Tick Season

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black legged deer tick on a blade of grass

Deer tick. Photo Credit: CDC.

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Tick season in New York technically begins mid-March but it really kicks off in April. Warm overnight temperatures and receding snow signal the beginning of spring — and ticks are ready to party.

Google searches for “tick bite” peak in the last week of May but, really, ticks are a serious problem spring, summer and fall.

Until the winter snow knocks them out and covers them up, you need to be prepared before you head outdoors.

Ticks & Lyme Disease

Commonly known as deer ticks, black-legged ticks transmit Lyme disease, Powassan virus and other infections. 

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by the bite of an infected deer tick. Lyme disease can cause a number of significant health problems. Antibiotics helps infected hosts recover rapidly and completely, but only if administered in the early stages of the infection.

Ticks can attach to any part of the human body but are often found in hard-to-see areas such as the groin, armpits, and scalp. In most cases, the tick must be attached for 36-48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted. Only infected ticks transmit disease and not all ticks are infected. (Source: Fairfax County / CDC.)

Ticks can be very small and difficult to spot, especially during their nymph stage. Many people don’t realize they have a tick on them until they scratch and feel an engorged foreign body on their skin.

Tick Season in the Catskills

Now for some good news: I’ve been hiking in the Catskills basically every week since 2018 and I have not once found a single tick on my body.

Sometimes, people do find ticks on themselves after a hike but the number seems very low — especially considering how busy our trails have been during the COVID pandemic.

My theory is that ticks are not so numerous on mountain hiking trails, and they seem more or less non-existent on upper elevations. Their main vectors — deer, rodents and birds — tend to be lower down and many are most numerous in and around urban and suburban areas.

A follower of my TotalCatskills Instagram account adds on this post that he does indeed find ticks on himself weekly after off-trail hiking, both down low and up high. For sure, bushwhacking will expose you to literal brushes against the vegetation on which ticks like to park themselves. On marked trails, your exposure is far lower. I bushwhack too. Not a ton, but some. Again, I’ve brought home zero ticks from the Catskills. YMMV.

Here, I should stress that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m not an epidemiologist or a tick habitat expert. I’m just a guy with a hiking website.

I also take a ton of precautions…

Tick Prevention: Physical

The four best physical things you can do to reduce your chances of getting bitten by a tick are:

  1. Stay on marked trails — this keeps you out of tall grass and the like, where ticks like to hang out and grab onto you as you brush past;
  2. If you‘re wearing long pants, tuck the cuffs into your socks — this prevents the ticks from crawling up your legs into your disco district;
  3. Wear light colored clothing — so you can see the little fuckers when they crawl on you;
  4. Check your entire body carefully after spending any time where ticks might have been.

If you do find a tick, crush it and flush it. No mercy.

Tick Prevention: Chemical

There are a number of excellent chemical treatments.

Repellent

I swear by Repel which is a Deet-free and non-toxic bug repellent made from oil of lemon eucalyptus. (It also keeps mosquitos and black flies at bay.)

Each application lasts about 6 hours — less on sweaty days — so you do need to reapply on longer hikes.

I spray all exposed skin (arms, neck, head, lower legs) and even my cap, if I’m wearing one.

A friend recently recommended Nantucket Spider Extra Strength Repellent Spray. She says Repel doesn’t work well for her, but swears by Nantucket’s stuff.

Other people prefer a Deet-based solution like Off! repellent, and that’s fine too.

As with all solutions, YMMV. Experiment with several products to see which works best for you.

Insecticide

For clothing, I spray everything with permethrin. This includes: pants, socks, teeshirts and caps — but also my hiking boots, backpack and gaiters.

Permethrin is non-toxic to humans and breaks down in the environment relatively quickly. However, insects can’t break it down before it destroys their nervous system. Basically, as soon as a tick crawls on your permethrin-treated clothing, it starts to die.

Each permethrin application lasts several washing cycles. Even during peak tick season, I only reapply every 4-6 weeks.

Full instructions come with each spray bottle.

Be aware that cats are more sensitive than dogs to permethrin, so keep those permethrin-treated clothes away from your Bella or Charlie.

Tick Season: Two Solutions

This double-layer of repellent (to stop things from touching me) and insecticide (to kill anything that touches me) has kept me trouble-free for years.

Tick Control for Dogs

Don’t forget that your dog needs protection too. Ticks love dogs and your dog will bring many, many ticks home.

Common solutions include Frontline, Advantix, and PetArmor.

NexGard, which is administered orally, is another solution. (Not available on Amazon for some reason…)

Some dog owners prefer an option like a Seresto collar.

Warning: in all cases, monitor your dog for adverse reactions to any new chemical treatments, especially in the first 24 hrs.

When I last had a dog, and we had a small flea infestation at home, I jumped on it with Vet’s Best Flea & Tick Home Spray which worked wonders on the couch where they had taken up residence.

BTW, if you’re hiking with your dog in warm weather, check out How to Hike Your Dog Safely When It’s Hot & Humid.

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Tick Removal

Removal can be tricky, especially with tweezers which be difficult to use on awkward-to-reach parts of your body. Using tweezers also runs the risk of breaking the tick which leaves its mouthparts intact. You don’t want that. 

A tick twister tool like this one, or this tick key tool which some people prefer, is your best bet. These tools slide right around a tick’s head and you just pull gently until the tick releases.

The result is a perfectly neat extraction in seconds, with nothing left behind to infect you.

I keep a tick twister as part of my basic hiking kit in the first aid box in my backpack.

Tick Bite Treatment

If you do find a tick on your body, even if it’s engorged, don’t freak out. It needs to be on there for quite a while before it transmits any bacteria.

If you feel like the tick has been on you longer than you’re personally comfortable with, first clean the bite mark with some alcohol.

Next, seal up the tick somewhere safe.

Then check with your doctor who may ask you to send the tick for testing.

Further Reading for Tick Season

Your comments are welcome here…

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