[Updated April 30, 2021]
Many of us remain focused on the dangers of COVID-19 right now and understandably so.
But there is another vector for infectious diseases that we shouldn’t forget about at this time of year, especially as things open back up and we are able to spend more time outdoors:
The transition to the spring season in the Northern Hemisphere also signals the start of tick season. As a fellow outdoor photographer who lives in an area that is endemic for tick-borne diseases, I want to give you some reminders and guidelines about how to protect yourself while spending more time in nature.
Whether you are belly down in your backyard getting a macro shot of a flower or trekking in the mountains, if you follow these tips, you will reduce the chance of getting bit by a tick this season.
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What are Ticks and Where are Ticks Found?
Ticks are tiny blood-sucking parasites that belong to the class of arachnids. Do you have the creepy crawlies yet? I do. They feed on mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, and can transmit disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites from their natural hosts to humans.
Ticks live in grassy, brushy, and wooded areas all around the world, wherever their hosts live and where the climate tends to be warm and humid. With northern regions getting warmer in recent decades, ticks are now abundantly found in areas where they couldn’t previously survive, like in my home state of Vermont.
Ticks require blood meals at each developmental stage from larva to nymph to adult, and they can transmit disease at each stage. However, disease transmission is most common in the nymph and adult stages.
One challenge in preventing tick bites is their incredibly small size. For example, nymph ticks are about the size of a poppy seed, and some adult ticks are about the size of a sesame seed. They can be very difficult to find on your clothing, gear, or your body, so it’s important to know how to protect yourself from getting them in the first place.
How Do Ticks Find You?
You would think that being so tiny, that ticks wouldn’t have a high probability of being able to find you while you’re out doing photography. Unlike other biting insects or arachnids, ticks can’t jump or fly – they crawl.
To overcome this limitation, they’ve developed the ability to detect your breath (not your coffee breath so much as the carbon dioxide you exhale), as well as body odor and heat, moisture and vibration.
They’ve also figured out how to hang onto the tips of grasses, leaves, and twigs with their hind legs while keeping their front legs outstretched, ready and waiting for the next unsuspecting passerby.
This behavior is known as “questing”. Clever little buggers.
What Diseases Do Ticks Transmit?
Ok, so it should be noted that NOT ALL ticks transmit disease, even in regions where tick-borne illnesses are prominent. But, it is still a good idea to get familiar with the potential diseases you could be exposed to if bitten by a tick.
In the United States, the most common tick-borne diseases include Lyme disease (also known as Borreliosis), babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, anaplasmosis, Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness, Tick-Borne Relapsing Fever, tularemia, Colorado tick fever, Powassan encephalitis, and Q fever.
Lyme disease is also prevalent in Europe as well as Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE). Thankfully, there is a vaccine for TBE (there isn’t one available for humans for Lyme). European countries with a known risk of TBE include Austria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Baltic States, Germany, and Sweden. TBE is also prevalent in Russia.
How to Prevent Tick Bites While Doing Outdoor Photography
So, how do we avoid getting bitten by a tick?
One thing I learned back in my days as a biosafety officer is that to reduce the risk of any hazard, you need to reduce or eliminate exposure to that hazard. Without exposure, there is no risk.
Obviously, the only way to completely eliminate exposure to ticks is to not go outside, but that is not an option for outdoor photographers.
The following are five strategies on how to reduce your exposure to ticks while enjoying the outdoors.
1. What to Wear
Ticks love to cling to your clothes and get under them as soon as they can. So, one of the best ways to prevent ticks from coming into contact with your skin is to cover up.
At a minimum, this means wearing long pants, long sleeves, and closed-toed shoes. If you wear light-colored and breathable clothing, this will help you from getting too hot on warmer days, and the lighter colored garments will help you see ticks more readily.
Since we’re choosing function over fashion, it’s also recommended that you tuck your pant legs inside your socks and your shirt inside your pants. This way, ticks clinging to your shoes, socks, cuffs, or belt can’t find their way inside your shirt or pants.
Also, consider wearing clothing that is smoother in texture, like nylon or synthetic materials, since these will be a little more challenging for a tick to cling to than other materials like cotton or wool.
2. What to Spray on Your Clothing and Outdoor Gear
Another way to prevent ticks from coming in contact with your skin is to wear clothing that has been treated with a repellant or a pesticide, such as permethrin. Permethrin is a synthetic compound based on natural compounds derived from chrysanthemums. It is safe for humans and dogs and is effective at making the ticks unable to bite after they come in contact with clothing infused with permethrin.
Here are a few tips on how to use permethrin appropriately:
- Permethrin is safe to use on clothing, boots, backpacks, tents, and other outdoor gear. Do not use it on your camera equipment.
- Apply a permethrin solution according to the manufacturer’s instructions and do not over-treat products.
- Do not apply it directly to your skin. See below for suggested skin applications.
- Do not apply it to your clothing while you are wearing your clothing – spray your garments outside and let them dry fully before wearing.
