“That’s not a realistic practice a lot of times, because you’re going to overheat,” Christopher Pappas, PhD, biology professor and the chair of the natural sciences division at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, tells SELF. He’s also an avid hiker, backpacker, and trail runner, and in his two decades on the trails for work and recreation, he says he’s never actually seen anyone slide their slacks into their socks.
Fortunately, there are many less cumbersome steps you can take to stay safe from ticks when you’re exercising outside in the summer—prime season for the tiny bugs in most parts of the country. It starts first by understanding ticks and their behavior, so you can better recognize their game plan.
First, a quick rundown of how ticks can get themselves in the position to bite you. Ticks don’t fly; instead, they’re “ambush predators,” Dr. Pappas says. They hang out on plants relatively close to the ground, waiting for a human or other animal to brush past so they can grab hold. (You can watch a video of this behavior on his Instagram.)
Then the ticks hop on, and either latch on to the skin pretty quickly or wander around your body searching for thinner-skinned areas to feed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They inject an anesthetizing compound when feeding, so you may not necessarily feel it. It’s during this feeding process that an infected tick can transmit its disease-causing bacteria to you, its not-so-lucky host.
So that’s what ticks have up their sleeve. As for you? Once you get a handle on the ticks’ process, you can cut your risk of encountering them by layering up steps to avoid them and reduce your risk of bites or infection.
1. Choose your trails wisely.
Ticks don’t exist only in the middle of the wilderness. They can even live in your backyard, especially if you live in areas where ticks are plentiful, such as a wide swatch of the eastern U.S. for blacklegged ticks (those which can spread Lyme disease) or the west coast for Rocky Mountain wood ticks (which can spread Rocky Mountain spotted fever).
Your backyard isn’t super risky though, especially if your lawn is trimmed and there’s full sunlight. The risk is greater in wooded areas or anywhere there are taller plants and grasses, which makes places like parks or trails potentially problematic. That’s even more so the case if they’re rich in wildlife like deer, which can carry ticks farther.
Most people who use running or hiking trails regularly will have a sense of which trails meet this riskier criteria, so they can make alternate arrangements. Ultrarunner and running coach Acadia Gantz, for instance, avoids many of the trails near her in Naples, Maine, in the summer—including those that go along roadsides where deer tend to travel (the more animals on a trail, the more likely ticks go along for the ride, Dr. Pappas says). Instead, she’ll stick to rockier trails with less vegetation and save the others for winter.
If you’re heading to a new area or are new to trails in general, you can do a little recon beforehand, Dr. Salkeld says. The CDC has general information about which types of ticks live in which parts of the country, and what diseases they spread. Next, look for more specifics through crowdsourcing. For instance, Debbie Njai, founder of Black People Who Hike, scouts her route on the AllTrails app before taking a group of hikers in. She pays particular attention to comments specifically mentioning ticks, or more general ones talking about overgrown trails (where ticks are more prevalent). If there’s a lot of tick-heavy info regarding her chosen route, she’ll go elsewhere.
Of course, even if you’ve looked it up in advance, you might still have to make an on-the-spot call. Njai has turned a group around after a trail was unexpectedly covered with grasses up to the hikers’ heads. And when she comes to a fork in the path, she takes the side that’s less forested.
Another tip to keep in mind when choosing trail routes? Look for areas that are wider, then stay to the center—this way, you’re more likely to be out of reach of ticks’ reach, Dr. Salkeld says.
2. Use a repellent and apply it anywhere ticks can grab.
Proper repellent plays a huge role in understanding how to avoid ticks. Dr. Pappas says, and many individuals use DEET as repellent when they’re on the trails.
“DEET is a true repellent; ticks hate it, they can’t stand the smell of it,” he says. “The second they get around it, they will fall right off [you].” (Here’s a video he posted to demonstrate.)
Choose a formula that’s 25% to 35% DEET, he recommends (see an option below!), and follow the manufacturer’s instructions to get about four hours of protection.
