Keeping Insects and Pests Away on the Trail

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You finally hit the trail after a long week or make it to that dream destination you've been planning for months, maybe even years...Only to be greeted at the trailhead by tons and tons of bugs. Nothing can put a damper on a backpacking trip quite as quickly as unwanted hiking buddies, such as flies, mosquitoes, and ticks.

Luckily, we've got some suggestions to help prevent these nuisances from bothering you and how to deal with bites if they do get to you.

Featured Photo: Mosquito (photo by WBK Photography)

What to Wear

Bugs, in general, tend to be out in full force when the weather is hot. While it may seem counter-intuitive and probably the last thing you want to do in the heat, wearing long-sleeve shirts and pants is one of the simplest things you can do to prevent bug bites from flies, mosquitoes, and ticks. If the area you are hiking is heavily infested, it's best to bite the bullet and wear long clothing, even if it's warm.

That being said, there are ways to help keep cool even while wearing extra clothing. Consider wearing lighter colored clothing as opposed to dark blue, gray, and black. Dark colors attract and hold heat whereas light colors reflect it. Bonus: Aside from keeping you more comfortable, ticks show up better on lighter colors!

Certain materials/blends will help keep you cooler as well. And, as it turns out, many of these are also helpful in preventing bug bites. In general, tightly woven fabrics, such as nylon and polyester, are best at this. These materials can make you hot on their own, but they are generally mixed with other synthetic materials for outdoor/athletic wear for extra wicking ability. You will want to avoid cotton and knit fabrics if you're seeking bug protection as these are easily penetrable by mosquitoes. (And, as we have said time and again, cotton should be avoided in hiking clothing anyways since it does not dry quickly, potentially leading to chaffing, hypothermia, etc.)

Although it is relatively new, keep a lookout for outdoor wear made with graphene. This “material” that was just discovered in 2004 is not only said to be bug-resistant, but waterproof, thermal, and even fireproof as well as incredibly strong and lightweight. It is currently being integrated into outdoor clothing, such as pants, jackets, and shirts. The only downside is that it is still expensive to make, making the gear infused with it pricy as well. Still, it is worth looking into and expected to gain popularity over the next several years.

As a final note on clothing, it is also recommended to tuck the bottom of your pant legs into your hiking boots or shoes, if possible. This practice is especially helpful in keeping ticks from stowing away inside of your pants. And, of course, don't forget to check yourself regularly for ticks!

Tired of bugs flying into and around your face constantly? Try wearing a wide-brimmed hat or baseball cap. These can be surprisingly helpful in keeping bugs away from your face, especially those annoying gnats and flies!

To go a step further in keeping flying bugs away from your face, try a fine mesh “No-See-Um” or mosquito head net. Full disclosure: You may feel a little silly wearing one at first, but they work great for the small price they cost.

Treatment for Clothing and Gear

Aside from bug spray for your clothes and body (which we will get to below), you can also directly treat your gear and clothing. Many hikers like to treat any clothing they will be wearing on the trail, as well as backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, hammocks, etc, with permethrin ahead of time. Permethrin is a broad-spectrum insecticide and medication, commonly used in lice and scabies treatments, and is derived from chrysanthemum flowers.

Here are some interesting facts on permethrin treatments according to the University of Rhode Island:

  • A URI study found that people wearing permethrin-treated sneakers and socks were 73.6 times less likely to have a tick bite than those wearing untreated footwear.
  • Each at-home treatment lasts for roughly 3-4 weeks (with washing!).
  • Commercially-treated clothes can last up to 70 washes.

Additionally, according to this Consumer Reports article, permethrin-treated clothing may not keep mosquitoes from landing on you, but it will keep them from biting and possibly even killing them after they have come into contact with the clothing. Fewer tick bites were reported as well, in the study noted in the article, for forest workers using permethrin-treated clothing during tick season in North Carolina. (March through September)

You can find permethrin in both spray and wash options. Sawyer offers several different spray/aerosol sizes and comes highly recommended in the hiking community. While spraying is quick and easy for an outer layer of protection, soaking your gear will give an added layer of security both inside and out on the items you are treating. This article from Section Hiker includes a plethora of information about the soaking method, which is recommended for treating bulky gear like tents and backpacks.

As far as your clothing goes, you may want to concentrate on “points of entry”: Around the waist, neck, ankles, and wrists. These spaces provide easy access for ticks entering.

If you're not a “do-it-yourself” type, you can also find clothing that is already pre-treated with permethrin from some outdoor retailers. If you'd rather not spend extra money on articles of clothing you already have, you can even send in your own clothing to a company called Insect Shield to be treated for you. Their treatments last up to 70 washings!

Insect Repellents

There are MANY insect repellents on the market nowadays, both chemical and natural. With all of the conflicting information you can find on each, we have included three of the most broadly recognized effective bug repellents on the market.

Deet is probably the most widely recognized chemical used in spray-on insect repellents nowadays. It is very effective, preventing bugs from even landing on you, and, although there has been speculation over the past several years over its safety, it is perfectly safe to use as directed. The few instances in which people had negative side effects over the years were likely due to misuse, according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).

If you're still not feeling great about putting chemicals on your skin, there is a rising star in the natural world too: Lemon eucalyptus. Essentially, it works by masking your skin odor, making it harder for mosquitoes and other insects to pick up on your scent. Mosquitoes especially are said to be attracted to the smell of your sweat. If you're looking for this type of natural bug repellent option, this one from Repel comes highly recommended. It is also said to ward off deer ticks, which is the most likely to carry Lyme disease.

Somewhat new to the game, a synthetic material called picaridin has been gaining more and more popularity in recent years. Derived from a compound found in black pepper, it falls somewhere between the two repellents listed above. While it was originally discovered from something natural, it is now synthetically made. Regardless, it is approved by both WHO (World Health Organization) and EWG (Environmental Working Group). According to studies, it works similarly to and performs just as well as DEET.

Treating Insect Bites on the Go

No matter what lengths we may go to in preventing bug bites, chances are it's still going to happen at some point. Here are some suggestions for treating some common insect bites in the field.

It should go without saying that carrying a first-aid kit is always a good idea. Even if you don't get any injuries, store-bought ones often contain items to help with minor things, like bug bites, as well. Whether you pack your own or take a pre-made one, consider adding some of the following small, easily portable items to your own first-aid kit to treat irksome bug bites.

Itchy Bug Bites (Mosquitoes & Chiggers)

  • Anti-histamine or anti-itch cream, such as Cortizone
  • Aloe vera
  • Calamine lotion
  • Toothpaste (the menthol ingredient causes a cooling sensation on your skin which can help with the itching)

Although adding ice to your first-aid kit isn't exactly feasible, dipping itchy bites into cool water is supposed to help ease the irritation also.

Tick Bites

If you will be hiking anywhere that is known to have ticks of any kind, we cannot stress enough how important it is to pack a pair of tweezers. It is imperative to pull ticks out as soon as possible. Once the tick is removed, clean the bite area with an alcohol wipe or soap and water, if possible. It won't hurt to put some antibiotic cream on the area either. Even if you get the head of the tick out, as is the general protocol when removing them, the open wound can still invite other infections to the site and over-the-counter antibiotic ointments, such as Polysporin and Neosporin, can even help prevent Lyme disease.

We hope that these tips help you enjoy your hiking adventures even more during the warm, buggy months. Do you have any other tips you would add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!

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