Ticks, like mosquitos, are the tiny, evil, and blood-sucking spawns of Satan. Just kidding…(not entirely).
Ticks are not just gross. These little arachnids can carry dangerous diseases that put you and your pet at risk of serious, sometimes life-threatening conditions. Unfortunately, ticks are omnipresent – they habitate in almost every environment, from forests to deserts, throughout the year. Though hikers are most at risk of bites between May and July, you can still get nicked in the winter when temperatures are not too extreme.
All that being said, there are several ways to prevent ticks when hiking. But first, it is important to inform yourself about what these little demons are, why they are dangerous, and how to protect yourself and your furry friend.
What Are Ticks?
Ticks are small, blood-sucking parasites that belong to the arachnid family (think spiders, scorpions, mites, and heebee jeebees). They are found all over the world, particularly in wooded, brushy, and grassy areas. These arachnids are most active during the spring, summer, and fall, but they are still present during the winter months. You can find them feeding on the blood of wild mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and unassuming hikers.
Ticks have a two-part body with eight legs. They attach to their hosts by inserting their BACKWARDS FACING TEETH into the skin and feed by slowly engorging themselves with blood. For many, meals don’t come often, and they must stick to their host for long periods of time – enough to transition into their next life stage: from larva to nymph, nymph to adult, and then for females to lay their eggs. In fact, one biologist shared, “an adult female drinks so much blood during its one meal that its weight increases 200 times.”
Similar to mosquitoes during this process, they can spread disease by transmitting the pathogens they carry through their saliva, into their host. If you are bitten by an infected tick, it takes at least 24 hours before Lyme bacteria begin to spread – so you better get movin’!
Which Ticks Carry Disease?
Several species carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans and animals. According to the American Hiking Society, some of the most common, disease-carrying ticks are:
- Blacklegged (Deer): Found across the United States, the Backlegged (aka Deer) tick is the most common transmitter of Lyme disease. They can carry at least five other illnesses. Even as adults, they are no bigger than a sesame seed, making them much harder to find and remove.
- Brown Dog: Considered the most widespread tick species in the world, the Brown Dog Tick (aka the Kennel Tick) is found all over the United States but is most common in the South, where it thrives in a warmer climate. Unlike other species of ticks who habitate wooded and grassy land, the Brown Dog Tick is known to infest in homes and near dogs, especially around kennels where they may put your pet at risk of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Though fairly rare, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can be lethal to dogs, and the Brown Dog Tick remains the most common vector of this disease in the southwest.
- Lone Star: Widely distributed in the Eastern United States, but most common in the South, the Lone Start Tick transmits at lease five types of disease, including the alpha-gal syndrome, a potentially life-threatening allergy to red meat. You can find them questing for larger animals, such as humans, dogs, deer, and coyotes, in tall grass and low hanging branches.
- American Dog (Wood): Spread east of the Rocky Mountains and along the Pacific Coast, American dog ticks are found along forest edges and in areas with little or no tree cover – think grassy fields and scrubland, walkways, sidewalks, and trails. They can transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and tularemia (aka Rabbit Fever).
- Other, Less Common Species Include:
- The Groundhog: Found in the Eastern United States
- Gulf Coast: Found in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic
- Rocky Mountain Wood: Found in the Rocky Mountain Region
- Soft Tick: Found in the Western United States
- Western Blacklegged: Found on the Pacific Coast
What Ticks are Most Common in Colorado?
There are around thirty different species of ticks in Colorado, the most common of which are the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick and the American Dog Tick. They are most active in the spring and early summer and live at elevations up to 10,000 feet. According to UCHealth, the most common tick-borne illnesses in Colorado are Colorado Tick fever and Tick-borne Relapsing Fever. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is rare, and there are no reports of Lyme disease cases originating in Colorado (underreporting of Lyme is common, so it is important to remain vigilant).
Why are Ticks Dangerous?
Ticks are vectors of disease and can transmit several dangerous illnesses to humans and animals. Some common infectious diseases spread by ticks are Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Tularemia. If contracted, these diseases cause symptoms that may range from mild and flu-like to severe, long-lasting complications. Sometimes, these illnesses can be life-threatening if not treated promptly and appropriately. Therefore, it is important to take steps to prevent bites and remove ticks as soon as they are discovered.
How to Prevent Ticks When Hiking:
- Wear long sleeves and pants to limit exposed skin. Review the Hiking Clothes Checklist to find the best options.
- Wear mid-length gaiters to prevent insects from crawling up your leg. Check out our guide to the best gaiters for hiking.
- Tuck your pants into your socks to minimize skin exposure if you don’t have gaiters.
- Wear light clothing to make dark ticks easily stand out.
- Use insect repellent that contains DEET or permethrin. Scroll down to find the insect repellent for hiking.
- Try Permethrin-treated clothing and gear for additional protection. Learn more about ExOfficio’s insect repellent clothing below.
- Stay on cleared trails and avoid brushing up against tall grass and bushes where ticks tend to live.
- Shower soon after hiking to wash off any unattached ticks.
- Keep your pet on a leash, and don’t forget to check their fur.
- Regularly check yourself, your clothing, and your gear – and know what to look for!
How to Keep Ticks off Dogs When Hiking
Like you, a hidden tick bite can put your dog at risk of contracting a dangerous disease. To prevent ticks while hiking with your dog, it is important to keep them on the trail and away from grassy areas. Natural tick repellents for dogs, such as Vet’s Best Flea and Tick Spray and Pet Honesty Flea and Tick Repellent Chews, can provide extra protection.
