Tips for Hiking in Tick Country

Alongside mosquitos, ticks are 12-long-walks-2at the top of the vector class when it comes to disease transmission. These little blood suckers can carry and transmit viruses, bacteria and parasites. Indeed, when it comes to spending time out in the wilderness hikers are a lot more likely to fall foul of ticks, than they are of bears or snakes. Yet it has often struck me that folks spend a disproportionate amount of time worried about the latter, and not enough time thinking about how to guard against the former.

Ten Preventative Measures

Ticks are generally encountered when walking through long grasses or overgrown, brushy terrain. However, if you take the necessary precautions and are diligent with your “body checks” (see below), they represent more of an inconvenience than a serious threat to your health.

1.  Choice of Attire: Appropriate clothing is your best defence in tick country. Hat, pants, long sleeve shirt and shoes (rather than sandals) are all recommended. Be sure to tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks when hiking through infested sections. Light coloured items are preferable as they make it easier to spot the little burrowers.

2.  Permethrin: If you will be hiking in an area that is known to be tick infested, consider treating your clothing with permethrin in advance. Note that it is possible to buy factory treated shirts and pants from companies such as ExOfficio (said to be effective for up to 70 washes).

3.  Stick to the middle of the trail when walking through overgrown, brushy terrain. Ticks love nothing better than to ambush hikers when they come into contact with long grass and low lying bushes.

4.  Breaks: When taking breaks in tick country do not sit directly on the ground, particularly in brushy overgrown areas.

5.  Repellent: For exposed areas of the skin, consider applying insect repellent with 30% DEET. I have found that anything with a higher percentage than this is overkill. Note that DEET is significantly less effective against ticks than permethrin, but the latter should ONLY be used on clothes.

6.  Regular Body Checks: In addition to the widely recommended full body check at day’s end, I generally do a series of brief revisions every 30 to 60 minutes whilst hiking through tick infested areas. Why so often? Ticks usually spend about an hour (sometimes less) crawling about before they begin burrowing into your skin. The key is to get them before they start digging. Three points to note:

A.  By being diligent about regular checking, you significantly minimise the chances of being bitten.

B.  If you are bitten, chances are you can catch and extract (see below) the little buggers before they are well and truly embedded.

C.  If like myself you are a “shorts” rather than a “pants” hiker, you need to check more often than your trousered brothers and sisters.

Florida Trail, 2011 | During a maddening three day stretch leading up to the town of St.Marks, I picked off approximately 150 ticks from my person. I was doing checks every 30 minutes (sometimes less).

7. Clean Your Legs – If you aren’t wearing pants, chances are your legs will regularly be caked in trail grime. That makes it much harder to spot any ticks that may have attached themselves to your lower body. Make a habit of cleaning your legs at or near days end.

8. Check Your Backpack – Give your pack a once over during the day and a thorough check once you set up camp.

9. Hike out of season – A good way of minimising (though not eliminating) your exposure to ticks is simply by hiking when there aren’t so many around. When the weather gets cooler (i.e. autumn, winter, spring), ticks are less of an issue. That being said, as long as temps are above freezing and the ground isn’t frozen and/or snow-covered, ticks are still capable of attaching themselves to unwitting hosts.

In 2012 I hiked the Appalachian Trail between October 17 and December 28. On a trail well known for its tick issues during the regular hiking season, I didn’t encounter a single one in 73 days (Photo – Maine, AT, 10/2012).

10. The Extra Mile – Ticks are on the lookout for dark, hidden and/or hairy places in which to burrow. That means scalps, armpits, groins, waists, back of the knees and, you guessed it, the bum crack region. If you really want to be 100% thorough in regards to tick checking, you may just have to put it on one of your fellow hikers to give you a helping hand (or at least a discerning eye), in regards to those hard to review areas. In the spirit of backcountry (so to speak) camaraderie, be sure to return the favour. At the very least, politely extend the offer.

Treatment

If a tick breaches your defences and manages to begin burrowing:

  1. Remove with tweezers: Press the blades firmly against the skin, one each side of the tick’s head, and then pull the tick straight out. Be careful not to twist, as this could result in leaving part of the tick embedded in your skin, which could in turn lead to infection.

2.  If the head breaks off during the extraction and it can’t be removed with tweezers, use a sterilized needle to remove the remains.

3. Clean the bite area with soap and water or hand sanitizer.

4.  Apply antiseptic solution.

5.  Tick-borne Illness: If flu-like symptoms or a suspicious looking rash appear after being bitten, you may have contracted a tick-borne illness such as lyme disease. In such cases, it is recommended to seek medical advice ASAP.

 More Information

For more information on ticks, see the following articles:


Comments

Tips for Hiking in Tick Country — 7 Comments

  1. I contracted lyme disease in 2006. I was living in “rural” Germany and hiked a lot. DO watch for a red area on your skin after removing a tick, the red is about the size of your fist. My wife spotted it (very obvious) on my calf about 2 weeks after my removing a tiny tick (I would never have spotted a rash there), and saw my MD. Treatment was easy and fast, and no further worries if caught early.

  2. Great summary. I was raised in tick country, and we used petroleum jelly to smother embedded ticks. They back out and can be removed easily. Now I hear that’s not a good idea, but I don’t know why. It worked. Of course you want to get them before they dig in. We would come home with 5-10 ticks every time we went walking. I got hundreds of bites. I wonder if I ever got Lyme? No idea. I also have never heard of any getting in the interior of the backside. That seems most strange to me! And makes me a bit itchy…:)

  3. Having lived most of my life in tick country of the southern US, there are a few further things to know about ticks.

    Though a tick can take hold within an hour, that is quite rare. Three to six hours is more common. Seed ticks (new borns) are tiny head-of-pen sized, very hard to see.

    It is rare to “feel” a tick on your skin. They are most adept at getting around without a tickle.

    Ticks sit on leaves and grass waiting for a warm body to pass. However, ticks also detect CO2 and can drop from tree limbs above you. This is well documented and quite freaky to experience!

    My wife and I sat on a boulder along a stream in the Ozarks. Within 5 minutes, ticks literally started marching up the boulder towards us sitting on top (2-3 dozen before we evacuated). It was easier to understand ticks falling from trees, but to march in mass on the ground up a boulder? Crazy!

    FWIW, this was before cell phones, when the only video cameras were big clunky things (the 80s VHS). If only I’d had one with me….

  4. When you first read the heading “Tips for Hiking in Tick Country”, One just not think anything of it, there just tick. But this is a post that everyone one should read. It is that phrase Lyme Disease. That got me to read all of the post. Thank you Cam

  5. Regarding permethrin, Insect Shield, makers of bug repellent clothing and gear, also offer a service whereby they will treat clothing items you send to them. Having recently moved to Michigan, I’m packing a box of my favorites clothes to be treated.

  6. I’ve always used the tweezer method, and was surprised to read that the official endorsed method in Australia is now to carry and use a chemical freeze solution, such as an anti-wart treatment. Just thought I’d put that in the mix. 🙂

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