Staying tick free on the PCT

By Logan “Unitic” McCulloch

Hiking the Appalachian Trail was high on my bucket list. And it might have remained there indefinitely but for a life-altering experience I had beginning in May 2011.

Several months after a backpacking trip in Mammoth Cave National Park, I developed a case of disseminated borreliosis — more commonly known as Lyme disease. A little more than two years later, at age 53 and after a long struggle to regain my health, I found myself standing atop Mount Katahdin in Maine on day one of my southbound AT adventure.

tick bite

Yes, they’re this small! This is one getting ready to munch down on the palm of someone’s hand.

My story

I awoke my first morning in camp on the Mammoth Cave trip to find more than 20 tiny tick nymphs attached to my body from my waist down to my toes. I had obviously walked through a cluster of ticks a day earlier. But I was an experienced backpacker and believed I was knowledgeable about ticks and tick-borne diseases. I calmly took out my tick tweezers and carefully grasped each tiny poppy-seed-sized tick at the tip of its embedded mouth and gently and steadily pulled backward until it released its grip. I later found out that my removal technique was one of the few things I did right that day.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

The author at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s headquarters in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

After five months of confusing symptoms and declining health, I was accurately diagnosed by a tick-borne disease specialist and began a more than year-long struggle to recover from disseminated Lyme disease along with a common co-infection called Bartonella.

Common ticks and tick-borne diseases

Ticks can carry many bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoans all at the same time and transmit them in a single bite. Diseases acquired together like this are called co-infections. A person with a co-infection generally experiences more severe illness and more symptoms and has a longer recovery.

There is a species of tick found in the regions surrounding the Pacific Crest Trail.  It is commonly referred to as the western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus) and is closely related to its better-known cousin commonly called the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis). Both are known to carry and transmit many strains of the borrelia bacteria that cause Lyme disease.

Western black legged tick.

Western blacklegged tick.

The western blacklegged tick has some unique characteristics, including its proclivity to gather on benches and picnic tables, as well as the typical tick habitat of downed logs, leaf litter and shaded ground vegetation.

Tick avoidance

Ticks require moisture to survive. Dryness is a tick’s mortal enemy. Ticks seek out overgrown areas that are shady and humid. They love soggy leaf litter, decomposing wood, thick brush and shaded grass. Ticks hatch from masses of eggs into larva and molt into nymphs after their first blood meal and then to adults after their second blood meal. The tiny nymphs usually stay clustered in large numbers within a small area. Ticks crawl up on vegetation, grass and wood and wait to grab onto a passing animal. Where possible, avoid allowing your body or your gear to contact tick habitat. Walk in the center of the trail, be vigilant when choosing rest stops and campsites, and when you are forced to pass through tick habitat, stop frequently and do tick checks. Do a thorough full-body tick check at the end of each hiking day. Mirrors and cellphone cameras are essential tools to examine places you can’t see (groin, armpits, hairline, back, etc.).


Quick tip: At the end of an outing and after your tick check, put your clothing in a dryer for 20 to 30 minutes on as high a heat setting as the fabric will allow. Dry heat will kill ticks. If you are driving home, change your clothing and seal it with your hiking gear in plastic bags before storing it in your car.

Tick protection

The one tool I credit most with keeping me safe on day hikes to thru-hikes is my tick protective clothing. On my AT hike, I wore protective clothing that utilizes a patented process developed by a company called Insect Shield that bonds a chemical called permethrin to the fibers of fabric. Permethrin is extremely effective against many pests including ticks. I wore treated socks, gaiters, zip-off pants, T-shirts and a long-sleeve shirt where needed. Many outdoor clothing retailers use fabric treated with Insect Shield technology. If a tick gets on this fabric it will quickly crawl off.

In addition to the pre-treated fabric (guaranteed for up to 70 washings), spray on treatments are also an option (usually good for 5-7 washings). I spray the exterior of my backpack, my hammock straps and my sit-pad (a piece of treated fabric can help protect you when you sit). Avoid overexposing treated fabric to direct sunlight (UV radiation degrades the treatment), and do not treat fabrics intended to be waterproof. Personally, I am not a fan of toxic repellents applied to the skin. I have used DEET sparingly at times, but I find my protective clothing the safest and most effective defense against a variety of pests. Some studies have shown that repellents with picaridin or lemon-eucalyptus oil also offer some protection.

Quick tip: Light-colored clothing is essential. The tick nymphs are so small that your best chance to spot these tiny black and brown specks is when they are crawling across light-colored clothing.

Early intervention

Understanding the early signs and symptoms of the most common tick-borne diseases is an essential piece of outdoor knowledge. Hikers should carry a wallet-size tick ID card that lists the most common species and their associated diseases and symptoms. Early treatment is far more effective in every case and particularly so with Lyme disease. Once the spirochete (corkscrew shaped bacteria) begins to drill itself into tissues including joints and organs, it is far more challenging to treat. Since most infections are transmitted by the tiny tick nymphs (because so many people never see them) and they are most prevalent in the spring and early summer, a classic symptom is the “summer flu” (symptoms typically arise three to six weeks after a bite). The deep fatigue and joint pains are far more severe than even those experienced by a thru-hiker. Perhaps as few as 50 percent of people infected with Lyme disease see a rash, and far fewer get the classic bull’s-eye pattern. Any expanding red rash is a hallmark of Lyme disease and warrants immediate treatment.

Other common ticks and associated diseases in the U.S.

Other common ticks and associated diseases in the U.S.

Quick tip: Although it is true that quickly removing an embedded tick reduces the risk of disease transmission, there is no completely safe period of attachment. The reality is that until a tick is fully engorged with blood, most people will have no idea how long one has been attached. Time-based transmission assertions assume that pathogens only reside in the gut of the tick. Many disease agents can reside in the mouth parts of ticks, and transmission can begin within a few hours.

Accurate diagnosis

Just a few weeks after I began my AT hike, the governor of Virginia signed the 2013 Lyme Test Disclosure Act. This law mandated that any doctor in Virginia who administered either of the two most common Lyme disease blood tests (ELISA and western blot) must provide a written disclosure statement declaring that a negative test result DOES NOT rule out Lyme disease. Both of these common tests have high false negative rates because they evaluate the immune response to specific bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi). If these tests are administered too early (less than two weeks after the bite), most people will have not yet produced enough antibodies to return a positive result. Administered too late (six weeks or more after the bite) and the infection may suppress the immune response sufficiently to produce a false negative result.

Deer ticks are very small.

Deer ticks are very small.

Quick tip: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that Lyme disease and many other tick-borne diseases be primarily diagnosed after a thorough clinical examination by a doctor well versed in the characteristics of these infections. Diagnosis should be based on exposure, symptoms, history and presentation. The CDC currently estimates that more than 300,000 new infections occur each year, and the actual number could be significantly higher.

I hope my hard-earned lessons and these factual tips will keep you and yours safe during your outdoor adventures. Using these techniques, I never had to remove a single tick from my body or my gear during my AT trek. I hike without fear, but I take precautions based on knowledge and experience. Oh, and by the way … the PCT is on my bucket list.


After partially recovering from a long struggle with disseminated Lyme disease and bartonella, Logan spent five months hiking south on the Appalachian Trail to raise awareness of the fastest growing epidemic in North America. In 2015, he continued that mission and completed a 4,100+ mile coast-to-coast journey via foot and bicycle — a project he calls his Trek for Truth.