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How to Avoid Ticks, Mosquitos, and Poison Ivy on Your Adventures

Enjoy your adventures and minimize exposure to bites and rashes with these tips

By: Imogene Cancellare + Save to a List

Scratching, itching, lamenting. We've all been there. A return from an epic adventure that brings home an onslaught of bites, welts, and rashes. It's the worst! Some of us are more fortunate than others when it comes to encountering poison ivy, ticks, or mosquitos (why am I a magnet for them? Why??), but minimizing contact is both convenient as well as healthier! Unfortunately, I can't eliminate these antagonistic insects and plants (which, yes, do have ecological value...sorry), but I can point out some ways to reduce your chances of exposure!

1. Mosquitos

I don't love using bug spray. Spraying DEET on my skin isn't my idea of a good time, but then again neither was the record 142 mosquito bites across my entire body that one time. This might be a good practice to take up, however, as July 2016 saw the first local transmission of the zika virus to humans from mosquitos. The zika virus disease is caused from the zika virus, and while it may only have mild symptoms for up to a week, it can cause birth defects in pregnant women and may be linked to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an uncommon disease that affects the nervous system (for more info, see here). Zika virus is spread to humans from infected Aedes mosquito species, which are aggressive daytime biters (but they can also bite at night). While this is a serious health concern for specific parts of the world, minimizing mosquito bites no matter your location is a good idea (and makes your adventure more carefree!). When packing for your next adventure, consider the following:

- Use an EPA-approved insect repellent. Active ingredients may include DEET, permethrin, picaridan (also known as KBR 3023, Bayrepel, and icaridin), or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Spray repellent on skin as well as clothing (mosquitos can bite through thin clothing)

- Wear long sleeves and pants to reduce skin exposure

- Keep mosquitos outside by keeping doors, windows, and tents closed

- Don't sleep near standing water

Photo: Kathleen Morton

2. Ticks

Ticks are tricky. They are harder to see, silent, and can hang out in clothing or on skin for several days. Minimizing contact includes understanding their ecology. For example, ticks tend to hang out in shaded areas, under leaves, and in grass, and tend to avoid more sunny, open areas. With six different species in the U.S., it's important to know what species is in your area and what, if any, diseases they may transmit. Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever are the main concerns we hear about regarding tick bites, but other diseases are also transmissible to humans. Not every tick poses a threat to humans, however, which means that while you shouldn't fear exploring the outdoors, there are easy ways to be smart about it. The CDC has some great info on the geographic distribution of ticks that bite humans and the diseases those species can transfer. Check it out here. To minimize your exposure to ticks, try the following:

- Wear light-colored clothing. Ticks can be hard to see, making lighter garments helpful in spotting ticks at all life stages

- Tuck your pants or leggings into your socks. Hiking socks with fun patterns will make you look cooler

- Use insect repellents on skin and clothes

- Check your entire body and scalp during and after an adventure- ticks can cling to clothes or not bite for several hours or days. If your adventure included a pet, be sure to check him/her out, too!

- Wash your clothes in hot water to ensure no ticks remain hidden in clothing

- For ticks that have latched on, use tweezers or forceps to gently remove the embedded tick. It is important to remove the body as well as the head

- Disease transmission may take 24-48 hours, but always watch for welts, ringed rashes, or flu-like symptoms. It is a good idea to take note of location and date of tick bites, as well as where the tick came from, just in case

- Duct tape can be useful if you encounter groups of young tick- slap some tape onto the mass and pull them right off your clothes! Be kind and don't leave them alive on the tape, however.

3. Poisonous plants

The poisonous plants you're most likely to encounter on a hike include poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. These plant species have oily compounds on the leaves that, when in contact with human skin, create irritating rashes. Some people can have really terrible reactions to these compounds, which means preventative as well as post-contact treatment is good practice. Irritation can occur from direct contact with plants, indirect contact from clothing or pets, or inhaling burned plant material. Fortunately, there are several ways to reduce contact and minimize the side effects.

- Wear sleeves and pants on your adventure

- Invest in pre-exposure sprays or wipes. These create a barrier on your skin that reduces plant oils from setting on your skin

- Use post-exposure cleansers, like Tecnu, to cleanse skin and gear of the oils

- Know what's in your area and how to identify it

Preventing mosquito, tick, and poisonous plant exposure is about being prepared, knowing what's out there, and being vigilant in your application While exposure is year round, the worst of it falls during our spring and summer explorations, but with this information you can go a little farther and rest a little more easy. Happy trails! 

Cover photo: Angela Service

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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