5 Ways to Keep Mosquitoes and Ticks from Bugging You! (Gear Guide+)

Black flies, ticks, mosquitoes, and other biting insects can turn the most peaceful outdoor paradise into a stressful tormenting nightmare. In this post I’ll discuss the bug repellent strategies and gear that have worked for me as well as those that are recommended by the CDC, and that are registered with the EPA (after being shown to be both safe and effective for human use in repelling ticks and mosquitoes).

1. Cover up

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Wearing long-sleeves, long pants, and gaiters in an attempt to keep the mosquitoes at bay hiking through the high sierra during my PCT thru hike.

The first step in keeping the insects at bay is to minimize the amount of skin the buggers have access to by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks, gaiters, and closed-toe shoes. This is fairly effective at keeping ticks from biting you, but as many of us have discovered, mosquitoes have an impressive ability to bite through clothing. Constantly wearing head-to-toe rain gear is an effective way to keep the biting insects at bay, but when the weather is hot and humid wearing rain gear as bug repellent is just a different kind of misery. Instead, I move on to option #2…

My thoughts: wearing long-sleeved shirts, socks, long-pants, ultralight gaiters, and closed-toe shoes is just a start. For repelling ticks I highly recommend using permethrin-treated clothes as described in section 2. For black flies, be sure to include a head/bug net. For mosquitoes, add a an EPA-registered and CDC-approved skin-applied bug repellent as described in section 3.

2. Wear Permethrin-Treated Clothing

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Permethrin is based on the naturally occurring insecticides found in chrysanthemums.

Permethrin is a man-made synthetic insecticide based on the naturally occurring insecticides (pyrethroids) found in chrysanthemums. It kills insects and anthropods (eg ticks) that come in contact with it by affecting their nervous systems (neurotoxin). According to the centers for disease control and prevention (CDC), “permethrin-treated clothing repels and kills ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, and other biting and nuisance arthropods.”

The environmental protection agency (EPA) has evaluated permethrin for treating garments and has approved it as both safe and effective for human use for this purpose. The EPA in their “2009 revised exposure and risk assessment evaluated multiple exposure scenarios for permethrin factory-treated clothing, including toddlers wearing or mouthing the clothing, and military personnel who wear permethrin-treated uniforms on a daily basis. All exposure scenarios showed that permethrin factory-treated clothing is unlikely to pose any significant immediate or long-term hazard to people wearing the clothing.” The EPA also states that, “there is no evidence of reproductive or developmental effects to mother or child following exposure to permethrin.” If you have concerns about the safety of premethrin you can also check out this FAQ, which goes into more detail. One of the major reasons that permethrin is considered safe is that it is poorly absorbed through the skin.

When applied to clothing, permethrin binds tightly to the fibers of the clothing (especially cotton clothing). Since permethrin is not water soluble, it remains bound to clothing through repeated washing cycles and is not readily transferred to your skin if/when the garment gets wet. Note that permethrin kills ticks/mosquitoes on contact, so does not prevent bugs from landing on you. As a result, permethrin-treated clothing works best when it is loosely fitting.

The two CDC-recommended and EPA-registered methods approved for permethrin-treated clothing are factory-permethrin treatment and self-permethrin treatment.

Clothing Treatments (CDC Recommended and EPA registered) Manufacturer Claimed Maximum Effectiveness
Permethrin

  • Factory-permethrin treatment
    • Clothing: 70 launderings.
  • Self-permethrin treatment (0.5% permethrin):
    • Gear: 40 days of direct exposure to sunlight.
    • Clothing: 6 weeks and/or 6 launderings
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Wearing my factory-permethrin treated pants and shirt at Choquequirao, Peru.

Factory-Permethrin Treatment 

According to the CDC, factory-treated clothing, ie “clothing that is treated before purchase, is labeled for efficacy through 70 launderings.” My experience and the research I’ve done suggests that factory-permethrin clothing is effective through 25-50 washings. The military finds effectiveness against ticks last for about 50 washings and the EPA suggests that repellency beyond 25 washes when wear and tear is included is more likely to be true. Gear list/review of my factory-permethrin treated clothing:

  • Ex Officio BugsAway Damselfly Jacket (15/15)
    • Weight (5/5): 6 oz, 100% Nylon
    • Effectiveness (5/5): I carry/wear this mesh jacket for all of my hot weather backpacking and kayaking adventures. It protects me from both mosquitoes and excess exposure to sun. I give this jacket my highest recommendation. It remained effective against mosquitoes for about 1 year of heavy use (I didn’t count the # of laundering cycles). I used it on the PCT, kayaking in Maine during black fly season, hiking all over New England during mosquito season, and trekking through Peru in temperatures up to 112F.
    • Durability (5/5): The mesh has held up well under brutal thru-hiker treatment and ongoing use. After the factory-permethrin treatment wore off, I have self-permethrin treated the jacket and continue to use it for all my desert/hot climate adventures.
  •  Ex Officio BugsAway Damselfly Pants (11/15)
    • Weight (5/5): need to find scale, but light weight, 100% Nylon
    • Effectiveness (5/5): Both in the US and abroad I’ve found these pants to be effective at preventing bug-bites. For example, while my cohort in Peru ended up getting eaten alive with red welts all over their legs I remained bug-bite free.
    • Durability (1/5): These are great travel pants for hot weather, but not so good for brutal backpacking use: the butt of the pants shredded after less than a month of use during my PCT thru-hike.
  • UV InsectShield Buff (10/10)
    • Effectiveness (5/5): Keeps the bugs from biting my neck, which is awesome.
    • Durability (5/5): I’ve had good luck with the Buffs lasting forever
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Wearing my self-permethrin treated leggings, gaiters, and hat at Machu Picchu, Peru.

Self-Permethrin Treatment

If you apply permethrin yourself you have the option of either spraying it on to you clothing/gear or soaking your cloths in it. The CDC recommends treating “clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents with products containing 0.5% permethrin,” and treating items “at least 24–48 hours in advance of travel to allow them to dry.” Note: According to the EPA: “Permethrin repellent products used for factory-treatment of clothing or as spray-ons for clothing are not to be applied to certain clothing such as underwear.”

  • Sawyer 0.5% Permethrin Premium Clothing Insect Repellent
    • Spray-on application method (~4/5): I use it on gear items for tick protection. I don’t have a good metric for effectiveness of my treated gear, but it seems to work. The gear I treat with spray-on premerthin, with the amount of premethrin I used to treat it in parentheses, includes:
      • hiking boots & camp shoes (~ 3 oz for both)
      • sleeping bag (~6 oz)
      • backpack (~ 3 oz)
      • tent body (~ 6 oz)
    • Soaking application method (5/5): I use it for clothing items for both tick and mosquito protection. I soak my clothing items in 0.5% permethrin (using the method described in the section-hiker post linked here) to treat my cloths because I am skeptical about getting complete coverage of my clothing using the spray-on method. My self-permethrin treated clothing seems to keep its protective properties through 6-10  washes. The clothing I treat by soaking it in permethrin, with the amount of premethrin I used to treat it in parentheses, includes:
      • OR Sparkplug gaiters (~2 oz)
      • MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat and midweight hat (~1 oz)
      • Sleep clothes (~12 oz): sleep shirt, leggings, and camp socks
      • Montane Featherweight Wind Pants (~3 oz)
      • Wrightsock Coolmesh 2 socks (~4 oz/pair)
      • Techwick (T1) long-sleeve hoodie (~4 oz)
      • Lightweight fleece hoodie (~5 oz)
      • Hiking leggings (~4 oz)

My Thoughts About Permethrin: Factory-permethrin treated clothing keeps its repellence 5-10 times longer than self-permethrin treated clothing and is worth it to me for my super-lightweight summer clothing. As far as I can tell, permethrin-treated clothing is the best product out there for preventing tick bites. For mosquito repellency the situation is less clear. Permethrin kills mosquitoes on contact, and does not actually act as a repellent, which means that the mosquitoes land on you (and may bite you) before they die. For loose-fitting clothing permethrin works fairly well against mosquitoes, but it is much less effective when used on tight-fitting clothing made from thin fabrics. As a result, I recommend purchasing 1 size larger than normal to maximize effectiveness of permethrin-treated clothing for preventing mosquito bites. Also, according to the CDC mosquitoes in some areas (such as Puerto Rico) have developed resistance to permethrin!

