Hiker’s Nightmare: Poison Oak


This is kind of a difficult posting to write, because the experience I’ll share happened because of a boo-boo.  I don’t particularly like to broadcast my mistakes, but if my experience can help someone else avoid a similar situation, this post will be worthwhile.  It will focus on the encounter and cleanup, and I’ll write another on the actual course of my rash.  You may anticipate that I’m sharing because I had a somewhat severe reaction.  In fact, if this reads like a minor nightmare, I’ve described my experience sufficiently graphically!

For the story to make sense I have to start in the middle; then I can return to the beginning for a more systematic description.  The subject line telegraphs that I had a close encounter with poison oak during a recent hike.  My biggest mistake is that I wasn’t thinking about the possibility of poison oak, and in fact I had no idea I had encountered it until several days later.  I was thinking about other aspects of my health and safety, but in retrospect it was a slap-my-forehead “I-shoulda’-known-better” situation.  As my significant other pointed out a week later, when I was finally accepting the poison oak possibility, the locale of my hike was not Tahoe (where, if you go off-trail, you won’t encounter poison oak).  In fact, the Open Space Preserve where I was hiking is known to have abundant poison oak, though that’s hardly a unique situation here in the Bay Area.  Being around poison oak isn’t necessarily an issue – unless you get off the trail for a close encounter.

To set the scene: I had returned to a segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail that goes through Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve, to hike the northern couple of miles of the segment.  It was a really nice day and hike, with repeated views of San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean from the ridge-top.  A short distance before my planned turnaround point I came upon a large tree down across the trail.  My basic boo-boo was trying to bushwhack around the tree to pick up the trail again on the other side.  I climbed around in the brush for about 5 minutes, in and out a couple of times, before deciding to abandon the effort.  I was pretty focused on whether this climbing around was a good activity to be doing with respect to my hip rehab; otherwise I might have been even more determined to get past the tree to my goal.  I have to note that I’ve never had an allergic reaction to poison ivy or poison oak before.

In any case, the thought of poison oak didn’t occur to me until Day 5, and I was in denial until Day 7.  As a consequence, it hadn’t occurred to me to do any immediate cleaning of my clothes or gear or car, so in principle I had deposited residues (or more) of urushiol, the oil that provokes the allergic reaction, on lots of objects.  This greatly multiplied the cleanup effort.

On the evening of Day 4 I had noticed a slight itch on my right shin and felt a small rash there, and was just going to monitor it as ordinary contact dermatitis.  The next morning, Day 5, I thought of poison oak and immediately washed my hiking pants.  I went to a drug store to get calamine lotion and asked the pharmacist about calamine vs. caladryl, showing her the small rash area.  She stated that it couldn’t be poison oak because, if it were, it should be weeping already.  I got a bottle anyway, but this feedback certainly side-tracked me.  An important lesson is the stand-by “your results may vary.”  In fact, when I researched further I learned that a first reaction to poison oak frequently doesn’t present symptoms until 4 to 5 days after exposure.

By Day 7, as I started to develop new areas of rash, I realized that it wasn’t ordinary low-grade contact dermatitis, and I was going to need to do extensive cleanup.  By then I couldn’t recall for certain which of a few alternative shirts and light jackets I’d worn on the hike, so I washed all possible candidates.  And since I’d sat in my car (which I drove home in my contaminated hiking pants) wearing several different outfits in the meantime, it meant doing a lot of laundry.  Everything I couldn’t put in the washing machine I either washed by hand or wiped down thoroughly in rubbing alcohol, while wearing rubber gloves which I then discarded.  It seemed like I kept remembering more items to clean: the hiking gear (poles, gloves, boots) was obvious, but I also cleaned my camera, cell phone, GPS, fanny packs, sun visor, sunglasses, cases, and on and on.  I’m thankful that I wear my hiking boots only when I’m actually on the trail, so I had changed into other shoes when I returned to my car and stowed my boots, as usual, inside a plastic bag inside a gym bag.  This is how I keep the inside of my car from getting dirty, and from my current perspective it’s an excellent practice for this new reason.  But I did make sure to clean the shoes I drove home in, since my hands had just been touching my hiking boots.

