Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Backcountry Hitchhikers: When Nature Comes Home

Mucky spot along Upper South Pond TrailThe Adirondack backcountry is a fascinating place to visit. It provides a respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life, where slow traffic, demanding bosses and other aspects of the daily grind are left far behind for the relaxing solitude that is increasingly rare in the modern world. Tranquility, outstanding photographs and a satiation of peace and quiet are just a few takeaway benefits of spending time in the remote backcountry.

It is not all forest bathing and new age communing out there, as these positive aspects of a backcountry adventure are not the only things making their way home with us. There is a whole host of nefarious backcountry things that may show up in your gear, your home, or heaven forbid, yourself.

These insidious backcountry hitchhikers range from the living, such as invertebrates trapped in gear, to more elemental, such as dirt and moisture. Regardless of their nature, most are unavoidable, and therefore must be dealt with in one manner or another as long we continue to visit the backcountry. Luckily, most of these unwelcome companions make themselves readily apparent upon arriving home, but some can lie in wait until the least inopportune time to make their presence known.

By far, the most unsettling hitchhikers are those living on, in or around the human body.

Numerous pathogens can find their way into your digestive system on a trip via contaminated fingers, food or water. Those refusing to filter their water or clean their hands are at most risk. Pathogens such as Giardia or Cryptosporidium, present in soil and/or water, can cause digestive distress, days or even weeks after returning home.

Other pathogens cause symptoms much worse than digestive distress, including death. Two particularly heinous culprits are Hantavirus and the many bacteria species causing Lyme disease. Although such viruses may be uncommon in the Adirondacks region currently, it is only a matter of time before they become more common, especially the bacteria causing Lyme disease.

A disgusting little critter called a deer tick carries the Lyme disease bacteria. These ticks attach themselves to a human host (i.e. you and I!) in their pursuit of nourishment, which in this case just happens to be our blood. Although these little vampires are not a major issue in the Adirondack backcountry, global climate change may soon change the situation. Light clothing in the backcountry will make these little buggers easier to spot, so remember that tan is the new backcountry black in outdoor clothing designs.

I am constantly surprised that with all the time I spend crawling, sitting and rolling around on the ground during my own Adirondack backcountry adventures, I have never observed a single tick on my person. Either ticks are not overly common in the backcountry yet, or perhaps they just find me unattractive, as many others do.

Sometimes it is not the invertebrate, or its nasty pathogens, that return home with you. Some vampiric insect pests send you home with a different type of gift entirely, one in the form of a scab, bump or swelling. Black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies are the responsible parties for these backcountry injuries, especially during bug season, which nowadays appears to last from mid-spring to late fall.

In addition to the biting, these bloodsuckers often stowaway inside either a shelter or backpack, although the most clever among them (or most persistent) find their way into a car. It is bad enough watching a stray fly emerge from a backpack in the safety of your own home, but it is another thing completely to share your ride with them on a long road trip home. Luckily, if you can avoid being bit on the road, and do not crash your vehicle while trying to swat them away, they typically end up meeting their demise during the next sunny day, where they intense heat generated in your vehicle thoroughly cooks them.

Of all the unwelcome hitchhikers, the unliving creepy crawlies that return from the backcountry are the most disturbing. I am not talking about the Walking Dead here either! Whether they are hiding in the folds of your equipment, in your clothes or, gasp, on your body, finding a squished insect, spider or, gasp, slug is an experience I would not even wish on my archenemy (and I do not mean Pete Nelson, so no accusatory emails or comments please).

Biologicals (i.e. living creatures) and their gifts are not the only things ending up accompanying us home from the backcountry. A whole slew of other non-living companions can cause problems for us after returning home, some of which resulting from our direct conduct , others just being facts of the backcountry that are difficult to avoid.

Hanging out gear to dry is a timeless (and highly effective) way to avoid one of the most unwelcome backcountry visitors: moisture. Moisture almost always returns in every backpack, regardless of whether wet weather is encountered or not. Then again, how often does a week go by without some type of precipitation in the Adirondacks anyways? Drying out all gear, regardless of exposure to the elements assures that this unwelcome guest does not act as a harbinger of an even worse condition, mildew.