Other repellent treatments for clothing: DEET (EPA-registered) and picaridin (EPA-registered) may be applied to clothing, but they provide shorter duration of protection (same duration as on skin) when compared to permethrin, and must be reapplied after laundering. Both DEET and picaridin are repellents that can be applied to clothing that has been treated with permethrin to provide added protection. Note that DEET may damage plastics and some types of fabrics. I recently experienced this when the small bottle of 100% DEET in my pack leaked, melted through its cap, and fused itself to my bug net in a scary mess.

3. Use Bug Spray (Skin-Applied Repellents)

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The bug repellent picaridin is based on piperidine, a compound found in black peppercorns.

The CDC and EPA recommend using skin-applied bug repellents (wearing bug spray) in addition to using permethrin-treated clothing. The question then becomes, which bug repellent should I use? Since bug repellents are classified as pesticides, the EPA is in change of regulating them. Skin-applied bug repellents whose safety and efficacy data meet EPA standards are given an EPA-registered status. EPA-registered repellents can be classified as either conventional repellents, biopesticide repellents, or natural repellents.

Conventional repellents

Conventional repellents are synthetic repellents that directly kill or inactivate pests. The two conventional repellents that are both EPA-registered and CDC-recommended are DEET and picaridin. DEET and picaridin have the longest-lasting repellent effects of all of the skin-applied bug repellents evaluated and registered by the EPA.

DEET in concentrations of 5% to 99% is EPA-registered and approved for direct application to human skin. Unlike permethrin, DEET doesn’t kill mosquitoes or ticks, it just makes it hard for them to smell/detect us, and therefore less likely to bite us. Although the court of public opinion is convinced that DEET is horribly toxic, the EPA believes that it is safe for use as instructed at all concentrations, and for children and adults of all ages. Note that DEET may decrease the SPF of sunscreen and it may dissolve plastics and some fabrics.

Picaridin is a synthetic compound resembling piperine, which is found in black pepper. Picaridin is EPA-registered for human application in concentrations of 5% to 96.8%. It is commercially available as Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent as well as under other brand names.

Conventional Repellents (CDC Recommended and EPA registered)
Maximum Repellent Efficacy/Duration
Picaridin (aka icaridin)

DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide)

  • Mosquitoes:
    • 2 hrs (5% DEET)
    • 8 hrs (25% DEET)
    • 12 hours (100% DEET)
  • Ticks:
    • 2 hrs (5% DEET)
    • 4 hrs (25% DEET)
    • 10 hours (100% DEET)

My Thoughts About Conventional Repellents: I hate having to apply bug repellent directly to my skin, but on my thru-hikes (and other adventures) I carry a small bottle of 100% DEET for emergency bug-repellent use. DEET has worked well when I needed it, except for one stretch of the PCT where the mosquitoes were impressively aggressive and to my surprise seemed to be DEET-resistant; I applied 100% DEET and they bit me anyway. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it is scientifically possible that the mosquitoes in question were in fact DEET-resistant. After doing the research for this post, I’m going to give picaridin a try.

Biopesticide Repellents

Biopesticide repellents are naturally derived repellents, which are generally considered less toxic than conventional pesticides. It is also important to note that biopesticide repellents don’t need to stand up to the same degree of rigor as conventional pesticides to gain EPA-registered status. There are two EPA-registered and CDC-recommended biopesticide repellents: oil of lemon eucalyptus, aka PMD (p-Menthane-3,8-diol) and IR3535 (the active ingredient in Skin-So-Soft).

Oil of lemon eucalyptus is an EPA-approved way to market PMD (p-Menthane-3,8-diol), a synthetic version of the compound found in the oil of the lemon eucalyptus plant. The essential oil of lemon eucalyptus (pure lemon eucalyptus oil) is NOT EPA-registered and repellency of the essential oil only lasts for ~1hr.  According to the FDA, commercially available bug repellents listing Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus as their active ingredient are using the man-made synthetic version of the compound: p-Menthand-3,8-diol. Oil of lemon eucalyptus (PMD) at high concentrations has an efficacy similar to DEET over shorter period of time, but if you can find the information about it’s toxicity you profile you’ll be surprised to learn that the EPA considers oil of lemon eucalyptus to be more toxic than DEET at least in terms of potential for eye irritation. Having accidentally gotten DEET (Toxicity Category III) in my eye, I shudder in horror at the thought of accidentally getting oil of lemon eucalyptus (Toxicity Category I) in my eye. To me, the labeling practices for oil of lemon eucalyptus seem to be deceptive at best. It is commercially available as: Repel Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Repellent and Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent.

IR3535 is the EPA-registered bug repellent in modern Skin-So-Soft bug repellents. It is important to note that the Skin-So-Soft bath oil that was used as bug repellent in the ’90s does not contain IR3535. I remember the Skin-So-Soft bath oil as bug repellent as being woefully inadequate to the task, but have not tried the Skin-So-Soft containing IR3535. Although IR3535 is EPA-registered, the only commercially available forms I was able to find are combined with sunscreen, and the CDC does not recommend the use of combined sunscreen/bug spray products because sunscreens typically need to be applied more often than bug sprays alone. It’s also important to note that the toxicity profile for IR3535 is similar to that of conventional bug sprays. IR3535 is commercially available as: Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus IR3535 Expedition SPF 30.

Biopesticide Repellents (CDC Recommended and EPA registered)
Maximum Repellent Efficacy
 Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus aka PMD (p-Menthane-3,8-diol)

IR 3535

  • Mosquitoes:
    • 10 hours (20% IR3535)
  • Ticks:
    • 12 hours (20% IR3535)
  • Black flies:
    • 3 hours (20% IR3535)

Although the following natural repellents (classified as biopesticides) require frequent re-application, and are not recommended by the CDC, they are registered with the EPA as being safe and effective:

Natural Repellents (EPA Registered)
Maximum Repellent Efficacy
Refined oil of Nepeta cataria aka Hydrogenated Catnip Oil (HCO)

  • Mosquitoes:
    • 7 hrs (15% HCO)
Oil of citronella

  • Mosquitoes
    • 2-3 hrs (~5%)
  • Ticks
    • ~1 hr (~5%)
 Essential oil of wild tomato (lycopersicon hirsutum) aka 2-undercanone or methyl nonyl ketone

  • Mosquitoes
    • 5 hrs (7.75%)
  • Ticks
    • 2 hrs (7.75%)

NOTE: The CDC does not recommend the use of products that combine sunscreen and repellent “because sunscreen may need to be reapplied more often and in larger amounts than needed for the repellent component to provide protection from biting insects.” Instead they recommend the use of separate products where sunscreen is applied first and is followed by the use of insect repellent.

My Thoughts About Skin-Applied Pesticides: After looking at all of the repellent options currently EPA-registered and CDC-approved I’m going to switch from 100% DEET to 20% Picaridin. The improved safety profile of picaridin compared to DEET as well as the promise of greater efficacy against black flies and longer duration of protection have convinced me to give it a try. At first glance the biopesticides, especially the Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus sounded promising, but on closer review the fact that they can claim a connection to naturally occurring pesticides isn’t enough to convince me that they are safer than the conventional repellents and the need to reapply them more frequently makes them a poor choice for me. If you’re looking for a second opinion, the EWG guide to repellents list the pros and cons associated with the different repellent options. Whichever bug repellent you choose, be sure to check the concentration of the active ingredient and to read/follow the application directions carefully. Which bug repellents have your tried? Comment and let me know which ones have worked (or failed to work) for you.

4. Know your enemy!

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Avoid the biting bugs by learning to love winter!

Know when and where the biting bugs are most active, and try to avoid them. Let’s start with when. The biting insects tend to be most active during the same seasons that people are most active: the spring in summer months. Below is some general information about the when and where for some of the most pesky biting bugs.

