Poison Ivy or not? Quick tips to keep you rash-free
One thing you can be sure of finding in the Eastern woodlands, especially the Mid-Atlantic where scores of thru hikers will be any day now, is poison ivy. It’s everywhere and its range covers the entire AT.
Since I grew up playing in the suburban woods in New Jersey, I learned early on how to ID poison ivy. I also learned that it’s a tricky plant, taking on many persona.
Poison ivy can be a small herbaceous plant close to the ground, or a giant vine climbing high in the trees. It can look like a small bush or a young sapling. It can be under your feet, covering a tree trunk you set your pack against, or high over your head.
I remember on my thru hike a whole day in Pennsylvania just south of the 501 Shelter where the poison ivy was so thick you couldn’t help going through it – it was hanging into the trail from both sides. I pushed it away with my hiking poles as best I could and was so grateful that there was a solar shower available when I got into camp, so I could soap and rinse my legs.
The best way to prevent poison ivy is to know what it looks like and avoid touching it. That’s one of the tricky things though – poison ivy leaves can vary greatly. They can be smooth-ish or jagged. They can be petite or gigantic. They can be shiny or matte. They can have some red or have no red at all.
So how do you tell?
You can’t just avoid every leaf-covered plant in the forest. What should you do? Follow these tips and then try your luck with the photo quiz at the end.
Tip 1: Poison ivy has leaves in clusters of three. This is the most common tip and most people know this.
Tip 2. The tips of the leaves are usually pointy and the end leaf is often on a slightly longer stalk than the side leaves.
Tip 3: If poison ivy is on a vine going up a tree, the vine is often thick and hairy.
Over time, you just get better and better at identifying poison ivy. Practice before you get on the trail and keep yourself rash-free! See if you can pick out which plants below are poison ivy and which are not.
Want more practice? Try this great site with more photos and explanations: Poison Ivy Quiz
If you think you’ve been exposed to poison ivy, try to wash off with soap and water as soon as possible (well away from water sources of course.) And if a rash develops, take it seriously. Cover it, try not to scratch it, and get to a nearby drug store for some over the counter relief.
I’m happy to report that I’ve never had poison ivy and managed to hike the whole AT without contracting it. So it’s possible. Pay attention, be vigilant, and stay away from those leaves of three!
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This is what I taught my Girl Scouts to remember when hiking in the woods. “Leaves of 3 don’t touch me.” and “Don’t be a dope, don’t touch hairy rope.” Worked like a charm. And a good poison ivy ointment that you use as soon as you know you’ve been in contact with some is TechNu Poison Ivy Cleanser. Cleans the oil of the plant right off. You can get it in small 1 oz packets.
You’re so lucky. I got it bad… in my backyard where I didn’t 1 – notice it or 2 – think to look.
Whoa, I had no idea poison ivy came in so many shapes. Never had it the rash, but I still keep my distance, and I have relatives that are plagued by it.
Good, well informed article with nice pics, and good tips. Thanks Carla.
I just got off the A.T. and walked thru a large spread of poison ivy, due to tail not accessible.
I’ve known for years I don’t develop any symptoms, but my g.f. has, and it can really be nasty and debilitating. Thanks. David C Miller