A Hiker's Guide to Ticks

A Hiker's Guide to Ticks

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Activities Activities: Hiking

Ticks, Ticks, Everywhere

Ticks are small parasitic arachnids that make a living by hematophagy, a fancy word for blood-sucking. About the size of a grain of rice, these dark colored pests feed on the blood of mammals, birds and sometimes reptiles and amphibians. They are widely distributed throughout the world, though most common in areas with warm, humid climates since ticks require some air moisture to undergo metamorphosis and cold temperatures inhibit egg development. They can be a bane to hikers, pets, livestock, as well as wild animals. Ticks are most common in environments with many large mammals that help to feed and distribute the pests. In addition to the nastiness of having a parasite burrow into the skin, they can be carriers of a number of diseases including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

Despite the repugnant features and habits of ticks, there are measures you can take to minimize their impact when you are hiking in areas known to harbor them. Of course the easiest way to avoid them is to stay out of their habitats, but this leaves many beautiful and interesting places off-limits. Knowing their habits and behavior can help you defend against them and allow you to enjoy an outing without undue anxiety and apprehension.

Tick Behavior

For the hiker, the most significant threat from ticks is in their adult female form, though ticks in the nymphal stage can also pose a hazard. Male ticks rarely feed and will latch onto mammals primarily in search of females. The most common types of ticks found are the hard shelled ticks from the Ixodidae family. They seat themselves at the tip of tall grasses and other plants, waiting for animals to brush by at which time they jump to their host. They then crawl in an upward direction, looking for soft underbellies and other tissue which are most easy for them to burrow into. It generally takes about an hour for a tick to burrow into its host once it has found a suitable location. A tick will feed for 3-7 days before becoming engorged, drop off the host, and lay eggs to begin the life cycle again.

Ticks are most active in spring and summer, between March and October, but can be found in any month or season. From personal experience, ticks appear to be far less active at night than during the day. Ticks can be found from sea level to over 8,000ft. Though they dislike cold temperatures, wild sheep and goats can carry them to high altitudes where they can still be a nuisance (the Ruby Mtns in Nevada are one example). In drier climes they are more often found closer to streams and water sources, but can also be encountered in dry chaparral country.

Like most outdoor enthusiasts, at one time I was very apprehensive about tick encounters. I've since been in places where I've had hundreds of the critters assault me in the course of a few hours, and have had thousands of tick encounters over the course of the years, but with good defenses, only a few have found their mark. Now I don't worry much about them at all, but am cautious in their territory and diligent in watching for them.

Tick infestation
A tick-infested area of the Diablo Range in California

Tick Defense

There are a number of things one can do to help defend against ticks. First and foremost is your clothing. Note that tick movement is inherently upwards. They climb up to the end of a stalk, then climb up the host to find soft tissue. Ticks are most often first located on your lower legs or pants, crawling up from there. They will stop if they reach the underside of a pocket flap or the seam of zip-off pants. This may seem like devilishly clever behavior, hiding from the unsuspecting hiker, but it is really just the result of their upward-seeking mobility. It should be clear by now that wearing shorts is just asking for trouble - there are plenty of soft places on the human leg that a tick can burrow into. If you expect ticks, always wear long pants. Tuck your shirt into your pants. That way, a tick crawling up your pants will crawl onto the outside of your shirt when it reaches your waist rather than the inside. Tucking your pants into your socks will similarly help, but not to the same degree - most ticks latch onto you above the bottom of your pants.

Tick under pocket flap
Tick under pocket flap
Tick in pant seam
Tick in pants seam

Ok fine, but once they crawl up my shirt they're eventually going to reach my head and burrow into my scalp, right? Yes, they will - if you let them. So the second most important step to take is to spot them and remove them. Because they are primarily dark colored, wearing light colored clothing will make them far easier to see. If you spot a tick, brush it off. trying to crush it to death between your fingers is almost impossible with hard ticks. If you catch the tick by surprise they are easy to flick off your clothing. Often they will dig in with their legs if you fail on the first pass, making them harder to remove. Keep flicking and they will eventually come off. Once you've found the first one, you should do regular tick checks to find and brush off additional pests. You can easily overdo the number of tick checks needed if you are overly zealous in looking for them. Ticks don't move all that fast, so you don't have to spot them the moment they first land on you. Plus, if you are hiking in brushy terrain, most ticks will be knocked off you without your even knowing it. Don't get overly paranoid. Even in heavily infested areas, I don't usually check more than about once every 15 minutes. Flicking ticks off while on the move is a more advanced technique - suitable for the experienced hiker used to dealing with these pesky critters.

Sometimes you have to crawl through brush or walk through stuff well over head level. In these cases, ticks may end up on any part of your clothing. A hat can help protect your scalp and if the hat has a sun-protection flap that drapes your neck, even better. Once you are done crawling or out of the hazard zone, a more thorough check is warranted. If you have to do this for long periods of time and you know the area is tick-infested, you are simply asking for trouble. Make sure it's worth it.

Once the hike is over, or perhaps when you are out of tick territory, you should do a more thorough search for the creatures if they were particularly numerous. Some may have slipped through your defenses, others may have lodged in your pack. Remove your pack and have someone check your backside (not a bad idea to do this periodically during the hike). Strip naked to be sure. You don't have to do this in the presence of others - if you're taking a shower it's the perfect time to do a thorough check. Run your hands over your body looking for small lumps. Check your private parts and your scalp. Usually an embedded tick will cause a mild pain at the location, so check anyplace that feels like a mild burn. Getting ticks out of your pack may take more work than your clothing or body. Empty it out and do a thorough check, or if you're lazy at least set it aside, away from your sleeping area or other clothing. Ticks can easily survive wash and dry cycles, so laundering isn't an effective disinfectant for clothing - do a visual check when you remove them.

Another effective deterrent is the use of an aerosol clothing spray containing Permethrin, a neurotoxin. It remains effective even after 4-5 washings, and does an excellent job of keeping ticks off you. Be warned that Permethrin is dangerously toxic to cats and fish, so if you have these in your home it is not advised to use this method. DEET is excellent as a mosquito repellent, but is less effective for ticks. Because it is applied to the skin rather than clothing, DEET has a number of unpleasant downsides to it. Still, the DoD (US military) recommends using both Permetrhin for clothing and DEET for skin to prevent tick bites. Personally I stay away from DEET unless swarmed by mosquitoes.

Ticks are not usually a problem on feet, though they can become lodged in the crevices of shoes or embedded in socks. These should be checked if you have traveled through a tick zone.

A selfish method of defense is to have your hiking partner go first along the route. This seems to attract 75-90% of tick encounters. This knowledge can be used in a more altruistic manner if you have a member of your party that is particularly squeamish in regards to these pests - have him/her go last.

First Aid

The best way to remove hard ticks is mechanically. Tweezers can be used to grasp the tick close to the skin and apply steady upward pressure without crushing or twisting the tick. If no tweezers are available, use your fingers. If the head becomes detached and stays in your skin, don't panic. Though common talk says you are screwed and will die of infection, this is hardly the case. When you get a chance, dig out the head with a sterile instrument - tweezers or the point of a knife. If available, apply an antiseptic to discourage infection. This will usually be the end of it. Watch for infection and see a doctor if one develops.

Other removal methods are generally less effective. These include smothering with creams, gels and toxic agents, applications of heat or cold, and other methods.

If you have been bitten long enough for the tick to get his head under your skin, keep an eye out for potential tick-borne illnesses. These are not illnesses that strike suddenly and kill you before you even get home, so don't panic. There are about 25,000 cases of Lyme disease reported each year in the US. Lyme disease has a classic circular red rash that appears around the bite area from 3-30 days after the bite. An infected person may also experience flu-like symptoms, such as headache, muscle soreness and fever, though without nasal congestion or runny nose. See a doctor if you suspect Lyme disease. A prompt course of antibiotics will generally cure you. Not all areas with ticks are prone to Lyme disease. Below is a map of the US with relative risks by area.

There are also approximately 800 cases of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever reported each year in the US, but the distribution is much broader than the name suggests. Early symptoms include fever, nausea, vomiting, headache, muscle aches and loss of appetite. Later symptoms include rashes, abdominal and joint pains. Treatment is with antibiotics and usually curative.

Further Reading

There certainly is a good deal more that can be said about ticks. Yes, they can kill you, but so can lightning, mountain lions, bears and a thousand other things. Though the risk of serious illness is non-zero even in California, I didn't want to focus on tick-borne diseases so much that it looks like a million other fear-mongerings that seem pervasive in public education these days. I'd hate to contribute to someone being afraid to venture out because of yet another thing to fear in the Wilderness. Mostly, ticks are a nuisance that can be dealt with in a straightforward and practical manner - they are not something to be feared. For those that would like more in-depth information, there is quite a bit available. Here's a start:

The California Department of Public Health


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-20 of 23

lcarreau - Apr 26, 2012 9:58 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Speaking of repellants.....

Back in the day, we also used the "heat from a cigarette" trick ...

at least, we thought it was a cigarette!

Bob Burd

Bob Burd - Apr 26, 2012 11:37 am - Hasn't voted

Reply to comments

Mechanical removal (i.e. tweezers) is the recommended method for tick removal nowadays.

DEET is not so great as a tick repellent. More information here.