Black flies

Mosquitoes

  • Season: whenever temperatures are consistently above 50F
  • Most active time of day: depends on species.
    • A. aegypti & A. albopictus: typically bite from dawn ’til dusk, but may bite at night
    • Culex species: typically bite from dusk ’til dawn
  • What attracts them? Carbon dioxide from your breath, heat, and and other compounds secreted in our sweat and found on our breath.
  • Areas to avoid: swampy areas and areas with standing water; mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water

Ticks

  • Season: whenever temperatures are above freezing (32F), although they tend to be most active April to September. Ticks are least active when temperatures are below 32F and during droughts
  • Most active time of day:  during the most humid part of the day; ticks need moisture to survive, especially the tiny and troublesome nymphs. As a result, nymphs are most active at night and during the mornings on hot days.
  • Areas to avoid: tall grasses and leaf litter and elevations below ~3500 feet
  • Added advice: shower as soon as you return from your outdoor adventure, do a tick check, wash your clothing in hot water, and remove ticks promptly

Additional Thoughts: In addition to avoiding the buggiest areas in the buggiest times (e.g. hiking in the snow), I’ve found that hiking faster (>2 miles/hr) prevents the majority of black flies and mosquitoes from landing on me and biting me. It turns out that mosquitoes typically fly at 1-1.5 miles/hour (1.5 miles/hr), so the little data I was able to find supports the anecdotal evidence that I can outrun most mosquitoes!

5. Dealing with the Itch


When I was a kid loved playing  in the swamp down by the river, which meant that I’d frequently come home covered in both mud and bug bites. The itchiness would drive me nuts, so I started experimenting with things in the first-aid cabinet that might take the itch away: “after bite”-didn’t work, benadryl cream-didn’t work, calamine lotion-didn’t work, toothpaste-didn’t work, and then I tried IcyHot. It worked!! IcyHot completely masked the itch. I then discovered that if I hadn’t scratched the bite before applying the IcyHot, the bug bite would disappear by the time that the IcyHot wore off… I’d found a bug bite cure!

My Thoughts on IcyHot: As an adult I’ve realized that bug bite prevention works better than carrying IcyHot with me everywhere I go (and constantly coating myself in it), but when my bug bite prevention methods fail and I have a bug bite that’s driving me nuts I still head to the medicine cabinet and treat it with IcyHot.

Summary

When it comes to avoiding ticks and Lyme disease my basic strategy is to:

  • Cover up with long-sleeves, long-pants, and gaiters
  • Use permethrin treated clothing
  • Avoid tall grassy areas
  • (while backpacking) Do a ticks checks and change into dedicated sleep clothes (long-sleeved lightweight shirt, camp socks, leggings) before getting into my sleeping bag at night.
  • (while in civilization) Do tick checks and shower after returning from each hike/outdoor activity in tick-infested areas
  • Avoid unleashed dogs (they run through the tall grasses and bring the ticks back to me)

For mosquitoes, I try to avoid the skin-applied repellents, but when the mosquitoes/black flies are particularly irritating I end up including them. My mesh Bugs Away jacket is a godsend in hot, humid weather. For mosquitoes my basic strategy is to:

  • Cover up with long-sleeves, long-pants, and gaiters
  • Use permethrin treated clothing
  • Hike faster! I’ve found that mosquitoes and black flies don’t tend to bite me when I’m hiking at >2 miles/hr
  • Use EPA-registered and CDC-approved repellent on exposed areas (hands, ankles, neck/face) sparingly as needed; I typically carry/use DEET, but will be trying out 20% picaridin.
  • Use a head/bug net in extreme circumstances, especially when the gnats dive-bomb my eyes, fly up my nose, and start swarming so thickly that I inhale the dang things… For gnats I also use the thru-hiker trick of poking a tall blade of grass/wheat out of my hat since they seem to be attracted to the highest moving point; it seems to help a little, but is much less effective than a properly positioned high quality bug net.

Combining these strategies seems to work for me with most biting insects most of the time. The one glaring exception is horse flies. Horse flies are relatively undeterred by repellents, and will bite any exposed flesh they can find. When I’m in an area horribly overrun with horseflies my strategy is to either to dive into the closest body of water and go for a swim (staying under water as much as possible) or to dive into the safety and security of my tent for a nap.

Links

Previous posts I’ve written about ticks:

Previous posts I’ve written about mosquitoes:

Winter Backpacking Gear: Light Weight Gear for Temperatures < 32F/0C

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The  extreme air temperatures on the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire can range from the 40°s (F) to the -40°s (F) during the winter months.

Before I delve into the details of my winter backpacking gearlist, I want to start by defining ‘winter backpacking’. Although most people define winter backpacking as backpacking between the first day of winter and the first day of spring (eg,  December 21 to March 20), the definition of winter backpacking that I use to guide my gear decisions is more accurately reflected by the lowest temperatures (as well as snow/ice conditions) that I am expecting to encounter on my backpacking trip. The rough definitions of backpacking seasons that I use are:

  • Summer Backpacking (lows ≥ 45°F)
  • 3-Season Backpacking (lows: 30°F to 45°F)
  • Shoulder-Season Backpacking (lows: 20°F to 30°F)
  • Winter Backpacking (lows: 0°F  to 20°F)
  • Expedition Backpacking (lows: -40°F to 0°F)
    • Winter Alpine Backpacking (lows: -20°F to 0°F)
    • Extreme Cold Backpacking (lows: -40°F to -20°F)
  • Arctic Backpacking (lows ≤ -40°F)

In this post I’m going to describe the gear that I use for ‘winter’ and ‘expedition’ backpacking (primarily) in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

If you do a lot of hiking/backpacking in the White Mountains I highly recommend purchasing a 2017 New Hampshire Voluntary Hike Safe Card for $25; it helps cover the cost of search and rescue because sh** happens!

¡DISCLAIMER! The following descriptions of the way I use and/or am considering using gear are NOT indicative of safe or manufacturer approved uses; winter backpacking is inherently dangerous and you are responsible for any/all risks that you assume when heading into the backcountry.

Sleep System

My winter backpacking sleep system consists of my tent (Nallo 2), sleeping bag (Marmot Lithium 0° F ), sleeping pad (NeoAir XLite), an emergency bivvy, and an extra insulated foam pad. The combined weight of my winter sleep system is: 8 lbs 2 oz (3.7 kg).

Shelter/Tent:

  • ≥20°F: Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 ( 1 lb, 15 oz)
    • 3-Season Tent: acceptable for minimal snow load, can feel draft at temperatures below 30F due to large % of mesh
  • ≤20°F: Hilleberg Nallo 2 (4 lbs 7 oz/2.0 kg)
    • 4-Season Tent: Easy to pitch alone, and spacious for solo adventures. Cozy (but workable) for 2 people winter backpacking trips. I would opt for a larger tent for winter car camping trips.
  • Emergency Bivvy: SOL Emergency Bivvy (3.8 oz /107 g)
    • I bring an emergency bivvy on all winter hiking/backpacking trips, especially since they are cheap ($16.95), light, and warm, and the cold can kill you very quickly when the temperatures start dipping near (and especially below) zero.I’m considering the SOL thermal bivvy (8.9 oz) as a replacement for adventures in the extreme cold (≤ 0°F to -40° F).

Sleeping bag

  • ≥35°F: Marmot Hydrogen 30°F Bag (1 lb 7.3 oz)
  • ≥0°F: Marmot Lithium 0°F Bag ( 2lbs 9.5oz /1176g)
    • Temperature Rating (EN Rating)
      • Comfort (9°F / -12.8°C): the temperature at which a typical woman can sleep comfortably in a relaxed position
      • Lower Limit (-4.5°F /-20.8°C): the temperature at which a typical man can comfortable sleep curled up for 8 hrs
      • Extreme (-45.2°F /-42.9°C): the minimum temperature at which a typical woman can sleep for 6 hrs without dying from hypothermia
    • Comment: I love this sleeping bag. Even after ~3000 miles use (purchased in 2013) it is still cozy for me down to temperatures in the teens and single digits (°F); the EN comfort rating is consistent with my personal experience with the bag.
      • ≤10°F, I start getting cold and need to wear additional layers (eg jackets, slippers, insulating pants inside the sleeping bag). I’m considering purchasing a vapor barrier liner (VPL) for use inside my sleeping bag (eg. the Western Mountaineering HotSac Vapor Barrier Liner [4.5 oz])
  • ≤ 0°F to -40° F: Currently considering acquiring a -40° F sleeping bag

Sleeping pad

  • ≤ 0°F to -40°F: NeoAir® XLite XTherm (15 oz)
    • Thickness (2.5 inches/6.3 cm); Length (72 inches/183 cm)
    • R-Value (5.7)
    • Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm mattress R-value chart
    • This was a Christmas 2016 gift, that I’m looking forward to trying out!
  • NeoAir Mini Pump (weight: 2.3 oz / 65 g)
    • Comment: a worthwhile addition especially for winter backpacking so you don’t get moisture from breath freezing inside mattress

Backpack

For winter backpacking I need a larger pack to accommodate the extra weight and volume of my winter gear; I also want larger buckles so that I can take my backpack on and off without removing my gloves (NOTE: I keep an emergency knife attached to front of my pack so that if my hands no longer have the dexterity to unclip my pack I can cut the straps to gain access to the lifesaving gear I’m carrying).

