By Leah Rambadt, American Forests

When you’re hiking, careless contact with plants and poor wardrobe choices can result in uncomfortable rashes from plants or insect bites. Here are some plants and insects you should watch for while on the trail or following your excursion, and first aid treatment you should follow if you make contact with them.


Poison Ivy

Range: All U.S. states east of the Rocky Mountains

poison ivy
You can find poison ivy in wooded areas, especially along tree-line breaks and in open fields. Credit: Bill Harms

Poison ivy leaves range from light green to a reddish color, depending on the season. It looks like a small, herbaceous plant when young, a small tree or a carpet of vines after a few years, and a massive, hairy vine after a decade of growth.

Poison Oak

Range: Western North America

Poison Oak
Poison oak is found in conifer and mixed broadleaf forests, woodlands and grasslands. Credit: Steve/Flickr

This plant has lobed, oak-like leaves that grow in groups of three and range from green to bright red, depending on the season.

Poison Sumac

Range: Eastern U.S. and Canada

Poison Sumac
Poison sumac grows exclusively in swamps, bogs and wetlands. Credit: Will Stuart

Poison sumac grows into a small tree. Contact with this plant results in a reaction similar to poison ivy and poison oak.

poison ivy rash
Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac produce urushiol on their leaves or branches. This oily, allergenic substance irritates the skin upon contact, and will cause your skin to blister and become red and itchy. Credit: KrisnFred/Flickr


Range: Parts of Florida and the Caribbean

Manchineel is a flowering tree that has shiny, green leaves with spikes of small, greenish flowers. Its numerous small fruits, or “pomes,” are green or greenish-yellow when ripe, though they’re often tinged red and look similar to an apple.

The entire tree is toxic. A quick brush against its bark or standing near it can result in burning blisters. Ingesting any part of this tree or its fruit can be lethal.

Stinging Nettle

Range: Throughout the U.S. and Canada

Stinging Nettle
Stingle nettle is found in moist sites along streams, open forests, ditches and woodland clearings. Credit: svklimkin/Flickr

Stinging nettle is covered with tiny, hollow hairs called trichomes that act like hypodermic needles by injecting irritants into your skin upon contact. The resulting itching sensation lasts from a few hours to a day.

Giant Hogweed

Range: New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and northwestern U.S.

Description: This wildflower can grow over 14 feet tall. It has hollow, ridged stems with dark reddish-purple blotches, large compound leaves and white flower heads. Its sap is light-sensitive – skin contact followed by sunlight exposure causes severe skin and eye irritation, painful blistering, permanent scarring and blindness.

First Aid Treatment:

  1. Immediately wash affected area with warm soap and water.
  2. Remove contaminated clothing – Plant oil can continue to spread from clothing and shoes.
  3. To ease itching and discomfort, apply cool compresses for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. Avoid topical antihistamines, anesthetics and antibiotics, which may make the skin more sensitive. Use calamine lotion or baking soda to neutralize the effects of the plants’ chemicals.

Additional step for giant hogweed – Stay out of sunlight for a few days.


  • Research the area you’ll be hiking, and avoid peak insect times.
  • Avoid wearing perfumes, scented lotions, hair sprays, shampoos, soaps or cosmetics. Also limit the number of shiny objects you wear, such as jewelry and buckles.
  • Cover all exposed areas of your body with insect repellent and reapply frequently.

Stingers: Bees, Wasps, Yellow Jackets and Hornets

Stinger-type insects attack when their nests are disturbed. As you hike, pay attention to your surroundings for potential nest locations, such as in hollow trees, hanging from branches, under logs, in the ground, and sometimes in the mud or dirt banks of streams.

Flies and Mosquitoes

All flies can transmit diseases. To protect yourself, avoid traveling during peak insect season, or wear insect repellent and cover exposed skin with protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirt and long pants snug at the wrists and ankles, heavy socks, and a hat.

Mosquitoes are scarce during the hottest times of the day and when winds rise above 10 miles per hour. Credit: John Tann

Mosquitoes are repelled by bug spray, but the best protection is covering as much skin as possible. You should also avoid stagnant water or fields of damp grass.


Ticks cling to the edges of leaves in order to latch onto your skin or clothing as you brush by. Credit: Ryszard/Flickr

For more information on checking for ticks, check out Tick Checking 101.

Most reactions to insect bites and stings are mild, resulting in redness, itching, stinging or minor swelling. To treat bites or stings:

  1. Remove the stinger if needed – try scraping it out with the flat of a knife or a credit card. The stinger will continue to release venom after the bee is dead.
  2. Wash affected area with soap and water.
  3. Reduce pain and swelling with a cool compress. If the injury is on an arm or a leg, elevate it.
  4. Apply hydrocortisone cream, calamine lotion or baking soda paste to the bite or sting several times daily until your symptoms go away.
  5. Take an antihistamine to reduce itching.

Symptoms usually disappear in 1 to 2 days.

Do your best to avoid these plants and insects while on the trail – but if you do come into contact with them, make sure to use first aid treatment. Remember to call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.

Remember to share your hiking experiences this summer with American Forests and Eddie Bauer by tagging photos on your social media with @EddieBauer (and @AmericanForests, too!) and use #WhyIHike and #contest. A grand prize winner gets an amazing hiking excursion for two!