Camping and Hiking with Poison-Oak

Looking similar to an oak leaf is typical, but the poison-oak leaf can take on many other shapes and sizes, too

Looking similar to an oak leaf is typical, but the poison-oak leaf can take on many other shapes and sizes, too

Poison-oak can be a bush or a vine. It grows in sunlight, it grows in shade, it grows up and down the Pacific Coast of the United States and southern Canada. When camping anywhere west of the Cascades or Sierras, below about 5,000 feet, you need to be aware of Poison-oak and educate your children about how to spot it.

Coming into contact with any part of the plant (leaves, stem, or roots), or just about any object that has had contact with the plant (clothing, shoes, your dog, etc.), can lead to an itchy skin rash, caused by the urushiol (ph. “you-roo-she-all”) oil in and on the plant, within 24 hours. Although the rash itself is not contagious, the urushiol oil is very persistent and if not washed from the skin or clothes, can lead to secondary reactions. The rash can persist for several weeks, depending on your body’s reaction.

The picture above is a fairly typical springtime example of Poison-oak; glossy dark green leaves, with lobes reminiscent of oak tree leaves. Unfortunately, the leaves of Poison-oak can take on many different characteristics; smoother edges without the lobes, five leaves instead of three and colors ranging from bright pink or red in the early spring, turning dark green in the spring and early summer, yellowing through summer and often returning to bright red in the fall.

Arborist M.D. Vaden, of Oregon, has an excellent collection of photographs on his website that depict a lot of the variation that is inherent to the plant. Starting your own picture collection is a great way to learn how to spot the plant and if you camp at any of the state or federal parks, a Ranger will be happy to point some examples out to you. Chances are, you won’t have to go far to find it!

Being able to spot Poison-oak is the first step in preventing an allergic reaction. If you are hiking in an area that you know has a high concentration of the plant, you might consider wearing pants instead of shorts, along with a long-sleeved shirt. Be sure to change your clothes after the hike, and consider a cool shower with an urushiol-cleansing product like Tecnu®, which removes the oil from your skin.

Soap is not nearly as effective at cutting the oil. If a rash does develop, your best course of action is to cool the affected area, which constricts the blood vessels and reduces itching. Calamine lotion will extend the relief and help dry up any oozing from the small bumps that are common to the rash.

So far, we have been successful in avoiding Poison-oak on our family camping trips in Northern California and Western Oregon – but I know that it is just a matter of time. Do you have any tips to share, for dealing with it?

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13 thoughts on “Camping and Hiking with Poison-Oak

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  2. Identifying and treating the underlying cause of itchy skin is important for long-term relief. Itchy skin treatments include medications, wet dressings and light therapy. Self-care measures, including anti-itch products and cool baths, can also help. ,^`:

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  3. If all the blocks and washes/solvents fail to work, you should at least try “Sasquatch Itch Cream”. It is made to snuff out the rash once it starts, so it works on the immune system reaction. It was first developed in the Air Force to keep the airmen from coming in from the mission and into the medic’s tent. It travels easy and fits in backpacks and pockets. Soothing (as it has numbing medicine and menthol) and curing (mixture of strong cortisone, bendaryl, tea tree oil and other stuff). Check it out on:

  4. I get poison oak horribly, so I have learned to be very careful! One thing that helps me is taking benedryl that first night that I notice the rash. (I would take it during the day, but it knocks me out!) It seems to help keep the rash from exploding!

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  8. Kevin – I’ve heard some horror stories about getting from smoke. Never thought about rain, though.

    Randy – that’s interesting, never heard of the Ivy Cleanse wipes. Sounds like a good thing to have.

  9. There are a few different products available that can help prevent poison oak rash. I can’t speak to all of them because I’ve never used them. Of course, the best prevention is to learn how to spot it. I’ve done a lot of trail maintenance, and hiking, and you get pretty good at spotting it, but anyone can get caught by surprise on a backcountry trail. I always carry some Ivy Cleanse wipes in my pack when I’m hiking. They are reasonably priced, and seem to be a good precaution in case you think you’ve had an accidental exposure.

    There are other products available too. Some simply confirm exposure. I’m not sure that has any real value since they are way more expensive than the Ivy Cleanse wipes. Another product I’m aware of is one that is used before going to work, or whatever, outside, and they act as a shield. Again expensive and I don’t use them for that reason.

    Randy L’s last blog post..The Storm Door

  10. I have always had problems with poison ivy and oak.. The worse case I ever had was from when I was holding up under a tree during a rain storm. When I got up to leave I turned around and noticed a large poison ivy vine running up the tree. Just the rain running over the vine and dripping on me caused a bad breakout all over my face. One secret I learned long ago. When the rash first appears, put jack daniels on ita 2-3 times a day. It dries it up faster than anything I have ever tried.

    Kevin’s last blog post..Noxubee Wildlife Refuge

  11. That’s good to know, Eddie – I bet it’s a lot cheaper than Tecnu! Although the real benefit of Tecnu is it will get the oil off your skin. There were some guys in the Army that would get it really bad. Steroid shots would help some, but they were still suffering for several weeks.

    Roy Scribner’s last blog post..Top 10 Foods for Family Camping