Hiking in Tick Country
Western black-legged ticks can be found in Washington. From left to right: nymph, adult male, and adult female. Photo courtesy Calif. Dept. of Public Health
Disgusting. Creepy. Disease-ridden. Nuisance. There is no end to the derogatory feelings we have about ticks. However, with a bit of awareness, preparation and vigilance, hiking in Washington's tick country can be incredibly awarding and enjoyable.
Tick prevention starts by covering up
Minimizing your exposure to ticks begins with your clothing. Ticks tend to latch on in grassy areas above the cuff of your pant-leg and move upward, looking for dark places to burrow. Here are a few tips for hikers:
- Wear pants and long sleeves -- no shorts! The best choice is convertible pants with a flap over the zippered legs -- this is an excellent tick trap.
- Tuck your shirt into your pants. Tuck your pants into your socks.
- Wear light colors, so you can identify the ticks more easily as they climb.
- Don a cap with a flap behind the neck, if you have one.
During and after your hike
Stick to the trail. Ticks like to hang out in shaded, grassy areas. Sticking to an established trail is good prevention, but certainly is not fool-proof. This is one more great reason to keep dogs, who are tick-magnets, on leash.
Tick check frequently. Hikers in tick country will want to do regular tick checks during the day. Brush those bad boys off or crush them between your fingers, but don't worry that they are going to burrow in immediately. Ticks like to cruise around for awhile before they take a bite.
Post-hike tick check. After your hike you'll want to do a thorough check. One hiker we know changes into a complete set of new clothes back at the trailhead. She puts all of her hiking clothes in a garbage bag and seals it, then does a full body check. Favorite tick burrowing sites include the scalp, waist and other dark places where they can hide.
Back home, take a shower. Consider filling up a bathtub or washbasin and tossing in your hiking clothes. Ticks will float up to the surface. Crush them or flush them down the toilet; note that they can survive a wash and rinse cycle.
Check your backpack. Don't forget to give your backpack a full check too. Leave it outside rather bringing it in your home.
Tick First-Aid: five steps to remove a tick
If a tick has found a place to burrow in on your body, don't panic. Chances are very slim that you will end up with Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. The Pacific Northwest is a "low risk" area for Lyme and spotted fever is extremely rare. But you do want to get the tick out quickly and completely.
How to check for and remove ticks on your dog
If you hike with a dog in tick country, prevention and tick checks should be a regular part of your routine.
- Talk to your vet about preventative medications.
- Find out how to do a thorough tick check of your dog and get tips for removal.
Follow these five steps for the best way to remove a tick:
- Use an antiseptic or alcohol wipe to clean the area around the tick.
- Grasp the tick with tweezers (or fingers) as close to the skin as possible.
- Pull straight and steady. Do not twist or yank. You do not want to leave the tick's head and legs under the skin.
- If parts do remain under the skin, pinch the skin up and try to scrape the remains away. Use a sterilized needle if you have to dig anything out.
- After you finish, use another antiseptic or alcohol wipe to clean the area.
If you are concerned about disease, save the tick for testing in case you get sick. Watch for symptoms of rash or fever, and if you have concerns, visit your doctor.
The Spokane Regional Health District has an excellent one-pager that covers most of the content in this blog.
You can also send your ticks to the Washington Department of Health for study.
Hikes with known tick issues
Some hikes require extra tick-prevention measures. Don't let ticks scare you off from the wildflowers or other great springtime wonders, but do be careful and read recent Trip Reports to see if ticks have been spotted in the area.
- Columbia River Gorge: Lyle Cherry Orchard, Columbia Hills State Park
- Central Washington: Umtanum Canyon and Ridge, Yakima Skyline
- Eastern Washington: Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge (in spring)