- Wash your permethrin-treated clothing in cold water and separate it from non-treated clothing. Be sure to air dry your clothing after washing. Treatments typically last through 6 washes.
A few precautions around using permethrin: use it at less than 1% concentration on clothing to avoid toxicity in cats. Also, it can be toxic to aquatic life, so avoid using it on your waders or other gear that may come in contact with streams, rivers, or lakes.
If you are looking for safe permethrin products to use on your clothing, I recommend checking the ones produced by Sawyer. They are widely available, effective, and sold in safe concentrations.
Many outdoor clothing companies provide permethrin-containing clothing if you’d rather not treat your garments yourself. These garments often remain protective after 60-70 washes. I recommend checking out the following brands, which have a good reputation:
3. What to Spray on Your Skin
To protect the areas of your body that you can’t cover with clothing, then it is a good idea to use some sort of repellent sprays, such as DEET or picaridin.
DEET has historically been the insect repellant of choice for outdoor enthusiasts because of how effective it is at keeping the pests at bay, but some people have skin reactions to it, and it can also be harsh on your clothes and gear.
In fact, DEET has been shown to compromise water-repellent treatments, so avoid using it on your expensive Goretex outer layers. It’s really only meant to be used on your skin.
If you are sensitive to DEET or don’t like the idea of it, picaridin might be a good option for you. It is a synthetic compound based on the natural compound piperine, commonly found in black pepper. It’s generally considered less irritable than DEET and can be used on skin, clothing, some plastics, and other synthetic materials. I recommend checking out Sawyer’s Picaridin Insect Repellent.
Other repellents safe for skin use include IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol, and 2-undecanone. If you want to find the repellent that is right for you, check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s Repellent Search Tool.
4. Tips for When You’re Outdoors
These tips are quite simple, but they are good reminders nonetheless. When you are hiking on a trail, stick to the trail and walk in the middle of the trail as much as possible. This is not only good practice for protecting the environment (let’s hear it for the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace!), but established trails usually are free of grassy overgrowth, knee-high brush, or shoulder-height branches where the little critters like to hang out.
Also, once you’ve gotten to your location, consider putting a tarp down and your tripod on top of the tarp. This will create a temporary barrier between you and the ground for when you are kneeling or squatting low to take your images.
Of course, be mindful of where you are putting the tarp so that you don’t crush delicate vegetation or compromise the landscape in other ways.
5. What to Do When You Return Home
You guessed it! It’s time to check for ticks! Does anyone else have the Brad Paisley song “Ticks” playing in your head?
Here are 5 steps to follow upon returning:
- If possible, remove your clothing before entering your home. If don’t want to flash your neighbors, then at least carefully inspect your outer clothing, boots, camera bag, and any other gear you had with you.
- Once inside, carefully check your clothes, skin, and hairline. Ticks are especially attracted to the warmer areas of your body, including under your arms, sides, groin area, hairline (like where a sweatband would be), in the creases of your elbows and knees, and behind your ears.
- If possible, take a shower or bath within 2 hours of returning since this may remove any ticks you may have missed that haven’t yet attached.
- Be sure to feel all over your body for ticks. Sometimes you can feel them more than you can see them, especially if they have attached. Use a mirror or a trusted companion to check the more difficult to reach areas.
- Ticks may stick to your clothing after you’ve undressed. If you have access to a dryer, tumble dry your clothes for 10 minutes on high heat. This will kill most ticks.
If you find an unattached tick in this process, then dispose of it by either drowning it in some alcohol, flushing down the toilet (they don’t swim back up), or sealing it in some tape before throwing it away.
How to Safely Remove a Tick
If you are doing photography in an area known to have ticks, then chances are you will get a bite at some point even if you avoid exposure as much as possible.
If you find an embedded tick, don’t panic. If you remove it right away, you are less likely to contract an illness. For example, Lyme disease is usually not transmitted for the first 36 hours of attachment.
Ticks can be simple to remove if you follow this procedure:
- Use tweezers to grasp the tick’s head as close to the skin as possible. The goal is to try to get the entire tick out at once. The head is actually external to your skin – it’s the mouthparts that are inside.
- Pull straight out in the direction of the tick’s body (perpendicular to the skin). Do not twist the tick as you pull.
- It is important to not aggravate the tick while removing it – so don’t apply oils, petroleum jelly, or heat to try to get the tick to exit on its own. It won’t. And pissing off a tick means it will be more likely to release the pathogens through its saliva. So, gentle but firm removal is a good idea.
- Thoroughly clean the bite area with soap and water or an antiseptic.
- If possible, save the tick in some transparent tape in case you need it to be identified. Note the date and the geographic location where you think you acquired the tick.
- If you feel ill, have a rash or fever, or develop any symptoms of a tick-borne illness, contact your healthcare provider immediately and tell them you were bitten by a tick.
Here is a helpful video demonstrating how to safely remove a tick from the University of Manitoba.
I hope this information helps keep you safe from ticks this season! If you have any other tips for keeping photographers safe in the outdoors, please comment below.