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Section Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Avoiding Ticks

by Ray Jardine

An adult tick on my finger, encountered along the Appalachian Trail (AT).

"This essay is based on a lifetime familiarity with ticks. I have been hiking and camping in the wilds - avidly - for almost 70 years, starting in 1950."

In my book “Trail Life” I have written much about avoiding unfavorable encounters with animals large and small, including a lengthy chapter on ticks.

Lyme disease and other tick-borne maladies have become much more of a health concern, so I wrote a more detailed chapter for my "Tarp Book Essential."

And now that our Ray-Way Shell Pants are available, in Kit form, I would like to write a few more tick-preventative measures here, for all to read.

I do not claim to be an expert on ticks, tick-related diseases, or anything else related to hiking. What I know about hiking I learned first hand, often by making mistakes. And the same holds true with ticks. The story that follows is simply a recounting of some of my experiences with ticks and a certain tick-borne malady.

Tick-Borne Disease

After writing Trail Life, I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail a second time, (2009) wearing our version of spandex hiking shorts. I slept under a tarp, in a net-tent that had a flap extension to close the door.

One early morning in Virginia, I had been hiking for about an hour - in the dark - and the day was just getting light, when I found several ticks on my bare legs. On closer inspection I counted seven; and five of them had bitten in. Using tweezers I carefully pulled each one out, by its head. Then throughout the day I found several more, and four of those had managed to bite.

I had covered my legs and arms with DEET at the start of the day, and a few times thereafter - for the mosquitoes, mainly. However, the ticks seemed to be ignoring the DEET. And the ticks were not wandering around on the skin for an hour or so, while searching for the best place to bite, as most ticks I had seen in the past do. Instead, they seemed to be latching on, and digging right in.

After that day, I continued to find the occasional tick on me, but it wasn't until forty days later, in Vermont (Manchester Center), that I noticed an odd rash developing on the back of my calf. I had not seen a tick in several weeks, and had not noticed any that had bitten in since that day in Virginia when I had received nine tick bites. And none of those bites had occurred at the site of the present redness. So here in Massachusetts I figured I had merely banged my leg during a fall earlier that day while slipping in the mud. For after all, my leg was starting to become tender in the area of redness. Yet this was perplexing because the fall itself had not been too painful.

The rash was circular in shape and 2-1/4 inches in diameter. And within the next few hours it became so cherry red that it seemed like it would be visible for a mile. Later that day I met an experienced hiker who looked at the rash and said, “Yeah, that’s poison ivy all right. I’ve had it that bad before, and it looked just like that.”


Rash on the back of my calf, below the knee.

A week or so later, in another trail town (Hanover NH), I met a local who had worked as a nurse. She looked at the rash and generously offered to drive me to the hospital. I didn't think it was Lyme disease, mainly because the rash was not a classic bulls-eye red ring with the normal coloring of the skin inside the ring. My rash was a round patch of solid red. And anyway, I was reluctant to delay my journey in order to visit a doctor. Especially because I was already carrying the specific antibiotics most often prescribed. But since I did not believe I had contracted Lyme, I was reluctant to start taking the medicine.

During the next six weeks my hiking proved much slower. The calf muscles in that leg had stiffened painfully, and every time I stopped, I had a lot of trouble getting going again. After standing back up, I had to wait a few moments until the throbbing pain stopped, before putting weight on the leg, then I had to perform the usual calf-stretching exercises before I could start walking. Even so, I enjoyed the natural beauty of the trail environs through Maine, and of course the journey’s unending sense of adventure. I reached trail’s end on the summit of Mt. Katahdin, and returned home.

Matured rash near trail’s end.

Within the next week the pain and red rash slowly diminished. So thinking all was well, I went for a three-mile run.

Two days later I found myself in an ambulance, riding stiff as a board en route to the hospital. The doctors administered three shots of morphine, and took an MRI. Their conclusion was that I had simply over-exerted, and they advised a few days of rest.

I did not believe that I had simply over-exerted, so after more consultations with other doctors, I finally managed to convince one doctor to at least test my blood for a tick-related disease, which I now thought I had - simply because the symptoms were all pointing in that direction. The blood tests came back “positive,” so I was put on a heavy course of oral antibiotics. And during the next two months I slowly regained health.

It was now three months after returning home from the AT, when at last I could hike again. I began training, and four months later, in March of 2010, I flew to Georgia and set off once again on the Appalachian Trail.

