Thoreau never mentioned the bugs. — Entry in an Appalachian Trail shelter register
The entry had been written several weeks before I read it, but the author’s sentiment definitely reflected my state of mind. It had been a perfect mid-summer day with wildflowers lining the trail, birds serenading me by the hour, temperature in the mid-70s, and an easy terrain. So what had driven me to negative thoughts as I sat around the shelter? Bugs, that’s what. Damn annoying, pesky, persistent, biting, stinging, skin-piercing, itch-producing, welt-making little bugs.
I had forgotten to pack the repellent, so it was really myself that I was mad at more than the insects. With bugs buzzing me all night long, I thought about a buddy who told me he had worn a plastic bracelet impregnated with insect repellent that he had hoped to keep the mosquitoes at bay on his last hike. During my fitful night of sleep, I resolved to do research to find what kind of repellent truly works best, and I’m here to share that information with you.
Separate studies done by the Environmental Protection Agency, Center for Disease Control, Consumer Reports, and the New England Journal of Medicine show that products with DEET in them work the best at repelling mosquitoes and ticks. Products with 24-50% DEET worked for up to five hours. Most of the studies seem to show that there is no advantage in going above 50%, although one researcher claimed nine hours from a 100% DEET solution.
DEET may work best, but if you’re like me, you may have reservations about using such a heavy chemical on yourself and children. (I swore off it a few years ago when it melted a plastic pen I was using.) I have found that citronella-based repellents work as well as the lower concentration DEET repellents. It smells to high heaven, but studies confirm that plant-based repellents do work. They just don’t last as long. Studies showed that they were effective for one to two hours, while repellents with soybean oil were deemed effective for a full two hours.
Permethrin is made from certain chrysanthemum flower compounds. It’s not approved for skin use, but can be sprayed on clothes, or you can buy permethrin-impregnated clothing. The lowest cost shirt I located costs about $50 dollars—and the effectiveness is depleted after a number of washings. By the way, permethrin is harmful to fish and amphibians.
Picaridin is a somewhat newer ingredient that is endorsed by the World Health Organization as the best malaria prevention, and U.S. studies indicate it to be as effective as DEET. It is not a solvent to plastics and synthetic materials, is colorless and odorless, and does not have to be washed off when you’re done hiking.
All of the studies recommend not using a combination repellent/sunscreen because you have to apply the lotion liberally for the sunscreen to be effective, thereby slathering on way too much repellent.
So what did the studies conclude about those bracelets my buddy had been so enamored with? The best they did was to keep mosquitoes from biting for .2 of a minute, or about 12 seconds. Ditto with those electronic sound emitting devices.
There are a number of other things you can do besides using repellents to improve your odds of being left alone.
Get that woodsy smell as soon as possible. Bees and bugs are attracted to strong fragrances, so avoid using scented soaps, lotions, shampoos, and colognes. Forgo the deodorant before heading into the woods.
Be aware of the colors you wear. Mosquitoes are attracted to dark colors, especially blue. Pick beige or other neutral colors when shopping for hiking clothes and use it to cover as much of your skin as possible.
Learn to recognize places that are popular with bugs. Take a look before you sit down to make sure you’re not about to take a break on an ant hill. Ticks gather on tall grasses and overhanging bushes and brush, yellow jackets nest in the ground, flies hover around animals, and mosquitoes like cool, moist places. (Ladies, you will be gratified to know that studies have shown that mosquitoes prefer males over females. Bring along your boyfriend, husband, or other member of the opposite sex and watch the bugs go for him instead of you.)
Be aware of the times the bugs you are likely to encounter will be most active. Black flies are busiest in the morning, mosquitoes just after sunrise and before sunset, and deer flies during midday. (Of course, if you happen to be in a place where all of these are present, there is never going to be a time you will be bug-free. Slather on the repellent!)
The long days of summer are made for outings in the woods. Just be prepared, and don’t let the little buggers get to you.