  • ≥0°F: ULA Catalyst (3 lbs)
    • Total Volume: 4,600 cu in (~75 liters)
      • Total volume includes the volume of the side and mesh pockets
      • Internal volume: 2,600 cu it (~42 liters)
    • Recommended max load: 40 lbs
      • I’ve definitely stretched this to 45-50 lbs without any trouble
    • Pack Cover: Large Etowah Pack Cover (3.8 oz)
    • Comment: this pack works for me for winter, but is a bit small for extreme backpacking (the internal volume is low); the buckles are also too small for me to easily use when wearing bulky gloves or mittens
  •  ≤0°F: Wishlist? Hyperlite 4400 Ice Pack (2.56 lbs)
    • Load capacity: 30 to 65 lbs
    • Interior Volume: 4400 cu. in. (70L)
    • Waterproof

Specialized Snow/Ice Gear


For winter backpacking trips I usually carry light traction (ie microspikes), ultralight (UL) snow shoes, and my ice axe, for a combined weight of 3.7 lbs (1,677 grams). Although I always use trekking poles, I don’t count them towards my pack weight since they never end up in my pack (I’m going to continue claiming this loophole).

  • Light Traction: Kahtoola Microspikes (13.5 oz/ 383 grams)
    • Indispensable for winter hiking/backpacking; allow me to leave my crampons at home in most winter conditions. Crampons still required for anything that requires kicking steps or climbing ice flows at steeper grades.
  • Crampons: Grivel 12-Point Crampons (31.1 oz)
    • These crampons clip onto my mountaineering boots (C2)/plastic boots; I have been using them for over a decade and I still love them. In conditions where I’m need to kick steps, or will be traversing steep ice flows I bring my crampons instead of my microspikes
    • To review proper crampon use check out:
  • Gaitors: Men’s Crocodile Knee-high Goretex Gaitors (10.2 oz)
    • Comment: These gaitors are useful for keeping the snow out of my boots (keeping my feet dry), and are also critical when using crampons to help prevent accidentally shredding my waterproof pants/insulated pants
  • UL Snowshoes: Louis Garneau Women’s Transition Boa (2.4 lbs /1089 g)
    • Length: 23 inches long, 7 inches wide
    • Load: 100 to 220 lbs
    • Notes: I love these snowshoes, they are light and easy to to put on/take-off on the trail. For winter backpacking, as long as I remain below their max load, I enjoy them. They have 360 degree crampon traction, lightweight decking flexible to -40°F, awesome foot clasp system.
  •  Ice axe: CAMP Corsa (7.2 oz /205 grams)
    • Length: 70 cm
    • Uses: Probing terrain, self-arrest, snow anchor, chipping out ice/snow for water. It’s not as rugged as a heavier ice axe, but it works well for my needs.
    • Before taking your ice axe into the mountains make sure you know how to use it. The following links have some useful reminders for ice axe use:
  •  Trekking Poles: Leki Carbon Ti (14.9 oz/pair)
  •  Snow/Avalanche Shovel: Snow Claw Backcountry Shovel & Multi-tool (6 oz)
    • A lightweight, easy-to-pack snow shovel for clearing campsites and digging snow caves; I only bring it when I anticipate deep snow
  • Avalanche Safety Gear (Transceiver/Probe)
    • Always check with the local avalanche center (for the White Mountains in NH: The Mount Washington Avalanche Center) for snow conditions and warnings prior to winter treks, avoid avalanche prone areas, and carefully monitor snow conditions. Prior to venturing into avalanche terrain I’m considering purchasing:

Emergency Locator Devices

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  • Personal locator beacon (PLB): ACR ResQLink+
    • If I get lost or seriously injured I want to be found, so I carry this PLB. It doesn’t have lots of whiz-bangs of the satellite communicators, but the engineering is better, it doesn’t require the purchase of a contract, the battery life if guaranteed to last five years (not rechargeable), the power output of its frequency beacon is higher than any other backpacking locator device I’ve found, it broadcasts at multiple frequency, uses the government/military satellite systems, and is registered with NOAA.
  • Satellite communicator: Delorme InReach SE+
    • This device allows two-way satellite communication with family, friends, and rescue services. It also allows you to post/track your routes and location online; in addition to purchasing the device you must also purchase a service contract, and you need to be mindful of battery use (the more you use it for tracking/messenging, the less you’ll be able to use it for emergency rescue)
  • Map and Compass: Don’t leave home without them

Footwear


For winter backpacking, I always bring a pair of knee-high waterproof gaitors and a pair of ultralight down booties to use as camp camp shoes. I keep using my trail shoes (waterproof trail shoes, or a thru-hiker hack with waterproof socks) into the early winter backpacking season when snowshoeing or when minimal/light traction (microspikes) is required, but I’ve learned the hard way (multiple toenails sacrificed) that my trail shoes (eg, Altras, Oboz, and Merrell Moab’s) don’t have rigid enough soles for heavy microspike/crampon use, especially on uneven terrain. For colder, more rugged conditions I switch to my mountaineering boots, or the dreaded plastic boots.

  • Camp Shoes/Booties
    • ≤30°F: Western Mountaineering Flash Down Booties (3 oz/pair)
      • Comment: As somebody that frequently has cold feet, these down booties are one of my favorite pieces of winter UL gear; I’ve backpacked over 1000 miles with these booties, and can’t complain about their durability ;) They do have some drawbacks for winter use though: they’re not waterproof and they don’t have much traction. I’m considering purchasing:
  • Socks

Additional Personal Items

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  • Water
    • 32 oz Nalgene wide-mouth bottles (2)
      • CAUTION: Not all 32 oz wide mouth Nalgene’s are created equal!!! I will be replacing my old Lexan Nalgene’s (which may contain BPA) with the lightweight HDPE Nalgenes (3.75 oz) and NOT the new Tritan Nalgenes (6.25 oz) because the Tritan Nalgenes are not rated to handle boiling water and they are brittle in extreme cold. Detailed explanations of the plastics used for each of the Nalgenes is available online (click here for the pdf); below I’ve listed the max use temp (Max), the heat distortion temp (HDT), the brittleness temp (Low), the chemical resistance (CR), and the recycling symbol (♻) for bottle identification.
        • HDPE (high-density polyethylene) Nalgene:
          • Max (120°C), HDT (65°C), Low (-100°C); CR (g00d), ♻ 2
        • Lexan (PC-polycarbonate) Nalgene: 
          • Max (135°C), HDT (138°C), Low (-135°C), CR (minimal), ♻ 7
        • Tritan (PETG-polyethylene terephthalate glycol) Nalgene:
          • High (70°C), HDT (70°C), Low (-40°C), CR (minimal), ♻ 1
    • Insulated bottle holders (2): Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parka (~1 oz each)
    • Purification: Boiling
      • Caution: Water filters are typically ineffective if they’ve been frozen and chemical water treatment methods are highly depend on the temperature of the water being treated
  • Food: a subject of a post of its own
  • Cooking/Stove
    • ≥20°F:  Jetboil Sol Ti Cook System
      • Jetboil Sol Ti (8.5 oz)
      • Winter Blend Canister Fuel:
        • Winter canister fuels I’ve had good luck with (≥20°F):
          • MSR IsoPro Fuel Canister: 80/20 blend of isobutane/propane
          • Snow Peak GigaPower: 85/15 blend of isobutane/propane
            • lowest working temp according to manufacturer: 15°F
          • For winter use I keep my fuel canisters warm (sleep with them and/or put them in a pocket before use), shake them, and place them on a foam pad to isolate them from the ground.
        • NOTE: For canister fuels to function, the ambient temperature must be above the boiling temperature of the fuel mixture. Higher percentages of low boiling point fuels will lead to lower boiling point mixtures. For reference, canister fuels are a blend of:
          • isobutane (boiling point:11°F)
          • propane (boiling point: -44°F)
          • n-butane (boiling point: 31°F)
    • <20°F: Whisperlite (11.2 oz)
      • Titanium pot
      • Comment: a classic that I’ve had forever
    • Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Fire Starters (cooking/emergency):
    • Emergency Stormproof Matches
      • Waterproof matches are notoriously hard to light; I’m considering upgrading my emergency matches to:Titan Stormproof Matches
    • ≥20°F: Mini Bic Lighter (~1 oz)
      • Bic pocket lighters use isobutane as fuel (boiling point:11°F), but I find that below 30°F they don’t keep a flame very long unless I’ve kept them warm in a pocket close to my body; their safety mechanisms and flicking mechanism are also challenging to use with gloves on, making them a poor choice for cold weather conditions
    •  <20°F: flint/steel fire-starter
  • Sun protection
    • Sunglasses/glacier glasses
    • Sunscreen
    • Lip balm containing sunscreen
  • Additional Emergency Gear
    • First-aid kit
      • Pills/Capsules:
        • aleve (6), tylenol (4), 12-hour sudafed (2),  Nyquil capsules (2), benadryl (4), 12-hour immodium (2), nuun electrolyte tablets (4)
      • Asthma/Allergy
        • Epi-pens (2), Inhaler
      • Wound management
        • Bandages: Duct tape, 2 gauze pads, 2 maxi pads, 6 steri-strips, 3 tega-derm dressings
        • Triple antibiotic ointment
        • Alcohol wipes
      • Survival
        • Length of Rope/cord
        • Matches/Mini-lighter/Flint&Steel fire starter as described above
        • Knife
      • Hand/Foot Warmers (2)
      • Water purification: Aqua Mira/Iodine Tabs
      • Additional items that described elsewhere that reside in my first aid kit include:
        • sunscreen, lip balm with sunscreen, compass, PLB, ultralight headlamp, emergency bivvy
  • Headlamp with spare batteries
    • All season: Petzl e+LITE (< 1 oz)
      • Spare batteries (2x CR2032 Lithium)
      • Max lumens: 26
      • Comments: It doesn’t through much light, but it’s more than enough to hike with and set up camp with. Down to temperatures in the teens it continues to perform well.
    • ≥20°F: Nitecore Headlamp Series HC60 (3.47 oz)
      • Battery (1 × 18650 lithium ion, micro-USB rechargeable)
      • Max lumens: 1000
      • Comments: This isn’t the lightest headlamp on the market, but it’s bright, its rechargeable, and it generates enough heat on its own that it seems to do better in harsh winter conditions than in summer conditions. I love this headlamp for winter backpacking/nighthiking; I wish that it had a red light mode, but otherwise I can’t complain about this headlamp
  • Hip pouch: to keep inhaler/cell phone etc close to body and warm
  • Bandana/hankerchief: the only cotton items I carry while backpacking

