Nothing kills the joy of an outdoor adventure faster than buzzing, crawling, and biting insects. With the increased concern about insect-borne infections like Zika and Lyme disease, protecting yourself against bug bites is more than just avoiding the annoying itchiness.
Nine new tick and mosquito-borne germs have been discovered, identified, or introduced to the USA since 2004. Here are some tips and ideas to beat the bugs and keep yourself safe when you’re out on the water or in the woods.
Dress to Protect
Lightweight long-sleeved shirts and long pants keep your skin protected from the sun and insect bites. There are a number of protective clothing options on the market for pest and UV prevention. Choose lighter colored clothing, especially when hiking and backpacking in the woods. It is easier to see insects on lighter colored fabrics.
Tuck your pant legs into your socks, especially when bushwhacking through thick brush or visiting areas with heavy tick infestations. You probably won’t win a fashion show but it will keep the biting creepy crawlies from getting inside your pant legs.
Wear a hat all year round. Brimmed hats do well to keep insects out of your hair and double as excellent sun protection.
If you plan to visit areas with significant bug infestations or places known to have Zika or Lyme disease, invest in an insect screen hat or mosquito head nets for the best protection.
Consider pre-treating your clothing with Permethrin clothing and gear insect repellent. It binds to the fabric so any insects that land or crawl on it are killed. This odorless insecticide offers up to two weeks of protection against ticks, mites, and mosquitos. Spray it on your tent, clothing, pack, or any other fabric item you plan to take into the backwoods.
If you are camping in an area with a lot of mosquitoes, flies, and other pesky insects, a mosquito net may be a good investment for a peaceful night’s sleep. This is particularly true if you are staying in a shelter or plan to sleep in a hammock instead of a closed tent.
Insect repellent applied directly to your skin is the most effective option but you will need to find the right spray and apply it often. Different insect repellents are engineered to stave off different bugs.
All repellents are designed to prevent mosquitos and many are effective against ticks and mites. No repellent protects against bees and other stinging pests. Most bug sprays offer varying degrees of protection against flies.
The EPA screens and certifies all chemical-based repellents but it is important to follow the instructions carefully, especially if you are using them on children or pets.
This is the most popular and widely used insect repellant on the market. It is long lasting and offers protection against a wide variety of insects like mosquitos, ticks, and some types of flies. While many people are wary of DEET, it is the most widely studied repellent on the market and the Environmental Working Group concludes that it is safer than most people assume and very effective.
DEET can damage synthetic materials and plastics. Be careful using it on or around your gear. It is a good practice to wash your hands after applying DEET.
There are a lot of concentrations of DEET on the market. 10% concentration provides about 2 hours of protection while 100% DEET gives up to 10 hours of protection. Higher concentrations of DEET just extend the length of protection time, not the level of protection (maximum protection occurs at 30% DEET concentration).
There are controlled release formulas that extend the protection time to up to 12 hours. This is a great option if you want to minimize your exposure to DEET without sacrificing the protection. Controlled release formulas are also less damaging to plastics and synthetic materials.
Picardin offers the broadest protects against mosquitos, ticks, and many types of flies. It’s a synthetic form of a repellent found in pepper plants. The spray-on versions offer up to 12 hours of protection against mosquitos and ticks and about 8 hours of defense against flies. Picardin lotions work for up to 14 hours against ticks and mosquitos.
Even though it’s newer than DEET, Picardin is usually equally as effective as DEET against mosquitos and ticks. People who use DEET find that mosquitos will land on them but not bite. Picardin users report that mosquitos are less likely to even land on them. When it comes to flies, Picardin is more effective than DEET.
Picardin also does not damage plastic or synthetic materials and many users report it has less of an odor than DEET.
Lemon Eucalyptus Oil
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association concluded that eucalyptus-based repellents are equally effective as DEET against mosquito bites, offering 6 to 7.5 hours of protection.
Experts believe Lemon Eucalyptus works well because its main ingredient (p-menthane-2,8-diol or PMD) masks the signals like carbon dioxide and lactic acid that tell mosquitos where humans are.
PMD is safe and widely considered one of the least toxic insect repellents on the market. Keep it away from your eyes and mouth as it can cause irritation. Wash your hands after application.
When purchasing a PMD repellent, the label should say whether it contains the natural essential oil Lemon Eucalyptus or a synthetic version of PMD. There is no indication that one works better than the other.
Other Natural Plant Oils
Soybean, lemongrass, citronella, cedar, peppermint, geranium, lavender, and other oils are significantly less effective at keeping the bugs at bay. Most people report these natural repellents relatively ineffective and require many applications for minimal protection, particularly when in the woods or on the water.
