by Dr. Bill Rawls
I have a confession.
I walk in the woods with bare legs — sometimes without protection.
Considering that my life was totally disrupted by chronic Lyme disease for more than ten years, this may seem rather cavalier. Yet, I haven’t had any tick bites since my recovery. I’ve had ticks on me, but I haven’t been bitten.
It’s a matter of where I go, how I go, when I go, and what I do before and after I go, that minimizes the risk.
For many years, my aversion to ticks kept me removed from nature. But in the end, my love of the outdoors prevailed. Being in nature is where I’ve always gained strength. I had to find my way back.
My first foray back into nature was the beach at a state park near my home. Long walks were perfect for generating endorphins, and the sea air did me good. As my strength improved, I needed more of a challenge, so I began venturing onto the trails that wove through the tall grasses of the sand dunes and maritime forests of the park.
Being keenly aware that ticks were prevalent in the thick brush surrounding the trails, I went fully clad in heavy clothing and doused with chemicals. Heavy clothing, however, was uncomfortable, especially in warmer months, and DEET lit my skin on fire and caused me to feel terrible.
Eventually, I was back to shorts and sandals for all my hikes. I found that I could see and feel ticks on my skin much better than I could see them on clothing (even small nymph ticks). In addition, I always wore light-colored clothing that would show ticks.
I developed a habit of periodically inspecting my body, especially torso and legs, for unwanted intruders. I was especially vigilant if any branches or brush touched my body. I never sat down on the ground or in the grass. After a hike, I immediately took a thorough shower or jumped into the ocean.
Hiking is now a regular part of my life again. I’ve hiked trails throughout North Carolina and beyond. I’ve taken three summer vacations to Maine, often considered Lyme central, without getting a tick bite. I’ve even been blackberry and blueberry picking, which is one of the most “ticky” things you can do, without being bitten.
My Tips for Getting Back Into Nature
People often get bitten by ticks because they enjoy being in nature — ticks and the microbes they carry are part of nature’s cycle. Fear of ticks, however, shouldn’t keep you from enjoying a deep connection with nature.
Enjoying nature without being harmed by it is a simple matter of recognizing the risk and taking steps to minimize it. Ease back in at a level that’s comfortable.
Here are the personal guidelines I follow to stay safe:
- Extreme vigilance is essential. Not only are regular inspections important when hiking or doing outdoor activities, but developing a hyperacute sense of touch can be your best protection. This is almost like a sixth sense.
If anything touches my skin while I’m out in nature, I’m immediately aware. I also make a habit of sweeping my hands across my arms, torso, and legs frequently. This isn’t a guarantee of knocking off a tick, but it can help with awareness.
- Chemical warfare works, but synthetic insect repellents can be quite toxic. When risk is higher than average, I use essential oils on my body and clothing. There are a variety of essential oil products on the market that work. I haven’t found one that’s better than another. Permethrin-impregnated clothing is also an option, but I’ve never used it personally.
- Dress appropriately. In summer, I prefer to hike in shorts. I can see and feel ticks on my skin better than on clothing. You, however, may feel more comfortable with nothing exposed. If you wear full clothing, be sure and brush clothes off thoroughly before coming inside.
- After hiking, always take a thorough shower. I check all nooks and crannies where ticks can hide, brush my skin, and thoroughly inspect my scalp.
- Choose trails and paths that are wide and well maintained. I never go on overgrown trails. I don’t sit in grass or next to bushes. Sitting on the edge of a bench on the trail is okay, but I’m even careful about that. Carrying a folding stool would be an option, if sitting is desired. I consider activities like camping and gardening more challenging. If you choose to do these activities, use a large ground cloth to separate you from ticks.
- Seasons matter. Ticks are on the move mostly in spring and fall, but it’s possible to be bitten any time of the year. Global warming is influencing tick populations, but I don’t let that keep me from enjoying nature. In the Northeast, everyone says ticks seem most prevalent after the spring snowmelt. That’s the time to stay out of the woods. When tick counts are high, I stick to beaches, waterways, and places where ticks don’t go. The same applies to mosquitos — in summer and early fall, I avoid still damp woodland areas where mosquito counts are high.
- Cut back brush and foliage near living spaces, especially if you live in a tick-prone area. Open up the landscape as much as possible. Install decks and patios to create tick-free outdoor areas.
- Treat your animals to protect them from biting insects, but recognize that they can still bring ticks inside on their fur. My dog, a frequent companion on outdoor outings, doesn’t have the same vigilance about ticks that I do. After every outing, he gets a thorough brushing before coming inside. He’s not allowed on furniture or beds — no exceptions. Much to his chagrin, he’s bathed regularly.
- Continue supporting your immune system. The inevitable will happen; I will be bitten by another tick at some point. But I have confidence that herbs keep my immune system strong. I still to take the same herbs I used for Lyme recovery on a daily basis. If I was bitten tomorrow, I would double up on the herbs. Antibiotics would be a consideration only if I became symptomatic.
- Enjoy the outdoors without tick concerns. Beaches are free of ticks, as long as you stay out of the tall grasses in the dunes and the maritime forest. Watersports, including surfing, paddleboarding, and kayaking, are great active tick-free outdoor activities. If you want hiking without the ticks, desert hiking or staying above the treeline at higher elevations out West are good options.
Reconnecting with nature became an essential part of my recovery, as much for my mental health as my physical health. I felt lost without it. Natural spaces have a healing quality that is hard to describe.
If you’ve ever had a deep connection to nature, you likely feel the same way. Fear of ticks shouldn’t keep you from the things you love. You can go back in the woods again. But when you go, go wisely. Take time to develop your “tick sense,” so ticks are no longer an obstacle.
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