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Avoid Norovirus while Backpacking: Tips and Precautions

Norovirus often occurs in backpacker hostels

Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that causes inflammation in your stomach and intestines, also known as gastroenteritis. The most common symptoms of norovirus are diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach cramps. There are periodic Norovirus outbreaks on long-distance hiking trails, at shelters, and trail cabins or hostels where hikers congregate.

Norovirus is highly contagious and spreads easily through contaminated food, in water sources, touching contaminated surfaces, or by close contact with an infected person. Anyone can get infected with norovirus, and you can get sick multiple times in your lifetime because there are many different strains.

Here’s how to minimize your chances of getting norovirus on a backpacking trip:

  • Handwashing with soap and water is crucial: Forget relying solely on hand sanitizer for norovirus. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom, before preparing or eating food, and whenever your hands get dirty. Sing the alphabet while you wash your hands. When backpacking, the most convenient form of soap to carry is Sea-to-Summit soap sheets. They’re better than carrying liquid soap like Dr Bronners because they won’t leak in your backpack and you can bring them on airplanes.
  • Water treatment beyond filters: Norovirus can be present in water, particularly natural water sources, if they’re shared by many hikers like the pool at a spring. While filtration helps, consider using UV light, like a Steripen Ultra, or chemical Katadyn Micropur Chlorine Dioxide tablets to ensure comprehensive purification.
  • Backcountry hygiene matters: Practice good bathroom etiquette by burying waste far away from campsites and water sources with a backcountry trowel. Don’t share personal items like utensils or water bottles with others and don’t put your hand in somebody else’s gorp bag, even when offered.
  • Skip the handshake: A friendly wave or fist bump is a great way to greet fellow backpackers and avoid spreading germs. Don’t drink from the same bottle and skip that shared toke.
  • Consider timing your trip: Norovirus outbreaks are more common during peak hiking seasons. If possible, choose less crowded times to reduce your risk of encountering the virus from others 

Be vigilant. Contracting a case of Norovirus will ruin your day – several days in fact, and it’s worth making the extra effort to avoid it.

By following these precautions, you’ll be on your way to a happy and healthy backpacking adventure!

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  1. Consider adding Oral Rehydration Salts to your first aid kit. Obviously not a preventative item but it may help weather the storm

  2. Washing your hands with soap 20+ minutes is not sufficient. Minimum a minute, better 2, warm water if possible.
    Hand desinfectives – if used – need to be used at least 1.5 minutes, so hands need to be wetted mor than once. No jewelry, clean fingernails all around. I strongly suggest using them if available.
    Remember aerosoles of people vomiting in a room are transmitters for up to 4 hrs. in a room. Open windows.

    • But this is the outdoors not a surgical prep room.

      • But being outdoors doesn’t annihilate scientific facts.

        You didn’t mention aerosoles (tent, shelter).
        20 sec of washing hands with soap: with Noro almost nothing. I suggest at least 2 min.
        Not encouraging disinfection: long disinfection (1.5 min) is the only almost reliable method.
        Plus no physical contact as most effective method (realistic?).

        Sorry. If you write about a topic you don’t know too much about, you will have remarks.
        To my believe people should know the full story and then you can describe your solution in the outdoor situation. Simply stating the obvious is not enough when giving advice.

        No offense, just clarity.

        • Thank you for your comment. Yes I believe simple avoidance to be very effective. You don’t have to put your hand in someone elses food back or sleep in a hostel when NORO’s in town.

  3. Great reminder!

    A couple questions:

    There were a few famous outbreaks on the southern AT in the past couple months. Have you heard anything about the virus following the hiker trash north?

    Your article includes a picture of the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Have there been outbreaks in the huts or shelters in NH?

    Thanks, and keep it up! Have fun in Scotland

  4. Several well known YouTubers like to spread the false message that soap isn’t needed, even after a bowel movement. I always want to ask them if they would care if their surgeon washes his/her hands or not, before operating.

    • Wouldn’t know, I don’t watch TV. But I suspect it’s more a matter of hygiene than necessity if it’s your poo. Whatever nastiness is in your poo is already in your body and you’re probably immune to it. The reason to wash is when you come into contact with nastys like noro or giardia that you’re not immune too.

  5. How long does it take to kill Norovirus with Micropur tablets? I know it depends on water temperature and turbidity, but generally speaking, how long?

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