Wearable Protection to Avoid
There are countless products and gimmicks on the market claiming to repel insects. The truth is many don’t work or aren’t effective enough to protect you from exposure to insect-borne illnesses.
Most of the wristbands designed to repel mosquitos and insects are generally ineffective. One brand was even fined by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive marketing of their “mosquito protection wristband”. There may be a few wristbands on the market that work, but the protection they offer is minimal at best.
Like the wristbands, sonic repellents make big claims but don’t back them up with much evidence. The companies claim ultrasonic repellents produce a high-frequency sound that drives insects away. The Federal Trade Commission has investigated several sonic repellent companies for false advertising. Some studies show these devices actually attract insects to the wearer!
One exception may be the Shoo!bug. This sonic repellent was originally designed to protect livestock from biting insects. It must be worn next to your skin all day, starting up to 24 hours before being in areas with insects. Testers report that, while not 100% effective when insects are bad or hungry, they did notice a difference. It seems to be a good secondary defense when used alongside a spray-on insect repellent like DEET or Lemon Eucalyptus.
The CDC warns that wearable “foggers” or clip-on fans that circulate chemicals into the air around you “have not been adequately evaluated for their efficacy in preventing vector-borne diseases”.
While these gadgets seem like the best of both worlds on the surface—chemical protection without skin exposure—they offer very little defense against biting insects. One Consumer Report raised concerns that some of the chemicals used by the fans are classified by the EPA as neurotoxins and potential carcinogens.
Best Practices for Preventing Bug Bites
Most of our outdoor adventures take us into areas where bug bites are inevitable despite our best efforts. Learning what areas to avoid and how to use insect repellents properly are the best ways to prevent bites and stings.
Avoid tall grass and brushy areas where ticks like to hang out, waiting for a passing meal. Avoid hanging branches and, if hiking, walk in the middle of the trail.
Permethrin kills ticks rather than repelling them. Either invest in Permethrin-treated clothing or purchase treatment sprays to add a layer of protection the clothing you own. Wearing a hat will help keep ticks off your scalp and out of your hair.
Use a DEET based insect repellent on any exposed skin. Check yourself and your adventure buddies for ticks each day. Shower in warm water as soon as possible to help wash away any ticks that might have gotten through your layers of protection.
DEET and Lemon Eucalyptus insect repellents are the most effective against mosquitos. Permethrin-treated clothing is an added layer of protection.
Mosquitos are most active in the evenings and at night so avoid the water or trails around sunset to steer clear of peak mosquito hours. Hiking on open, sunny trails offers the best relief from insects. The breezes keep the bugs away and they tend to avoid the warm, dry air.
Wasps, Bees, and Other Insect Prevention
Bees are always looking for flowers to collect pollen from. Avoid wearing bright or flower patterned clothing. Light colored clothing is less attractive and usually cooler for you as well. Avoid perfumes, scented lotions, and other strong odors that might smell like flowers. Shiny jewelry has also been known to attract bees, wasps, and other insects.
If a bee or wasp is bothering you, slowly move away to another area. Swatting at it or making quick movements may provoke it to sting you.
Avoid drinking from cans if possible. Bees and other flying insects love to crawl in after the sugary drinks. Always look in your cup before taking a drink to avoid a surprising sting to the lip.
Apply Sunscreen Then Insect Repellent
If you plan to wear both sunscreen and insect repellent, apply the sunscreen first. Let it absorb into your skin before applying the repellent on top. If you reapply sunscreen later there’s no need to go through the whole process all over again unless you notice the bugs starting to bother you more.
The CDC does not recommend products that combine sunscreen and insect repellent. They tend to be less effective and sunscreen should be reapplied more frequently than bug spray.
Apply Repellent Properly
It’s ok to spray bug spray onto your clothes, but spraying under your clothes is unnecessary. Instead, focus on exposed areas like ankles, wrists, and neck.
Never spray insect repellent onto your face or ears. Instead, spray some on your hand and rub it on your face, ears, and neck.
Insect repellents may irritate cuts or open wounds. Avoid spraying any broken or irritated skin. Make sure to wash your hands after applying insect repellent, especially if you are going to eat soon afterward.
Avoid spraying bug spray directly onto young children. Instead, spray the repellent into your hand then rub it on their skin. Avoid children’s hands, as they tend to put their fingers into their eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.
Now you’re ready to hit the trails or waterways for a fun, insect-free adventure. Do you have any favorite bug bite prevention tips or products? Share in the comments.