It might seem ironic that I would want to return to the AT. But I had learned some valuable lessons from my bout with Lyme disease, in terms of preventive measures, and I wanted to take those lessons back to the trail, along with many other new ideas. Mainly, though, I had enjoyed the adventure, and I wasn’t finished hiking quite yet.

For the 2010 journey I had made a few changes in my clothing and gear, with the intent of taking every possible precaution against ticks. I hiked in the same spandex shorts as a matter of comfort. But this time I wore an earlier version of the Ray-Way Shell Pants over them, not only because I had to, in order to guard against ticks, but I found them comfortable as well. I also tucked the bottom of the pant legs into my socks. In addition, back home I had treated the socks and shoes with Permethrin. And I redesigned the net-tent, which I called the Spitfire, and that featured a set of zippers that closed the door tightly. And finally, I hiked the trail in early season, when the ticks were fewer.

The ticks were fewer, alright. Although the locals were starting to see a few ticks in their yards and in their nearby woods, I did not see a single tick during those three and half months.

The Ray-Way Shell Pants


On the summit of Mt. Moosilauke wearing the Ray-Way Shell Pants.

Jumping ahead to the present time, now 2018, I have hiked the AT yet a fourth time - and still have not seen any more ticks. I attribute this largely to hiking in the Ray-Way Shell Pants. These pants have made a huge difference in my AT hiking. So I would like to explain how they work.

For starters, I concur that the single most important protective measure that a hiker can take, is to wear long pants that cover the legs, and to tuck the pant legs into the socks. This prevents ticks from climbing up one's bare legs. This advice (wearing long pants and tucking them into the socks) is well known and widely promoted - but I have seen very few hikers who actually follow this advice - including me in 2009.

And even though tucking the pant legs into the socks would prevent ticks from climbing up one's bare legs, the ticks can still climb up the outside of the pant legs, and reach the areas of the hiker's body above the waistline.

However, the Ray-Way Shell Pants are so slippery that ticks can't hang on very well. They crawl onto the pants, and simply fall off. And that's why I believe I haven't seen a tick since I started wearing these pants. I also have taken several other precautions, while hiking, and I will get to them shortly. But for now, a big caveat: I am not making any guarantees about the effectiveness of these pants, and whether the ticks can hang-on to this fabric or not. Instead, I'm talking percentages.

After my bout with Lyme disease, I consider these Shell Pants are to the hiker almost as the parachute is to the skydiver. When jumping out of an airplane, there's no guarantees that the parachute will work. But the odds for one's safety are sure better than not having a parachute.

There is no guarantees that the Shell Pants will prevent tick bites, but the odds are sure better than not wearing them.

Ticks on Brush-Free Trail

Conventional wisdom also states that ticks climb a short ways onto low vegetation, and then grab on to an animal (or a person’s leg) as the animal happens by. This is surely evident in many cases, and it makes one appreciate the volunteer weed-whackers who labor to keep the trail corridors free of brush. Hiking a brush-free trail is certainly much safer than thrashing through the bush in terrain known for ticks.

However, I would like to suggest an added scenario that might also explain how ticks manage to latch onto a hiker. I wonder how often ticks crawl up the hiker’s shoes or boots, directly from the ground. It might seem unlikely that after a tick gets stepped on, it latches onto the bottom of a hiker’s shoe or boot, and somehow manages to crawl onto the sides of the footwear and proceeds from there. But I think it must happen, based on the many times - in years past - when I have found a tick on my shoes, socks or legs while hiking a brush-free trail. I know that ticks are difficult to kill by squashing them, especially on soft ground. So I think the theory is plausible. In fact, I wonder if ticks sometimes grab onto to foot pads of other animals in the same way.

Likely or not, once a month while hiking, I spray the very soles of my shoes with Permethrin, as well as the sides and toe areas. I also spray the socks, but only on the outsides. I avoid applying this chemical to anything that would lie against the skin. And therefore I avoid soaking the socks in liquid Permethrin. Also, I don’t treat my shell garments, because they are so effective at rebuffing ticks that I don’t feel the need to spray or soak them. and anyway, I don't want to expose my skin to this harsh chemical (even though it is reputed to have a generally low mammalian toxicity). and with the pant legs untreated, I am free to tuck them into the socks.

For an AT hike during the summer, when the ticks are more numerous, I would treat my shoes and socks more often, maybe a few times a month, and treat my backpack as well.

Permethrin Treated Shoes and Socks

I am not an expert on Permethrin, and don't know how fast it kills ticks, nor how long-lasting it is, despite the marketing claims. And maybe the fact that I did not find any ticks on my shoes and socks that summer of 2010 was more of a coincidence. After all, I hiked the trail in early season when the ticks were fewer. So my hike was not the best possible test of this chemical deterrent.

