Hiking is one of the most popular ways of enjoying the natural world, but for those with allergies, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
On the one hand, you get to enjoy the sights and sounds Mother Nature provides and get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Hiking also allows you to get a bit of exercise gives you the chance to breathe in the fresh outdoor air.
But on the other hand, that fresh air is often full of pollen that can cause your allergies to flare up. And as you are undoubtedly already aware, hiking with a runny nose and itchy, watering eyes is never very fun.
Fortunately, there are a number of tricks you can employ to help reduce your allergy symptoms and enjoy a great day on the trail.
Avoid Heading Outdoors During Days with High Pollen Counts
The amount of pollen in the air obviously varies from season to season, but it also varies from one day to the next. So, if you simply check the pollen count ahead of time, you can avoid going out when the air is full of allergy-triggering pollen, and instead take advantages of those days when the pollen count is relatively low.
There are a number of online resources that provide information about the pollen counts in your area, but the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology is an excellent resource, as is the Allergy Forecast Map, which is maintained by Pollen.com.
Stick to Trails That Climb Above the Tree Line
If you have access to high-altitude trails in your area, you may be able to avoid pollen by simply climbing high enough. This works because trees (and to a lesser extent, herbaceous plants) cannot grow at elevations in which the temperature or precipitation are too low. Pollen is heavier than air, so most of it will travel down mountain slopes, leaving the upper elevations relatively pollen-free.
The exact height of the tree line varies from one mountain to the next, depending on the latitude and overall climate of the region. For example, near the equator, trees may grow up to 4,000 meters above sea level. On the other hand, mountains in temperate areas may become unable to support trees at 1,000 meters or less.
Try to Camp Upwind of Forests and Flower-Filled Fields
Another way to avoid most of the pollen being produced by the local trees and plants is to simply stay upwind of forests (or fields that are blooming). The vast majority of the pollen released by the trees will travel in the direction of the prevailing winds, thereby preventing you, your tent and the rest of your belongings from becoming coated in pollen.
This isn’t practical in all areas, as some places experience highly variable winds, which can change direction without notice. So, do your best to pick a campsite that features consistent winds. If you need help doing so, just try to look for areas in which all of the trees lean in a single direction.
If You Must Camp Downwind of Forests, Try to Set Your Campsite Near a Lake
If you aren’t able to select a campsite upwind of forests or fields full of blooming flowers, you may be able to get a bit of relief by camping near a lake or river. By doing so, you’ll essentially be using the water to collect the pollen, thereby preventing it from blowing into your camp.
When pollen is blown over dry land, some of it falls to the ground, where it will sit until another gust of wind comes along and raises it up into the air column again. But, when pollen is blown across a lake or river, the pollen that drops on the water’s surface gets wet. The water will hold on to the pollen until it sinks or washes up on the shore somewhere.
You can use this same principle when hiking – just pick streamside or lakeside trails whenever you have the chance to do so.
Avoid Irritants as Much as Possible
Remember that pollen isn’t the only thing that can trigger your allergies. Dust, dander, smoke and plenty of other contaminants can leave you sniffling and sneezing. So, be sure that you avoid these types of triggers too.
For example, if one of your camping or hiking partners brings a dog along for the trip, you may want to keep your distance and prevent the dog from entering your tent. Similarly, try to stay away from smokers while hanging out at the trailhead and always do your best to keep dust and debris out of your tent.
In fact, it’s a good idea to avoid most of these irritants anyway. Even if you aren’t allergic to them, they’ll also make your nose, throat, and lungs miserable, which will make your allergies even more debilitating.
Take Advantage of the Rain
Rain will temporarily lower the amount of pollen in the air, as it’ll wet everything down and wash a lot of the pollen off the trees. This will keep the pollen from entering your nose, and it’ll prevent your skin, clothing, and pack from being coated in pollen too.
Obviously, you can’t plan a whole trip based around potential showers, but you can take advantage of any rains that occur. For one, you can continue to hike in all but the heaviest downpours if you have adequate rain gear (although you should never hike when storms include lightning). Hiking in the rain is actually a pretty fun experience – particularly during the summer when it offers a temporary reprieve from the high temperatures.
But, if you’d rather hunker down in camp while it rains, just be ready to pack up and hit the trail as soon as the rain stops. This will give you at least an hour or two to hike before the air becomes saturated with pollen again.
Learn to Identify the Allergens That Cause You Problems
Even if you have very serious allergies, chances are that you are only allergic to a few different types of pollen. So, do your best to identify the tree, grass or plant species that cause you the most problems.
For example, you may determine that you are allergic to the pollen from birch and oak trees. This means you could simply monitor the local pollen count, consult the data from previous years, and try to schedule your hike for those times with birch and oak pollen levels are at their lowest.
You can identify the specific pollen that gives you problems in one of two primary ways. The easiest way is to simply visit your doctor or immunologist and request a sensitivity test. This will also help you determine other things that may trigger your allergies, such as insects, dust or smoke.
Alternatively, you can just monitor your symptoms over time and document the relative severity of your symptoms. Then, you can compare the results with historical pollen count data. After doing so, you may notice that your worst symptoms occur when ragweed, for example, is blooming.
Regularly Rid Your Body and Clothes of Pollen
If you’ve ever noticed that your allergies seem to flare up at night, it is likely because you are dragging pollen back into your tent with you. Once in the confined space, even a little bit of pollen can send you into a sneezing fit.
Most of this pollen enters your tent by hitchhiking on your clothes and gear. To avoid this problem, only bring essential items into the tent with you and try to remove as much of your clothing as you can before heading inside. It may even be advantageous to bring along separate sleeping clothes, which you keep inside the tent at all times.
While most of the tips and tricks discussed above will help you avoid serious allergy problems on the trail, they may not be enough for those who are particularly sensitive to pollen. Fortunately, there are a number of antihistamines that can provide additional relief when you’re hiking during pollen season.
Benadryl (Diphenhydramine) is the go-to choice for many people, and many hikers and campers keep a couple of these tablets in their first-aid kit anyway. However, Benadryl and other “first-generation” antihistamines cause drowsiness, which isn’t an ideal side effect for someone trying to hike over rough terrain with a heavy pack.
Accordingly, some people prefer taking Claritin (Loratadine) and other “second-generation” antihistamines, as they won’t make you sleepy. Just talk to your doctor about the best allergy medication for your needs and be sure to let him or her know that you’ll be using them while hiking.
Above All Else: Develop an Allergy Plan
Proper preparation will help you keep your allergy problems to a minimum, so be sure to sit down with your map and gear list before heading out on your next hike. Then, try to employ as many of the previously mentioned tips as you can.
This means noting the dominant vegetation through which you’ll be trekking, trying to select routes that take advantage of lakes and rivers and be sure to bring along plenty of antihistamines too. You won’t be able to leverage every one of the techniques described above, but that’s rarely necessary anyway.
None of these tricks is likely to completely eliminate your allergy problems in isolation, but if you employ two or three of them, you’ll likely enjoy a largely symptom-free hike. So, be sure to experiment with the different approaches recommended above. With a bit of luck and some trial and error, you’ll surely be able to tackle the outdoors the way you want to.