Help me not ruin my hiking vacation
October 7, 2019 5:46 PM   Subscribe

Kinda freaking out about my upcoming hiking vacation where we will basically be going all over Blue Ridge National Park in NC for 10 days. I have been hiking for daytrips before but never in actual mountains and there was cellular service for emergency totally the opposite of this place where the National Park Svc website says mostly no cellular service and seems to advise you GPS isnt even accurate for the area? There are few to no toilets and I have an inflammatory bowel disorder, and I have asthma so hopefully the mountain air isn’t too hard to breathe lol guess I’ll find out right? This trip was my husband’s idea and I feel like I am going to mess it all up with my shitty health or bad sense of direction.

Don’t tell me to not go, there are hundreds of dollars in non-refundable hotel costs because leaf-watching = $$$ and more $$ in hiking gear we bought. I do want to go but not crap on myself in the car where there is nowhere to pull over or while out walking and it is hours till a campground or visitor center . Sometimes i can barely hold it for 5 minutes and it wouldn’t really be good to rely on a diaper since I am a girl and sitting/standing in a large puddle of diaper poo will give me a vaj infection since the damn thing already gets infected at the drop of a hat. I found a foldable toilet but he says it is too large (19w x 14l x 5d) and too heavy (8lbs) to carry in our backpacks everywhere. Any ideas? He did buy me some pee-standing-up kits so at least I peeing less-arduously is covered.

I am also worried about getting lost on a trail where there is no GPS signal and no cellular service. I am bringing 2 inhalers but worry it will be hard to walk back a long distance to where the trail began, and I know he can’t carry me. Is there something else I can bring or do? We bought some walking poles but IDK how much it would help. This obviously sucks 100x worse

Bonus anxiety: I will have to drive on mountain roads in the dark and just found out about “decreasing radius curves” which sound like a great way for an oversized SUV to be partially in my lane and cause an offset frontal collision with my compact car. There is also construction for the hugest section of our trip (MM292 to MM345) which allegedly stops for all of October but IDK how well the pavement was left (loose gravel, rough surface, unpainted lanes, etc) when they paused construction so this sounds “fun” for me.

I know this is probably all no big deal and I am having a stroke over nothing but any suggestions about these issues, or safety tips that aren’t on the NPS website or included generic hiking checklists/guides, would be so appreciated.
posted by marshmallow kitty to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You could do a series of shorter hikes instead of all-day ones; then you wouldn't end up too far out. This would also help wit having to drive after dark, as you could schedule to be done before sunset.
posted by Gneisskate at 6:04 PM on October 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

Okay, deep breath. This is a lovely trip and not nearly the remote wilderness experience you seem to be envisioning. I lived in the southern Appalachians for several years and here are my thoughts:

Are you talking about the Blue Ridge mountains generally and/or areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway? Or maybe Great Smoky Mountains National Park? The mountains aren't that high (if you're thinking of thin air -- that's the Rocky Mountains, not the Appalachians). I don't think of the Parkway as being all that remote, especially if you're on a day hike during leaf season. There will be lots of folks and park rangers around. Fall is the busiest time of year in this area. Also the trails tend to be well-marked. This isn't a completely wilderness adventure. Remember that you will be hiking places within a few miles of parking lot, in reach of a huge number of people on the east coast.

As for driving: drive slowly. That's what folks from out of town do on curvy mountain roads. You're getting warnings about that because a lot of overconfident drivers blow through curves too fast. Drive slowly, and you'll drive the locals crazy (though they should know to avoid the Parkway during leaf peeping season), but you'll be fine.

As for cell phone service: yeah, some areas will have limited reception, but many areas will be fine. But I don't think that during a typical day hike, you'd be so far off the beaten path that you'll need GPS to navigate. I don't think most folks use phones to navigate trails (I certainly don't). Rather, they follow trail blazes and have a map. A cell phone is great in case of emergency, but really how far will you be hiking?

As for peeing and pooping in the woods: have you done this at all before? Do you have a private backyard where you can practice at least squatting to pee, maybe in the dark, while outside? This is how many (most?) women in the world pee on the regular, so you've got this. You should also practice using your standing-to-pee kit, either outside or maybe in a bathtub. You don't want to use this for the first time when you are in the woods and stressed.

As for supplies to carry: I agree that a portable toilet is a bit much, and I think you'll have to make peace with the possibility that you might poop in the woods. So, bring toilet paper and plenty of wipes, a lightweight but sturdy plastic shovel (a trowel) so you can dig a hole for pooping, and plenty of plastic bags so you can pack out your toilet paper and wipes.