Moreover, I am skeptical of anyone who claims they remained tick-free by only treating their footwear with this chemical. Maybe this chemical helped, or maybe it did not - who is to say? There are so many other ways that a tick can reach a person's body rather than climbing up the shoes or boots. So I don’t consider this chemical the ultimate deterrent.

“in 40 years of hiking with DEET, I have seen no evidence of it repelling ticks.”

Tick "Repellent"

The majority of hikers wear shorts in the summer months, especially in hot and humid weather. And many apply DEET on their bare legs to repel ticks, while hiking in geographic areas known for ticks. And that brings me to another conventional factoid, which is that DEET repels ticks. I consider this chemical a most effective mosquito repellent, if used with discretion, and by those who are tolerant to it (my tolerance seems to vary, year by year). But in 40 years of hiking with DEET, I have seen no evidence of it repelling ticks.

It is common knowledge among hikers that DEET does not do a very good job at repelling blackflys or nats. It's easy for a hiker to test that for himself or herself. A hiker apples a fresh coat of DEET and the blackflys and nats keep pestering and wanting to suck blood. Therefore, DEET is not a magic bullet. It does not repel all biting insects, flying or crawling. In my experience, it works only for mosquitoes.

If a person applies DEET to a large area of the skin, the ticks will not simply drop off, as might be expected - even with a heavy application of 100% strength. Ticks are much too motivated to be that easily dissuaded. And because they cannot fly away, as mosquitoes do, they simply crawl around on the person looking for an untreated area of skin.

And what if the coating of this chemical was only lightly applied, say five hours ago? The ticks would just as likely ignore it altogether.

I posted some of these thoughts on my website a year before writing TBE, and received this reader’s concurrence:

“After applying a band of DEET, about three inches wide, on pants I was wearing, I tested the effectiveness with several ticks. They climbed steadily up the pants leg, and right over the DEET without hesitation, as if it weren’t even there, and kept right on climbing. I got the rash once and did the course of antibiotics. Ticks are a pain. Looking forward to your shells.” - Robert B.

Back to the day in Virginia when I received nine tick bites: I started the the day by spraying my legs with DEET. and I have many more examples of this, going back to our hikes of the PCT, and earlier to the time when DEET first became available to hikers - of ticks ignoring DEET. It works great for repelling mosquitoes, but not for ticks.

Sitting on the Ground

Most hikers stop every now and then, during the day, to take rest breaks, maybe eat some lunch, visit with other hikers, or just to give the feet a rest. And some of those hikers will simply sit or lay on the ground. Doing so increases ones exposure to ticks dramatically. A tick, crawling on the ground (or through the leaf litter or pine needles), can “smell” the CO2 and "feel" the warmth (sense the infrared) given off by the hiker (or animal) and will head straight for it.

I don't take many rests during the day, but in order to lessen the risks of attracting ticks, I avoid sitting on the ground (when in tick-inhabited terrain). Instead, I continue hiking until I find a rock or log to sit on (or a shelter platform). If I can’t find such an object, I keep hiking until I do find one. The rock or log is not guaranteed to be free of ticks, but at least the chances are less. And because the rock or log is bare, it is easier to inspect for ticks. The ground itself is usually covered in leaves and forest debris, so any ticks down there are much less visible. And as mentioned, I normally sit on the rock or log in my shell pants, as added protection.

Ticks Acquired from the Backpack

In 2009 I found a few ticks on my backpack after picking it up off the ground. From that I learned to be more careful of setting the pack on the ground. Ticks seem to “smell” a person’s backpack by the odors and sweat that he or she leaves on it. So to a tick, a person’s backpack might smell rather like the person who carried it. And of course, to a tick, that “smell” means a banquet.

When resting, I usually lay my backpack on the same rock or log that I am sitting on, to keep it off the ground. But my backpack is sufficiently light in weight so that I can also hang it on nearby objects by a shoulder strap - such as a tree branch or fence-post.

I set my backpack on the ground for only a few minutes when making camp; however, only in early or late season when the ticks are far fewer. In the height of summer, I keep my pack off the ground, even at camp. Also in summer I spray my backpack with Permethrin in those areas where it would contact the ground. And I would avoid using backpack treated with this chemical as a pillow at night.

AT-style shelters vs the Ray-Way Net-Tent

In my opinion, sleeping on the ground, inside a Net-Tent with its zippered door closed, offers far greater protection from ticks than sleeping in an open AT-type shelter.

