Natural defenses, repellents will battle bugs

Posted June 18, 2010, at 9:03 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.
Brad Viles displays his favorite combination of weapons for fighting black flies, mosquitoes, deer and moose flies and ticks. Left to right, Ben's 100; a head net and no-see-um mesh shirt; Avon Skin So Soft bath oil, and Vicks Vapo Rub.
Brad Viles displays his favorite combination of weapons for fighting black flies, mosquitoes, deer and moose flies and ticks. Left to right, Ben's 100; a head net and no-see-um mesh shirt; Avon Skin So Soft bath oil, and Vicks Vapo Rub.

     Hikers face a dilemma in late spring and summer. As soon as the weather warms up to lure you outside for a little backcountry recreation, you’re greeted by hordes of blood sucking insects. Black flies, deer flies, mosquitoes, ticks, midges and no-see-ums can ruin an outdoor adventure quicker than a torrential rain.

  But, it doesn’t have to be that way. By taking a few precautions and practicing a few techniques you don’t have to end up as some flying blood-sucker’s lunch.

  What follows, then, are a few methods I’ve tried over the years. Some are more effective than others, but most will hold the nasty, little biters off for the duration of your day hike, until you can run back to the car or the tent for the ultimate relief.

 
     Natural defenses and avoidance

  Before you can beat the bugs, it helps to think like a bug. Insects are most active during certain hours of the day. Black flies, for instance, prefer late morning through early afternoon for their feeding, when the day is warmest.

  Mosquitoes forage for food in the early morning and dusk, avoiding the heat of the day. Between those two, they have the entire day to harass you. Deer and moose flies prefer the warmer part of the day also. Unless you hike at night, when the no-see-ums and midges are active, you will be attacked by one or the other.

  Most bugs need warmth to hatch, so as long as the air temperature stays cool, around 70 degrees, the flies are less active. If you plan your hike for the coolest part of the day, in the early morning, you have a better chance of avoiding contact. As long as the day stays cool, you could avoid them altogether.

  Certain locales are preferred over others by biting bugs. Places to avoid are bogs and marshes where mosquitoes hatch, streams and brooks where black flies breed and ponds and lakes where both are present. Given that Maine has an abundance of water in those forms, avoiding them could prove difficult. Still, if you know where the bugs are, you can plan stops and breaks for places other than those near water.

  Windy days are great for keeping the bugs at bay. Try to plan your hike for when there’s a good strong breeze and you’ve probably discovered the best natural defense. If there was ever a reason for hiking in the rain, beating the bugs is it, because rain really subdues the little beasts. Highly humid days do nothing to slow down mosquitoes, though, and thinly overcast days may be the worst.

 
     Repellents and masking

  The way biting insects primarily locate their food is by detecting carbon dioxide given off by warm-blooded animals, like us. Blood is their food source. Most repellents really don’t repel, they mask the carbon dioxide given off. Some actually do repel by giving off a scent that bugs hate.

  There is a range of products on the market, some containing natural repellents, others with chemical contents. Some of the natural ingredients to look for in selecting one of these to apply as a masking agent or repellent are citronella, lemon grass, pennyroyal, camphor, menthol and eucalyptus. Naturepel brand is the most common of the citronella-based repellents.

  The one chemical agent to look for that is considered to be the most effective in combating insects is DEET, short for Diethyl-meta-toluamide. It’s a chemical masking agent that blocks mosquitoes and ticks from detecting your carbon dioxide give off. There are health precautions to consider before applying DEET, however. Due to reports of possible skin irritation, you should limit repeat applications of the products that contain DEET to as few as possible.

  If you must use DEET, apply it to clothing around openings to your skin, like cuffs and shirt collars. DEET is also not compatible with nylon clothing or Gore TEX, which it will melt in high concentrations. Some products that contain DEET are Cutters, Deep Woods Off, and Ben’s.

 
     Alternative repellents

  There are a few other repellents that are not designed to fight bugs, but have been shown to be somewhat effective. Some swear by eating garlic before going outdoors. Others claim taking vitamin B-12 is another internal bug repellent as well as ingesting brewer’s yeast.

  Externally, some hikers use Mentholatum or Vicks Vapo-Rub, both of which contain scents that repel bugs, menthol and camphor, respectively. Another alternative repellent that has reported effectiveness is tucking fabric softener sheets into a pocket. Other hikers swear by Skin So Soft by Avon, applied directly to your skin.

 
     Clothing and armor

  There are a few clothing products that are impregnated with permethrin, also a chemical, that actively repels bugs, but the clothing is expensive and reports are mixed as to the effectiveness after only a few washings.

  If your outdoor clothing is not chemically treated, make sure that your shirts are long sleeves, and pant legs are either tucked into your socks as protection against ticks or wear gaiters. Unlike other biting bugs, ticks don’t fly, but attach themselves to your skin as you brush by their location, usually in tall grass.

  There may be no better protection against flying insects than a head net and bug mesh shirt. Make sure that the mesh is small enough to protect against no-see-ums.

  If you’re armed with a combination of a few of these techniques, it should be enough to discourage even the most persistent little pests. My favorite bug-proofing method is a head net, DEET, Vicks, and Skin So Soft. Of course, then I have to avoid an open flame.

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