Also, and I say this gently: you are catastrophizing. There are plenty of beautiful areas where you could hang out for a day if you want to skip a hike. You can take short walks. You will breath fresh mountain air (well, polluted only by all the cars driving through). You will be surrounded by hoards of people. You will pee in the woods and maybe get some pee on your pants or shoes but that's really not the biggest deal ever, and you may have to poop in the woods and you will have wipes to clean up afterwards. You will be fine.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:08 PM on October 7, 2019 [38 favorites]

I don’t think it is no big deal. It would stress me the eff out.

Do you have a doctor you could talk to about backup plans for the asthma and inflammatory bowel?

Could your husband handle the night driving the first night so you can see what it’s like and hopefully ease your stress?

If you haven’t been talking to your husband because you’re worried about health issues putting a damper on the trip, I would change that. He needs to be prepared in case of an emergency and you guys should have some backup plans as a team, especially with the asthma.
posted by sallybrown at 6:10 PM on October 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

I can't give you any advice about IBS, other than to give advice about taking care of business in the woods.

It sounds like anxiety is your biggest concern. My impression is that you're worried about wasting money, or ruining someone else's good time. I think you know that your time and happiness are worth as much as anyone else's, and that if you're having a bad time you should tap out before you become miserable!

Plenty of hikes get stopped short for lots of reasons. Twisted ankles, sudden storms, food poisoning, etc. Knowing when to call it a day is a critical skill!

If you go into this with the idea that spending time in nature is the goal (not completing X activity), then you can do as little or as much as you feel comfortable with.

Having spent time with people who really did not want to be on a multi day hike before (and who hid their feelings until past the point of no return), please please please make sure that you set boundaries and keep communicating!

If you end up doing little half hour hikes here and there, you should also be able to avoid lots of night driving (which is the worst, I agree).

This trip cannot be as stressful as you are afraid of. You can have a great time if you can take charge of your anxiety.
posted by Acari at 6:22 PM on October 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

GPS is accurate there though it might have trouble with thick stands of trees blocking the signal. Just try to find a more open area. Carry a paper map too. The air will have less pollution, so it might agree with you. Peeing or pooping in the woods is like speaking in a language you are learning--once you do it a few times it becomes much easier.
posted by Bee'sWing at 7:09 PM on October 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

It looks like people have the pooping situation covered so: I’ve ended up driving on curvy mountain roads at night while there’s construction, and it went fine because there was so many other cars I could follow. I end up feeling comradely warmth towards them, all of us in a little line, slowly moving though the night. The very very few times I was the lead and didn’t feel comfortable I just pulled over at a pullout and let them ahead, then joined at the back of the line. It’s always gone well, you’ll be okay.

And when I’ve been in an area with no GPS service all I’ve had to do was find a clearing and presto, enough service to figure out which way I should be heading. If I’m going somewhere remote I even log a marker where I park in the morning so I can tell if I’m getting closer to the car or turned around. And you guys will absolutely not be the only people out there, if you get turned around on trail there will be people to ask for help.

One more thing: Walking poles are a huge help, the first time I used one I felt like I’d found a cheat code to walking.
posted by lepus at 7:41 PM on October 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have some pretty extreme driving phobias and I've been living in the mountains of Western NC for almost a decade, regularly driving on some very steep, windy, and/or unpaved roads in all types of weather, and (knock on wood, etc.) I haven't had any collisions. Go slowly, put on your hazard blinkers if you feel like it, and be gentle with yourself.

Are there any extra meds you could bring that might help with your medical concerns? Pooping in the woods is nbd, but I can understand not wanting to do it with a moment's notice and without prior experience. It could be a really good idea to practice doing this in your yard at home (if that's an option). Take a trowel and some plastic shopping bags (ymmv, but I like a barrier between the trowel and my pack), make sure you have enough water and a little squirt of soap for washing hands, and don't give it another thought. Think of it as an "adventure" if that's useful.

Trails around here are mostly marked pretty clearly; however, there is danger in getting off the trail and getting lost, so take care to place markers or otherwise keep yourself on the trail while you're out. Often when people get lost, they step off the trail to use the bathroom or look at a cool plant, etc. Just be extra-aware when you do this. But it's unlikely that you'll be hiking on a trail with no markers and no clear path. Do bring extra batteries and a good headlamp for visibility after dark. Maybe get a compass and practice using it for some wayfinding before you head out. I would also take a whistle.

