Whether deploying in support of a CERT mission or going on a camping trip, getting closer to mother nature comes with the territory. Being prepared for what we find out there - or what finds us - is something that deserves some quality discussion. Making sure unwelcome woodland hitchhikers stay where they are supposed to be may save your life or the life of someone in your family. 

CERT missions, by their very nature, usually mean going into disturbed areas. A hurricane, tornado, fire, earthquake affects not only the human and pet populations we're trying to serve, but they stir up the native plant, animal, andinsect populations as well. Everything is displaced, possibly confused, maybe frightened or otherwise instinctually protecting their territory from attack, maybe seeking new shelter. 

Along comes you and your gear bag. Tarps go up and get laid out on the ground. You're gear bag gets opened and tossed against a wood pile, against a wall, or onto a picnic table. You examine your map, plot out where the hazards may be, begin your operations, and return from time to time for that much needed granola bar, drink of water, or piece of gear you needed. Your gear is your oasis amid chaos. Caution: you may not be the only living thing in your area of operations that sees it that way.

Camping is similar in some ways - only you and your camping partners usually ARE the disturbance. Part on the wonder of camping trips includes getting into nature - into woodland creature's homes, and appreciating what you find there. Again, you have your map, your gear, your portable oasis, and as much as we try to minimize our impact on the environment, we mess things up a bit. Our maps don't show the ant hills, the spiders, the centipedes, the poison ivy, the sticky seeds, the scorpions, etc. Unless we're tuned in and experienced, most of us don't notice these things - even when we look right at them. But they notice us!

Hitchhikers can be a problem. Many of our worst pests, from the gypsy moth caterpillar and the brown stink bug, to dandelions (which I personally don't consider a pest) are transplants from foreign ecosystems into our own. They are the result of someone carelessly picking up a hitchhiker and introducing it into an area with few or no natural predators. The stink bug is one of the most obvious examples of this. The emerald ash borer, a beetle that aggressively attacks ash and some maple trees, is another not-so-obvious but very dangerous example. The ash borer has government authorities instituting quarantines, cutting down healthy trees to prevent their spread, and issuing mandates to campers about moving (or not moving) firewood from one are to the next.

Hitchhikers can be dangerous to us and our families as well. Consider a camping trip I recently took with a group of Scouts. We camped in "safe" area in Virginia for a few days. There were the usual cast of characters to think about: copperhead snakes, brown recluse spiders, poison ivy, etc. But one really dangerous critter hung out within feet of my son and I for several hours and almost made it into our home. A critter so dangerous, it has been known to kill full grown adult males in minutes.

There was rain in the woods when we were there. Before it started, I threw a tarp over some dry firewood to keep it dry. A dry pile of firewood on a scout camping trip is a wonderful thing. Despite the rain, we lifted that tarp, often in the darkness, pulled out a few pieces of dry firewood, and popped it onto the fire. Games were played, songs were sung, and food was cooked around our fires. We were happy. 

A friend wrapped up the tarp for me and left it next to my van when it came time to leave. I popped the tarp into the back and headed for home. When I got there, I emptied my van and laid out my gear outside and in the garage. I always so a sweep, wash and dry of my gear before putting it away. That's when I noticed not one, but two Northern Black Widow spiders clinging to the inside of my tarp. 

The venom of the Black Widow is 15 times more potent than venom from a rattlesnake. While they are not considered aggressive, they will bite if a person accidentally puts their hand on them. They like to live in wood piles and in basements. They produce four egg sacks per year - each with 200-400 eggs. Two of them on one tarp probably means that woodpile we were using was a nest for them. 

Not as spectacular, but just as dangerous are ticks - a common, eight legged critter that is known to carry diseases like Lyme's. They hop onto passers by, work their way to bare skin, and attach themselves for up to 36 hours while they feed. Towards the end of their feeding cycle, they infect the host with whatever disease they are carrying.

What should we do to protect ourselves from unwanted hitch hikers? Here's the plan:

First: Avoid them

  • Zip/ Close up your bags. Don't leave them open in your tent or on the ground. This tip works equally well in hotels where cockroaches like to hang out. Little buggers will occasionally crawl into an open bag & you won't even know. They may catch a ride all the way back to your house - which is not my favorite time to find them. Or worse... sometimes they get out at home and we never find them. 
  • Shake out your boots. This is more relevant where we find bad critters like brown recluse spiders (pictured here) and scorpions. They are drawn to the dark, sometimes warm spots inside your shoe as they lie outside your tent at night. They like to nestle way down in the bottom where you're toes like to go. They hang out there until someone shakes them loose or a big, dumb toe tries to push them into a corner - at which point, they bite or sting. I always shake out my boots and give them a good pounding before I put them on for the first time when I am camping. 
  • Treat your clothing as I suggested in the last email, and treat your exposed skin with a good insect repellant. 
  • Bring a good set of tweezers when you travel into the woods. 

Next, Inspect for them

  • Do tick checks every night. A small mirror can help you inspect those hard to reach places. Otherwise, a buddy can help. 
  • Do a thorough tick check when you get home. I like to head for the shower as soon as I get things settled. The drying process usually is the best time to find ticks. 

Finally, Take care of them

  • If you do find a tick attached to you, don't panic! They usually don't infect their host until towards the end of their feeding cycle. If they are still small and flat, this is usually a good sign. If they are engorged (they can get pretty honkin big!), or you have reason to believe that they have been attached to you for 36 hours or more, then your risk of infection is much higher.  
  • Remove the tick. I've linked to a great site published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) about tickremoval. Follow the directions you find there. Be careful following folk remedies like burning off the tick or covering it with vaseline. These old methods may remove the tick, but studies have show that the tick will likely regurgitate it's stomach contents into you first! That means infection. 
  • Shake our your gear and clothing outside your house before you bring it inside. I usually empty my bags, open my tents, etc before the supplies and clothing come inside. It's one last chance to find hitch hikers before they are invited into your home. 

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Comment by Jeff Rothstein on May 12, 2012 at 10:57am

Thanks for the reminder Dave.




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