Ticks are an unwelcome, but prevalent companion for many who enjoy the outdoors. They are especially common throughout the Northeast and even long cold winters do little to tamp down the population. Although most tick bites come from ticks in your own backyard, you’ll want to educate yourself on tick prevention before venturing into the woods for your next outdoor adventure. Prevention is absolutely the best approach when it comes to avoiding tick bites and disease.
Wearing light-colored garments makes it easier to spot a tick crawling on you. Ticks latch easily onto coarser weaves, such as those in heavy canvas pants; opt instead for smoother, tightly woven fabrics. Another standard recommendation is to tuck your pants into your socks to prevent ticks from crawling out of sight underneath your clothing. Applying permethrin and/or DEET to your clothing and shoes will also establish a powerful barrier against your Lilliputian foes. Ticks die quickly when they encounter this powerful toxin. You can apply it yourself with over-the-counter sprays and washing treatments (be sure to closely follow application instructions) or purchase pretreated clothing from companies such as Insect Shield. Treating your footwear is one of the most effective defenses against tick nymphs, which commonly lurk in leaf litter on the forest floor. Adult ticks, on the other hand, will climb up on tall grass and low-lying bushes, allowing them to latch on at the calf or above. Wear treated pants and shorts to fend them off. For maximum protection, wear treated clothing from top to bottom.
Insect Repellant Options: DEET vs. Picaridin
For more than 60 years, DEET has reigned as the undisputed champion of insect repellents. No longer. There’s now a potentially better alternative on the market: picaridin. Both DEET and picaridin are proven to be effective at fending off ticks—and are superior to other repellents when it comes to protection time. But which one is really the best?
Deet is the original insect repellent standard. Developed by the U.S. Army in 1946, DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) is a synthetic chemical that provides one to six-plus hours of complete protection against mosquitoes, depending on its concentration. DEET has been used billions of times by hundreds of millions of people (including an estimated 30 percent of the U.S. population each year). When properly applied, it has virtually no proven adverse health effects, though in rare cases a contact skin rash can result from exposure. The EPA has completed several comprehensive assessments of DEET over the years (most recently in 1998) and concludes that repellents containing DEET do not present a health concern as long as consumers follow label directions.
But DEET has some notable drawbacks. It imparts a greasy feel to the skin upon application. It emits a distinctive—and to many, unpleasant—odor. And it has the ability to dissolve certain plastics and some synthetic materials, including rayon, spandex, and vinyl. This is a particular hazard for sunglasses and plastic eyeglass lenses. (It has no effect on nylon, wool, or cotton.)
Picaridin is a newer option. Created by Bayer in the 1980s, picaridin (pronounced pih-CARE-a-den) is a synthetic compound developed from a plant extract from the genus Piper, the same plant genus that produces table pepper. Picaridin has been available since 1998 in Europe and Australia—where it is the best-selling insect repellent—but was approved for sale in the United States only in 2005. (You may see it listed as KBR 3023, Bayrepel, or icaridin.) As with DEET, the EPA has concluded that the normal use of picaridin does not present a health concern.
Studies have shown picaridin to be slightly more effective than DEET in repelling mosquitoes, and equally as effective as DEET against ticks. Unlike DEET, however, picaridin is odorless, non-greasy, and does not dissolve plastics or other synthetics. The one possible concern with picaridin is its relative newness. Insufficient time has passed for long-term health risks (should they exist) to manifest themselves. A limited, but growing, number of repellents contain picaridin, including Cutter Advanced, Sawyer Premium, and Repel Smart Spray.
Users should note that the percentage of DEET or picaridin in a repellent determines its protection time, with higher concentrations offering longer protection. DEET is available in concentrations from 4 percent to 100 percent; picaridin levels range from 7 to 20 percent.
Carefully Check for Ticks
After spending time outside, it is wise to do a thorough check for ticks on yourself, children, and pets. Pay particular attention to the warm, moist corners below the waist where ticks love to hide. Further, ticks require moisture to survive and will rapidly desiccate and die in dry conditions. Run tick-exposed clothes in the dryer for 10 minutes on high and crisp’em to death.
Items to Add to Your Backpack
- Tick removing tool like the Pro-Tick Remedy
- Small plastic magnifying glass
- AMC’s Mountain Skills Manual– A comprehensive guide that covers the essential skills every hiker and backpacker must know about trip planning, clothing, gear, food, navigation, setting up camp, and mountain safety, while experienced backpackers will benefit from the detailed discussions of weather, winter skills, ultralight backpacking, and group leadership.
For more resources on ticks and Lyme disease, visit The American Lyme Disease Foundation.