Honestly, I'm envious of this trip you're about to take! If journaling, sketching, or photography are things you enjoy, you're about to embark on one of the best scenarios possible. There is so much to enjoy on an itinerary like this, and I hope you find that it's a peaceful time. And message me if you want any restaurant/hotel/etc. recommendations around the Asheville area.
posted by witchen at 7:42 PM on October 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Read this article and have your husband read it too. How to Tell Your Trail Partner to Slow Down by Blair Braverman.

Even though your body has some challenges his doesn’t, you have just as much right to be comfortable and have fun on this vacation.
posted by matildaben at 8:25 PM on October 7, 2019 [12 favorites]

Oh thank you all so much, especially people who are familiar with the roads since that was the scariest part! Scarier than “hey there’s bears in the park”. My husband is a very inattentive and somewhat unsafe driver so it sounds like me doing Driving Miss Daisy around all the windy roads is going to work out just fine.

Unfortunately the IBD medicine just helps me go like 4-6x per day instead of 12x per day, doesn’t keep it from detonating everywhere when the time comes so I guess maybe I can just rush to take off everything from the waist down when I go poo outdoors and be glad it got on me and not my clothes? I was very worried about getting lost when having to go off-trail and poo so the trails being very well marked and usually GPS-able is a big relief!

I have had fun on previous trips even when we got lost, since we couldn’t get LOST-lost with GPS and cellular so it was like an adventure. For some reason doctors just DO NOT want to give me something besides albuterol no matter how sick I get or how inflamed my lungs are, so if I don’t get a cold or flu as long as the elevation difference (we live near Chicago) isn’t hard to adjust to it sounds like I won’t be too short of breath mid-hike despite using the inhaler which is *great*.

I think I’m gonna decline the “Strenuous” rated trail he wanted me to do and that everything else about the trip will probably be enjoyable!
posted by marshmallow kitty at 9:09 PM on October 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

FWIW, GPS will work, but you may want to pre-download maps to use offline since data might be spotty. Glad you’re feeling better about the trip!
posted by momus_window at 9:16 PM on October 7, 2019 [6 favorites]

Dig A Hole, by The Barefoot Sisters (lyrics from their Appalachian Trail hiking adventures Southbound and Walking Home)

The Pee Kit:
Go Girl female urinal funnel (or other funnel). Used by climbers, canoers and fair attenders around the world. This is a game changer. Practice in the bathtub. No more squatting in the poison ivy, or exposing everything to the mosquitoes. Gravity goes downhill. You won't overfill it, but practice anyway. Some like to wear a skirt or loose jogging shorts for modesty, but a fleece jacket tied around the waist works, too. I don't wear jeans, so tight pants are not my problem.
Peedana. That dark bandanna tied to a woman's backpack? Yeah, no problem, it dries out and doesn't stink.
Overnight thin menstruation pads. Not as bulky as adult diapers, may prevent the need for a fresh pair of underwear. Also good for keeping normal sweatiness at bay. Worst part is that they don't stay in place as much as I wish they would.
Extra panties and a gallon ziploc bag. Hand wash as needed.

The Poo Kit:
When in doubt, pack it out. If it did not go "through," pack it out, too.
Tiny folding trowel. The cat hole just needs to be the depth of your hand, about four to six inches. Any more is wasted effort.
Something to "aim for," like a few large leaves, a piece of bark, etc. I can't hit the side of a barn door (if it was on the ground), so moving the excrement is usually necessary. Yep, it gets tipped in and the organic mover is added or tossed aside (not much mess there).
Something to hang onto while squatting, like a small tree trunk, branch, boulder, etc. My balance is not what it used to be, and my legs can get tired. There may be some position that has Zen-like qualities, but I haven't found it. Yes, I know this is how much of the world does it, but there is a learning curve here.
Tuck's medicated pads. They have witch hazel, which is more soothing than alcohol or soap.
Wet wipes for hands and general cleanup.
Quartered paper towels, not toilet paper (turns into mush when wet), and a gallon ziploc bag.
Soap and water when available.
Extra panties and a gallon ziploc bag. Hand wash as needed.

Cat hole procedure for those who cannot wait:
Find a somewhat private place, add some large leaves if available, take a dump (really, when you gotta go, you go!) Clean up and bag up the non-organic waste. Now scout around and dig a six-inch hole and transfer the excrement (this may require a paper towel). Fill in the hole and take away the trash.
Option two, diarrhea: Do the above and cover with dirt if excrement cannot be transferred to a hole.

Feminine hygiene/intimacy in the woods:
Use your favorite hygiene products and sexy-times products, bag non-organic matter, use soap and water.