Clothing Layers

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If you have any questions about my gear choices, or if you have a favorite piece of winter gear that you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments below! If there’s sufficient interest in any particular gear item let me know, and I can work on writing up a more detailed review in a separate post.

Happy hiking!!

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A fellow winter hiker descending from Mt. Lafayette and enjoying a phenomenal January sunset in the White Mountains of NH


Additional Links

For other gearlists/reviews that I’ve published check out:

Links to other winter gearlists you might find interesting:

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Appalachian Trail selfie in low visibility conditions above treeline in the White Mountains in January (temp 5F, windchill -30F)

Better than sex? Boston Fireworks Kayaking Adventure

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“Boo-ooo-ooo-oom!” The first rocket launched, the sound so intense that I didn’t just hear it as it bounced off of the river and hit me, I felt it! “Hoo-ah!” I exclaimed as my startle reflex took over: my stomach tightened, my eyes widened, my back arched, my heart slowed (bradycardia), and my body flooded with adrenaline and endorphins… Time stood still as my attention was pulled fully into the here and now… all thoughts, emotions, and expectations emptied from my mind to make room for my heightened senses…

DSC07038 “Cr-ack!” the sky exploded and my entire visual field was suddenly filled with the most beautiful cascade of red light that I have ever seen… Sitting there, in my kayak on the water with the fireworks barges in front of me, the red peony burst above me, and its reflections in the water all around me… It was so intensely beautiful that it overwhelmed my senses and brought tears to my eyes…

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I’ve watched Boston’s 4th of July fireworks before (from the Mass. Ave bridge-back when that was allowed, from the MIT sailing pavilion, and from multiple locations along the banks of the Charles), but I’d never experienced fireworks like this! AND the show was just getting started!!!

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“Thu-ump!” another firework launched. As the sound hit me, I was reminded me of the feeling I used to get at rock concerts… dancing in front of the speakers when the music was too loud and the bass was cranked up as high as it could go… the raw power of the sound resonating in my body, moving me, as I breathed the music…

  • 90 dBA: Soud intensity at which the vestibular system begins increasing hedonic response (sense of pleasure) in response to low-frequency sounds (<500 Hz).

My heart sped up with excitement and expectation because I knew what was coming next…

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“Crack! Crack! Crack!” Three stars, one red, one white, and one blue, exploded. “Wow, is there anything better than this?” I wondered blissfully, “Well… maybe sex…” The fireworks continued with a chrysanthemum, followed by some willows… I breathlessly awaited each new boom, and burst as the fireworks danced and crackled across the sky… It was so amazing… so beautiful… so intense… so perfect… so lovely… so magical… DSC07043 “This! This IS better than sex!”” I thought, overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of both the auditory and visual stimuli… I suddenly I understood why people associated orgasms with fireworks; each explosion was full of ecstasy, joy, and happiness… Wow! As the show continued the fireworks just got more and more intense and amazing… showering the sky with cascading patterns of red, purple, green, and blue…

  • 5 to 2.5 seconds: time between firework explosions during main show
  • 500 ms: time between firework explosions during finale (last 3 minutes)
  • 600-800 ms: time between muscle contractions during male and female orgasm.

DSC07040 I was euphoric… I loved my colorfully lit up kayak… I loved the gentle waves that were rocking my kayak, I loved that there were 10s of 1000s of other people there, watching it with me… I loved that it still felt like the whole show was being put on just for me… I loved the new friends that were watching the fireworks with me… I loved Boston… I loved it all… DSC07026 I continued glowing with happiness even after the fireworks ended… Sure, the air was filled with smoke, the barges had caught fire, I had to pee, and I to kayak 4 more miles to get home, but I knew that the spectacular experience of watching the fireworks from my kayak would remain with me, as one of my happy thoughts, for the rest of my life… DSC07065 DSC07072 Additional Links & References:

Cell phone pictures:

What price sanity?

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“I hate this commute,” was all I could think as I sat in a river of stopped cars on my way home from work last week. “Why would anybody CHOOSE to do this?” I whined as the traffic jutted ahead 2 feet before stopping again. “I want to be hiking!” I screamed from inside my prison. I hated being confined to my metal box, but I’d sprained my ankle halfway up Old Speck on the Appalachian Trail in Southern Maine, and not just a little sprain, a severe sprain.

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Icing my freshly sprained ankle in a waterfall near Pinkham Notch, NH

“Go big or go home,” is our family motto, and certainly a thru-hiker motto, and my ankle had gone big… to about the size of a grapefruit… and I’d had to go home… It happened on Memorial Day weekend and was a heartbreaking start to my summer… I wanted to hike… I NEEDED to hike… hiking wasn’t just a hobby for me anymore, hiking was a part of my daily meditation… The two-mile walk to- and from- work had been keeping me sane while I attempted to re-acclimate to civilization, but I’d gone to the ER and they’d booted me… like I booted car, I wasn’t going to be using that ankle to get very far, very fast…

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Booted!

I looked longingly out the window of the car… The sky was a gorgeous blue, and trees were finally, beautifully, green… I knew exactly where I was supposed to… out there! This car commute was driving me mad… It didn’t help that my right ankle was the one I sprained, so every time I had to step on the gas, or hit the brakes I was flooded with physical pain as well as psychological pain.

“Hmmm… Maybe I could buy a bicycle, and bike to work while I wait for my ankle to heal…” It had been a couple of weeks and my ankle was getting a little better… It would get me out of my daily traffic jam, but biking on a sprained ankle seemed like it might be pretty painful.

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“Or… I could get a kayak, and paddle to work everyday…” There’s a river near my apartment, and it connects to a brook that leads right to my office… There are even showers in the bathrooms at work, so I could shower when I got in! …”That would be perfect!” I’d wistfully thought about this before as I hiked along the river, but I couldn’t think of any good places to park my kayak at work.

