Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is a life-changing experience. Spending that much time out in nature, navigating through the forest and up mountains, can transform your mind and body. Most hikers are aware of the major risks involved — stumbling and spraining an ankle or getting attacked by a bear. But there is another risk that does not always get the attention it deserves: contagious disease. Luckily, you can protect yourself from many contagious diseases by getting these immunizations before you set off on the AT.
Tetanus is a bacterial disease that you can contract if you get a cut or puncture wound and if that cut or puncture wound gets dirty. Tetanus bacteria live in the dirt, and there is plenty of dirt along the Appalachian Trail. A minor cut can become a medical emergency if you're not vaccinated for tetanus. And this is not a disease you want to mess with, since it can cause jaw cramping, painful joints, jerking motions, and severe fever. You were probably vaccinated for tetanus when you were young, but you'll need booster shots to keep up your immunity throughout your lifetime. Make sure you get one before your thru-hike.
The COVID-19 vaccine is available now, and you should really make sure you are vaccinated before you head off on your thru-hike. You may figure that hiking is a solitary activity and that you won't be in contact with people who could spread COVID-19 to you. However, most thru-hikers do end up staying in lean-tos and group shelters at some point along their journey, and respiratory diseases like COVID-19 can spread easily in these close quarters. Some COVID-19 vaccines require you to have two doses, spaced a few weeks apart, so make sure you plan ahead with this one.
Influenza is also an airborne viral disease that spreads easily in lean-tos and shelters, especially when you're exhausted from hiking and your immune system is not at its peak. You don't want to deal with cough, fever, and muscle aches from the flu when you're in the middle of a forest. Make sure you've had this year's most recent influenza vaccine. This vaccine will have been updated so it offers protection from the most recent, common strains of the flu.
Before setting off on the AT, make sure you have these three vaccines. It may seem like a hassle to get them, but when you stay healthy throughout your hike, you'll be glad you did. A medical clinic, such as Dino Peds, can give you more information on these immunizations.