I was climbing below The Pinnacle in North Cheyenne Cañon on the west side of Colorado Springs yesterday. It was a warm May day with a slight breeze and no clouds. After lowering off a sport route into pine trees, I was talking to my belayer about a particular move on the route and showing how I grabbed a handhold. Cliff looked at my upraised hand and said, "Dude, you have a spider on your palm." I looked at my hand and replied, "That's no spider, that's a tick." And I brushed it off.
Ticks Feed on Blood
Ticks are spiderlike ectoparasitic arachnids about the size of a rice grain that feeds on the blood of other creatures, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and, of course, humans. Ticks range throughout most of the United States, preferring warm humid climates with an abundance of vegetation and host animals like deer. They are most active from March through September, depending on what part of the country you are at.
Ticks are Arachnids, Not Insects
While many people think of ticks as insects, they are actually an arachnid, related to spiders, scorpions, and mites. Ticks, like spiders, have four sets of opposing legs and no antennae. There are two basic groups of ticks-hard ticks and soft ticks. Most encounters are with hard ticks, which have a rigid shield behind the mouth (incorrectly called the head). Their bodies are very thin and it is difficult to crush them.
Ticks Wait for a Host to Pass By
Ticks wait for host animals by perching on shrubs, leaves, and grasses, but usually not from trees. As a person or animal moves through vegetation and brushes against the plants, the ticks let go and grab hold of their meal ticket. Ticks don't fly or jump, but simply let go and then begin crawling around on the host until it finds a good spot for dinner. If you're the unlucky critter that a tick selects, it will usually crawl around for several hours before latching on. If you're wearing enough clothes, it can take longer. Ticks efficiently transmit disease since they embed themselves in the skin for long periods of time, sometimes days, while they feed on blood.
Tick-borne illnesses include tick fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tick paralysis, and Lyme disease. Most people bitten do not get sick with any of these but if you are bitten then watch for illness, which won't occur for weeks or longer. Common symptoms of tick diseases include fever, rash, swollen joints, vomiting, nausea, weakness, swollen lymph nodes, and headache. Lyme disease, caused by a bacteria carried by deer ticks, is very serious and mainly occurs in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. Antibiotics are used to treat tick illnesses. Promptly see a physician if you experience these symptoms and remember that most people do not remember being bitten.
Climbers are Vulnerable to Ticks
Bloodsucking ticks are the bane of hikers and climbers who venture into tick-infested areas but some common sense rules help you avoid getting bitten by ticks and possibly infected with serious diseases. As climbers we are especially vulnerable to tick bites since we often are in brush below cliffs or on off-trail approaches to climbing venues.
7 Tips to Defend against Ticks
The following suggestions will help you defend against ticks and tick bites.
Wear protective clothing. If you are in dense woods, which are perfect havens for ticks, consider wearing long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, socks and approach shoes, and a hat or head covering. Ticks are often found on your legs so some hikers will tuck the pant legs into their socks and some even tape the seam to keep ticks out. Ticks also fall into your hair so a good hat or beanie can go a long way to keeping the pests from embedding in your scalp. Ticks are easier to spot on light-colored clothes. You can also wear insect-repellent clothing that is treated with permethrin to repel the critters.
Use strong insect repellent containing 10 percent to 30 percent DEET. Apply it first to your clothes and then apply sparingly to exposed skin. Spray it on your hands and then rub the repellent on your face, nape of your neck, arms, hands, and lower legs.
Avoid tick habitat. The simplest way to avoid tick bites is to keep away from the places that ticks live. If you're hiking cross-country to the cliff and find several ticks on you, then change direction or stay on a wide trail.
When you're hiking to the cliff, walk in the middle of the trail and try to avoid brushing against shrubs and grass whenever possible. Watch where you sit. Bare rock or a log is better than sitting in leaf litter or on grass.
Do a tick check every hour or two. Ticks don't attach for a few hours so you will usually find them crawling about on your clothes or in your hair. Buddy up and ask your climbing partner to check your back and neck. Ticks are small and feather-light-you won't feel them crawling on your skin so a visual check is important.
Do a full-body tick check at the end of your climbing day. If I'm in tick-country and have found one on me, I don't get into my car to drive home until I am sure that I am tick-clean. This means stripping down and searching those moist, quiet places where ticks like to hang out-armpits, scalp and hair, behind the knees, in the crotch, between your thighs. Carry an extra set of clothes in your car to change into before leaving. Also empty out your pack and check excess clothing, climbing equipment, and rope. I once returned to my car after climbing in Colorado's Black Canyon and found over 50 ticks on me and my stuff in the parking lot. Ditto for checking your kids and dog.
- Dry clothes on high heat. When you get home, wash your clothes and then dry them with high heat in the dryer. Ticks are survivors-they can survive a hot wash but the hot air cycle usually kills them. Ticks can be hidden seams and pockets in your clothes.