Clearly the cleanup was complicated because of the long delay after my encounter.  My intent was to counteract any cross-contamination I’d inadvertently done.  This is important because the urushiol does not break down or become impotent for a very long time: months, or even years.  Besides the various clothes I’d worn sitting in my car before I cleaned the car seat, I thought about the places I’d sat down at home after potentially picking up residue on my clothes from the car.  Also, on Day 2 I’d ridden in a friend’s car after driving to the location where I met up with her, so I alerted her to clean her car seat also, even though it would have taken 3 transfers of urushiol to contaminate it and any amount should have been miniscule.  However, I definitely did not want to feel responsible for anyone else getting a case of poison oak due to my carelessness!

As I write this on Day 18, I believe that I’ve done all the necessary cleanup of clothes and gear, with the exception of my hiking boots.  They are currently in quarantine in the garage after a single cleaning which I do not consider to be adequate.  I am considering whether to simply replace them, rather than risk re-contamination if I don’t clean them sufficiently well.

Once again, if this post helps anyone else be more aware about poison oak (or ivy, or sumac) and avoid a similar situation, it will be worthwhile.  Certainly an important lesson is awareness.  If I’d realized sooner that I might have gotten into poison oak, at least the cleanup efforts would have been much, much simpler.  In my next post I will describe my medical progression.  This will reinforce the concern I’ve had for cleaning up thoroughly.

There is lots of information available about poison oak, some good and some not-so-good.  Here is a good article from Medline Plus, a service of the NIH.  And here is a pretty good conversational post.  Finally, here is an FAQ page – some of the submissions are incorrect, but the Etiquette section near the bottom is worth reading for a chuckle.

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20 Responses to Hiker’s Nightmare: Poison Oak

  1. Pingback: Poison Oak Rash Progression: Case Study | trailhiker

  2. Wendy says:

    Oh yes, I have been burned on exactly that section of the ridge trail. I feel your pain. I’m extremely allergic, and something that’s been helpful to me in recent years is to always carry around rhus diversiloba homeopathic tablets. I used these when I was taking care of a dog who was rolling in it, and I got some tiny spots that just went away, a first for me. I’ve used them successfully a number of times, but I am still humbled by the mighty oak, and always keep my eyes out. There are some trails, mostly south of sf that I just won’t even go on because I can’t avoid it…

    • trailhiker says:

      Awareness is a great first step (one I missed, but hopefully for the last time). Avoidance is kind of a last resort, so too bad about that.

  3. Sam Drake says:

    Good article. I’ve had Poison Oak twice … one time that drove me crazy, and one that was just annoying. It’s not fun at all, and with a few simple rituals I think I’ve made myself a little safer from it.

    When I return home from hiking, I immediately take a shower. I keep a bottle of Tecnu in the shower, and if there’s any chance of PO exposure I scrub down with it.

    After the shower, my clothes go DIRECTLY into the washing machine. SEPARATE from any other clothes, to prevent cross-contamination. Every Time.

    My hiking boots are in one of two places. They are either on my feet (while I’m hiking on trail), or they are in the back of my car, in a special spot reserved just for them. They NEVER go in the house. Ever. I NEVER stash other things in that spot in the car. Ever. I drive to the trailhead wearing normal shoes, and change into the hiking boots just before heading out on trail…and change back into normal shoes before driving home.

    I also carry a little container of Tecnu in my backpack, and if I *know* that I’ve touched it on trail I’ll wipe down immediately with a little Tecnu and water.

    Simple steps, easy to do. They make me happy, and seem to help.


    • trailhiker says:

      Thanks for the tips. I just recently learned about Tecnu. It’s good to know what you can potentially do right away if you suspect exposure, as well as when you get to your car and after you get home.

  4. dieselcat says:

    The pharmacist really got it wrong.People get it to varying degrees of misery, and with varying reaction times. For example, after years of horrible itching and weeping, I now get only an annoying itch, andI break out 36-48 hours after exposure, rather than the 4 or 5 days after. I am sorry you had a bad reaction,, but hope the rest of the hike was enjoyable.

    • trailhiker says:

      I suspect the pharmacist has never had a reaction to poison oak — it’s a quick motivator to understand the range of possible reactions. BTW the rest of the hike was awesome! I’ll certainly return to re-hike at least part of this segment, but will be sure to stay on the trail.

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