How unpleasant can it be?
‘A small tube of sunscreen is all you need,’ came the wise words of an experienced PCT thru-hiker. It will keep those parts of your body, not protected by clothing, free of sunburn and hydrated.
This explanation sounded perfectly reasonable. I live in the hot humid Australian climate and I constantly lather myself in sunscreen. But the advice was wrong.
I never envisaged that California’s dry desert conditions could cause such deep cracks and fissures in my fingers. My thumbs were the worst affected digits, making them totally unopposable. The deep cuts on my thumbs and index fingers were so painful I could not use them to open the clasps on my dry stuff sacks. I used my teeth to open the clasps.
Applying sunscreen was not the solution. Not for my fingers. Totally impractical and too greasy. Was there a workable solution I could carry?
‘Give Super Glue a go,’ shouted a passing hiker.
‘W H A T? Are you kidding me?’
‘No. It really works. You foreigners who come from humid climates struggle in our dry conditions.’
And he was not wrong. From the day he recommended it, I always carried a small tube of super glue, bought from hardware stores, to squirt into those cracks. It was emergency surgery in the wild. The Super Glue acted like stitches, allowing the cut skin to bond together and heal. Of course, there was always another finger in need of treatment, but this product was a handy little addition to my First Aid Kit. It never hurt or stung and eased the pain instantly. Prevention is always the best strategy. I made sure I moisturised and protected my hands whenever I reached a town. But it relieved me to have found a workable solution on trail.
Another part of the body susceptible to dryness is your nose, specifically the nasal cavities. Dirt and the usual irritants associated with springtime can cause sneezing and mucous buildup, but the real discomfort is the constantly bleeding nose. This is a sure sign you have dry nostrils.
Without access to a humidifier, the only solution is moisturiser. For nasal cavities, I recommend a small tube of petroleum jelly (the faithful old Vaseline) to squirt up your nose. Good for lips too unless you are wearing your favourite Infinite Raspberry shade of lipstick, like me, or lip balm which can offer sun protection and hydration.
And for dry feet, use Urea 20% cream. In America, podiatrists recommend super-intensive Urea 40% cream as the best treatment for soothing and softening thick, cracked, dry, and callused skin, common foot problems amongst long-distance hikers. Urea (formerly extracted from Urine) is a cosmetic ingredient used as a skin-softener and humectant, which helps to collect and hold moisture in the skin. For Americans, this over-the-counter medication costs around US$8 a tube. For foreigners, without US Health Insurance, it costs US$150 with a prescription. We learnt the hard way and ended up securing the lesser strength over-the-counter Urea 20%, for US$8 a tube. It did its advertised job well.
Do you need moisturising solutions if you want to hike in dry climates, like the Californian desert on the Pacific Crest Trail? Absolutely you do or be prepared for a considerable degree of discomfort with your hands, nose, skin, and feet.