“Aaargh,” I moaned as the traffic moved forward another couple of inches… It had been 15 minutes and I’d barely moved 15 feet. “That does it! I cant do this ‘car’ thing anymore!” For my sanity I need to figure out another options… “What I need is a collapsible kayak,” I thought and vowed to look into it.

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Eventually when I got  home I did just that! It looked like I had three options: an inflatable kayak, a skin-on-frame kayak (Folbot Kayak), or an origami kayak (Oru Kayak). Yes, you read that right, a human-sized origami kayak… I was excited that there were actually options! So I sat down and tried to figure out what I wanted out of my ideal kayak:

What price sanity? All of the options would be breaking the bank… but if I could actually commute in it? Priceless! After a lot of hemming and hawing, I ended up getting the Oru Kayak (The Bay). It seemed like the right balance of ease of setup, space, and weight for me… It also helped that I could get it from REI, which allowed me to go and check it out in person, and gave me greater confidence that if I had a problem with it, I could just return it.

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Coming soon: “Log Jams Not Traffic Jams: My Week 1 Review of the ORU Kayak”

Ticks & Lyme Disease at home and on the trail…

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2012 Master’s Project by Victoria Shelus

When a fellow 2013 thru-hiker was hospitalized with severe Lyme meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain) earlier this month, I decided to do some research and try to help raise awareness about Lyme.

“How many of my friends have had Lyme disease?” I wondered… I assumed that most of my friends with Lyme experience were hikers since I’d estimated that almost 30% of the northbound 2013 thru-hikers I met in New England had had it,  but I wasn’t really sure… so I turned to my Facebook friends looking for answers…

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What I discovered came as a surprise! 5% of my friends (22 of the people that viewed the post, n=440) have had confirmed cases of Lyme! And most of them, (68%, n=15) weren’t hikers at all! They’d gotten Lyme in their yards or in nearby parks… The youngest had been bitten before she even turned a year old! I guess with 5,665 reported cases of Lyme in Massachusetts in 2013 (a 12% increase from 2012) I shouldn’t have been surprised… but I definitely was! (Also, check out this link: How did 2014-2015s harsh winter effect tick populations?)

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RI Tick encounter risk: Red=high, blue= low (Link Risk of tick encounters in Rhode Island by year)

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RI Tick encounter risk: Red=high, blue=low.

Where were my non-hiker friends getting Lyme? Lyme disease is named after a town in Connecticut and is endemic in New England so I wasn’t surprised that 93% (14/15) of my non-hiking friends with Lyme live in New England… but they weren’t getting it from backpacking trips to the wildnerness; they were getting it from ticks lurking in their yards and suburban parks. Since there are more white-footed mice and deer (the two biggest vectors for ticks and Lyme disease in New England) in the suburban areas of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island than in the wild areas it makes sense that those are the places where people are getting infected with Lyme… Clearly I need to start eying the tall grass, brush, and leaf litter in suburban parks and backyards with much more suspicion…

QDMA data from 2001-2006

It seemed strange, however, that  0% (0/7) of my hiking friends with Lyme were from New England… Another surprise was that 100% of my hiker friends that got Lyme got it during their during their thru-hikes (revision: 1 was on a 500 mile section-hike)! Maybe it’s partly because thru-hikers from other parts of the country don’t have the same level of tick awareness that people in the Northeast have? I remember being absolutely horrified the first time I saw someone drop their pack and lie down in the middle of a field of tall grass while I was hiking through North Carolina… Why? Ticks!!!! I had the same trouble on the PCT, even though people assured me that the PCT doesn’t have the same issues with Lyme… It was just engrained behavior for me…

A white-tailed dear I saw while hiking through Pennsylvania on the AT

A white-tailed dear I saw while hiking through Pennsylvania on the AT

Though a part of me loved the bucolic moments when deer wandered towards me on the trail… a bigger part of me was hungry and wished that I was going to be having have a nice venison steak for dinner instead of a boring dehydrated meal (Note: the CDC has this assurance, “You will not get Lyme disease from eating venison or squirrel meat”)… the biggest part of me, however, would start to feel imaginary ticks crawling on my arms and legs, so I would stop and do a tick check… “Is that a speck of dirt, or a deer tick?” I would wonder again, and again, and again…. On the trail I couldn’t shower as often as the CDC recommends for tick prevention, but I carried wet wipes with me and wiped down my legs with them every night as part of my tick check (~50% of tick bites in adults are on their legs).

It wasn’t until I hiked into Virginia on the AT in June that I really started seeing tons and tons of deer… I swear they were waiting around every corner of the trail. In the Shenendoah’s I saw tourists intentionally feeding the deer! I was horrified… Almost as horrified as I’d been watching people inside the AT shelters pick dozens of ticks off of their dogs and drop them just outside where they could re-attach to the dog or the next unsuspecting hiker that went by! Since dogs carry ticks, and can get sick from Lyme, tick checks are important, but disposing of the ticks appropriately is too!

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Later on in Virgina, I watched a fellow thru-hiker, Fingers, count as he plucked 48 ticks from his arms and legs after finishing a night hike… I hadn’t ever thought about it, but ticks don’t just quest (hunt for food) during the day, they also quest at night! In cool, humid climates adult ticks quest both day and night… When it’s hot during the day, the young ticks that cause 98% of Lyme cases quest at night (when their local humidity drops below 80% they dry out, dessicate, and die)... I had no idea that ticks came out at night… (I blindly asked 5 of the 7 thrus that had had Lyme if they’d done any night-hiking… all 5 had gone nighthiking in Virginia (or further north) prior to coming down with Lyme symptoms!)

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On the AT in Virginia with my parents .

It was July when I first discovered a tick on my person, “Ewwww, a tick!” I exclaimed looking at the lyme carrying Ixodes scapularis tick crawling on my hand! I was at a campground in the in the Shenendoah’s of Northern Virginia with my parents, “what kind is it?” my mom asked from the camper. I looked down at it, “A deer tick… it looks like a tiny poppyseed, but it has legs and is moving….”

Sizes of Ticks

“Wait, don’t brush it off, I want to see it!” cried my mom from the camper. “Really MOM!!” I replied incredulously! I have to admit that I was eying it curiously, but I was also in a hurry to get the damn thing off of me before it decided to bite. I watched it very carefully for the 3 seconds it took for my mom to come over and check it out (here are some tick pictures just for you mom!) As soon as she looked at it, I breathed a sigh of relief, flicked it into the fire, and headed for the showers. Mom was right to insist that we, the filthy stinky hikers, shower as often as possible… (Ticks usually take a couple of hours to attach so showering is recommended by the CDC as effective prevention). reportedcasesoflymedisease_2013

It wasn’t until I got to Pennsylvania that the first thru-hikers I knew started having symptoms of Lyme… I was sitting around hanging out with my friend Sir Stooge in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania when I noticed that he had a rash on the back of his calf (50% adult bites on legs, 22% on torso, 18% arms, 6% genitalia, 4%head/neck whereas 49% of bites on children were on head & neck). It was 4 or 5 inches across, with a partially cleared center… Bull’s eye (the classic erythema migrans rash)… A tick had found it’s target (a picture of his rash from his blog is below)…

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Sir Stooge’s rash from a picture on his blog

“I’m not sure if it’s Lyme,” he told me. “I think I’m going to wait until we get to the next town to get it checked out,” he continued (One study suggests that only 54% of thru-hikers know how to identify the erythema migrans rash of Lyme Disease). “Why?” I asked with disbelief.  “Well, it’s only 3 or 4 days to the next town… I’ll go then,” he said still procrastinating… I looked at him skeptically. Lots of thru-hikers don’t get prompt medical treatment because they don’t have health insurance and transportation to hospitals and clinics can be a challenge, but he was insured and his parents lived nearby, “You have health insurance, you’ve got a ride, go! The speed at which you treat Lyme matters,” I insisted!

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He ended up going to the ER, being diagnosed with Lyme, and was put on antibiotics (Lyme is usually treated with b-lactam or tetracycline antibiotics: penicillin or doxycycline). While he was at the hospital they tested him for Lyme, but he said on his blog, “I called the hospital to get the results of my blood titer (to see if I had antibodies against the Lyme). And much to my surprise, I tested negative for any Lyme.” Luckily for him, he took the antibiotics and his flu-like symptoms and rash went away… Unfortunately Lyme tests done when the rash first appears are rarely diagnostic because it takes the body a few weeks to generate Lyme antibodies, which is why the CDC recommends a 2-tiered approach to testing for Lyme: begin with Lyme ELISA tests (false negatives are common in the 1st 2 weeks of infection and positive results just suggest that you’ve been infected sometime within the last 5 yrs), and follow up with IgG and IgM Western blots only if ELISA is positive (Positve ELISA + Positive Western Blot ~100% certainty of Lyme Diagnosis).