There are alternatives to DEET, including picaridin, IR3535, and more natural repellents, which some people prefer due to smell or potential health and environmental concerns (though the Environmental Working Group says the risk of DEET toxicity is low). The Environmental Protection Agency’s website lists natural alternatives like catnip oil and oil of lemon eucalyptus—a favorite of Njai’s—that are also proven effective against ticks.
You’ll likely have to apply natural formulas more often, Dr. Pappas says—typically every hour or two, though you should check the label for details. Also, put more on after you get wet (for instance, Njai reapplies after hiking under waterfalls) or if you are sweating heavily. Some formulas are called “sweat-resistant,” which offers more protection, but if yours isn’t, more frequent application may be necessary (again, check your label for details.) And if you’re using sunscreen (which you should be!), slather that on first, then put on DEET or other repellent, Dr. Pappas says.
If you’re running or doing a day hike, you probably only need to put repellent on your legs. But consider what activities you’re doing and think about which other body parts might come into contact with brush. For instance, if he’s camping at night after a long day of backpacking, Dr. Pappas might gather firewood. Before he reaches down into leaves to pick up logs and branches, he applies DEET to his hands and arms.
3. Tick-proof your gear before you head out.
Another great way to protect yourself is to treat your clothing, socks, and shoes with permethrin. It’s a synthetic chemical, but similar to extracts from the chrysanthemum
flower. The biggest risk for most people is minor skin irritation, Dr. Pappas says. Some clothes come pre-treated, but you can also spray clothing (with the exception of underwear, which isn’t recommended) yourself. In that case, it typically lasts about six washes, Dr. Pappas says. (See an option below!)
Gantz treats all her running clothes with permethrin, as well as her hats and bandanas, which she wraps around her thick hair. “That keeps ticks out of my hairline as much as possible,” she says. For people with thicker hair or braided hairstyles, Njai also recommends hats, such as bucket hats, that completely cover the hair, or scarves to wrap it up. Contrary to popular belief, ticks don’t jump out of trees, Dr. Pappas says. If you find them on your head or in your hair, it’s likely because they grabbed onto your legs and climbed up, which is why putting repellent on your lower body is most important. Still, there’s no harm in protecting your scalp from ticks, especially if you know you might be bending down or getting lower to the ground at some point.
Dr. Pappas treats both his hiking boots and the Brooks sneakers he wears while trail running in permethrin. If you spray them in the morning, your shoes will be dry enough to go by noon, and the treatment should last about six weeks, he says. When he’s hiking, he’ll often wear tick gaiters like those made by Outdoor Research that fit around your shoes and ankles and are pre-treated with permethrin. Gantz and Njai, meanwhile, favor tall socks with shorts for their outdoor adventures.
4. Handle your gear with caution.
If you remove a layer mid-hike, such as a jacket, Njai recommends tucking it into your backpack and zipping it up instead of tying it around your waist, where it might brush against ticks. And if you set your bag down on the ground at any point, give it a tick check before you hoist it back over your shoulders, she suggests. (Depending on the stage of growth a tick is in, they can look like anything from a small brown/black dot to a flat, teardrop-shaped bug about the size of an apple seed. The CDC has some helpful images here.) This way, it’ll prevent your excess clothing from serving as a vehicle for ticks to hitch a ride.
Take your hiking shoes and clothes off immediately after you get home—even better if you can shed your outer layers outside or in a laundry or mud room, to avoid inadvertently toting ticks into your living space—and then hop in the shower. This will rinse away ticks that haven’t bitten you yet, Dr. Pappas says.
But note that while rinsing them off your skin is good, washing your clothes won’t hurt ticks; they thrive in wet environments, Dr. Pappas says. To kill them, zap them with heat from the dryer. To be sure they’re gone, leave your clothes tumbling for about 10 minutes after they’re dry, he recommends.
5. Check yourself for ticks—then, check again, and again.
If you do happen to pick up a tick on your hike or run, it’ll likely take a while before it bites. Ticks are blind, so they crawl a bit to figure out for sure that what they’ve landed on is something living, Dr. Pappas says. From there, they seek out the right spot to adhere to—usually somewhere moist and hairy, and where they’re less likely to be noticed and removed. Think: groin, armpit, belly button, or the nape of your neck.