The shelters are often occupied by several hikers, and ticks can come off any one's clothing, socks, boots or backpack. So any ticks found in a shelter were most likely brought there by hikers who unknowingly picked them during the course of the day’s hiking. And sooner or later any such ticks will likely make their way toward the closest warm-blooded creature - a hiker.

In a net-tent, I am protected inside a tick-proof netting enclosure that is sealed from the outside with a zippered door. So ticks cannot reach me. And before getting into the net-tent, I check my body and legs under the clothing. In fact I do this at frequent intervals throughout the day. And once inside the net-tent, I remove my socks and pants and inspect them for ticks. And check my body, legs and feet by sight and by feel. (A tick feels like a mole that you didn't know you had.)

Nor do I mind kneeling on the ground while preening the area under the tarp of any sticks and pine cones, and then spreading the net-tent and hanging it from the tarp. while doing these jobs, my tick-proof shell pants are protecting my knees and legs. In 2009 I wore shell pants only when making camp. So then how did I get bit? By hiking in shorts.

During my 2009 AT hike, I met about two dozen thru-hikers who had been treated for tick-related diseases. Nearly all of them had been sleeping in shelters. This is not to imply that they contracted the disease in the shelters. But it certainly does suggest that the shelters are not the answer to the safety of thru-hiking in tick-inhabited terrain.

Of course I heard dozens more second-hand stories of others who had experienced tick related maladies. No one knows how many people contract tick-related diseases on the Appalachian Trail each summer, but it must be more than several thousand. Maybe even tens of thousands. And a fair percentage where wearing DEET, trusting this chemical as a tick repellent (as advised by the ATC).

In any case, I think that most hikers who contract a tick-related disease, including me, picked up the ticks unknowingly while hiking on the trail or resting beside it. No doubt some people are bitten while staying in the shelters or camping in tents or hammocks, or under a tarp, or in a bivy sack. But my impression is that most bites occur while the person is hiking along the trail or resting beside it.

I have slept in the At shelters only a handful of times, but when I do, I use my Net-Tent as a bivvy sack, spreading the Net-Tent on the bunk, placing the foam pad and quilt, and after crawling in, zipping the door closed. It adds a bit of warmth, and protects from ticks. And best of all, it keeps my foam pad and quilt off the floor of the bunk.

Also, I think that sleeping in a hammock does not offer protection from ticks. Most hammock sleepers do not disrobe and check their bodies and clothing for ticks, before getting into the hammock. This is especially true in the presence of mosquitoes and blackflies, where the hammock sleeper is in a hurry to get into the protection of the sleeping bag. They tend to wear their clothing at night, or at least place some of it in bed with them, unchecked. Any ticks not found on the clothing will migrate to the person's skin. And any on the skin will bite, regardless of the presence of DEET.

Once I get into my Net-tent, I am protected from the mosquitoes and blackflies. So I can take my time removing clothes and socks for inspection. And I can check my bedding, foam pad, and floor of the Net-Tent before laying down.

Hiking Solo

In 2009 I found only two ticks that had bitten me above the legs. One had embedded in my hand, and the other had bitten into my ear. I discovered this second one by feel. Being alone I could not see it.

Hiking solo, if I feel something unusual on the back of the torso or neck, I might snap a few close-up photos with my camera, then look at the photos. Or if other hikers are present, I might ask one of them to check the back of my neck, visually, when I can feel a suspicious bump (insect bite).

Larvals, Nymphs, and Adults

Ticks have four lifecycle stages: egg, larva (juvenile), nymph, and adult. Each phase takes at least a year to complete.

A tick in the larval (or juvenile) stage of growth is not pathogenic.

When a tick hatches, it is disease-free. So the tiny larval ticks (also called juveniles) generally do not transmit Lyme's.

The larval ticks feed only once, on the blood of small mammals and birds, primarily. And that is when they can become infected with pathogens. After their first meal, they return to the ground where they molt into nymphs while hibernating until the next season.

Nymphs are about 1/2 to 1/3 the size of an adult, and can be very dangerous.

Ticks in the nymph stage are the most dangerous. While they are equally infective as the adults, they are smaller and harder to spot.

Nymph ticks also feed only once. After their blood meal, they return to the ground and hibernate for another year, while molting into adults.

A tick in the larval (or juvenile) stage of growth. Photo taken on the AT. The juvenile is not too dangerous. Good thing, because most hikers never even see them. Why? Because they are not looking for something that small. But under a magnifying glass, they look like adults, in miniature.