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CDC report on the number of Lyme cases per month

As I continued to hike North I ran into my friend Bud, who’d left me in the dust as blazed ahead of me during the southern part of the trail… He was standing dazed and confused in the middle of the trail, clearly struggling… “Well well well, look who it is,” he said with a weak smile. “You don’t look so good,” I said, “Are you ok?” I asked, split between shear joy at seeing a hiker I knew, and concern over his obvious ill health…. “Well, I was hoping to hike, but I just can’t right now,” he confessed before continuing, “I ummmmm, well… I got Lyme… real bad, it really messed up my head…. my memory…. I started repeating myself all the time… and… I don’t think I’m going to be able to get to town today… I can’t hike that far,” he lamented.

He’d gone to the hospital and tested positive for Lyme and had already been on antibiotics for a week, but it was taking longer to recover than he’d hoped. It was a story that I would hear over and over and over again that August and September as I continued towards Katahdin… People without the characteristic rash, but with flu-like symptoms and a brain fog that just wouldn’t lift… Everything causes flu-like symptoms… With the rash, or a known tick-bite followed by flu-like symptoms Lyme is obvious, but without those two things? I wasn’t sure… actually, I’m still not… Thinking back on it, I had an awful lot of the symptoms while I was on the trail…

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Light-sensitive headaches… well, it’s probably just a migraine… fatigue and muscle aches, well, I’m a thru-hiker! Swollen knees… once again, thru-hiker… Nausea, double vision, trouble standing? Must be heat exhaustion… Having trouble breathing and exhausted? Must be my asthma… Would I even know if I had Lyme? I never thought that I had Lyme on the trail and I was never diagnosed with it… but I was treated with Doxycycline (for 10+ days, the preferred treatment for Lyme) during my thru-hike, and at least once afterwards… If I ever did have Lyme, I am relatively confident that it’s gone now!

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A dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) I found attached to my leg on the AT in Pennsylvania. Dog tick’s don’t carry Lyme!

Lyme is certainly a scary thing, but a  life without playing outside is an even scarier thing for me. The fact that mice are also carriers for Lyme, that ticks hang out in the leaf litter, that most people get Lyme from nymphs in June and July, and that the nymphs are at least as likely to bite at night as during the day were some of the things that were new information for me. Check out my previous post: “Deer are the scariest things in the woods…” for more information about prevention, and stay tuned for one more post where I’ll go into the tick’s life cycle and what that means for Lyme disease transmission and prevention.

Have you been bitten by a tick? Did you get Lyme? Do you know someone that has? Did you get the rash (I’m curious about how similiar most people’s rashes are to the text book rashes)? Do you know where you got it? I’d be interested to hear you Lyme stories… either in comments below, or email me: patchesthru at gmail dot com.

 

Finally som tick advice for backpackers/thru-hikers based on my experience:

  • Shower as often as you can!
    • carry wet wipes to clean off and check target areas
  • Ticks bite at night!
    • Don’t hike thru tick-prone areas at night especially if the days have been really hot and humid!!! The ticks are out, and it’ll take you longer to see them and remove them
    • Don’t camp (especially if you are using a tarp without and bug prevention) in areas with dense brush, high grass, or leaf litter… Ticks quest at night!!! They don’t jump, or fly, but they do crawl.
  • Be especially attentive at lower elevations!
    • If you’re hiking at elelevations lower than 2000 feet to extra tick checks… Ticks are less common above 2000
  • Check dogs regularly for ticks (and use preventative measures)
    • Don’t forget to dispose of the ticks appropriately
    • Consider keeping your dogs out of the AT shelters when people are sleeping in them… The only way ticks have been shown to enter the shelters is if we bring them there!
  • Check your pack for ticks!!! If you set your pack down in the tall grass or leaf litter, ticks can grab a free ride directly back to you… besides, you don’t want to carry anything extra :-P
  • Walk in the center of trails where possible… It’s better for you and its better for the trail!
  • Use repellents: permethrin kills ticks on contact or 20% Deet
    • Permethrin comes in a wash or spray that you can apply to your favorite clothing and is good for dozens of washes
    • 20% Deet is just as effective as 100% deet for prevention…
  • Know the symptoms of Lyme and seek medical attention as soon as possible if you experience any of them

The beautiful balds in TN.

Deer are the scariest things in the woods… Here’s why!

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What’s the scariest thing that I’ve encountered in the woods? Most people guess that it’s the bears, or the rattlesnakes, or the people. It’s not. It’s the deer

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Bambi (deer), Thumper (rabbit), and his fellow terrorists (skunks, squirrels, birds etc.) are loveable and cute, but they’re also masters of biological warfare! While we fawn all over them, they deliver their payloads of disease-laden ticks to our backyards, parks, trails, and campgrounds.

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Corkscrew shaped Lyme bacteria.

Ticks have been roaming the earth since the time of the dinosaurs, and infecting humans with the corkscrew-shaped bacteria (spirochetes) responsible for Lyme disease for the last 5300 years…

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Autopsy of the 5300 year old mummy “Otzi-the iceman” revealed borrelia spirochete DNA!

In the US alone, ticks infect an estimated 300,000 people with the bacteria that cause Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) each year. Lyme disease is currently on the rise (up 12% between 2012 and 2013 in Massachusetts)… and the worst thing about it? It’s targeting our poor, defenseless children!

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Distribution of Lyme cases by age: 5-15 year olds (playing in their yard), followed by 40-60 year olds (gardening) are the most likely to get Lyme disease.

Since June and July are the months that most people get infected with Lyme disease we need to learn how to protect ourselves, and our children, from this menace right now!

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Number of cases of Lyme disease in the US per month.

Let’s start with some simple guidelines from the CDC:

  • Wear Repellent!

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  • Check for ticks daily!
    • A tick typically is attached for 36-48 hrs before it transmits Lyme to it’s host… get them off before they infect you!!
    • Although ticks can bite anywhere, their favorite spots are: the head and neck (~50% of bites in children and 4% in adults), legs (50% in adults), torso (22% in adults), arms (18% in adults), and genitalia (6% in adults, but even higher in men… check your junk for the funk!).

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    The size of the Lyme carrying deer tick at different stages of development.

  • Shower after outdoor activities!
    • Shower within 2 hrs of outdoor activities: ticks usually roam around for a couple of hours before settling in and attaching to a tasty bit of thin skin… Wash them off before they even attach!
    • Wash & tumble dry clothes on high for ~1hr when you get home to kill remaining ticks.
    • medical illustration of Erythema migrans

      Bull’s eye rash (Erythema migrans)

  • Call your doctor if you get a fever or rash!
    • ~3-30 days after being bitten by infected ticks 80% of adults and 60% of children develop a rash. The Lyme rash (erythema migrans) is typically red and expands to >2 inches in diameter (5 cm), frequently clearing in the center giving it the Bull’s eye appearance.
    • Arthritic knee

      Lyme Arthritis

    • ~4-60 days later: the Lyme spirochetes invade systemically and cause flu-like symptoms. They may also cause: multiple bull’s eye rashes in remote locations, arthritis in the large joints (Lyme arthritis), cardiac issues (Lyme carditis, which is 3x more likely in men than women), and brain issues (Neuroborreliosis, Lyme meningitis, Lyme encephalitis, and Lyme palsy).
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CDC’s report of Lyme disease symptoms in US patient

Remember that Bambi and his terrorist friends don’t just hang out in the woods, they also hang out in your backyard! Ticks love moist areas, leaf litter, tall grasses, and brush…

