It’s a simple fact: Outdoor recreation entails risk, regardless of how careful an outdoorswoman is. There’s hazardous terrain, inclement weather, and the possibility of illness or injury. In this last category, one of the most common culprits is the lowly tick.
If you’ve spent much time in the outdoors community, you’ve probably heard a lot about tick-borne illnesses. From Lyme Disease to Rocky Mountain spotted fever, they’re horrifying and can be debilitating and chronic.
Most of my hiking, backpacking, mountain biking and climbing is done in prime tick habitat: grassy, brushy, woodland areas in the northeastern United States. Since I average forty to fifty nights per year in my tent and log dozens of hours on various trails every month, tick bite prevention is among my top priorities. Here’s my routine.
1. PermethrinPermethrin is an insecticide that kills ticks and mosquitos on contact. I soak all my hiking and riding gear, as well as my tent footprints and packs, in permethrin according to the manufacturer’s instructions. You can also buy pre-treated clothing or send your clothes to InsectShield for factory treating. Be careful to follow the manufacturer’s instructions if you decide to DIY it, and keep items treated with permethrin away from cats until they’re completely dry.
2. Dress Like a NerdBecause then the ticks will be too embarrassed to be seen with you.
Ticks crawl up, so if your pants are tucked into your socks and your shirt is tucked into your pants, there’s less opportunity for them to get to your skin. If all this clothing is lighter in color, it’ll be easier to spot and remove ticks, too.
3. Insect Repellant
In addition to treating my clothing with permethrin, I apply insect repellant to my skin.
4. Carry Tweezers and a Hand Mirror… For all those pesky chin-hairs, of course. And to check for ticks in tricky areas like behind your knees and between your legs. If you find a tick, those tweezers will help you lift it from behind the mouthpart in a slow, controlled, steady manner.
5. ShowerEven if I’m on a multi-day trip, I try to shower as soon as possible. Showering within two hours of time spent in tick habitat has been shown to reduce the risk of Lyme disease, possibly because you’re washing off unattached ticks, or possibly because it’s also a great opportunity to do a thorough tick check.
6. Stay on the TrailTicks are generally more prevalent the further you get away from the center of the trail. That means, all else equal, you’ll usually be exposed to more ticks if you’re bushwhacking than if you’re strolling down the middle of a wide trail. Leave No Trace principles also guide outdoors recreationists to stay on-trail, so this one is a no-brainer.
7. Don’t Overthink ItYou can pick up a tick in your own yard, garden, or the courtyard at work or school. Not all ticks carry diseases, and even if you pick up a tick that is carrying something awful, it’s not a guarantee that the disease will be transmitted. (The sooner you remove that sucker, the less likely it is that you’ll be infected.)
Everyone has their own tick avoidance routine, of course, and many organizations publish guidelines and advice for avoiding tick-borne illness. Consult your doctor, do your research, and poke around on the website of the organization that serves as steward of your chosen trail. Just like any other risk inherent in the outdoors, the risk of tick-borne illness can be mitigated and managed.
See you out there (but it’s cool if you don’t say hi, I know I look like a nerd).