trail talk

Black Toenails - A Rite of Passage... or is it?!

When I first got into hiking seriously back in 2008 I joined a Meetup Group.  Before becoming a backpacker, I spent a lot of time on front country camping trips doing day hikes.  On one such trip, I remember sitting around a campfire with some veteran hikers and I found myself in a conversation that was borderline horrifying to me.  In fact, many of you who are hiking have probably heard a conversation very similar to this one: "You don't want to see my feet! I've lost so many toenails I can't even count them all!" "Oh yeah, I have two black ones right now - both big ones!" "My first backpacking trip I lost seven nails!" "I get so many blisters I'm pretty sure my trail name should be bubble wrap!" "Yeah, I don't think I've had a solid set of nails in 10 years!"  As I listened to this in slight horror I realized that yes, indeed, I was not a real hiker yet.  And thanks to this conversation, I wasn't looking forward to being a hiker either! 

A few years down the line I did join the real hiker club.  Thanks to a long day of hiking in boots that were too heavy, I got to camp and immediately shed the footwear to walk barefoot in a cold mountain stream.  The stream was in fact so cold that when I banged my toe on a rock I didn't feel a thing.  Later that night, however, a small purple lump showed up directly in the middle of my toenail.  Six months later, that nail had to be surgically removed thanks to the fact that the bruise never healed, nor caused me to lose that nail.  Finally, I had become a real hiker.  Honestly though, does losing or bruising nails REALLY make us a real hiker?  I'm here to tell you guys that NO, LOSING TOENAILS ISN'T NORMAL OR A RITE OF PASSAGE!  This post will deal with some footwear myths and facts to help you avoid the most ridiculous Rite of Passage hikers hear about.  

MYTH: You should Always Buy Your Boots a Full Size Bigger Than Your Shoes

If you need to buy your boots a full size bigger than your normal shoes, this tells me you're not wearing the proper size shoe in the first place!  In fact, most Americans are not wearing the correct shoe size for their foot.  A proper hiking, trail running, or backpacking shoe should not only be long enough, it should also be wide enough to accomodate your feet in both their swollen and normal conditions.  To get properly fitted for a hiking, trail running, or backpacking shoe I HIGHLY recommend going to a running store and not an outdoor retailer first.  Running store employees are properly trained to watch your gait, measure your feet (both width and length) and look for wear patterns on your shoes to recommend a corrective insole if you need it.  They'll ask you your daily/weekly mileage, terrain you plan on traveling, and even what your long-term goals are.  THEN, they'll go in the back and find the brands and styles that will work best for you.  

MYTH: A Heavy Boot Will Solve All Your Foot Problems

Which of these sounds better for a foot in normal conditions: A heavy, inflexible, non-breathable shoe; or a lightweight, breathable, flexible shoe?  Now, add in the rocky, muddy, wet conditions of a mountain trail.  While hiking boots definitely have a place in the hiking world, a lightweight and breathable boot or shoe will do you much better in most conditions.  In the past several years, many running shoe companies have expanded into a line of trail shoes and some even offer a high topped shoe to rival many hiking boots.  Other outdoor companies make heavy duty, breathable shoes with moderate ankle support.  Whether you decide on a boot or a shoe, light and breathable with some flexibility, not heavy and solid, will keep your feet happy.  

MYTH: Always Wear A Sock Liner And You'll Never Get Blisters

Just like one shoe doesn't fit all, one sock solution doesn't work for everyone either!  Sock liners do help prevent friction in high pressure areas of the feet.  Injinji toe socks also make liners to help separate your toes and prevent between-the-toe blisters; however, sock liners aren't your "quick" fix for blisters or black toenails.  Getting a properly fitted, properly breathing, properly weighted shoe is the first line of defense.  Secondly, making sure you're wearing a wicking sock, like a wool or bamboo variety, will also help pull moisture away from your feet.  Third, determining if your blisters are caused by pressure on your foot or debris in your shoe also helps! Some people can solve their blister problems by wearing a gaiter to cover the tops of their shoes or boots and prevent debris from rubbing their feet.  

MYTH: Buy A Pair of Insoles And Never Have Foot Problems Again

Are you guys noticing a pattern yet?  Hikers often have a "one size fits all" solution for foot problems, but just like the other myths we've covered, an insole will not help all hikers solve their problems.  Many insole brands you can buy off the shelf in a store will tell you that being uncomfortable is all a part of the break-in process because your body doesn't know how to walk on it's own (I'm paraphrasing here).  Not every hiker needs an insole to help solve their blister or toenail problems.  In fact, many hikers can avoid the insole by getting a properly fitted, properly cushioned shoe or boot in the first place.  

Have you ever lost toenails or gotten severe blisters on a hike?  What did you do to help remedy the situation? 

The Hiker Trash Dictionary

A few days ago I was leading a private day hike up to Mt. Cammerer in the Smokies.  After the first three miles of climbing you reach Low Gap on the Appalachian Trail.  This gap is a popular resting spot for hikers coming from all directions and there are often a few people sitting around chatting.  I greeted a fellow hiker here and discovered he and I follow each other Twitter. We swapped a few stories and discovered we had both thru hiked the Appalachian Trail before.  My client was super impressed by our "hiker speak" and how the language we were speaking quickly turned from English to some undecipherable hiker language for her.  For the next mile or so, while teaching her some facts about the Appalachian Trail, I also taught her a few hiker terms.  We decided it would definitely be helpful to see some of these terms written down somewhere, so I've dedicated this post to all wannabe hikers and the terms they'll be using soon. 

+NoBo - A Northbound thru hiker (on the AT this is someone hiking from Georgia to Maine)

+SoBo - A Southbound thru hiker (on the AT this is someone hiking from Maine to Georgia)

+Flip Flopper - someone who starts somewhere other than either terminus and is hiking either direction.  This hike is getting more and more popular on the AT due to the overcrowding on trail. 

+Section hiker - someone who isn't hiking the entire trail at one time

+Thru Hiker - a person hiking the entire trail at one time

+YoYo - hiking the entire trail in one direction, turning around, and going back the way you came in one season

+Triple Crowner - someone who hikes the "big 3" hiking trails in the US, consisting of the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail

+Yellow Blazer - someone who claims to be a hiker but skips ahead by hitchhiking (and always seems to somehow get the last spot at the hostel before you get there!)

+Pink Blazer - a hiker who chases a woman up the trail looking for love

+Purist - a hiker who insists on not missing a single white blaze, no matter the circumstances. Example - two trails lead out of a campsite or shelter, a purist will take the same trail out he took in to ensure not missing one single step of trail

+Zero - a rest day, often taken in town or at a hostel

+Nero - meaning you hiked nearly zero miles to get someplace to take a break

+Yogi - when you use your thru hiking powers to get free stuff. Example: when you approach a campground and find a large family, ask them if they know where a store is so you can go buy some snacks. They usually give you some!

+Trail Angel - someone who helps hikers in need. This could be in the form of a free ride to town, does a load of laundry, or gives you a place to stay when you're injured. Trail Angels come in many forms!

+Trail Magic - getting something for nothing, usually when you need it most. Common forms of trail magic include getting free sodas, snacks, or candy at trail heads. 

+Trail Name - the alias a hiker goes by during a hike

+Slack Packing - when you leave most of your gear in your hostel/hotel room and get a ride out of town. Then, you hike back to your hotel/hostel for another night. 

+Hiker Midnight - the time hikers go to bed, which is usually after sunset, but can be any time a hiker determines based on how many long miles were hiked

+Hiker TV - the rare instance a long-distance hiker decides to build a campfire. We all sit at stare at the fire, AKA hiker TV

+Hiker Hunger - the ability to eat massive quantities of food due to the sheer number of calories you're burning on trail

+Hiker Box - a box set up at a hiker-friendly business that is kind of like "take a penny, leave a penny"; you can discard unwanted food or packed items and find someone elses' cast offs

+Hiker Trash - the way hikers describe themselves, a term of endearment. Hiker Trash refers to not only the bedraggled appearance, but also the terrible smell hiker carry on them at all times. 

+Bounce Box - a box you mail to yourself at different locations on trail; example - it's too hot to keep your puffy coat, so you bounce it ahead to where you'll be a month from now to avoid carrying it

+Mail drop - a box full of supplies mailed to yourself at a post office or hiker-friendly business

+Resupply - going into a town or store to stock up on food or fuel for your stove

There you have it - a list of commonly used hiker terms on distance hiking trails.  Are there any terms I forgot to mention here?  What would you add to the list?  Do you have a hobby with it's own "language?"

Trail Hygiene - So Much More Than Just Clean Hands!