Every backcountry explorer is familiar with another notorious scourge of the backcountry. Unlike most of the other visitors this one is of our own making. Sweat is a crucial component of our body’s temperature control system, as it acts like an air-conditioning system, using evaporation to keep the skin cool as one climbs over downed logs, through dense hobblebush or while balancing precariously on a poorly made beaver dam.

Although sweat is a necessarily part of our body, it has an evil twin that typically accompanies it. Body odor should be no stranger to any backcountry explorer. Once sweat permeates the high-tech material backcountry adventurers cover themselves in, it soon starts to acquire that familiar stench. The stench builds as the days go by until a personal tolerance level is reached, requiring a change of clothing, a backcountry laundry day or both. Personally, my tolerance is about five to seven days depending on the temperature.

Body odor is not the only stench accompanying us from the backcountry. Another odorous bouquet often returning home is one of our own making, that is, if we insist on building a fire. The wood smoke always appears to engulf each individual regardless of the number of people involved or their location around the flames. The smell appears to permeate all clothing and most of the gear, lasting days after returning home, where its rustic stench becomes increasingly gag-worthy. If someone starts burning plastic packaging in the campfire, the stink becomes even more potent and persistent.

Most of the hitchhikers returning home with us after an Adirondack backcountry adventure are primarily nuisances, requiring cleaning and tolerance, but little enough. Given the many benefits from spending time in remote places, handling the few inconveniences resulting from these hitchhikers are well worth the cost.

Photo: Perfect place to pick up some backcountry hitchhikers along Upper South Pond Trail in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

16 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Don’t forget leeches. My oldest son is a leech magnet. All he has to do is look a nice clear mountain stream and a leech will jump out and get him! At least that is what it seems like.

    I don’t think you need to worry much about Hantavirus in the Adirondacks? Thank goodness or my camp would be a death trap with all the mice and their poop!

    • Dan Crane says:

      Do you often take leeches home with you? I have never found a leech on my body, in my clothes or buried in my gear, but maybe I’m just living a rather boring backcountry life.

      As far as Hanta is concerned, read the following blog post I wrote a couple years ago about a case that supposedly occurred in the High Peaks region. It really makes one think twice about sleeping in a lean-to.

      • Paul says:

        Thanks. Yes now I remember that story now. Don’t you think it is most likely that this person got the virus down south as speculated? I would think that if that virus is present in the Adirondacks we would see more that an isolated incident, so many mice? Maybe someone on his street accidentally brought a mouse home in his boot from a trip to Yosemite! Hope so!

  2. Pete Nelson says:

    Dan, Dan, Dan:

    Apparently I owe you an apology, you and your 400 lbs of gear. Clearly I have not been paying enough attention to you lately, not having mentioned you in a column in weeks. Don’t worry buddy, I’ll be happy to fix that very soon.

    Meanwhile, here is my hitchhiker story. About ten years ago I had a freak mishap while practicing on a new pair of stilts. I was walking through a parking lot carrying a pizza home for my kids when one of my stilts broke in two. The remaining stilt acted as a lever and I was pitched head first toward the asphalt. I saved my head (who can tell, right?) by incurring two broken arms.

    Two casts and three painful weeks later I was backpacking in the Adirondacks. This was a long-planned eleven-day trip with the kids, Amy’s brother and others and I just couldn’t give it up. One of my breaks was quite bad, a shattered wrist. The doctor had not only forbidden me to backpack but had reacted to my inquiry about the wisdom of trying it with a look that is hard to describe – maybe the kind of incredulous look I’d shoot you if I saw you in the Five Ponds Wilderness with all that cushy crap you take.

    Anyhow, the trip went off okay, although a four hour blitz from Upper Works to the Loj with Dan that turned my fingers purple was especially stupid. I tried to keep the casts clean and dry, which was just as successful as trying to keep anything else clean and dry in the Adirondack back country.

    I actually washed and dried the casts before going to my follow-up appointment in a blatant attempt to avoid condemnation. That worked well enough until the good doctor removed my left cast with his cutter deal. As he gave it the final pry, a full Adirondack diorama of dirt, pine needles, bugs, bits of stick and other niceties spilled out onto the table, accompanied by an odor that often comes out of the woods with me because I don’t practice the good personal hygiene that you do out there. He said nothing. I’ve never seen an angrier looking doctor in my life and never hope to again.

    A final note – I once contracted Lyme disease from a tick. Don’t screw with it, it’s very bad.



