Leave No Trace: Plan Ahead and Prepare: Tick Talk

Leave No Trace Series
View from behind Buttermilk Falls

After making a few wrong turns on roads winding next to cornfields and cows in rural Pennsylvania, my girlfriend–Kathleen–and I pull in to the small parking lot at Buttermilk Falls Natural Area.  The early April sun is unusually hot today and there is little escape from the heat as many trees are only pushing out flowers and showing swelled leaf buds, ready to burst into green.

Buttermilk Falls is a small, but impressive natural area in Indiana County once owned by Fred McFeely–the grandfather of the iconic children show host, Fred Rogers.  A small stream trickles over limestone and eventually spills out over a ledge and fills the air in a small gorge with mist.  To view the waterfall one only needs to walk a hundred feet to a viewing platform, but a real treat is can be found for the price of a bit of risk.

We step off the viewing platform looking for more scenery within the park.  A few stone foundations of old buildings rest near the creek upstream from the falls and a small trail leads even further upstream only to fade into thick undergrowth and rhododendron.  We make our way back to the falls and ford the stream–Kathleen’s leather moccasins becoming a casualty of this adventure.  Here a trail takes a risky dive down the same slope that the falls plunge.  Once at the bottom, the trail sneaks behind the falls to a romantic cut in the rock with a curtain of waterfall.  It is a lovely day.

We get back to her apartment and cool off from the drive with a glass of water.  While dissolving the joy and energy of the day with internet streaming TV, Kathleen turns to me with a look of disgust on her face and presents her glass of water with the small, dark object of her discontent floating at the top.  I peer inside and identify the beast.  “That’s a deer tick,” I state with a mix of excitement and concern.  Energy rises again and imagined ticks appear everywhere and itch at our skin.  One minuscule vampire swam through both of our minds as we hunted for more in every nook and cranny of the room and our skin.  In the end, it must have been the only escapee.


Ticks are relatives of spiders and crabs, and are parasitic–they need a host for food.  They go through different life stages, much like crickets, butterflies, or dragonflies.  A larval tick typically preys on smaller creatures such as mice, chipmunks, and birds.  A nymph or an adult tick can prey on larger animals–dogs, deer, foxes, or humans.  The main threat associated with tick bites is infection, particularly of Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, both of which can be fatal.

How does a tick find a host?  A tick seeks out warmth, odors, and vibrations, but ultimately, its host finds it.  Ticks find a host by “questing”–waiting on the tips of grasses or shrubs near trails with arms widespread and then latching on to whatever comes by.

How can I prevent tick bites?  On humans, ticks are often found at the waistline, groin, armpits, and scalp.  Dogs can accumulate many ticks in these areas also, but are suspect to have ticks all over.  The best way to avoid getting ticks is to stay off of deer trails and out of unmowed fields in the late spring and late summer.  Wearing tall boots and socks, long pants, and a tucked shirt will help keep ticks off of skin.  Taking a shower after spending a considerable time in the woods may wash ticks from hair or skin.

What do I do if I find one on me?  Don’t panic.  I have had many ticks and they are relatively harmless as long as they are removed once found.  With a set of tweezers (and maybe a friend), grab the tick’s head and steadily pull straight out.  It is important NOT to twist or jerk.  If the mouthparts become detached and cannot be removed  from the skin with tweezers, let the wound heal.  Be sure to clean the area with soap and water, or iodine.  Check the area daily for a few weeks after for signs of a rash or infection and talk to a doctor should a rash or excessive redness occur.

NOTICE: Many of the homemade remedies–such as freezing or burning or covering with petroleum jelly–are unsuccessful and risky.  The tick may embed further in the skin or vomit into the skin.


 Planning ahead and preparing can help prevent surprises from wildlife.  In addition to ticks, it is important to know what other wildlife you may need to be aware of when visiting the outdoors.  For example, if you are hiking in the West during the fall, you should be aware of aggressive elk during the rut, or if you are hiking through Yellowstone, it is useful to know where to be cautious of bears.  Too many times instead of being prepared for wildlife, when someone is caught off-guard they become frightened and have a bad experience.  Be prepared instead and safely enjoy wildlife and the natural beauty of the outdoors.

Bugs like ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, black flies, no-see-ums, and horse flies can make skin itch at the very mention of their name.  Carrying bug repellent spray is one way to defend yourself, however, wearing protective clothing, bathing often, using mint or catnip leaves, and knowing what to avoid are the best forms of prevention.  One of my tricks is to use hot sauce on foods–I believe that it keeps bugs off.  However, no one should rely on home remedies alone.

  • Know what kind of dangerous insects, spiders, arachnids, or other little creatures you may encounter and where they may live (near water, in caves, on trees).
  • Know what to do if you are bit, stung, or sprayed, AND stock your first aid kit for that potential.
  • Have a backup plan in case of an infection or an emergency.
  • Have fun! You tend not to notice how much your 163 mosquito bites itch if you are out and enjoying the day.


The tick incident was a bit of a scare for Kathleen and me, but the next day we went for another hike in a small patch of woods that deer and chipmunks frequent.  It was a great day and we had a great hike; no ticks this time.


For more information about diseases transmitted by ticks:  http://www.cdc.gov/ticks/symptoms.html  &  http://www.cdc.gov/ticks/diseases/index.html

Tick identification:  http://www.cdc.gov/ticks/geographic_distribution.html



Author: astanyoung

I'm a natural history educator and outdoor enthusiast. I want to help people understand and enjoy the natural world that we live in.

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