Lyme disease sucks — 5 tips for minimizing risk when you hike

If you hike in wooded areas, you’re bound to encounter ticks. And if they encounter YOU, you’re at risk for getting Lyme disease. The bad news is that Lyme disease can cause arthritis, irregular heartbeat and other serious medical issues. The good news is that early removal of ticks is usually sufficient to remove the threat (the black legged ticks that transmit Lyme need to be attached for at least 24 hours to transmit the disease).

Here are five precautions I always take in tick country:

  1. Wearing gaiters. The conventional advice is to wear pants (particularly those of light shades of color) to prevent ticks from attaching to your skin and so you can easily spot them and brush them off the fabric. That’s all well and good, but I can’t stand wearing hiking pants. I find them annoyingly restrictive and oppressively hot. Instead, I wear compression shorts with nylon shorts over them. However, this leaves most of my legs exposed. Not a problem if I wear nylon gaiters and insect repellent. The gaiters cover my socks and help keep ticks from hitching a ride on the wool, which is easier for them to latch onto than nylon.
  2. Using poles.  I haven’t seen any data to back this up, but I suspect that using poles to push brush away from me as I make my way down the trail helps keep ticks at bay. The idea is that if I’m preventing brush from contacting me, I’m denying ticks the opportunity to hop onboard.
  3. Staying on the trail. This advice is backed up by the CDC and others. If you stay on cleared trail and minimize bushwhacking, you’ll greatly reduce the chances of ticks getting onto your clothes or skin.
  4. Using insect repellent. Applying the right insect repellent is one of the best methods of minimizing risk. The EPA has developed an interactive chart to help you choose the best repellent for you and others in your hiking group.
  5. Removing ticks quickly and correctly. If you find a tick crawling on your skin, simply brush it off. If  the tick is attached, carefully remove it with a small pair of tweezers, such as the ones in your Swiss Army Knife or a pair that’s specially designed for the job, like the Tick Nipper sold by the American Red Cross. Before you remove a tick, it’s a good idea to treat the area with alcohol wipe (if you carry some foil wrapped towelettes in your first aid kit, you’re prepared). Then I place the tick inside the foil wrapper, seal it up, place it inside a zip-seal bag, then toss it in a trash receptacle when I get off the trail.

I hope you find these tips useful for keeping Lyme disease risk low and enjoying our woodland trails.

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