Immediately after a hike, check your dog for ticks and look extra carefully – they can be as small as a poppy seed, and still pose a great risk to your dog’s health. Common tick hiding spots on your dog include: under the collar, under the tail, under the legs, between the toes, and on the elbow. To remove a tick, spread your dog’s fur and use fine-point tweezers to pull upward in a slow, gentle, and steady motion.
If you live or hike in a tick-infested region, ensuring your dog is on a tick-preventative medication will reduce the chances of transmission of bacteria that cause illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Work with your veterinarian to find the best tick preventative for your pup.
The Hiking Clothes to Protect Yourself
Proper hiking clothing is your best defense against tick bites. Light-colored long sleeves and pants attract fewer ticks and make the ones that do end up on you a lot easier to find. Most hiking pants and shirts come with these features, so there is a wide range of options available to you! If researching all the different hiking products is daunting, check out the 12 Best Hiking Pants or 25+ Best Hiking Shirts to quickly find the best fit for you.
For extra protection on tick-infested hiking trails, you may consider investing in insect-repelling clothing. ExOfficio’s outdoor clothing line, BugsAway blends odorless insect repellent within its fabric fibers. The repellent is effective against common insects like ticks, flies, ants, and mosquitoes and lasts through 70 clothing wash cycles. The BugsAway selection offers shirts, pants, socks, hats, and underwear to keep your entire body covered and protected.
The Best Insect Repellent to Prevent Ticks While Hiking
DEET is the most common component of insect repellents. However, for a repellent that is safe, effective, and doesn’t stink or leave a puddle of oil on your skin, a picaridin formula is the way to go. In fact, the Center for Disease Control recommends it as a healthier alternative to DEET. Though most repellents that contain 20% picaridin and/or DEET will have similar levels of effectiveness, there are a few products that reign superior:
Best Overall: Ranger Ready Picaridin 20% Insect Repellent
Why Buy: Ranger Ready is an EPA-approved, picaridin-based insect repellent. It provides 12 hours of protection from ticks and mosquitos, and 8 hours from gnats, flies, and fleas. It comes in a recyclable, refillable container which makes it my favorite overall. Check the price at Amazon.
Runner Up: Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent
Why Buy: This repellent is EPA-approved as safe and effective, provides up to 14 hours of protection, and comes in a bottle that’s easy to spray and meets airline carry-on baggage requirements. Check the price at REI or Amazon.
Best DEET-Based Repellent: Repel Insect Repellent Sportsman Max Formula
Why Buy: If you are loyal to DEET, the Repel Insect Repellent is a surefire product to protect yourself against ticks. It contains 40% DEET and provides up to 8 hours of protection. Check the price at Amazon.
How to Check For Ticks After Hiking
Now that you are back from your hike, it is time to check for ticks! Follow the Center for Disease Control‘s four-step process to stay safe:
- Check your clothing and remove any ticks you find. Use hot water and a high-heat tumble drier to kill any you may have missed.
- Examine hiking gear, such as your boots, jacket, and/or backpack.
- Check your pet by looking at their hotspot areas and under their fur (more about this under the section, “How to Keep Ticks off Dogs When Hiking.”
- Shower within two hours of arriving home. This is a great opportunity to check your skin and wash off any unattached ticks.
- Check your body in these hot spots and use a small handheld mirror to check any hidden areas:
- In and around the hair
- In and around the ears
- Inside belly button
- Between the legs
- Back of the knees
- Around the waist
- Under the arms
How to Identify a Tick Bite
So you don’t see any ticks. Congratulations, you don’t have to deal with the ickiness of removing one. However, you may still have been exposed, and it is important to know what to look for.
Tick bites are often difficult to identify, as they can be mild or completely painless. However, there are some common signs to look for:
- A small, red bump on the skin, sometimes with a bullseye pattern.
- Itching or a burning sensation at the bite site.
- Fatigue, headache, muscle or joint aches.
If you suspect that you were bitten by a tick, stay wary of any indications of tick-borne illnesses, such as fever, rash, or flu-like symptoms. If you experience these or any other concerning signs, it is recommended to seek medical attention.
How to Remove a Tick
What do you do if you get a tick while hiking?
Removing a tick, though gross, is pretty simple.
Just follow the five-step method recommended by the Central for Disease Control:
- Use a fine-tipped pair of tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible.
- Steadily pull the tick straight out with a slow, steady motion. Do not twist or crush the tick, as this may cause its mouth parts to break off and remain in the skin. If you can not remove the mouth parts, leave them alone and let your skin heal. Your body will treat it like a splinter and dispose of it properly.
- After removal, clean the bite area and your hands with alcohol or soap and water.
- Never crush a tick with your fingers. Discard by:
- Flush it down the toilet
- Put it in alcohol
- Place it in a sealed bag/container
- Wrap it tightly in tape
- Monitor the bite: Watch for any signs of infection, such as increasing redness or swelling or the development of a rash or fever. If you experience any symptoms, seek medical attention. It is not recommended by the CDC to test a tick for disease.
Important Note: Do not use a hot match, nail polish, or other remedies to remove the tick. These methods are ineffective and allow time for it to release more saliva and potentially transmit disease.
(Not So) Fun Facts
- Ticks have been around for at least 90 million years, making them one of the oldest known parasites.
- They can go without food for long periods, sometimes up to several years, waiting for a host to feed upon.
- Some species of ticks can change color as they feed, becoming darker and larger as they engorge with blood.
- Females can lay thousands of eggs at once.
- Hikers are most at risk of a bite between May and July when larvae mature into nymphs.
- Arachnids, which include spiders, mites, scorpions, and ticks, are technically not insects!