The Definitive Guide to Avoiding Ticks and Lyme Disease
I spend a lot of time in an area of the United States that is not only full of ticks but also lyme disease. I have thought long and hard about how not to contract lyme disease and since I thus far have not, I figured it would be a good thing to tell people how it is that I do it. It weighed on me for a long time and I suspect it weighs on many of lovers of nature, afraid to get out and enjoy what they love. It is important to understand a little bit about ticks if you are to avoid them.
I'll keep this as simple as possible. If you believe the statements usually propagated by various publications (I usually am pretty skeptical, and this is no different, but it does offer a starting point) then a tick needs at least several hours of embedding in your skin before lyme will be transmitted. This offers you a good opportunity to find all ticks before lyme is transmitted.
Another important detail with regards to ticks is that they climb. Firstly what this means is that they will generally attach to you slightly to several feet above ground, where they have walked up a plant that you then brush against. Probably your best bet for simple avoidance of ticks is to always be aware of making contact with as many plants as possible. I couldn't even begin to count the amount of times I brushed a plant, suspected I'd been infested, checked the location on my clothing and found the tick. The tick can be used to teach mindfulness and that is not all bad for sure. When I am in the woods I try to carry constant awareness of all plants and thus almost always get fewer ticks than those around me.
The Main Strategy to Avoid Tick Bites
The other aspect of climbing is that when a tick gets on you it almost always starts climbing up. And this here is the main part of my strategy. Pretty much every time I leave my house, my pants go in my socks, and my shirt goes in my pants. If you do this one simple thing you will find that it is nearly impossible to get tick bites. Consequently you cannpt where flip-flops, no socks, and shorts when you go into the woods. Preferably you need long white socks, pants, and shirt, all neatly tucked into the lower layer. This means that when a tick latches on your sock it must walk all the way up your body in order to find exposed skin. Wearing white will hopefully reveal its presence before it arrives at skin, and if it doesn't there is only one area of primary concern for you to pay attention to make sure you have no ticks, your neck and hair.
It is possible the tick will go down, find a gap between your sock - pants layer or your pants - shirt layer, but if 20 ticks is a years worth then 19 of them wont get anywhere close to your skin. Considering only 1 in 4 carry lyme even in highly lyme infected areas you already have decent odds.
Not Just a Mechanical Barrier
The next step to that process is to be aware of your skin. I mean most people consider their skin to be a huge portion of what they are, so why not make a habit of this as well? If you have been around any potentially infested areas you must consider every single tickle on your skin a tick. If you do this you will find that 1 tick that makes it beyond your mechanical barrier every single year. If I am in the woods and I have a suscipicious itch that I can't see with my eyes, I would rather scratch a hole in my skin than allow a tick to start sucking my blood. I have done this... it is not paranoia it is survival. On certain occasions you may have a camera with you, you can use that to see places your eyes can't reach. But by all means in every circumstance never ignore what your skin is telling you in tick country.
Another option is a spray made of certain fragrant plants that helps to repel bugs (the bug spray I use). I have perssonally found these sprays to be more useful at keeping mosquittos away but it doesn't take much extra effort to spray your pants as an added deterent.
It can be hard when you are in the wild over night. You don't have the same advantages as when you return to your house. You must become intimate with your hands and trust your sense of touch if you do not have a mirror. Always trust yourself, because if you don't you will increase your chances of missing the tick, because you will become cynical and give up sooner. Depending on the length of your stay in the wilderness and whether you are backpacking or away for the weekend you might want to completely change your clothes.
Completely Change Your Clothes
When I am done for the day with my woodland experience I go to a bin in my laundry room and remove all of my outer layers. Start with the lowest layer, your socks, and only proceed upward otherwise you allow the tick close to the interface between clothing layers to bypass your defense at the last minute. It may seem trivial but it is a certain possibility and that certain possibility should always be conquered by proper procedure so it never becomes a critical blunder. I then place them in the bin and take a shower. The bin should be sealed tight or surrounded by double sided tape and diatomaceous earth. The clothes are then moved from there directly to the washer, but in order to kill ticks it is recommended that you also place them in the drier. I am not a fan of this but I don't have any other method other than scanning every square centimeter with my eyes inside and out on all my clothes, if I had to I would but that is a great deal of work I simply don't have the energy for. I have found ticks in this special tick bin before and have no doubt to its efficacy.
Keeping Ticks off Pets
Again unless you want to douse your pet in poison like all the commercials reccomend, and then pet them, and consume that poison, there aren't a whole lot of choices. For my husky the only sure way is to never let him near undergrowth anymore. Is easy now since he is an old dog and only wants to sleep but when we were both young it was much harder. Back then I made concerted effort to get through all his malamute fur but invariably I missed some. Like the clothing your only choice is to fullly check your dog every time you return from the forests or meadows near you.
I have outlined these methods because they work for me. While I may be promoting complacency I also would like to note that for my location in gardening zone 5-6 I almost never find ticks in the summer, it is almost always several weeks in the spring and autumn. I do occasionally become complacent in summer, but just about always follow the rules I outlined above. I can't say I will never get a tick (again) or lyme but this is the method that makes me comfortable living my life in the woods as an active permaculture farmer, harvester, and general woodland manager. There are lots of other things people will tell you about potions and scents that will deter ticks, but these are adjuncts, what I have just told you is the only true alternative to dousing yourself in poison. A mechanical barrier will keep them off, a growing awareness of yourself and actions will assist as backup, and a reliable system to rid them from your clothes and pets without tracking them into your house are vital.
I tell you this not to make you worry but to empower you. You have been given skin which feels and clothing which protects. You have eyes to see and should learn to be aware and trust yourself. I know of way too many people who don't trust themselves and are afraid to be outside, or decide to just douse themselves in poison, but these are not good things. We have knowledge and reason and we should use it. I hope this helps you to live in Accord with Nature.
Image Courtesy of
"Ixodes scapularis" by Content Provider(s) : CDC/ Michael L. Levin, Ph. D. Photo Credit : Jim Gathany - This image is in the public domain : http://phil.cdc.gov/phil/detail.asp?id=1669 Transferred from fr.wikipedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ixodes_scapularis.jpg#/media/File:Ixodes_scapularis.jpg