Yes, long hikes and novel meals can lead to upset gastrointestinal issues. So can anxiety. Can you do spoke hikes (short hikes from the campsite and back) until you have a better feel for your gut reactions? Can you at least try all the proposed meals before you are reliant on them in the woods? Do you have some backup plan for meals (BRATIE -- bananas, rice, applesauce, toast, eggs) if your stomach goes on strike?
I personally have problems with milk-based foods and drinking from a straw during road trips. Deep fried foods are out of bounds. Sometimes bread and fruit are all I can tolerate.
Stay hydrated. Check with your medical team about the meds that you can and cannot take.

And... even if it seems like a lot of prep work for the horrible "just in case" scenarios (been there, doing that)... try to have a good time and enjoy most, if not all, of your vacation. Staying behind is no fun, either.
posted by TrishaU at 9:40 PM on October 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

And after reading your followup post... I've heard that some like a poncho as a modesty cover while visiting "the room where even the Queen is alone." This might be too hot and flappy, though. Not enough time for an umbrella (may blow away) or a tarp (who has time to hang a tarp?) So I guess the unflappable spousal unit will have to stand guard and discretely pass on the Wet Wipes.
Bottom line: anybody who doesn't understand your gut issues hasn't been out in the woods often enough. Given time, they will sympathize completely, and mind their own business.
Birds do it, bees do it... just don't leave toilet paper flowers, and no one will be the wiser for it. It's probably more hygienic than the porta-potties, too.
posted by TrishaU at 9:54 PM on October 7, 2019 [6 favorites]

Yeah, pooping in the woods sucks, but you'll get through it.

There is some bad advice in books sometimes, so here is my advice.

Bring a solid trowel. Do not entertain the idea of digging with a stick. Even those plastic trowels from camping stores kinda suck. If I was doing it 4x/day, I'd go to Home Depot and get one of those metal trowels that are really good at cutting soil.

If you can't get a hole dug before the poop has to come, nbd. Just try to poop on leaves or dirt, not some boulder. You can bury it all afterwards.

Then wipe and pack the dirty TP into a ziplock bag. Don't try to burn it like someone recommended to me once; it just takes one drop of pee to make it too wet to burn.

So you need to bring a ziplock bag with clean TP. And you need multiple ziplock bags for the dirty TP from each bathroom poop incident, and you want the dirty TP bag to go inside some sort of opaque zipper bag. Then all of this could go inside a larger bag that has the trowel and some wet wipes so you have your whole kit in one place.

After you poop, pack the TP and bury the poop. You'll feel better if you really bury it under like 3" of soil, not just barely covered it up. Bring wet wipes and/or hand sanitizer plus water to wash your hands. (I think wet wipes are better.) You might also want to wipe off the trowel. Keeping it shiny makes me happy and keeps me from second guessing what that "dirt" on it is, no matter how much I make sure it's just dirt.

Anyway, after a time or two you'll have a good system.

Sorry I can't help reassure you about other drivers -- I don't know those roads.
posted by salvia at 1:02 AM on October 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

practice in the tub! get a bunch of newspapers to put on the bottom of the tub and practice pooping on those. You can then fold up the newspapers and wash the tub and yourself, and you can launder your clothes. It will give you plenty of time to work out the issues before you are in the woods.
posted by halehale at 5:05 AM on October 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

Two points that might fill in some detail:

The construction is likely just resurfacing. I live just south or your southerly terminus and they started at the south end of the BRP this summer and are working their way north. They are laying down a layer of tar then gravel. It's a mess if you're on two wheels but fine in a car. Yes there will be sections of unpainted lines, but the BRP is wide.

As for navigation on the trail, although it's true that cell service may be spotty, the GPS should be fine. For $10 you can get an annual membership for Gaia Maps, highly recommended to keep you on the trail you want.
posted by achrise at 6:04 AM on October 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Squatting unsupported is really uncomfortable for me. When I have to pee in the woods, I find a small but strong tree with a trunk like 3-6 inches in diameter, that I can get one hand around (holding it kind of like a sloth so my whole palm is on the tree).

I hold the tree with one or both hands at my waist level. Elbows straight. Then I stick my butt back away from the tree, knees only bent at about 90'. Here's a pic of this pose. I also choose the side of the tree that has a downward slope- so my pee is kind of falling "downhill" and thus away from my shoes. This takes some arm strength- but it turns out I have more arm strength than knee flexibility. This may vary for you.

I would highly recommend taking a walk in some woods near you and experimenting (even if you just try some poses and don't actually take your pants down, but do that too if you can!)

