Poison Ivy and 5 Other Leaves to Avoid on a Trail Run

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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Poison Ivy and 5 Other Leaves to Avoid on a Trail Run

While most of us are rejoicing that we can finally spend time outside, some of us are already lamenting the patches of poison ivy that have cropped up on our favorite trails — and onto our arms and legs. Mother Nature can be cruel.

Sure, most trails won’t have you machete-ing your way through the brush. But even a slightly overgrown trail can have these itch-inducing leaves lingering about, ready to wreak havoc on you. As a runner, the biggest favor you can do yourself is to stay the heck away. That means, if you’re on an overgrown trail, that you may want to run in leggings or high socks, even in searing temperatures. A white, long-sleeved shirt might be smart to save your skin. And, unless you can 110% identify a plant as non-poisonous, do not use it as toilet paper when you have that trailside emergency.

Here are six plants to watch out for, especially in densely wooded areas:

1. POISON IVY

Photo Credit: John via Flickr

What it does: The most common of the poison plants, poison ivy is best known for red, itchy rashes and blistering as the oil transfers from plant to person.
What it looks like: The traditional intel is to avoid three-leafed, shiny plants, but it can also grow in a mossy tendril that wraps around trees.
Where you’ll find it: Everywhere in the U.S., but it’s the most common on the East Coast in densely wooded areas — especially near a body of water. At least its cousin, poison oak, tends to stay on the West Coast.

2. POISON OAK

Photo Credit: born1945 via Flickr

What it does: Similar to poison ivy, poison oak leaves you with miserable red rashes that hurt as much as they itch.
What it looks like: Your best bet is to avoid all trifoliate leaves, just to be safe. That means if a leaf has three small leaves that make up one primary leaf, you’ll want to steer clear.
Where you’ll find it: Most commonly, you’ll spot it in wooded, marshy areas on the western side of the country, but it can be found on the East Coast as well.

3. POISON SUMAC

Photo Credit: Jennifer Jordan via Flickr

What it does: Like its brethren, poison ivy and poison oak, poison sumac contains urushiol oil, and, when transferred to skin, it can have seriously itchy, unpleasant consequences. If you walk through a patch, immediately wash any area that may have touched the plant with lukewarm, soapy water (dish soap that can cut oil is great here!).
What it looks like: A small bush or tree, and each leaf stem hosts 7–13 leaflets with smooth edges and pointy tips.
Where you’ll find it: Wooded, swampy areas in the southeast. If you find yourself itching after an adventure in the Everglades, it’s likely you ran into a patch. Thankfully, though, poison sumac is a lot less common than ivy or oak.

4. RASPBERRY BUSHES

Photo Credit: Adam via Flickr

What it does: Some people won’t react much to raspberry bushes, but the tiny thorns that line them can be extremely irritating, especially if you’re sweaty as you run through a section. (The thorns are there to protect the plants, but that doesn’t help you!) The thorns tear and irritate skin, especially when you have sweat and sunscreen that can seep into the microtears. Ouch.
What it looks like: It sounds obvious, but if you see raspberries, it’s probably a raspberry bush. Keep an eye out for any fruit bushes, because most low-hanging fruits have defense mechanisms built into them to keep predators at bay.
Where you’ll find it: All over North America, but primarily in dense woodland.


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5. STINGING NETTLE

Photo Credit: Megan Hansen via Flickr

What it does: Like its namesake, it stings and leaves you with a bumpy, itchy rash. That’s thanks to the tiny hairs on the plant that act like tiny hypodermic needles, delivering irritating chemicals into your skin. But it does have some good properties, too: cooking it results in a delicious superfood packed with tons of nutrients, and the cooking process releases the chemicals that cause the sting, so you won’t burn your tongue.
What it looks like: Look for thin, grassy strands with sharp, stinging, tiny hairs scattered on the body. It will also have small fuzzy white flowers, and grows to around 1–2 meters tall.
Where you’ll find it: All over North America in moist woodlands.

6. GIANT HOGWEED

Photo Credit: Nature Photos via Flickr

What it does: This plant leaves you with large blisters and red or purple rashes that can leave nasty scars.
What it looks like: Think big. It’s a huge plant with white flowers that can be between 6–18 feet tall.
Where you’ll find it: Though not super common, it’s still on some trails, especially if you live near wetlands — and it’s definitely worth avoiding. It’s an invasive species, so it’s been popping up all over the U.S., but the highest concentrations are found in the northwest and the northeast, including New Jersey, which has a preponderance of wetlands.


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About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing about being outside, travel and athletic style on TheOutdoorEdit.com, or she’s interviewing world-class athletes and scientists for The Consummate Athlete Podcast. You can follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat at @mollyjhurford.

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