Here's how allergic to poison ivy I am: When I was a kid, I once caught poison ivy in the middle of winter, even though there was a foot of snow on the ground. It was so bad I had to go to the doctor to treat the oozing blisters that threatened to seal my eyes. He said, "It looks like poison ivy…but it can't be. It's the middle of winter."
I still get PI frequently, even in winter. Recently, I caught it twice in one month, from the very same bush. (I'm a slow learner.) I was frequenting a good sunny crag near home, and the best warm-up started with a short finger crack in which the best jam was partially blocked by a small, twiggy bush with white berries. Twice that winter I buried my hand in that bush as I cranked the opening moves. Twice that winter I suffered PI's itchy wrath. At least now I know what poison ivy looks like when the leaves are gone.
Last weekend I was climbing at a remote crag in Wyoming. Nearly half of the 2.5-mile approach was infested with poison ivy. The leaves are pretty in the fall—all glowing red and yellow—and the oil that blisters your skin is said to be less prevalent in late season. But then again, I'm the guy who gets it in winter. The PI on this approach is so notorious that locals wear gaiters or rain pants, and they carry soap to scrub themselves clean when they get to the cliff. I figured I was doomed.
Fortunately, Andy Burr, Climbing's senior contributing photographer, was also on this trip. "Tecnu," he intoned with Graduate-like simplicity. "You get it at Walgreen's. I keep a jug of it in the shower and scrub with it anytime I suspect poison ivy."
After wading through those waving fields of PI on the way out from the cliff, I drove straight to the first Walgreen's I could find, continued home to Colorado, and jumped in the shower. Now it's four days later and despite a few suspicious bumps and itches earlier in the week, I seem to be PI-free.
Now, I can't be certain that Tecnu made the difference. But Burr swears by the stuff, and he says he's just as PI prone as I am. (And, as a professional climbing photographer, he's constantly wallowing into poison ivy.) I'm a believer.
Tecnu is supposed to work best if you rub it onto dry skin that's been in contact with poison ivy, oak, or sumac within eight hours of exposure, and then rinse it off. But it also can clean your skin of urushiol oil—the nasty stuff in rash-causing plants—after some damage has been done, minimizing the scale and duration of the rash. You can use it to clean packs, clothes, and even pets that come in contact with poison ivy, but I'd be too cautious to wash ropes, harnesses, or other life-safety gear with it.
I've had good results with Zanfel (zanfel.com) as well, and it might be the best stuff to use once a rash has flared up. But Zanfel costs about 40 bucks for a 1-ounce tube. I bought a 12-ounce tub of Tecnu (teclabsinc.com) for around $12.
I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again: "Thanks, Burr!"