Beyond Bug Spray: Insect-Repelling Tips from the Experts Black flies, mosquitoes, no-see-ums, horseflies, ticks. No matter what your favorite outdoor spot is, encounters with biting, stinging, and generally annoying bugs are the price you pay to play outside, especially in New England. Eastern Mountain Sports sponsored athlete Joe Kinder has climbed all over the word and yet, "My worst bug experiences have always been in Pawtuckaway State Park or Rumney...NO doubt, the worst I have ever experienced."
Now that the snow is finally gone and the mercury is starting to creep up, it's time to reacquaint ourselves with the tools and tactics for keeping nature's irritants from ruining a great day outdoors. I spoke with Alan Eaton, Integrated Pest Management Specialist at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. While Alan isn't in the business of recommending products, he had some great advice for avoiding bugs outdoors. "Insects are attracted to both visual cues and odor cues," he explained. If you're one of those people who gets chowed on while your friend goes unscathed, it may be because you have a high concentration of ammonia in your perspiration. There's not much you can do about your body chemistry other than alter it slightly with a topical repellent. "The active ingredients in effective repellents don't actually repel insects, but confuse them by blocking the receptors they use to detect appropriate hosts for them to bite," he said.
Cliff Stevens, owner of Moxie Tours, which operates whitewater rafting tours in Maine and Massachusetts, said this: "I always tell people to wear light-colored clothes like a white turtleneck and loose khaki pants. If the mosquitoes are really bad, you can soak a hat in bug repellent or tie a repellent-soaked bandanna around your neck, but the real key is to cover up so there's no skin for them to bite." Why light clothing? Because dark colors are one of the visual cues that Alan from UNHCE mentioned earlier. "Dark clothing is attractive to insects, so it's best to avoid wearing black, gray, blue, and brown during the summer months," Alan said.
As a biologist for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, Mike Marchand's amphibian field research puts him into direct contact with just about every species of insect in the state. In addition to the light-colored, lightweight clothing and repellents Cliff recommends, Mike sometimes has to take things a step further: "During peak mosquito and black fly periods (often May-June for southern NH), I usually carry a head net in my pack. Head nets have allowed me to maintain some level of sanity on more than a couple occasions. The nets help reduce bites to the head and neck, but perhaps more satisfying is that they tend to keep that annoying buzzing of the mosquitoes a few inches from your ears."
When it comes to repellents, my insect experts were divided. Mike Marchand has used Deep Woods Off with moderate amounts of DEET, while Joe Kinder and Eastern Mountain Sports photographer Tim Kemple both recommend Ben's with "a ton of DEET" to keep mosquitoes at bay (you'll find a variety of repellents offering varying concentrations of DEET at ems.com). Me? I generally try to go the natural route on my kayaking adventures, and I've had some good success with Herbal Armor from All Terrain.
A few more facts about DEET: In addition to multiple published articles that discuss the threats to the nervous system from extensive contact with DEET, we know that it can also melt off the waterproof coatings on nylon fabrics, so be very careful when applying it near your tent, pack, or rain gear. For this reason, many people prefer repellents with permethrin, a synthetic version of a chrysanthemum plant hormone. Finally, if you prefer to avoid direct skin contact altogether, look for Repel Permanone, which can be applied directly to clothing and gear. Whether you prefer a natural repellent or the power of DEET, you'll find a bunch of repellent options as well as the head nets Mike recommends in our Bug Protection Shop
While the right clothing, a good repellent, and protective netting will greatly reduce your chances of getting bitten by one of New England's many flying menaces, it's pretty much impossible to avoid contact altogether. In the wise words of Joe Kinder, "tolerance is key"—a sentiment echoed by Mike Marchand, who also puts a positive spin on this irritating problem: "The good news is that there are other species that feed on these biters. Spotted salamander larvae and some fish will eat mosquito larvae. Dragonflies will zip back and forth eating all types of adult insects. So, as painful (and itchy) as it is at times, these biters still play a role in the natural world." Well said, Mike. I think we can all take some satisfaction in biting insects being food for other creatures. When you get right down to it, there's a place for everything in the outdoors, and with the right amount of bug protection, there's a place for you, too.