Backpackers who have been on trail for more than a few days know that we don't smell like roses.  Your days have been spent sweating your way up and over mountains, across streams, and into camp.  If you've not been out on trail for a few months chances are it's harder than you remembered to walk those miles with a pack on.  All you want to do is make your supper, climb in your tent, and sleep like a log.  In fact, many long-distance hikers do the same thing! We push through long days to eat, sleep, wake, and repeat.  One thing that I definitely saw fall by the wayside was personal hygiene.  This post will be about how to keep yourself a little bit cleaner with minimal effort - which means so much more than just using hand sanitizer once a day!

First of all, I want to talk about the Norovirus.  Norovirus is a nasty little bug that seems to make an appearance every single season.  If you click the link you'll see a post I wrote about the terrible symptoms and ways you can contract the virus on trail. You really don't want this - so let's talk about the things you can do to keep yourself clean on trail.  

Hand Washing - Not Just Sanitizer!

Hand sanitizer - so easy!  You just slap some of this stuff on your hands and go on your way.  Well, it might be easy, but it's not so fail-proof these days!  I personally hate the stuff and pretty much only use it as fire starter.  It always leaves me feeling sticky.  Because it felt sticky and I was already grubby I just quit using it.  Hand sanitizer also encourages the breeding of super viruses and bacteria, which I won't go into in great detail here about those things - just know that we as a society are teaching bacteria and viruses to evolve and are doing more harm than good by over sanitizing everything we own making the bad bacteria breed stronger and the good bacteria (probiotics that naturally live on our skin) die off.  One thing we do as guides in my company is hand washing before meals.  We heat up just a small amount of water with our stoves, lather up, and rinse.  It takes less than 4 ounces of water and only a drop of Dr. Bronner's soap to wash up.  Now that I know how easy it is, I make it a priority every day at least once! It doesn't take much time and having clean fingernails is definitely a plus!  You can see the Center for Disease Control's recommendations on Norovirus here

Brushing Your Teeth

You're tired and it's been a long day.  You want to eat and go to sleep.  I recently wrote an entire post about how important it is to take care of your teeth on a long hike, especially since your body is getting poor nutrition and is stressed more than it would be back at home.  Please check out this post for more info about dental hygiene and why it's important on a long hike! 

Laundry Day is Worth the Money

While doing your laundry may start to seem like a moot point after you've settled into smelling like a funky hiker, it actually can do a lot of good for you and your hygiene!  As you've read in my Norovirus post, lots of nasty things can live in your clothing.  Even if you don't want to pay for doing a load of laundry at a laundromat, just rinsing your clothes clean when you shower on trail can help tremendously.  You'll find that on those hot summer days, your sweat will dry and form salt crystals.  These can really hurt when they rub your skin directly.  Washing your clothes with detergent in a laundromat is definitely worth the few dollars to get rid of the pain!

Washing Your Pack

When we were taking a near-o day in Daleville, Virginia (a day when you don't hike very many miles and stay in town for the night), some friends of ours were taking the afternoon to wash and dry their packs.  Not only does it help with that funky thru hiker smell, it will help wash off the salt crystals and whatever else happens to be living on your pack.  If you're doing a longer hike, chances are you have tossed your pack around in a few shelters, in patches of dirt, on the side of the road, etc.  You can pick up more than a few microorganisms this way!  All you need to do to wash your pack on trail during a near-o or zero day is some Dr. Bronner's and a bathtub.  Prerinse your pack - rinsing until it runs more clear, scrub it down with the soap using your hands, and rinse again until water runs clear.  Let it drip dry in your tub or outside in the sunshine. 
**I shouldn't even have to say this, but please make sure to clean up your mess if you're doing this in a hostel! Hostel owners, especially during the hiking season, already have a full schedule of cleaning up after you - don't make them clean up your mess!**

When All Else Fails - Baby Wipes!

Baby wipes are one of the most important things I carry on a long hike.  They can be used for their usual purpose or a quick wipe down when you're feeling funky.  In the hot summer months, when the bugs were at their highest swarms, we often found ourselves applying too much bug spray multiple times a day.  Add this to the layers of dirt forming on your legs and you've got what NoKey and I like to call "human varnish".  We'd have layers of dirt alternating with bug spray in thick, nasty chunks.  The baby wipes at the end of the day helped clean all this off and leave your skin feeling a little less funky.  We always went with the unscented version, which also work great at wiping residue out of your cook pot.  

While we all know smelling bad is just a part of being a backpacker, taking a few moments each day to clean yourself up a bit can not only be good for your mental state after a long day, it can really help keep you healthier!  What are some ways you keep clean when you're taking a backpacking trip or a long hike? Is there anything you'd add to the list?  I'd love for you to leave me a comment or connect with me on Facebook and let me know!