  • Have you done your yard-work? Reduce your chances of Lyme infection by 50-90% by removing leaf litter, tall grasses, and brush from around the edges of your lawn! Create a tick-free zone around your yard and suburban parks:
    • Mow your lawn regularly and remove tall weeds… I hate the idea, but another option is to apply pesticides to your yard 2x a year, which reduces Lyme infection by 68-100%
    • Lay down a three foot wide barrier of wood chips/gravel between your lawn and the woods to restrict tick migration. Consider fencing in your yard to keep out deer, raccoons, and other Lyme disease carriers.
    • Keep activities away from lawn edges and overhanging trees
  • Is your garbage covered and inaccessible? The critters that get into your gargbage (Mice, squirrels, skunks, rabbits, and raccoons) carry Lyme disease! Mice are an especially big problem: the white-footed mouse is one of the biggest carriers of Lyme disease (common in small patches of woods, 5 acres or less) !
  • Do you have pets? Dogs love to romp in the woods and tall grasses where they fetch ticks and bring them right back to you! Check your dogs for ticks before letting them into your house, your tent, or the shelters on the AT… Talk to your vet about tick prevention treatments like Frontline. Note: Dispose of ticks properly! If you toss them onto the ground they’ll just grab onto you the next time you walk by… I see this all of the time and it makes me very grumpy!
  • Are you hiking in the middle of the trail? Hike in the middle of the trail and avoid tall grass, leaf litter, and brushy areas whenever possible… No matter how beautiful the wild meadow looks, don’t drop yourself, your pack, or your tent in the middle of it… Ticks love wild meadows and will happily catch a free ride from your pack to you! Know before you go: the Appalachian Trail goes through 12 of the 14 states responsible for 96% of all Lyme cases in the US!
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CDC Map of reported Lyme cases in the US in 2013

Please join me in raising awareness about ticks and Lyme disease by sharing this post and your comments about Lyme disease below. Stay tuned for my next post, which will also be about ticks and Lyme disease!

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~90 Million year old tick fossil from New Jersey

Disclaimer: I am not an MD or public health official. I am a scientist and an outdoor enthusiast with a passion for research… After discovering that ~5% of my friends (see my upcoming post) have had Lyme, I decided to do some research about it and share my findings here. Talk to your doctor if you have health related questions!

Part 2: I’m Your Huckleberry

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One of the joys of hiking in the late summer and early fall is feasting on wild blueberries and huckleberries. Towards the end of my Appalachian trail thru-hike I feasted on the wild blueberries in Maine, and now that I was nearing the end of my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike I was feasting on the wild huckleberries in Washington. In the Northeast we take pride in our wild blueberries, and often snub the obviously inferior commercial blueberries. In the Northwest people seemed to take pride in their huckleberries, but they categorically snubbed all blueberries… including the wild Maine blueberries that I thought so highly of. “Are you sure that you’re picking huckleberries and not blueberries,” was a constant, condescending refrain that I’d heard over and over again, and it rankled every time. Though I’d learned how to recognize one species of western huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) and was confident that I was picking huckleberries and not blueberries, there was another question that I wasn’t so sure about: “What is the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” None of the people I talked to really seemed to know. If they didn’t know the difference between a blueberry and a huckleberry, how could they assert the superiority of one over the other?

“What is the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” The question ate at me as I hiked through Washington… I needed the internet… I needed to do some research… I wanted a scientifically rigorous end to the debate of huckleberry versus blueberry… When I finally got wifi, I started by looking up the definitions of the berries in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

That seemed simple enough, right? Huckleberries are from the genus Gaylussacia and blueberries are from the genus Vaccinium… (Let’s ignore that the second definition of huckleberry is blueberry for now). This definition was consistent with the berries I’d seen on the Appalachian trail, and the colloquial definitions of blueberries and huckleberries that I’d grown up with on the east coast. It also provided the key to telling eastern huckleberries from blueberries while hiking on the Appalachian trail: when you break open an eastern huckleberry, it has 10 chambers and 10 big seeds in it, but when you break open a blueberry it only has five chambers and is full of lots and lots of tiny little seeds.

If I was only concerned about the east coast and the AT I’d be done, but what about the berries on the west coast, the berries on the PCT? Do they fit into those same simple definitions? No.  According to the united states forest service there are twelve species of huckleberry in Oregon and Washington and they all belong to the genus Vaccinium! That means that by east coast standards (and according to the dictionary definition), all of the western huckleberries are actually blueberries.

My initial reaction was to laugh. No wonder why people on the west coast were so confused about the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. I briefly thought about invoking the classic east coast/west coast rivalry, and dismissing all western huckleberries as blueberries, but that didn’t appease my intellectual curiosity… there was definitely something different about western huckleberries… They weren’t the same berries that I’d grown up calling blueberries on the east coast, I needed to learn more.

I went searching for a better definition huckleberries and was surprised to find that in at least one state there is a legal definition of a huckleberry! In 2013 the Montana state legislature defined a “huckleberry” as: a berry referring to various wild species of the Vaccinium genus, commonly referred to in this state as a huckleberry or Montana huckleberry. Among these species are Vaccinium membranaceum and Vaccinium globulare. The legal definition gave merit to 2 of the 12 huckleberry species that I’d heard of, and listed four species that were not huckleberries, but it didn’t help me understand the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. I shouldn’t have been surprised that lawmakers didn’t have the definitive answer I was looking for, the definition of a huckleberry is really a question for scientists, not lawmakers.

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I returned to the literature and to the genus Vaccinium, which includes all of the blueberries, cranberries, and western huckleberries. Since the genus was the same for all of them, I looked to the next level of differentiation, the subgenera. Vaccinium is divided into two subgenera: Oxycoccus (cranberries), and Vaccinium (blueberries and western huckleberries). The subgenera are then further divided into sections. Four of those sections include the berries we call blueberries and western huckleberries: Cyanococcus (blueberries), Myrtillus (bilberries/western huckleberries), Vaccinium, and Pyxothamnus. The majority of western huckleberries are in sec. Myrtillus. I’d finally figured out how to separate the western huckleberries from the blueberry!. I also discovered that in the field (on the PCT) the berry organization can be used to distinguish between the sections: most western huckleberries (sec. Myrtillus) produce single berries on new shoots, the rest of the western huckleberries (sec. Vaccinium and sec. Pyxothamnus) produce small clusters of berries, and the blueberries (sec. Cyanococcus) produce larger clusters of berries on one year old growth.

Based on my new understanding of the differences between blueberries and huckleberries I revised the Merriam-Webster definitions to include the berries from both the east coast (AT) and the west coast (PCT):

Using these new definitions, could I separate all of the North American huckleberries from the North American blueberries? To figure that out, I investigated the taxonomy of huckleberries and blueberries, focusing on the differences between the species on the east coast (AT) and the west coast (PCT). The naming and separation of species is constantly changing as our understanding of plant genetics evolves, which means that the species definitions for huckleberries and blueberries are constantly changing. Although I used the initial list of huckleberries of the northwest (1972) as a guide, I used the USDA plants database and/or the GRIN Taxonomy for Plants to determine a more current list of species (click on the links to see maps of their growing regions):

Family Ericaceaethe heath family, includes all of the huckleberries and blueberries
Genus Gaylussacia – Eastern (AT) Huckleberries (10 chambered ovary)

 Genus Vaccinium – Blueberries and Western Huckleberries (5 chambered ovary)

Finally, after spending way too much time online, I’d convinced myself that I knew the difference between blueberries and huckleberries both taxonomically and functionally. On paper it was easy, the eastern (AT) huckleberries were the ones in subgenus Gaylussacia, the blueberries (AT & PCT) were the ones in sec. Cyanococcus, and the western (PCT) huckleberries were still trying to sort themselves out, but were mostly from sec. Myrtillus. On the trail, the eastern huckleberries were the ones with 10 large seeds in them that you find in the eastern part of the country, the blueberries were the ones with big clusters of fruit with lightish colored innards, and western huckleberries were the ones the brothers on the reservation had described to me (with bright purple innards and typically single berries).

One of the interesting things I learned was that blueberries on the PCT are the same species as the blueberries on the AT.  I rarely saw anything resembling an east coast blueberry as I hiked through Washington. Though there are always exceptions, it seemed like all of the know-it-alls that were so adamantly reprimanding people for picking blueberries on the trail were wrong. Up on the mountain hillsides of the PCT, almost everyone was picking huckleberries… they weren’t always picking what Montana legally defines as a huckleberry, but they were picking Washington huckleberries (huckleberries of Washington (2007)).

If you are a professional huckleberry picker getting an estimated $40 a gallon for huckleberries, you should probably restrict your definition of huckleberry to Vaccinium membranaceum. However, if you are out there hiking in the mountains, with the sunshine on your back, why not enjoy all of the edible berries that sec. Myrtillus has to offer?

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Interesting huckleberry links if you are still thirsting for more information: