You don’t have to venture far from the home to put yourself at risk from ticks. In fact, they can be encountered in gardens and town parks as well as the wider countryside. As the weather warms, the prevalence of ticks increases. If there is one item you want to include in either your backpacking kit or even a solitary day walk in the country as a ‘hopefully never to be used’ piece of kit, it is a tick remover. They cost little, weigh just a handful of grams, but may very well preserve your health.
It is not just ticks themselves you should be wary of, but the disease that they may carry. After mosquitoes, ticks are the second most common vector in transmitting disease to humans. Of these, one disease in particular should be of prime concern. Lyme Disease is getting more common, it is pretty easily transmitted and it is horrible. Though it should be noted that not all ticks are infected with Lyme disease. In some areas, none may carry it, in others, the percentage of ticks with Lyme can be high. At present there is less prevalence in the UK and more so in mainland Europe. However hikers in both the UK and US are encountering Lyme on an increasing basis each year. Other diseases are also carried by UK ticks, such as tick-borne encephalitis and anaplasmosis, and these can also be transmitted to humans. Lyme disease consists of a group of closely related spirochaetal bacteria, so called because they were originally thought to be spiral shaped. The wide range of bacteria are collectively known as Borrelia Burdorferi sensu lato and different types of related bacteria can be found across the world.
Lyme disease transmitted from tick bites moves through the skin into the bloodstream and onward to the lymphatic system. Damage from Lyme can be severe- joints and nervous system can be affected. While a bad tick bite can be indicated on the skin by the classic ‘bulls-eye’ rash, this is not always the case. Flu like symptoms, muscle ache and pain can follow, but not always. If you have been walking in the countryside and suspect that you may have been bitten by a tick prior to such symptoms, be sure to mention to a health professional who may arrange for a blood test.
Ticks are most prevalent March to October but they can be found active all year round. A mild day in winter will tempt the little beasties out. Ticks can be very small and it is easy to get a little paranoid about seeds and flecks of dirt found on the skin and clothes but a regular check should still be carried out. Ticks will show up best on light coloured clothing and brushing off clothes frequently may aid in removing ticks before they bite. Application of DEET or Picaridine will also work against them. There are many species of tick, some twenty of these can be found in the UK but different parts of the World have other species that may present a greater danger. For example, it is the Deer Tick that is one of the greatest risk to hikers in the US however that particular species has not yet been found in the UK. Borrelia bacteria is found in many mammals and birds, including sheep, mice, voles, foxes, badgers and squirrels. If an animal carries the bacteria and is bitten by a tick, then the bacteria can pass to the tick, and from that tick to a human. Unfortunately such animals are common in the very areas that are most popular for walking- the Lake District, Scottish Highlands, The Yorkshire moors, Exmoor, Thetford Forest, New Forest and the downlands of South-East England.
Not only is it important to check for ticks on the body and clothes but also to do so throughout the day. Ticks are small and their saliva contains an anaesthetic so it is common to not even notice a bite. Because saliva is transmitted from tick to person throughout the feeding process, the longer a tick is embedded in the skin, the greater chance that bacteria is transmitted from tick to person. I will not cover disease, tick morphology, symptoms or other related factors further here. Instead, I shall simply have a look at some of the choices of removal tool that may help in extracting a tick after it has embedded itself in the skin, concentrating on those that may be most suitable for the backpacker.
Firstly, some suggestions for successful tick removal in the past from others have included covering the ticks body with petroleum jelly (vaseline), meths, or burning it off with a lighter or cigarette. It is now known that if a tick is stressed during removal, it may likely eject its stomach contents back into the host, which may then actually cause the injection of harmful bacteria. Squeezing a ticks abdomen will have the same effect. This is why effective removal of a tick involves placing a tool close to the skin, around the mouth-parts (hypostome) of the animal.
General use fine-tip tweezers
Metal tweezers have the advantage of being both robust and all are capable of being sterilised by dropping in to boiling water. With some plastic tweezers there may be a degree of uncertainty as to how boiling water will affect them. If purchasing a pair of large general purpose tweezers for tick removal then they must have fine tips. Those with wide or slanted tips simply will not grip the mouth parts of a tick with the care that is required to ensure the creature does not stress and eject stomach contents.
A pair of large and good quality fine tip tweezers will handle many ticks but may struggle with the smallest of nymphs. While a pair of these would be advisable to pack into a group first aid kit, they are probably overkill for a lightweight hiking set up. But that is your call. Certainly it is advisable to keep a pair of these in a home first aid kit. Both of those shown above sit in my home kit.
There is no need to pack along a large pair of tweezers on trail. There are many smaller options that are almost as good. Being lighter and less bulky, they are also easier to pack. When packed, care needs to be taken to ensure the thin tips do not end up poking a hole in expensive fabrics such as tent, waterproofs of sleeping bag. A small plastic sleeve cap will prevent most such mishaps. The snazzy looking pair of small tweezers below has been carried by Three Points of the Compass for many years when hiking. They are small, light and efficient, the only reason I don’t carry them now is that I have found something lighter and more efficient. More on that later.
As said, there are many small and light tweezers on the market. However if you are choosing a pair of tweezers simply for general use, where they can also be used for tick removal, then care has to be taken as many small tweezers are of extremely poor quality. Many will flex with ease and simply will not grip where required. Often the tips will not align and many also lack any form of serration at the tips.
One brand of small tweezer has been on the market for decades and continues to find favour both with the U.S military and backpackers across the globe. These are Uncle Bill Sliver Grippers. They have their faults but are both very small and very light. Three Points of the Compass had an in depth look at the various forms of Sliver Grippers in an earlier post. In that post I also covered the easy steps to take to improve them. If you have a pair and haven’t read this, you might find it useful to do so.
Three Points of the Compass doesn’t particularly rate this type of small tweezer highly for tick removal; they will work fine with larger ticks and are also OK with thorns and splinters, but I find the tips are not fine enough to properly anchor onto the mouth-parts of a small tick.
Specialised Tick tweezers
While finer point tweezers like those shown above will safely remove most ticks with relative ease and prevent stressing the animal. A pair of dedicated tick tweezers will enable a tick to be grasped with greater ease and precision, correctly placing the fine curved points so that a safer extraction can be achieved. Specialised tweezers are better at preventing stress to a feeding tick, stress causing it to eject stomach contents prior to removal, so something to be avoided if possible.
Large and specialised tick removal tweezers are available from a small number of manufacturers. Again, they are made from stainless steel and invariably of high quality. They are probably the best type of tweezer but will also be regarded as overkill for most country walking. However if crossing an area that is either very high in ticks, or where there is an extraordinarily high prevalence of Lyme disease in resident ticks, then it might be advisable to either carry a pair of these, or ensure that a pair of large dedicated tick tweezers is held in a group kit.
There is a smaller version of these available that weigh less than half of that of the larger option. While these may also be available from other manufacturers, the ones shown here were made by Lifesystems.
The Lifesystems small and dedicated tick removal tool is designed to fit a keychain. The tweezers themselves slot into a plastic case cover that both protects the fine tips and, to a degree, keeps them clean. The springiness in the tweezers prevents them sliding out of the protective case when being carried.
These weigh 6.3g with their protective plastic case and keyring however the whole lot can easily be dismantled if wished, but that does leave the tips exposed and unprotected. Three Points of the Compass does not take these on hikes but simply keeps them permanently hanging from his keychain.
Tick removal cards
As well as tweezers, some outdoor suppliers also provide tick remover cards. These can be made of durable plastic or shorter lived card versions. If you are going to use one of these, only use a more durable plastic card and preferably from a reputable manufacturer who has made it to the required precise tolerances. Most cards come with two sizes of ‘prong’, one for large and one for small ticks. The transparent and translucent cards are better to see a tick that is to be removed. My Lifesystems tick card also has a simple low powered magnifier to enable a tick to be studied prior to removal, it is obviously of no use when the card is actually being used to remove tick. Do not get a black or dark coloured card as this makes the tick harder to see while extracting it.
Most of these cards work well with small and large ticks however I find them awkward to use when the tick is in a crevice, or embedded in an awkward part of the body to access. There is never a friend around when you need one!
Which brings me to another point. An almost equally important tool in your tick removal armoury is a small mirror. In addition to checking periodically during the day, Three Points of the Compass also has an evening tent-based ‘tick check’. Which is more akin to tent aerobics and contortions, but ticks will crawl into areas which are not necessarily the easiest to view. This is where the mirror comes in. And remember, ticks can also secret themselves about hiking clothes, so a decent shake off of those should be attempted alongside some form of inspection of the folds of clothing which may discover lurking creatures, all prepared to latch on the following day. Another reason why lighter coloured clothing can help in seeing the small animals.
One manufacturer has gone a step further and produced a tool that combines both angled tweezers and slotted tick remover. The TickEase is a really effective solution and is endorsed by the US based Tick Encounter Resource Center. One end of the tweezers has angled fine tips and is suited to quite small ticks, however the tips are not as fine as those shown previously. The other end of the tool has a slot that will handle larger ticks but are too large to tackle the more problematic smaller ticks. This is advertised as especially suited for those with pets such as dogs that can easily pick up ticks in the countryside. While I have carried a TickEase on hikes and had to put it to use on occasion, it is now transferred to the first aid kit carried by Mrs Three Points of the Compass. In my kit it has been supplanted by what I regard as a more effective, lighter and considerably smaller option.
O’Tom Tick Twister
We now come to what is probably the best tool available for effectively removing ticks. The plastic bodied O’Tom Tick Twister come in two sizes that are very well suited for backpacking trips, day walks or simply when walking the dog. There is also a three pack, three size ‘family’ option for purchase but the two shown here will handle almost any tick encountered other than the extremely small. These tools are cheap, small and very light at just over two grams for the pair. I find one of their prime benefits however, is that they can be used to remove ticks from awkward parts of the body, craning around the torso, or twisting awkwardly to remove a tick that can only be seen in a mirror. So they are especially suited to the solo hiker.
A brighter coloured pair of this tool has two advantages- the dark body of a tick can more easily be seen against the tool, and as the little tools really are quite small, a brightly coloured Tick Twister shows up better if dropped in the undergrowth. For these reasons it is probably best to steer clear of the black coloured Twisters.
The O’ Tom Tick Twister was designed in France and is manufactured there, but is easily purchased worldwide. However it appears that it is being widely cloned and ripped off. Beware some of those fakes that are advertised as they do not always work as effectively as the real thing.
All of the previously mentioned tick removal tools- tweezers and cards, require a straight and careful pull or lever of the tick to remove it from the skin. The O’Tom Tick Twister is different however. There is a knack to using it. It is not difficult but does require a degree more care, particularly the first few times removing ticks. Once the correct size tool is selected, to suit the size of tick to be removed, and after it has been carefully slipped under the tick’s body, around its mouth-parts, the tool is then twisted, or spun, in the finger tips. It is this that safely removes the tick from the skin. The shape of the handle of the O’Tom Tick Twister allows this to be correctly done, however some look-a-like clones have a shaped handle that prevents this being done and the tick has to be pulled or levered out instead, this is a less effective removal technique. Don’t skimp the pennies, buy the real deal if choosing this tool.
So what does Three Points of the Compass carry when backpacking? I actually carry two of the options shown above. I include a pair of the lightweight and effective O’Tom Tick Twisters in my backpacking first aid kit (see image below). In fact, at only 2.2g I don’t even bother to remove these from the kit in winter months, they live there year round. I have safely removed dozens of ticks with these, both from myself and poorly equipped hikers met on trail. I doubt I will ever change these tick removers for anything else. To my knowledge, I do not have Lyme Disease or have ever had it. The risk of disease from tick bites is always a possibility, but in the UK at least, it is very small risk.
In addition, I have a pair of Uncle Bill’s Sliver Grippers in my first aid kit. However these are not carried for tick removal but solely as a pair of tweezers for first aid purposes- thorn and splinter removal, lifting flaps of skin, picking grit from a wound…