Of the dozens of ticks I saw that summer of 2009, about 50% were adults, 30% were nymphs, and the rest were larval ticks.

I have noticed, during all my AT hiking, that the locals often believe the small ticks are not dangerous. Only the big ones are. This is true, but I think the "small ticks" they are referring to are actually nymphs, which in fact are the most dangerous of all. And in my experience they can be rather quick to feed. So they are more likely to finish their blood meal before being discovered. And they are difficult to remove as well, because the head is often buried beneath the skin and is difficult to grab.

The larvals are so tiny that very few people see them. And when they do see them, they do not realize they are ticks. They look more like flecks of dirt. The larvals will bite just as voraciously, but they are not infected. However, they can be difficult to remove, because there is hardly anything to grab.

For this I carry a pair of fine-tipped tweezers encased in a length of clear plastic tubing to prevent the sharp tips from digging into anything else in my ditty bag. And in that ditty bag is a small plastic bottle of topical antiseptic (rubbing alcohol).

Signs of Lyme

The red bullseye rash is not always present in cases of tick-borne disease. So it is important that the hiker take all the tick-bite preventive precautions, and not to ignore any unusual symptoms, whether a red rash appears or not. Not all strange symptoms are indications of tick-related disease - far from it. But these diseases can be dangerous if not treated promptly. And as I learned, they are not to be ignored in hopes that they will ameliorate. So if you are experiencing peculiar symptoms, leave the trail right away and seek medical advice.

Although I was carrying the needed antibiotics during my hike, they did me no good sealed inside my ditty bag. My mind came up with good reasons why I did not have Lyme. At least those reasons sounded good to me; but they were not true. In retrospect, I was hiking in denial, and thinking that the rash and stiffness was only a case of poison ivy, or a bad bruise.

The Blood Cleaner

During the winter months of 2015 I was thinking of yet another AT hike, but my old Lyme disease had begun to resurface from deep within. This time it manifested as something like chronic fatigue syndrome. I had no energy. None. Zero. It seems that despite having completed a heavy-duty course of antibiotics, the disease had taken root in the body and was not letting go. The doctors forbade any more antibiotics, so about all I could do was ride it out. I spent a month laying in bed.

But then one day I remembered the Blood Cleaner, stuffed away in a drawer. I had used it many years ago for a chronic case of malaria. And for that it had worked amazingly well.

So I began using the Blood Cleaner daily, in hopes that it would work also for Lyme's.

In the next few days I started feeling better. Ten days later I started training for my next AT hike. And before long I was able to run some of the local trails.

The difference was amazing! And to make a long story short, I was able to hike 1,166 miles of the AT that year.

How does the Blood Cleaner work?

Sixty years ago, a team of medical doctors figured out that if they took some infected blood out of a person's body, and treated it with a certain type of electric current, the current would kill the pathogens in that blood.

This worked because a person's blood is very conductive electrically, owing to the high salt content. In fact, most of the salt in a person's body is contained in the blood. And also because the pathogens are tiny and very susceptible to an electric current.

Twenty-five years ago, a pair of scientists tried inserting two electric probes into a person's arteries. This had the same effect of killing pathogens in the bloodstream. The advantage was that the person's blood could remain in the body.

Then a few years later, a brilliant engineer devised a method of placing the probes externally on the skin, and the predetermined micro-current waveform sent these currents through the skin and into the arteries. This new method was super effective. This man passed away, and I'm carrying on where he left off. You can read more about this history on my Blood Cleaner page.

A few notes:

I recommend taking the antibiotics as the first line of defense.

A doctor-prescribed course of antibiotics, started soon after the bite, can be quite effective. But if the person does not take the antibiotics soon enough, or not at all, then the disease can become quite serious. The Blood Cleaner can be very effective at killing Borrelia type bacteria in a person's blood.

Please note that I am not claiming the device will cure Lyme Disease. My only claim is that the device kills or disables pathogens in the blood, and thereby strengthens the person's immune system.

*   *   *  

Because the Blood Cleaner has worked so well for me, I have, in turn, worked hard on the device, making it more powerful, miniaturizing the circuitry, and making it available to anyone else in need. More info: the Blood Cleaner

Our Blood Cleaner is an electro-medical device that kills pathogens in a person's bloodstream. It works by sending pulsed micro-currents through the skin and into the blood vessels of the wrist. These pulsed micro-currents are barely felt by the person, only a slight tingling, but they are lethal to any harmful microorganisms found in the blood.

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