    • Paul says:

      Wow, what a wild story!

      Agreed! my oldest son contracted Lyme this past summer. Don’t mess with it. Check for ticks!

      At some point I think that a Lyme vaccine will be necessary (if we can make a good one). Otherwise most folks are going to need multiple rounds of powerful antibiotics and this is proving to be bad news for your long term health.

      • Pete Nelson says:

        Indeed, it took quite a bit of effort to knock the Lyme infection out of my system and I didn’t feel right for weeks.

        • Paul says:

          I understand that the nymph levels are already pretty high. I think this stage of the arachnid (it isn’t an insect) is the main spreader of Lyme.

          • Dan Crane says:

            Are these the nymph levels in the Adirondacks? I swear, I have never, ever seen a tick in the Adirondacks, or central NY for that matter. Either they are not very common, or they really do not like me.

            • BC says:

              SAVE THE TICKS!!

              And have them analyzed! That is the message of the Laboratory of Medical Zoology, housed at UMASS-Amherst.

              For $50 you can submit your tick for analysis. The Lab will identify the tick, test it for pathogens of concern (including Lyme, if indicated by tick species), many of which are of greater concern than Lyme. They will provide you that information, along with information such as the tick’s developmental stage, length of feeding, etc…which can be used by you and your physician to determine a course of treatment, if need be.

              The spread of Lyme disease is very well documented. This group intends to utilize that model and this program to predict the track of the next tick-borne pathogen of concern…”the Next Lyme Disease,” if you will. To that greater good, the Lab tracks this data by zip code and that information is available to the public via their website.

              Fascinating stuff…if you’re into that sort of thing. Interesting, at the very least! Check your zip code…see how close Lyme is to you. But realize that that information is only available because your neighbor submitted his tick!!

              Check the program out at

              End PSA.

              Thanks Dan!

    • Dan Crane says:


      400 lbs?!? I wish I carried that little. How could I possibly carry all my comfortable gear AND the gorilla at that light a load. I’m not sure I carry all that much “cushy crap” (as you so eloquently called it), but check out this gear list I published for my two-week trip on Isle Royale a few years ago. It’s not exactly what I carry on the typical Adirondack bushwhack, but it is pretty close.

      I hand back the crazy crown to you after reading your story about journeying into the backcountry with casts on. I have never, ever done anything that insane. Then again, I have never worn stilts either, though given my physical stature (or lack thereof), I probably should consider doing so.

      Somewhere in the process of writing this article, I totally forgot to include all the detritus that makes its way home with me on my skin, in my pockets, and almost everywhere else, including my car. Maybe I’ll add that when I publish a book of expanded versions of my Adirondack Almanack essays.

      I look forward to reading about myself in your upcoming articles. Just keep it clean, alright!

  3. Bob Meyer says:

    I can see it now: The Equipment Wars Chronicles; Pete vs. Dan. 🙂
    I agree re: Lyme’s disease. Not to be taken lightly.
    I’ already had 2 bites in Westchester Co. and although i have no symptoms am getting a blood test next week.
    My own most recent moisture in equipment story occurred last Fall. It was a rainy, cold 6+ mile dusk/night hike out from Lk. Colden/Avalanche Pass after a great day on the MacIntryes. My new Princeton Tec Apex Extreme headlamp was great. Getting back to camp i put everything up to dry, but forgot to take the headlamp apart & dry it out.
    I used a different lamp & pack for the Winter.
    A few weeks ago i tried the new lamp. No light. Took it apart to find 8 very slimy batteries and lots of corrosion. DUH!
    After much cleaning and replacement of a few W clips to hold the batteries [thanks Princeton Tec for the free replacement] i again have a working light.
    Lesson again learned; clean & dry EVERYTHING, especially anything electronic, battery powered that one takes in the woods.

  4. Frank says:

    The weirdest (and coolest) thing I’ve ever brought home from the woods is a pseudoscorpion. I didn’t even know they existed until I found it crawling on my shirt and looked it up.

  5. Smitty says:

    Be glad you don’t hike in north central Pa. I’ve had three incidences of Lyme. Nearly every hike ends up in discovering numerous ticks. I never recall seeing ticks even only ten years ago. I can only hope it doesn’t become so prevalent in the Adirondacks. My dog was vaccinated for lymes and it seems to have been successful. Wish they had a vaccine for humans.

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