Varmint of the Trail

No need to avoid the outdoors, just protect yourself

There isn’t a warm summer day on the trails when insects do not approach hikers with a hungry determination to feed on fresh blood. Yet most insects are rebuffed by the smell of Deet or Permethrin. The ones who ignore the warning smell and attack are likely to find an inglorious end from a swift slap of the hand.

Flies, fleas, chiggers, and biting insects are annoying but can be dealt with. A good bug spray will keep them at bay. Ticks, on the other hand, are like stowaways. With their hind legs holding onto leaves, tips of grasses, or shrubs and with their forearms outstretched, they quickly get on board when hikers or dogs brush the spot where they have been waiting.

Once on board a host, the tick either attaches quickly or wanders in search for an inviting feeding spot, then inserts a feeding tube in and anesthetizes the spot so as to not be disturbed during meal time.

The blacklegged tick, also called deer tick, is common in our area and is known to spread Lyme and other tickborne diseases. Each year more than 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported nationwide, while studies suggest the actual number of people diagnosed with Lyme disease is more likely about 300,000.

Lyme disease

Lyme disease is transmitted to humans or animals through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks who carry the bacteria Borrelia Burgdorferi. The early signs and symptoms of Lyme disease appear within 3 to 30 days after a tick bite and include fever, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes.

Within about 7 days after a tick bite, the majority of infected people can see a rash growing from the tick bite up to 12 inches large, resulting in a target or “bull’s-eye” appearance. The rash is hot to the touch but neither itchy nor painful.

Untreated Lyme disease can produce a wide range of symptoms, depending on the state of infection. These include fever, rash, facial paralysis, and arthritis.

Lyme disease needs medical attention. Call your doctor if you get a fever or rash from a tick bite. Treatment with antibiotics in the early stages usually results in rapid and complete recovery. Untreated, the disease can lead to a chronic condition, which is more difficult to control.

Protecting against ticks

Should you avoid the great outdoors during the peak period of tick season, which stretches from early May to late September? Of course not. Fear of a tick bite is understandable but should not stop you from hiking, biking, camping, or simply being outdoors and enjoying summer to its fullest. It is imperative, however, that you take steps to prevent tick diseases. Follow these four steps:

  • Education: Many people do not know that they are at risk or what tickborne diseases are. Therefore, the first step of protecting against ticks is to learn about ticks. Tickborne  Diseases of the United States: A Reference Manual for Health Care Providers is issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is a most helpful educational resource.
  • Protective Clothing: Wear long and light-colored pants and a shirt with long sleeves. This advice may fall on deaf ears with younger hikers or runners. Light-colored clothing make it easier to spot a tick.
  • Repellents: Use insect repellent that contains 20 to 30 percent Deet on exposed skin for protection that will last several hours. On clothing, use products that contain permethrin. Treat clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks, and tents with products containing 0.5% permethrin.
  • Shower: Take a shower soon after having been outdoors, as it flushes unattached ticks off your body. Also put your clothes in the dryer on high heat for 60 minutes to kill any remaining ticks. Hiking equipment has to be investigated by hand for ticks.

Chemical vs. organic repellents

Deet is a chemical that was patented by the US Army in 1946 and is used as an effective mosquito repellent in different concentrations up to 100 percent. Prolonged exposure to Deet is reported to be harmful to human health, although short-term exposure in concentrations not exceeding 30 percent may not be harmful. Deet and Permethrin are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control as insect repellent.

Organic alternatives to chemical repellents consist of citronella, lemongrass oil, peppermint oil, and some other organic ingredients depending on the manufacturer. Not only do these bug sprays have a fresh lemon scent, they are effective against mosquitoes, fleas, chiggers, ticks, and other biting insects. In rainy conditions, organic bug sprays need not be reapplied to stay effective, which is not the case with Deet-based products.

Protecting dogs

Our furry friends are at risk of tick and insect bites just as much as we are. Therefore, treating dogs and cats for ticks and insects, as recommended by the veterinarian, is imperative. Hiking dogs are especially at risk to become hosts to ticks.

My own hiking companion, a Bernese mountain dog with a beautiful double coat, is a tasty trail snack for ticks–the love to hide in her soft and fluffy fur. Two years ago, a blood culture revealed that my dog had Lyme disease. The most recent serologic test indicated that she has an Ehrlichiosis infection, which is transmitted from a subspecies of the deer tick more prevalent from Florida to Texas. Both infections were brought under control with antibiotics. Because the infections were detected and treated, my hiking partner has recovered quickly and fully, and now runs to the car ready to jump in for the next adventure on the trails the moment I lace up my boots.

More Information

The CDC offers fact sheets on preventing and removing ticks as well as other helpful information, including when to see your doctor and information on recovery from Lyme.





About Andreas Keller 16 Articles
Andreas A. Keller is a passionate hiker, avid backpacker and the organizer of the Blue Mountain Hiking Club which can be found on He can also be reached via email at

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