Also, do prophylactic pees and poops! If you don't like going outside you will likely try to hold it as long as possible til you REALLY have to go. This is a terrible idea because it adds panic and urgency and discomfort and speed to the process. Go before you really have to go- that way there's no rush so you can take your time, take off more clothing, pick a good spot, etc. It will mean going slightly more often, but with much less stress and fewer messes.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:12 AM on October 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Here's my favorite resource on "how to poop in the woods" (and wilderness sanitation in general): "The Poop Talk" (it's one of the lectures in a local backpacking class)
posted by natabat at 10:02 AM on October 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

The poop angles have been covered but I wanted to second this:

I don't think of the Parkway as being all that remote, especially if you're on a day hike during leaf season. There will be lots of folks and park rangers around. Fall is the busiest time of year in this area. Also the trails tend to be well-marked. This isn't a completely wilderness adventure. Remember that you will be hiking places within a few miles of parking lot, in reach of a huge number of people on the east coast.

I'm from NC and can confirm, you would have to make a pretty deliberate effort to get somewhere truly remote/away from help in our mountains. It's nothing like the Rockies.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:37 PM on October 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am also worried about getting lost on a trail where there is no GPS signal and no cellular service.

Gaia GPS is really good for keeping yourself orientated on established trails. It works in places like the Nantahala Forest (GSMNP) where cell service is at best very sketchy. It's not deep wilderness, especially more towards the Parkway than the Smokies, but people do get lost or in distress off-trail out there, often very near to highly-used trails.
posted by holgate at 6:25 PM on October 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you are worried about the lack of cell service in case of medical emergency, you can rent a satellite phone.

Know how to use a map and compass, and bring those things and an actual GPS, not a phone that tries to pretend to be a GPS. You are on the surface of the earth in the United States. The GPS signal comes from satellites, there is certainly a GPS signal there but you will need a device that can receive the signal for it to be useful.
posted by yohko at 9:03 PM on October 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Stuff all your pockets with kleenex and a few baggies because if you pee or poop in the woods, you'll want to wipe, and you'll need to pack it out. Also, keep wet wipes in the car. I lived in a minivan for a big Road Trip, and was generally able to find restrooms for pooping. Peeing outdoors is not that hard, but it's perfectly okay to pack a wide-mouthed plastic container (Goodwill has lots of water bottles with secure lids, or, mayo jar) and go behind a tree to fill it. I am not as flexible as I used to be.

You can and should download the google maps for offline use.

Leave a note on the dashboard of the car. 2 adults hiking on XYZ trail, expect to return by 7 p.m. ###-555-1234 so if you are stuck, someone will look.

Carry a small 1st aid kit, whistles, blaze orange bandannas, extra water, hat, gloves, chocolate. I carry such stuff in my car, when I had a flat tire, I cleaned the interior and enjoyed the stale chocolate while waiting for roadside assistance. Define emergency as you please when it comes to chocolate.

You are going to be fine and will have a great trip. People in worse shape than you have done this. It's fine to be not over-confident. Enjoy the hikes you take, the views, and don't worry bout the ones you don't tackle.
posted by theora55 at 11:32 AM on October 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I spent two weeks in NC and was on the BRP a few times. I must say the number of cell towers I could see and get a signal from was much higher than when I visited 7 years ago.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 5:32 PM on October 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ok since multiple have mentioned it I do have a Garmin actual-GPS and am not relying on my phone “gps”, we also have several paper maps and a compass so from the sound of things that’s all good to go.

I had been trying to talk myself into believing the camp trowel/latrine trowels were not the flimsy garbage they looked like, so after reading the replies I got a sturdy transplanting trowel instead, thanks everyone! If you have ever had food poisoning you’ll understand how when your insides are that angry you can’t hold your poo, it explodes everywhere even with a toilet, and going poo now does not guarantee you don’t desperately need a toilet again 10 minutes later or that you get more than maybe 1-2 minutes to reach the toilet before it is too late, that is what I’ll be dealing with. I am bringing a bunch of those fancy gel toilet bags for car/road emergencies (THANK YOUUU) as well as for trail use, and got a couple flimsy disposable tablecloths for a privacy skirt/tarp (A++ would cover up again) so I feel like any bathroom emergencies will be much less horrible now.

Someone was nice enough to PM and recommend some fun trails that also have bathrooms nearby, and also said that the parkway roads aren’t rough surface/loose gravel/etc as of a few days ago, so it seems like I really can have a fun time! I expected a lot of “god stop worrying this is so dumb” answers and now I wish I’d asked before I got to the point where I kept having trouble are all great.
posted by marshmallow kitty at 6:07 PM on October 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

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