Alongside mosquitos, ticks are at the top of the vector class when it comes to disease transmission. These little bloodsuckers 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 defense 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.
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.
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.
If a tick breaches your defenses and manages to begin burrowing:
- 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.
For more information on ticks, see the following articles: