As an entomologist, I believe this information is important to everyone: trail runners, walkers, cyclists, and the backyard farmer. However, trail runners are a special case where your activity takes place in prime tick habitat during high tick times. In addition, ultrarunners spend hours in tick habitats, thus increasing exposure to ticks and the opportunities for ticks to bite and transmit pathogens that lead to disease. 

Who needs to know?

It’s not just you, the runner. This pertains to your crew, race volunteers, friends, family, and dog. Anyone one who is out on the trail with you is at risk, and anyone you may reside with because ticks can easily hitchhike on a sock, shoe, pack, or person and creep about, looking for a host after the race. 

Know the risks. 

Know the ticks in the places you run. Specific ticks transmit specific disease and various species of ticks are distributed differently throughout the country. Because trail runners often travel for events, they are at increased risk of tick-borne diseases that may not be as common or familiar in their home state. 

Tick-borne illnesses.

Many people have heard and fear the diagnosis of Lyme disease due to the publicity in the media. There are over 300,00 new cases of Lyme disease diagnosed each year, making it the most common vector-borne disease in the United States. This disease is caused by the bacteria transmitted by a bite from an infected black-legged tick (also called a deer tick) or a western black-legged tick. The range of the black-legged tick is most prevalent in upper Midwestern and northeastern states, and the western black-legged tick is located on the west coast. Although Lyme disease is definitely an illness you want to avoid, there are a number of other tick species that have the potential to transmit other nasty diseases, which include Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Tularemia, Anaplasmosis, Ehrlichiosis, and a handful of others. 

(There are even tick-borne disease distribution maps!)

American dog tick (left) and Lone star tick (right) - both adult female ticks

American dog tick (left) and Lone star tick (right) – both adult female ticks

Identification matters.

Ticks have two body parts and eight legs (larvae or “seed ticks” are super tiny and have six legs). All stages require a blood meal to develop from a larva to nymph, nymph to adult and the females produce eggs. They can be distinguished from one another by the length of the mouthparts and the patterns or marking on their body. Tick species can and should be identified when found, especially if removed from a host (aka a human or pet). Identification helps researchers confirm geographic distribution and will assist medical professionals in determining potential treatment in the event you become sick.

Tick on back of leg

Why do ticks like me?

I don’t think it’s anything personal, but it is…and ticks will get all up in your business if you let them…or don’t remove them ASAP. They like you, the trail runner, because you are literally out there, running around for hours in their turf. Ticks can be found in all types of areas: wooded trails, grassy prairies, leaf litter, and even along the vegetation on paved sections. They are going to at ground level, anywhere wildlife roam. Any time of year where temperatures are above 50°F and there is no snow cover on the ground, ticks may be actively seeking a host. 

Be tick smart.

Often ticks need to be attached to the host for upwards of 24 to 36 hours to transmit disease, so the faster ticks are located and removed, the better chances for getting away without harm. This is why it is important to perform tick checks at aid stations and very thoroughly after outdoor activity is complete. Keep any ticks in a resealable baggy for identification and/or snap a photo for documentation.

Tick protection and removal.

Here are some things you can do to better protect yourself from ticks during your trail runs.

  • Remove any embedded ticks from skin using appointed pair of tweezers and then disinfect the area.
  • Apply EPA-approved insect repellents to exposed skin (always follow directions on the label).
  • Treat running clothes and shoes with permethrin spray in advance.
  • Purchase and wear commercially-treated (with permethrin) clothes.
  • Treat pets with tick prevention program as recommended by veterinarian.
  • After outdoor activity, perform full body tick check (scalp, groin area, upper back and arms, arm pit).
  • Continue to check pets after their outdoor activity (ears, neck, between toes).
  • Place all outdoor clothes in hot clothes dryer for 15 minutes to kill any hitchhikers before putting them in the laundry. 
  • Trail runner hack: In your vehicle carry change of clothes, flip-flops, plastic bag, and a roll of duct tape in case you encounter a lot of ticks and need to remove clothes and catch ticks before they infest the car. 

Don’t let ticks ruin your trail days. Educate yourself and your people, so you can continue to enjoy all the best things in nature.

Jody Green behind a large spider
Jody Green, Ph.D., Entomology
Entomologist at Nebraska Extension Office | jgreen17@unl.edu | Website | + posts

Jody Green, PhD is an entomologist and Extension educator with Nebraska Extension in Douglas-Sarpy Counties. Jody works in the community, delivering insect-related information through presentations, Extension blogs, newsletters, radio, social media outlets like Twitter (@JodyBugsMeUNL) and Facebook, local news media, NET’s “Backyard Farmer”, and cohosts a podcast called “Arthro-pod”.