It’s never a good sign when you’re traveling and you go to use the washroom, only to scream “WHAT THE $&%#” when you pull your trousers down. I have to admit, I have found myself in this undignified situation more than once! And my most memorable toilet travesty of all involved the discovery of a plump, well-fed tick happily embedded in my upper thigh.
I consider myself a tick-aware person, both because I have an adventure-loving dog who receives tick-protection medication each spring and also because I’m an avid reader of park newsletters every time we go camping. Thus, it was with a degree of overconfidence that I traipsed through life, convinced that ticks were only attracted to foolhardy adventurers and not generally cautious folks like me. But ever since that revolting moment when I saw myself as the proverbial moving feast for a most unwanted guest, my tick-avoidance game has been stronger than ever.
Being tick-cautious is increasingly important -- and it’s not just because of the ick factor. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are nine different kinds of ticks in the United States that bite people, including two kinds of deer ticks.
Many travelers have heard about “deer ticks” -- otherwise known as the blacklegged tick and the western blacklegged tick. And, yes, they do indeed bite deer as well as many other animals, including humans. But while these two species are widespread, all nine varieties are responsible for spreading extremely serious diseases as varied as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Powassan virus. And ticks are on the rise. Since the 1990s, the number of reported cases of Lyme disease has tripled in the United States and 2017 was a record-setting year in terms of tick-related disease diagnosis.
Strong preventative behavior is key to avoiding tick bites. This applies to everyone who is camping and hiking, and it’s not limited to being outdoors in rural areas. Ticks are found in urban centers, too.
In my case, I was visiting an open-air historical village museum in Nova Scotia when I discovered my unwanted guest. I hadn’t left the path, but leaning over some tall grass to get a photograph of a field probably brought me into contact with a few strands of long grass (and a tick waiting for its next meal).
The moral of my story? I’m apparently very unlucky -- and you don’t have to be doing an “outdoorsy” activity to come into contact with ticks!
Park rangers, hiking guides, tour operators, hotel owners, and tourism bureau staff are all great sources of information about ticks. In many cases, they can even pinpoint specific regions of campgrounds or certain hiking trails where ticks are especially prevalent. Don’t be shy about chatting with them!
Long, feathery blades of tall grass look graceful when they sway in the wind, but they’re a prime area for ticks. The same goes for areas of thick, dense underbrush. If camping, pitch your tent away from the edge of the campsite and bring along portable camp chairs to avoid sitting directly on the ground. Exercise caution on little-used hiking paths, where the brush and grasses are overgrown and may extend onto or over the main path.
Bare flesh is like a buffet to a tick! Long, loose layers are a comfortable form of prevention. As an added bonus, loose fabrics will keep you cool, provide some sun protection, and help keep mosquitoes at bay.
Ticks don’t care about fashion, but you should. That’s because dark colors and patterns make it easier for ticks to catch a ride without you noticing them.
Remember, ticks are natural masters of camouflage. Days after camping in southern Ontario, I discovered one on my faithful dog, Oliver. Ollie has white fur with black speckles -- speckles that look very much like ticks! This persistent biter went unnoticed by us, Oliver, and even the professional groomers that cleaned him up post-trip. While Ollie can’t change his style, everyone who can should choose clothing that makes it easy to spot a small, dark tick.
When hiking, tuck your trousers into your socks and shoes. Ticks are pros when it comes to migrating down clothing to find bare skin. The same goes for v-neck collars. If possible, button shirts all the way up and pop your collar up over your neck. You won’t win any fashion points, but everyone out on the trail will understand.
It’s not a perfect solution, but a tick repellent spray or lotion is an extra line of defense against ticks and other annoying biters.
For passionate hikers and campers, clothing specifically treated with tick repellent chemicals is available. It’s probably not the most economical choice for more casual outdoor enthusiasts, and it’s not a foolproof strategy, but it can be a prudent investment for serious outdoorsmen and women.
Post-camping, it’s tempting to collapse on your couch and chill with air conditioning and Netflix for a while. But before you zone out, wash all your clothing, bedding, and camping linens on the hot water cycle. Run dishes and plastic supplies through the dishwasher, and wipe down larger items with hot water, soap, and disinfectant.
Ticks are pros at hiding, and they’d like nothing better than to hang out at the bottom of your cooler or sleeping bag before nipping out for a midnight bite. Don’t give them a chance! As an added bonus, you’ll be thrilled come next year when all your gear is sparkling clean.
Not everyone is as “lucky” as me when it comes to spotting ticks. If you’re camping or traveling through a tick-prone area, periodic body checks are a smart idea. This doesn’t just mean a quick once-over while you’re in the shower. Ticks will happily attach themselves to any part of your body. That means your scalp, your ear crevices, and even...yep...in between your legs. The horror!
Consider all this tick checking an opportunity to have your cleanest, best-smelling camping trip ever, with thorough scrubbing and soaping, all in the name of inspecting every possible inch of your skin.
Ask your travel partner to look over your back and the top of your scalp or use a hinged double compact mirror to help with your inspections. If you’re bush camping away from spacious showers or comfort stations with large mirrors, a small clean towel can be used to give yourself a vigorous rubdown, limb by limb, to remove dirt and search for ticks.
If you are unfortunate enough to be bitten by a tick, stay calm and follow these steps: