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.
There is a lot of discussion about tick repellents. Hikers report that DEET works great for mosquitoes, but not so well for ticks. Permethrin is a better choice for ticks; several brands of clothing are made with Permethrin-infused fabric, or you can buy a spray. Do note that these are pesticides and thoughtfully consider if and how you want to use them.
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)
WTA's Julie Cassata, our resident trail runner, has some tips for hikers or runners interested in starting to run trails. An experienced hiker and runner, Julie has thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and serves on the board of the Seattle Running Club.
Running on trails is not just for the super-fit. For most of us, trail running is just another way to have fun, move on trail, and experience the natural landscape.
Whether you’re sprinkling in some running on a regular hike, or challenging yourself to run long distances on trail, you might just be a trail runner.
What’s so great about trail running?
- A different trail experience. Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be a deer running through the woods? While we might not be able to replicate that exactly, trail running can offer a more exhilarating experience than a hiking pace.
- Trail running is flexible. Run when you can, walk when you can’t. Don’t forget to stop and admire the fungi!
- The natural high. We all know that payoff views are especially satisfying when you are physically challenged while hiking up to that point. By trail running, your body responds to the workout by releasing endorphins and adrenaline. You might just find yourself weeping with joy when that next big view comes around!
- Cover more ground. By trail running, you can cover many more miles in a day than you can by hiking. A route that may ordinarily be an overnight hike, may be achievable in one day running.
- Make friends at fun events. There are many opportunities to do trail running events in the Pacific Northwest. A wide range of distances are available, generally from 5k to 50k and beyond. It’s a thrill to find yourself among an excited community of trail runners before the start, and then snake through the woods in a sinuous line of runners.
Five tips for getting started as a trail runner
- Be prepared. You’re not running around the neighborhood, so you’ll have to carry the 10 essentials just like you do for a hike. You might run out of water; you might get lost; you might get stuck in nasty weather. Be prepared. You might not otherwise eat while you run, but just like a hike, you’re much better off bringing along, and consuming, plenty of calories.
- Pack right. Figure out how you’re going to carry this stuff. You’ll want to try different things until you find out what works best. You’ll need a pack that is not too bouncy, will stay close in to your back, and ideally is designed for moving fast and light. There are many small packs on the market that are designed for running. You will also have to figure out whether you prefer to carry your water in your hands or in a bladder in your pack.
- Start out slow! I know it’s exciting, but don’t get too ambitious right off the bat. It will take time to improve agility and coordination, strengthen the muscles and tendons used on uneven terrain, and gain cardiovascular fitness. Also keep in mind that the miles take a lot longer on trail compared to what you run around town. Round up big time when you’re reporting the time you expect to be home.
- Don’t be ashamed; walk uphill. Over time, your transitions between running and walking will be seamless.
- Keep under control on steep descents by taking short, quick strides. Refrain from loping down the hill like a triple jumper. Angle your toes slightly outward to keep your momentum from launching you to oblivion should you trip on uneven footing.
> Use the advanced search in our Hiking Guide to find a lower-elevation trail with very little elevation gain to get started this winter.
Wintertime is a great time to start trail running. Staying at lower elevations will help keep you from selecting hikes with more extreme, and therefore extremely challenging, changes in elevation. If you’re just starting out, find some hikes with undulating terrain and just roll with it!
Those Clif Bars you stash in your pack may contain a risk of salmonella.