Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
Why do hikers smell so bad?
It's not unexpected for hikers to smell when on the trail but people are often surprised to realize that they can't always clean up before frequenting stores, restaurants, and other establishments in towns. There are a number of reasons why hikers don't always shower before spending time these establishments. Whether the town stop is a brief visit, the hiker is minimizing extraneous town mileage, or the hiker's clothes and gear smell regardless of efforts to get clean.
Many hikers go into town to get something to eat and resupply their food bags. They have no opportunities to shower and clean up. Once they are fed and their backpacks has been resupplied, they hit the trail again.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but on a long hike, many hikers avoid walking around town. They are tired and their feet hurt. Extra tenths of a mile around town don't "count" and hikers want to save their feet for the trail. Therefor, rather than pass a restaurant to go to the hotel only to have to retrace steps to get back to the restaurant, many hikers will just stop to eat on the way to the hotel.
The further up the trail you get, the harder it is to shake the stench. When I was getting rides, if the windows weren't already down, I would ask if I should open them. It didn't matter what the temperature was. When I give rides to hikers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I'm not shy about asking them to roll down the windows if necessary and it usually is necessary. Showers don't solve the problem. Usually, it's the backpack that smells even if the hiker is freshly showered and their clothes laundered.
With the majority of Appalachian Trail thruhikers going northbound, the problem of hiker stink is a self-sustaining problem, There are many fewer "affordable" places to stay when you get to New England. Many hikers just keep cruising, only going in for food, knowing they've got the Whites to contend with soon. It's possible to do some swimming along the trail in those areas, but even if you get your body relatively clean, you're still putting your stinky clothes right back on. Swimming in your clothes doesn't seem to help much.
When hitching, it's mostly locals who are familiar with the trail that pick up hikers. Tourists generally don't pick up strangers. The locals know exactly what they're getting into when they pick up hikers. Hikers coming off the trail haven't had the opportunity to clean up. Hikers heading back to the trail may have showered and have clean clothes, but their backpacks have months of hiker sweat in them and will smell regardless of the cleanliness of the hiker.
Grocers appreciate the business but probably hope hikers don't tarry too long. Restaurant staff know what's going on, too. If they aren't too busy, it's perfectly OK to suggest they seat you in a somewhat out-of-the-way table away from their other customers. The wait staff usually know what's going on and will accommodate you. If it's busy, well, just do your best.
Thruhikers are a small percentage of most of these establishment's customers, but they do eat a lot and spend a fair bit of money.
Most hikers do enjoy a good shower and putting on clean laundry, but it rarely rises above town food on the list of priorities.
Last updated, June 29, 2013.
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