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

What a lush gorgeous plant! Too bad it’s poison ivy!

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.


Looks different than the photo above but this is also poison ivy.

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. 


Can you see how the end leaf stalk is longer than the side stalks? That’s a clue that this is poison ivy.

Tip 3: If poison ivy is on a vine going up a tree, the vine is often thick and hairy.


Notice the thick hairy vine in the background.

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.

not poison ivy - five leaves

Nope – this has five leaves – it’s not poison ivy.


image of plant surrounded by poison ivy

This is a non-poison ivy plant growing up amidst poison ivy in the background!


photo of poison ivy

Yes – this is definitely poison ivy.


photo of red maple leaves

Nope – this is a baby red maple!


poison ivy

Yes. Here’s some healthy poison ivy and not a trace of red or shininess to be seen.


not poison ivy

This isn’t poison ivy, but I can see some around the edges of the photo.


virginia creeper

This gorgeous plant, often found growing alongside poison ivy, is Virginia creeper.


poison ivy

Yep. This is poison ivy. Only shiny because the photo was taken in the rain.

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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Comments 10

  • WannaBeThurHiker : May 26th

    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.

    • Carla Robertson : May 27th

      Great tips! 🙂

  • Jennifer : May 26th

    You’re so lucky. I got it bad… in my backyard where I didn’t 1 – notice it or 2 – think to look.

    • Carla Robertson : May 27th

      Aww- so sorry to hear that! Poison Ivy – it’s everywhere!

  • TBR : May 31st

    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.

    Great post!

    • Carla Robertson : May 31st

      I know – it’s a tricky plant in some ways! Glad you’ve stayed safe and glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

  • David : Jun 2nd

    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


    • Carla Robertson : Jun 3rd

      Thanks so much, David! How lucky to be one of the folks not affected by poison ivy!

  • diane t : Jun 2nd

    I live in the Adirondack Mtns, my yard is filled with it, I’m going to attempt to kill it with boiling water, also going to try the vinegar salt and dawn. My sister can not be around it, she ends up in hospital just breathing near it. Thanks for all your tips

    • Carla Robertson : Jun 3rd

      Good luck eradicating it – it’s very tenacious!


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