Tick Safety in the Backcountry

Ticks are a fact of life if you spend time outside. Even going out into your own backyard can put you at risk of getting a tick bite.

As annoying or potentially dangerous as ticks can be, they are no reason to stop having fun outside. With a little preparation, you can prevent a lot of tick bites from ever happening. And, if you do find a tick on you, taking quick action can also save you a lot of trouble.

Some standard tick procedures aren’t as easy when you’re not at home. For example, if you’re backpacking alone, it could be harder to get a full body tick check-up after a hike. You won’t have a full body mirror to look at yourself. You might not even get fully changed out of your clothes at the end of the day.

Even though it can be more difficult to be tick-aware in the wild, there are plenty of steps to take to keep yourself safe from tick-borne illnesses.

Prepare ahead of time

Know where ticks like to be

Simply put, if you’re in the backcountry, you’re probably where ticks like to be. Even though ticks can be found somewhere as mild and mellow as a backyard, they prefer woods, shrubby areas, or tall grass. If you’re backpacking, there’s a good chance you will encounter all three of these areas.

There’s no need to avoid entering places that have these types of cover, but it’s good to be aware of your tick risk. If you’re hiking over barren scree above treeline, you probably have much less to worry about than someone marching through waist-deep grass in a meadow. If you’re hiking somewhere with a high density of ticks, you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared to prevent them or remove them.

Treat your clothing

One of the best ways to avoid ticks in the first place is to treat your clothing prior to heading out. Using sprays containing permethrin can both repel and kill ticks that try to get on your clothing. You can spray your clothes before leaving on your trip, and they’ll stay good for several weeks, even through washing.

A warning for fishermen, though, that permethrin is highly toxic to fish. If you’re able to wear a separate set of clothes for your hike in, you can treat them and leave another untreated set for fishing. In reality, while you’re in waders or wet wading, you’ll be at a pretty low risk of ticks anyway.

Bring insect repellent

Carrying a small bottle of insect repellent can really help you out in the backcountry. While a full bottle is cumbersome and unnecessary, keeping a travel-size bottle in your pack can help keep the ticks at bay. A huge plus that comes with this step is that it will also help ward off hungry mosquitoes.

Again, it’s best not to handle fish with hands covered in bug spray, so try to keep it away from them.

Bring tweezers

Throwing a simple pair of tweezers in your pack will come in handy in more ways than one. Really, they should already be in your first aid kit anyway. They’ll help with splinters, glass, and other similar injuries. And, they’re perfect for getting ticks off your skin.

To use them, grab the tick close to your skin and pull straight up. Try to get the whole tick and avoid breaking off its mouth parts.

Wear the right clothes

In addition to treating your clothes, wearing the right ones is important too. If you’re in a particularly tick-ridden area, wearing long pants and sleeves can prevent some ticks from making it to your skin. Although annoying, tucking your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks can also help.

Check for ticks thoroughly

Take a river bath

One of the normal rules of checking for ticks is to take a shower when you get home. This will give you a chance to notice ticks that were hiding under your clothing, and to wash some off.

Obviously, this isn’t much of an option in the backcountry, but you can still make do. Having a quick rinse in a lake or river can replace a shower at home. Even if you don’t thoroughly clean yourself every day, you’ll feel refreshed after a long hike and also keep yourself tick-free.

When you’re looking for ticks, remember that they can be extremely small. Keep an eye out for even the smallest ones as you look, as they can still carry diseases.

A variety of sizes of ticks on a person's finger
Ticks can vary a lot in size. The smaller ones can be extremely difficult to notice.

Do a full-body check

If you don’t have the chance to take a river bath, being diligent about doing a full body check on land is important.

Doing this will give you the chance to change clothes, or at least air your current pair out for a few minutes. Remember to look in areas other than just your arms and legs. Under the arms, around the head and ears, between the legs, and around the waist are all places ticks like to hide. Make sure you double check your hair to avoid missing burrowing ticks.

Check your clothing for ticks

When you have your clothes off for a full body check, give them a double check too. Ticks can hide inside clothing and then attach to you when you put them back on. High heat can kill ticks, so if you can get your clothes over a fire without burning them, that can kill off ticks inside.

Remove ticks if you find them

Use your tweezers

Remember, as long as you packed your tweezers, you’ll be able to quickly and safely remove any ticks you find. Grab them close to the skin and pull straight up. They should pop loose from your skin and be fully intact, including their mouth parts.

Follow up if necessary

Tick-borne diseases, like Lyme disease, are not immediate. If a tick is attached to you for less than 24 hours, you have a pretty low chance of getting sick. Once you remove a tick, keep an eye on the bite. If you notice a rash or other reaction, go to a medical provider as soon as you get back from your trip. A bullseye rash is a common symptom of Lyme disease. Getting in quickly will give you the best chance at recovery, and many diseases can be completely reversed if caught in time.

If you find a tick that has been on you for a long time (for example, if you didn’t notice one under your hair), it’s probably best to get checked up anyway.

A bullseye rash caused by Lyme disease
A bullseye rash is a sign you may have Lyme disease.

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