SHANE STEINKAMP'S BACKPACKING BASE CAMP
ON BEING HUMAN
“Soon the child’s clear eye is clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions and abstractions. Simple free being becomes encrusted with the burdensome armor of the ego. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines, and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise. After that day…we become seekers.” - Peter Matthiessen
One of the topics that comes up from time to time on the various lists is the subject of hiking while nude. I am a big fan of certain aspects of the practice, but for reasons that aren't always obvious to the uninitiated. If you followed the philosophy of the Grand Unification Theory, and you agree that you are a natural animal that longs to return to its natural habitat, then this is for you. Otherwise, you can read the quote by Walt Whitman below and just skip the rest...
"Sweet, sane, still Nakedness in Nature! --ah if poor, sick, prurient humanity in cities might really know you once more! Is not nakedness then indecent? No, not inherently. It is your thought, your sophistication, your fear, your respectability that is indecent. There come moods when these clothes of ours are not only too irksome to wear, but are themselves indecent. Perhaps indeed he or she to whom the free exhilarating ecstasy of nakedness in Nature has never been eligible (and how many thousands there are!) has not really known what purity is--nor what faith or art or health really is." - Walt Whitman, "A Sun-Bath--Nakedness" in "Specimen Days"
I understand that there is a 'nude hiking day' or some such on the AT, which seems a good way to turn many people OFF to the idea. "Naked freaks wander backwoods trails: Film at eleven!" The few times I have encountered strangers (and one park ranger - female at that) while nude, I have never had any trouble. Of course, on the AT, I imagine that wandering nude into a group of day hiking Girl Scouts would quickly get you arrested, pepper sprayed, or worse...
According to my experience in the West, and the reports I have heard from the East, it seems that the West is much more liberal in this regard - with the possible exception of Florida. You can meet quite a few nude hikers, especially in the early AM, on many public trails in the West. Of course, the trails are more crowded in the East, which may have something to do with it.
"The very simplicity and nakedness of man's life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature." - Henry David Thoreau
I think that there is an important distinction between 'public' nudity - hiking nude on a well used trail, and being nude in a place where one is unlikely to encounter other people - or where one is at least likely to encounter other nude people who don't mind your state of nature. I am NOT one who proposes, supports, or recommends hiking nude on well traveled trails where one is likely to encounter other people suddenly. It can be problematic for a number of reasons. I wouldn't go nude in a hospital parking lot. I wouldn't go to the mall in a bathing suit either. For that matter, I wouldn't go to the beach in coveralls. 'Clothing appropriate to the activity' is a phrase I like, and sometimes that 'clothing' is nothing at all. Nudity in a 'public' place is not something generally accepted in our society. I don't think that well used trails like the AT are a good place to go sauntering around nude all the time, and I have never encouraged that behavior. A nude male hiker who innocently enough stumbles across a girl scout troop, for instance, is likely startle and upset some people; and is likely to get pepper maced - or worse.
When hiking out West, it was 'normal' to meet nude hikers and groups of nude hikers even on well traveled trails, especially early in the morning. There doesn't seem to be that kind of tolerance and free thinking in the East for such behavior. On certain trails out west. I sometimes met MORE nude hikers than clothed ones, but this is admittedly rare. Once you have encountered it a dozen times or so, it ceases to matter...
"We cannot adequately appreciate this aspect of nature if we approach it with any taint of human pretense. It will elude us if we allow artifacts like clothing to intervene between ourselves and this Other. ... To apprehend it, we cannot be naked enough. ... In wildness is the preservation of the world." - Henry David Thoreau, Walking
Of course, there are those that would consider that any nude person they meet out in the middle of nowhere must be some kind of pervert, but I don't share that generalization. I think that we all look and smell like axe murderers after we've been out for a week or so, weather or not we are wearing clothes. More than one person has told me, 'You've got a WILD look in your eyes.', after coming off the trail. The subtle suggestion that nude hikers MUST be perverts but that someone wearing clothes must be OK is a bit silly to me. Someone even made the ridiculous statement that 'sexual assaults on the AT all involve nude hikers'. This is so contrary to my experience that I cannot believe that it's true, and the statement was never backed up, and I assume that it isn't true.
It needs to be said, though, that even with NO problematic cases, men - and women - should understand that some people may be uncomfortable in the presence of nude people. This is one of those no-brainers, though. You wouldn't go firing a gun at random or waving a sword around people who were strange to you. Common sense is involved here.
There is also the common question, "There are laws about this, right?"
What? My body is illegal? How can you illegalize the human body? I suppose that's a topic for a different list...
Yes and no. There are no NPS or NFS rules or regulations against nudity, per se, except in some specific parks. NPS officers will try to write you up for 'disorderly conduct', and NFS rangers will do the same if they get a complaint. Officers and rangers CANNOT write you up WITHOUT a complaint, and they can't file the complaint themselves. That is a matter of court record. The fine is $50.00. That's what I understood as of about five years ago, and I don't think anything has changed.
There are, however, certain state laws that can apply. In Arkansas, for instance, nudity in mixed company is totally forbidden - as is even talking about the subject in Arkansas, despite what the First Amendment has to say about that. I don't spend much time in Arkansas... Of course, in some states, state law doesn't apply to federal land. I know that's supposed to be true in Florida, but I'm not a lawyer and not sure about anywhere else.
Having said all that, I do recommend natural interaction with one's natural habitat when possible and appropriate. 'Possible and appropriate' are judgments that each person must make individually based on the area. That doesn't mean to say that you should go naked in a mall, or streak through downtown Harper's Ferry - because you are likely to get arrested, or worse...
As for me, if I am off the trail and encounter a waterfall, in I go sans clothes. Others may feel the need to wear long coveralls. To each their own...
"The body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one's flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure glow not explainable." - John Muir
Anyway, back to humanity - and being a human animal in nature. Your body is your whole body – and an important part of your whole Self. Your nude body is you in your most basic state. A nude body is not a body lacking something (that is, clothing). Rather, a clothed person is a whole and complete naked body, plus clothes. In the end, clothing is part of the mask of civilization that we are trying to escape by going to nature in the first place.
Alas, society at large is still recovering from Victorian prudishness, among other things, and isn't ready to face the human body without shame. The concept that dignity, modesty, and nudity are not always connected values escapes most people. As an aside, there is a life sized nude statue in the New Orleans Museum of Art at the top of the stairs near the entrance. I have always wanted to strike off my clothes and stand next to that statue and have my photo taken, then see how long it takes someone to have me arrested. Why is it OK for bronze to be nude, but not for flesh and blood? Exactly why is my body illegal? Maybe one day...
Nevertheless, I respect the fact that most people aren't ready for this kind of dialog or this kind of raw experience. In those places and times when one can shed all the interposing masks, however, I do recommend it for those few souls who can cast off their timidity long enough to reconnect with their humanity without worrying about what their mothers would say...
If you have never stood atop a high place as the wind caresses your whole body lovingly, then you have missed something sweet.
If you have never leapt from that high place and plunged into a deep clear pool uninhibited by any trapping of society, then you have missed something delightful.
If you have never lain in the cool grass while the rain drops kiss you in your entirety, then you have missed something valuable.
If you have never sat in a waterfall and been truly free, you have missed something worthwhile.
If you have never been down to the sea clothed only in the night, then you have missed something divine.
If you have never met the wilderness exactly as you are, then you have missed something very precious.
If you don't understand any of this at all, I hope that one day you will. If you never do, then you will have missed something important about your very humanity.
Either that, or I am some kind of sick pervert... I don't think so, though, because I have wept in the wind, and swam in the sky, and danced with the rain, and made love with waterfalls, and spoken to the sea, and been a part of the wilderness in ways that are mostly lost to modern man. These are precious gifts that have very little to do with nudity, but nothing to do with clothes - or any of the other interposing masks that we carry with us into the wild.
"What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful that the garment with which it is clothed?" - Michelangelo