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How to Treat Poison Ivy when Backpacking

hiking boots walking through shubs and poison ivy

Are you going on a long backpacking trip and want to avoid poison ivy, or already have a burning poison ivy rash and are not sure how to treat it in the middle of your trip? Or, do you already have poison ivy and need an answer fast? You’re in the right place (and you can skip right to the treatment here).

Follow along with this guide on how to identify poison ivy, as well as treat a poison ivy rash right on the trail!

How to Identify Poison Ivy on a backpacking trip

Identify Poison Ivy Diagram

Poison ivy produces an oil called urushiol, that can cause a very itchy rash all over the body. 3 in 4 people are allergic to poison ivy, and it’s everywhere! So it is important to be able to successfully identify it.

Although there are many three-leaved plants out there, there still are some common key ways to identify poison ivy:

  1. As the old saying goes, “leaves of three, let it be.”
  2. The middle leaf will have a slightly longer stem.
  3. Edges of the poison ivy can be smooth or toothed.
  4. It will have a reddish stem.
  5. It can grow as a vine or bush.
  6. May have aerial roots visible.
  7. It might have petal small white flowers in the Spring or Summer.
  8. Light, creme, or green berries.
  9. Grows on alternating sides.

Where does poison ivy grow? Will I be hiking through it?

Poison ivy grows all throughout North America and Asia. In the United States, it is in every state except for most of California, New Mexico, Alaska, and Hawaii. That means that, on pretty much any trail you hike or backpack on, there’s a chance you could run into poison ivy.

Poison ivy plants can survive almost any temperate climate, although it is most abundant in the eastern United States.

Poison ivy can also look very different throughout the seasons. Look at the diagram below, you’ll see that it can be anywhere between bright red and bright green!

Poison Ivy in spring, summer, fall, and winter diagram

Other Poisonous Plants

other poisonous plants: poison oak and poison sumac

Poison ivy isn’t the only poisonous plant to be on the lookout for! Poison oak and poison sumac are both very abundant in the United States.

Poison oak grows primarily on the western side of the country, as well as the southeast. Poison sumac, on the other hand, grows on the eastern side of the country.

Both poisonous plants cause an allergic reaction on the skin almost identical to poison ivy and have the same required treatment.

Precautions to Take

If you know you will be exposed to poison ivy on your backpacking trip, there are many easy ways to come prepared!

  • Pack a first aid kit with bandages, Neosporin, rubbing alcohol, hydrocortisone cream, and calamine lotion
  • Wear long sleeves and long pants to prevent your skin from making contact with poison ivy.
  • Antihistamines (benedryl)
  • A water filter so you don’t run out of clean water to rinse off!
  • A trash bag for clothes that may have come into contact with poison ivy.
  • If you have a dog that accompanies you on your backpacking trips (jealous!), be mindful of where your pup is walking. The dog’s fur can transfer urushiol oil (the oil poison ivy produces) onto your skin from a simple pat on the head.

Treating a Rash on the Trail

If you do need to treat poison ivy while on the trail, all you need are some bandages, hydrocortisone cream, and/or calamine lotion! This means you’d better have them in your backpacking gear checklist as part of your first aid kit, because otherwise, there’s going to be nothing to stop the itch!

Make sure to clean the rash with water before applying the cream, and then with the anti-itch cream of your choice, apply a thin layer and cover your bandage. Reapply and re-wrap every 2-3 hours. It’s important to cover up your rash with a bandage while on your backpacking trip to make sure it is protected.

Poison ivy rashes can be extremely sensitive, and they will heal the fastest if you aren’t able to itch it, as well as it is covered by other environmental factors. The more you itch it, the longer it takes to heal.

When a poison ivy outbreak is cause for concern

If your immune response for poison ivy evolves into a severe allergic reaction, like throat itching, trouble breathing, or hives all over your body, seek emergency medical attention right away! Take the antihistamines in your first aid kit, and seek help. These are abnormal symptoms, and definitely should not be one to be overlooked.

Finishing poison ivy treatment after your backpacking trip

After you get back from your backpacking trip, another great way to treat your itchy rash and alleviate symptoms is taking oatmeal baths.

Oatmeal has a soothing effect, reducing inflammation and will help relieve itching. The hot water will also feel great on any sore muscles!

Some other great natural ways to treat your rash is taking a tomato bath or soaking it in apple cider vinegar. Both help to dry out the rash and stop your rash from itching worse.

Wash Clothing

If a poison ivy plant touched your clothing, the best way to clean them is the separate them from the rest of your other clothes, and soaking it in warm soapy water.

Can Poison Ivy Spread?

A poison ivy rash cannot spread from one person to another, unless there is still urushiol oil on the skin’s surface. As soon as you come into contact with poison ivy, be sure to rinse your skin with lukewarm water, and apply hydrocortisone cream immediately.

In Conclusion

Having a rash caused by poison ivy sucks. However, there are great ways you can reduce itching, and avoid any severe reactions. Changing your bandage every few hours will help so much with it’s healing, and keeping it protected is so important! Don’t let a poison ivy outbreak ruin your trip. I hope this article was helpful in treating poison ivy, and hike on!

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