The Risk of Lyme Disease on the Appalachian Trail Is Going to Be High This Year

Ticks carrying Lyme disease are rampant in the forests of the northeast, and the Appalachian Trail goes straight through the thick of them. This year (2017), a host of variables is coming together that could increase the likelihood of contracting the disease while hiking the trail, says Richard Ostfeld, a disease ecologist and senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.

In 2005, Ostfeld and his team compiled 25 years’ worth of data into one of the most comprehensive field studies on the connections between blacklegged ticks (the main vectors of the disease) and environmental conditions, and how that relationship affects the risk of humans contracting the disease. “We expect the risk of coming into contact with a tick harboring Lyme disease will be higher in 2017 than in the average year, probably along large parts of the Appalachian Trail,” he says.

The core of the problem starts with a seemingly innocuous event: a bumper crop of acorns. During the summer of 2015, a spell of warm, wet weather in the northeast accelerated oak trees’ ability to produce acorns, which happen to be the primary food source of the white-footed mouse, a rodent that’s ubiquitous across the forests of the northeast. The mice are one of the main hosts of blacklegged ticks, and a carrier of Lyme. Ostfeld says the influx of mice in the middle of summer last year made it easy for ticks to find a host, which will lead to an abundance of infected nymphs in 2017. Ticks in the nymph stage are of highest risk to transmit diseases to humans because they’re hard to spot—no bigger than a poppy seed.

In addition to the bump in mice natality, the blacklegged tick has expanded its range. The bugs are now found in nearly 50 percent of counties in the U.S., whereas in 1998, they were only present in 30 percent. They’re especially prominent in wooded areas east of the Mississippi.

Exactly which sections of the AT will be most affected is hard to predict, but much of the mid-Atlantic and New England regions—the Hudson Valley in particular—could be unusually fruitful incubators for the disease beginning in May and June, when nymphs emerge from their winter slumber. Most thru-hikers will enter those areas at that time.

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  1. Robyn Lay

    I live in North East Tennessee where the risk of Lyme is supposed to be fairly small. Despite that I have 3 horses with high titers – one with chronic lyme disease and one who seems to be recovering from it. The third is unequivocal – meaning they are not sure if she is infected or not and will need retesting in a couple of months to determine her status. My vets are shocked because one of the infected has not traveled beyond our state and the other has but was infected before going North where lyme is prevalent. Since you can significantly reduce your chances of getting this disease – which is awful in humans too – by de-ticking yourself daily, it is a good idea to be as vigilant as possible. If you can get the tick off in the first few hours, you have a better chance of not becoming infected.

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