All this means you have time to spot them before they attach and bite you, start feeding on your blood, and share any infectious microbes they’re harboring. “The faster you can get rid of them or remove them, the less likely it is they can transmit diseases,” Dr. Salkeld says.
If they’re out on the trails in groups, Gantz and Njai will keep an eye on their friends, checking for visible ticks and flicking them off mid-adventure, before they have a chance to attach. (If you’re alone, you can use your phone camera to inspect hidden areas like the back of your knees, Dr. Pappas says.)
Njai also does a quick tick check before she gets in the car after hiking. Then, she checks herself head to toe when she gets home, looking closely in spots like between the toes and in her hair. Checking the scalp is especially important if you don’t wash your hair every day, she says, since you won’t have as many opportunities to wash them away. Gantz and her partner, who live together, have a routine of checking each other.
For best results, repeat these examinations regularly. “If you go on a trail hike today, or if you go running today, today isn’t the only day you should be doing a tick check,” Dr. Pappas says. He suggests keeping up your tick check for a couple days post-nature outing. Once ticks start feeding on your blood, they’ll grow larger, making them easier to spot. And taking them off, even after a day or two, can still lower your chances of getting sick, or enable you to start preventive treatment to ward off more serious illness.
If you do find a tick that has bitten you, remove it carefully using fine-tipped forceps or tweezers (here’s more on how to do that). If possible, keep the tick, or at least take a photo, so you can figure out what type it was, Dr. Pappas says. Next, contact your doctor, especially if you think you were bitten by a deer tick; if you have a rash that spreads; or you have other symptoms of a tick-borne illness, such as fever, chills, or fatigue. If you spot what you think is a tick bite (it can cause a small swelling or sore on the skin, according to the Mayo Clinic)—but not a tick—monitor yourself for warning signs and call your healthcare provider with questions.
6. If you take your dogs with you, protect them too.
Your four-legged hiking or running partners are also tick magnets, Dr. Pappas says; they can also get tick-borne illnesses, including Lyme disease. Gantz considered this before she got her dogs, and ultimately decided to go with red labs. Their lighter coats means ticks are easier to spot. Njai’s dog Brownie regularly accompanies her too (Brownie’s longest hike thus far is 15 miles). Gantz and Njai both do thorough tick checks on their dogs when they get back from the trails, looking carefully around their necks, between their legs and toes, and around their tails, among other spots.
Chewable tablets like those from NexGard and flea and tick collars from brands like Seresto can all protect your pup.
If you find your dog has more ticks than you can flick or pick off, take them to the veterinarian or a groomer for a permethrin bath. The ticks will simply fall off, and the chemical is safe for your pooch, Dr. Pappas says. (Note, though, that high levels are toxic to cats—so be cautious when using it anywhere around felines.)
7. Once you’ve fine-tuned your strategy, get out there and enjoy.
Though it’s important to understand the risks and take steps to avoid ticks, don’t be so afraid you miss out on the outdoors. Plus, the absolute risk of getting a tick-borne illness is still pretty low: According to a 2017 study published in PLoS One, researchers estimate the overall risk of developing Lyme disease after a tick bite to be 2.6%.
“What you shouldn’t do is sacrifice your time in nature,” Dr. Pappas says. “Be aware of it and then enjoy your life, knowing you’re taking the precautions to make sure you can keep on enjoying it.”
Dr. Salkeld agrees, and puts that idea into practice. “I do a lot of ecology fieldwork. One of the bonuses of this kind of work is I head to trails and look for ticks. I do scientific work and collect data, and ideally, I’ll then slip in a run,” he says. Dr. Salkeld adds that he’s been bitten, but hasn’t had a tick-borne illness. “Even though I know I’m in prime tick habitat, it doesn’t stop me from enjoying it and being out there.”
By layering up precautions—everything from avoiding the tickiest trails to using repellant to, perhaps most importantly, doing tick checks and staying alert for symptoms afterward—you can feel confident and prepared, so you don’t miss out on all the physical and mental benefits nature offers.