letting them into your house, your tent, or the shelters on the AT… Talk to your vet about tick prevention treatments like Frontline. Note: Dispose of ticks properly! If you toss them onto the ground they’ll just grab onto you the next time you walk by… I see this all of the time and it makes me very grumpy!
  • Are you hiking in the middle of the trail? Hike in the middle of the trail and avoid tall grass, leaf litter, and brushy areas whenever possible… No matter how beautiful the wild meadow looks, don’t drop yourself, your pack, or your tent in the middle of it… Ticks love wild meadows and will happily catch a free ride from your pack to you! Know before you go: the Appalachian Trail goes through 12 of the 14 states responsible for 96% of all Lyme cases in the US!
reportedcasesoflymedisease_2013

CDC Map of reported Lyme cases in the US in 2013

Please join me in raising awareness about ticks and Lyme disease by sharing this post and your comments about Lyme disease below. Stay tuned for my next post, which will also be about ticks and Lyme disease!

tick01

~90 Million year old tick fossil from New Jersey

Disclaimer: I am not an MD or public health official. I am a scientist and an outdoor enthusiast with a passion for research… After discovering that ~5% of my friends (see my upcoming post) have had Lyme, I decided to do some research about it and share my findings here. Talk to your doctor if you have health related questions!

Choosing the Right Outdoor Adventure…

DSC05221

Spring is here! It’s time to go outside, explore new places, and find new adventures… but how do you decide which adventure is right for you? Here are some things to consider before you go:

DSC03004

  • Timing: How much time can you spend out on your adventure? Don’t forget to factor in the transit time to- and from- your destination! Usually I plan to spend at least as much time adventuring as I spend in transit. Another thing I’ve learned the hard way? Double-check what time the sun rises and sets before you go… the number of daylight hours varies seasonally and has taken me by surprise more than once (now I always take a headlamp along just in case!).

DSC01796

  • People: How many people are likely to join you on your adventure? Some destinations are better for groups, others for solitude… Remember that popular destinations frequently get crowded, especially during peak-season and on weekends! Often when I got to popular places at popular times, I avoid the throngs by choosing one of the less common, less crowded trails.

20140617-222236-80556379.jpg

  • Background: What is your level of experience, and that of your group? If you jump in too far over your head the fun factor suddenly plummets. Also, take into consideration the health constraints and current level of fitness of each member of your group (including yourself) before choosing your adventure… I find that when things are too physically strenuous the complaining goes up, and the fun goes down.

DSC09186

IMG_1245

Join me this summer as I introduce new people to the outdoor trails and adventures that I love… Whether I’m going out for a day hike with my 4-year old niece, going camping with friends, or heading off on another solo backpacking adventure, I’ll be sharing my favorite tips, trips, trails, and tales here on this blog!

DSC07331

Oh, and I almost forgot… pictures… I love taking pictures! I post to Instagram and Facebook between blog posts!

atpictures-603

P.S. Do you have questions about hiking? Camping? Backpacking? Gear? Getting outside? New England trails? Thru-hikes? Leave a comment below!

atpictures-159

Ode to Insomnia

IMG_9472

There are rumors and even scientific studies that say that backpacking cures insomnia… It’s true that when I’m on the trail I go to bed earlier, and get up earlier, but my sleep issues persist… I still have trouble falling asleep, and I still have trouble staying asleep, but I hold onto the hope that someday sweet sleep will come to visit me and stay for a while…

I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

Close my eyes now
All dark skies now
Count the lambs
as they fly by now

I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it!

But my Thoughts
They keep on coming
And my mind
It keeps on humming…

Go to Sleep now!
You can do it,
You can sleep,
There’s nothing to it!

But you see
There is this question
And then there
Is this hankering…

But, I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

At lest that’s what
they tell me…
So why won’t sleep
Bespell me?

I should be sleeping
Yes there’s sleeping
But ’round here
There’s only bleeping

Bleep you sleep!!!
Where are you hiding
With my pillow
I am colliding

But your mystery
Still evades me
Surely my textbooks
They shall save me…

I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

Wide awake I
Lay here thinking
As my eyes
Continue bliking

Everyone else
They seem to do it
Close their eyes
There’s nothing to it

But I lay here
In dismay here
I fear there is
No sleep here…

Meditation,
My Salvation?
Mind and body
Join one nation

There’s one goal now
Body ‘n soul now
Surely this’ll
Take control now…

We can do it,
We can do it!
We can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

Close our eyes,
We are united!
No, we will not
Be excited

In the calmness
In the stillness
In the darkness
In the chillness

My mind it keeps
Reflecting
On these things I’m not
Expecting

I still have hope
that we can do it,
That We can sleep,
And that we’ll do it…

But the secret
It alludes me
Why must it
Thus exclude me?

Everyone else that is
Around me…
I hear them
sleeping soundly…

I can do it?
I can do it!
I can sleep…
There’s nothing to it…

Close my eyes now
With a sigh now
I’ll feign hope and say
Good-bye now…

IMG_9473