Bug bites can make even the best hiking and camping trips a bust. Sometimes, walking away with a few temporary itchy souvenirs is a necessary evil. Other times, a swarm of incessant mosquitoes makes you want to pack it in and head home. Luckily there are plenty of ways to avoid coming home covered in bites.
How Bug Repellent Really Works
Contrary to popular belief, bug repellent doesn't make you “invisible” to bugs, or create a magical force field around you to keep them away.
We spoke with Alan Eaton, Integrated Pest Management Specialist at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, who explained that insects are “attracted to both visual cues and odor cues.” If you tend to be the one in your group who draws the attention of all the bugs while everyone else walks away unscathed, it may be due to a higher concentration of ammonia in your perspiration...and 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," Eaton said.
Bug Repellent Active Ingredients
No matter which bug repellent you choose, there will be one or two ingredients that do most of the work camouflaging your scent. Here’s a quick explanation of the chemicals you’re most likely to see:
DEET was developed by the US Army in 1946 and has been used by the general population since 1957. It is a clear, odorless liquid that does not easily dissolve in water. The concentration of DEET in consumer products ranges from 4% to 100%. It provides effective protection against mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies, fleas, and other small flying insects.
In 1998, the EPA performed a comprehensive re-assessment of DEET and found that as long as consumers follow label directions, DEET does not pose any health concerns. DEET can, however, break down nylon, so be extra careful when using it around your tent, backpack, rain gear, or climbing ropes.
Picaridin is a synthetic compound that was developed in the 1980s and widely used in bug repellents in Europe in Australia. In 2005, it became available in the US and is now a common alternative to DEET.
The compound resembles piperine, a natural chemical found in the group of plants used to produce black pepper. Picaridin is safe for use on both skin and clothing, and repels mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies, fleas, and chiggers.
Geraniol is extracted from geranium oil through a unique refining process and used in place of synthetic compounds like DEET and Picaridin to repel mosquitoes, house flies, stable flies, horn flies, cockroaches, fire ants, fleas, gnats, dog and lone star ticks, and no-see-ums.
Geraniums have a long history of being planted around homes for their natural insect repelling properties. The use of geraniol has been tested extensively, and while you may need to reapply repellents using this slightly more frequently, it has been proven to be nearly as effective.
Essential Oils possess all sorts of beneficial properties, including acting as all-natural insect repellents. The essential oils you’ll most commonly find in natural repellents include soybean, citronella, peppermint, cedar, rosemary, lemongrass, geranium, and castor.
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is a plant-based substance (though for commercial uses, it is synthesized) derived from eucalyptus twigs and leaves. In tests, it has been found to be just as effective as low concentrations of DEET at repelling mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies, and gnats. It has also been found to be the most effective herbal repellent.
Permethrin is synthesized to mimic a natural compound found in chrysanthemums and differs from the rest of these active ingredients in that it is not meant to be applied directly to your skin. Instead, repellents containing Permethrin as an active ingredient are used to treat your clothing or gear.
Permethrin is effective at repelling mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, and mites. It also attacks the insects’ nervous systems, causing muscle spasms, paralysis, and death.
Proper Bug Repellent Use
Whether you decide to go with a synthetic bug repellent or a natural one, be sure to follow the directions it comes with. Each repellent will have its own recommendations, but here are a few general tips to keep in mind:
i. Avoid contact with the eyes and mouth! Repellents in lotion or wipe form are easiest to apply to your face without getting any in your eyes or mouth. Never use a spray on your face directly. Instead, spray a small amount in your hand and carefully rub it onto your face.
ii. Only apply to areas of exposed skin and avoid open cuts or irritated skin.
iii. Wash your hands after applying; wash all treated skin upon returning to the indoors.
iv. Never let children handle bug repellents.
Bug Repellent Clothing
In addition to topically applied repellents, we also carry clothing, hats, and buffs that are pre-treated with insect repellent but look no different from their “regular” counterparts. Our friends at ExOfficio use an odorless repellent called Insect Shield in their Bugsaway shirts and hats. We’ve also developed our own EMS No Fly Zone pants with Permethrin to repel mosquitoes, ticks, ants, chiggers, flies, and midges.
When washed separately from other textiles, the insect-repelling qualities of both Bugsaway and No Fly Zone gear will last for 70 washings. That may not sound like a lot, but if you consider weekly washings during bug season, you're talking 18 weekends a year, or four years of useful life, which can be extended by hand washing instead of machine washing.
Non-Chemical Ways to Avoid Bugs
Cliff Stevens, owner of Moxie Tours, which operates whitewater rafting tours in Maine and Massachusetts, told us, "I always tell people to wear light-colored clothes, like a white turtleneck and loose khaki pants.” Why? Because biting bugs are attracted to darker colors, so avoiding black, gray, blue, and brown clothing will help keep them away. Wearing long sleeves and pants also leaves less skin exposed, so the bugs won’t have anything to bite.
Mosquitoes tend to be most active at dawn and dusk so it’s a good idea to plan your hike around their feeding schedules. Get a head start on them by beginning your hike before dawn (or wait until a little later in the morning for shorter trips), and wait to cook and eat until after dusk.
Many breeds of biting bugs also have a peak time of the year—typically a month or so when they’re at their highest populations. In general, the best, most bug-free time of year to take a trip is in the fall, from September to October. Check with park rangers to learn the exact population levels of the mountain(s) you’re looking to hike, as they’ll vary year to year as well as month to month.
Mosquitoes also require water to breed, so damp paths, or a trip right after rainfall, is asking for trouble. You’ll find them easily in small puddles or swamps in the shade, and they’ll find you even quicker. Avoid pausing by still bodies of water; instead, take your breaks in breezy spots like peaks and clearings. Similarly, you set up your tent far away from standing water, as even a small amount will attract a lot of the buzzing nuisances, and the last thing you want is for them to get into your tent.
Head Nets and Bug Jackets/Pants
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 clothing and repellents, 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. The nets help reduce bites to the head and neck...and they tend to keep that annoying buzzing of the mosquitoes away from your ears."
Whether you just need a head net to keep bugs out of your eyes, ears, and mouth, or the full-body protection provided by a mesh jacket and mesh pants, we carry everything you need to keep the bugs at bay while you enjoy your adventure. (Gardeners love them, too!)
Bug Protection for Sleeping
After a long day of hiking, kayaking, cycling, and avoiding insects in the process, you're going to need a good night's sleep. If you're sleeping under the stars or looking for a true bug-free haven inside your tent, you'll need one of Sea to Summit's Insect Shield Net Shelters. Treated with repellent, these mesh shelters prevent all kinds of insects from getting through to you.
Treating Bug Bites
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll come home from a camping trip with no bites. There are some lucky people who seem immune to bugs, but unless you’ve found a way to inherit that gene, you should know how to treat a bug bite. Taking an antihistamine proactively can help alleviate the itch, and it works for up to 24 hours, so you have to take it only once. In order to heal a bee sting or a bite from a mosquito, black fly, tick, or fire ant, use something like After Bite, or try making your own soothing baking soda gel. Not only will it ease the itch, it will also help stop the swelling.
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