Bill Reed

Bill Reed - Apr 27, 2012 8:54 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Reply to comments

Good info Bob, thanks! I'll look for some of that tick repellent before I run the "tick gauntlet" of southern Wyoming.

Sarah Simon

Sarah Simon - Apr 27, 2012 11:34 am - Voted 10/10

Brad Paisley

"I'd like to check you for ticks."

On a serious note - great article and very timely. This this past weekend I found a hitchhiker on a rock climb. Gave me the creeps. These little critters freak me out.



boyblue - Apr 28, 2012 7:48 pm - Voted 10/10

Knowledge is power...

...for the squeamish among us. Lot's of good info here that I wish I had back in the day.

Arthur Digbee

Arthur Digbee - Apr 29, 2012 8:11 am - Voted 10/10


Good, common sense tone to the article.

I remember having pants that looked like yours while eating dinner in the Ozarks, where one species drops from trees. Charming experience.


johnm - Apr 29, 2012 12:41 pm - Hasn't voted


Harkens memories of my early scouting adventures. One outing I ended up with a tick in the back of my neck just into the hair line. Tweezers were ineffective and the old match solution wasn't viable. One of the leaders applied melted butter and the bugger backed right out.

Also when returning home make sure to inspect your canine companion as well. Especially around the head and chest. We have given up taking our dog on certain hikes because of tick annoyance.


colinr - Apr 30, 2012 12:21 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Informative

Sometimes I find few or no ticks on me, but several on my dogs. On my dogs, ticks tend to try to imbed around the ears, chest, arm (leg) pits and groin area. I've recently tried tick collars in addition to Revolution flea prevention that is mildly effective against ticks. I haven't used anything that is totally effective yet.


colinr - Apr 30, 2012 12:47 am - Voted 10/10

Great summary

I frequent areas with ticks and have had a few burrow into me, so researching them is not new to me. I now get a lump and irrtitating itch that lasts for weeks to months if one manages to dig into me even for a short time. The article is a great summary of what I have found. My most frequent encounters with ticks are in the Diablo Range west of Henry Coe State Park. My most severe encounters have been around Junipero Serra Peak near the Ventana Wilderness. I susepct it is due to relatively high moisture levels and lack of severe winters on the Central Coast, but I generally recall finding ticks to be most bothersome January-April. Come to think of it, one latched onto my neck/hairline in the Ishi Wilderness (near Red Bluff) one Decemeber. I guess I'd point out, based on my experiences in non-alpine portions of CA, to be on your guard in winter/the rainy season in addition to the spring/summmer that follows.


MoapaPk - Apr 30, 2012 1:00 pm - Voted 10/10

good info, some comments

In the east, soft-shell ticks are a problem in some areas; tiny deer ticks in others. Even in parts of Nevada, soft-bodied ticks carry relapsing fever, which is fairly serious.

Once permethrin is dried onto your clothes, it isn't much of a health threat to cats. The big problem was when people would buy spray made for dogs (which one sprays directly on the dog), and spray cats. The toxic effects are much greater for cats than dogs. The concern for aquatic life comes mainly for people who buy large amounts of the pesticide, spray it over lawns, golf courses, restaurants, etc., and then have large quantities drain into Koi ponds and the like.

If you are confident in your handling of the stuff, you can buy bonide 13% permethrin, or even 37% SFR, and dilute it yourself (at least 20 to 50-fold), treating all your outdoor tick-susceptible clothes at once. Agway sells it, and there are only 2 states where you can't buy it without a permit. HOWEVER, the highly concentrated forms of permethrin are cut with Kerosene, and if you opt for the cheapy treatment, your clothes will smell like kerosene till the end of time.

My brother had Lyme disease, but caught it when he recognized the bulls-eye mark, so he didn't need the IV drip. However, I think only about 30% of infected people get the bulls-eye. ;^(

Brian C

Brian C - May 2, 2012 2:43 pm - Voted 10/10


That's all really. Nice article.


markhallam - May 3, 2012 1:22 am - Hasn't voted

Thanks Bob

This is really useful. I have picked up the odd tick in the hills in Scotland or other mountainous areas in the UK. Fortunatley they don't seem to attack en mass like you describe in the US - but even so, your very practical advice is useful and I picked up a few new tips.
Actually the biggest sufferer (albeit uncomplainingly) is our Golden Retriever - and having read your article I have a clearer impression of why.
Suggestion for dog owners: we have found that applying a double dose of his 3 monthly flea repellent to the scruff of his neck a week or so before visiting a ticky area works wonders. The brutes still attach but wither, die and drop off within 24 hours. (tempted to put the stuff on me... I think I would if it was as bad here as you describe in the US!).
Another suggestion: the little plastic 'tick-fork' you can get from Vets & pet shops to remove ticks from your dog works well with people - to remove without crushing or leaving bits stuck in you.
Cheers, Mark

Bob Burd

Bob Burd - May 3, 2012 2:34 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Thanks Bob

Please don't get the impression that ticks are a serious scourge all over the US. Even in California where these photos were taken, most places are tick-free or nearly so. The Diablo Range (maybe it has that name for a reason?) is generally hot and dry, almost all private property and far less scenic than rest of the state - I just happen to like even the undesirable parts of California. :-)

genfitydruk - May 3, 2012 9:56 am - Hasn't voted


I would also encourage people to vaccinate themselves agains tick-borne encephalitis. I did not do it unfortunately and got the disease from the first tick in my life. I spent 10 days in hospital having awful headaches and high fever and got remaining complications. And I was even a lucky person, during the hospital stay I heard lots of stories about people with the same disease but far worse outcome. Hence, be aware of the risks and care more about yourself than I did (I had no idea that TBE might be that awful).

Bob Burd

Bob Burd - May 3, 2012 12:34 pm - Hasn't voted


More info on TBE:
"TBE is an important infectious disease of in many parts of Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Asia, corresponding to the distribution of the ixodid tick reservoir. The annual number of cases (incidence) varies from year to year, but several thousand are reported annually, despite historical under-reporting of this disease.

A vaccine is available in some disease endemic areas (though not currently in the United States); however, adverse vaccine-reactions in children limit the utility of the product."


Note that the vaccine mentioned is not available in the US and not helpful unless traveling to parts of the world where it is a problem.

Also from the CDC:

"TBE is endemic in temperate regions of Europe and Asia (from eastern France to northern Japan and from northern Russia to Albania) and up to about 4,921 ft (1,500 m) in altitude. Russia has the highest number of reported TBE cases, and western Siberia has the highest incidence of TBE in the world. Other countries where the incidence is high include the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, and Switzerland. High vaccination rates in Austria have reduced the incidence of TBE; however, unvaccinated travelers to this country are still at risk. European countries with no reported cases are Belgium, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Asian countries known to be endemic for TBE include China, Japan, Mongolia, and South Korea.

The overall risk of acquiring TBE for an unvaccinated visitor to a highly endemic area during the TBEV transmission season has been estimated at 1 case per 10,000 person-months of exposure."

Arthur Digbee

Arthur Digbee - May 10, 2012 5:49 pm - Voted 10/10


The version of the vaccine they use in Austria requires three applications spaced some time apart to be fully effective - not much use for casual travelers. When we lived there, no one mentioned the side effects on kids.


Ze - May 5, 2012 9:15 pm - Voted 10/10

tick twister


Tick Twister, twist that tick right off!

I've always wanted to get one, but I've never actually found a tick on me (and I have hiked through a lot of brush).


colinr - May 6, 2012 6:58 pm - Voted 10/10

Some Sources

While checking conditions on a forest service website, I came across a link to the most thorough resources for tick research and education that I had ever seen in one place before (especially useful in California): http://www.cdph.ca.gov/HEALTHINFO/DISCOND/Pages/TickBorneDiseases.aspx

After showing a western fence lizard (blue belly) to the kids yesterday evening, I was glad to see their role in preventing the spread of lyme disease mentioned in this presentation (slide 28): http://www.cdph.ca.gov/HealthInfo/discond/Documents/TBDPhysicianTutorial.PDF

http://www.cdph.ca.gov/HealthInfo/discond/Documents/TicksInTheWorkplaceFactSheet.pdf : "Tick season-- In California, adult ticks are most common in fall and winter. Small immature, nymphal ticks are common in spring into summer and are the primary vector of Lyme disease to people."

Earlier this week I found three on my legs after one of my usual trail runs in the foothills of the Diablo range, and only one on each dog. Later in the week, I was grateful to find none after another run on the same route.


Marmaduke - May 22, 2012 2:35 pm - Voted 10/10

Very well done Bob.....

and that is per my mother-in-law who is very well educated on the subject of tick-born diseases. The Sonoma Valley where we live is a real hot spot for ticks and various agencies have done studied here over the years. My mother-in-law was at the forefront of most of the studies working with UCD, CDHS, CDC and others. So a compliment from her (they're hard to come by) is real kudos!!! her only suggestion was a link to CDHS California for updates that might come forth. Nice work.


Redwic - Jun 3, 2012 3:06 am - Voted 10/10

Thank you for this article!

I really enjoyed reading this article. Ticks really tick me off, sometimes. I am not a fan of them.

I sometimes get funny looks from people when they see my shirt tucked into my pants and pants tucked into my socks. This article helps show those antics are not so crazy, after all.

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