Addressing the bug problem
Bugs have always been an impediment to enjoyment of the outdoors. But now diseases such as the infamous red meat allergy, Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, the Zika virus, and West Nile virus, make us fear ticks and mosquitoes, not to mention wasp stings, chigger bites, and the host of other problems bugs can create for us when we’re just trying to have a good time. No matter who you are, bugs are something to take seriously because they can not only ruin the fun, but potentially lead to long term health problems and in some cases death.
After listening to hundreds of hours of outdoor focused podcasts, reading many many sites and magazines and books, I have not yet heard or seen a comprehensive approach to staying safe from ticks, mosquitoes, and other problem insects and arachnids. This article will be my best effort at offering complete guidelines for ensuring safety from bugs during your adventures.
There are three spheres of protection: your space, your clothes, and your skin. What works for one sphere typically does not apply to any others, though there are exceptions.
If you want to protect your campsite or back yard, you can easily employ the use of yard sprays (sometimes called ‘yard fog’), like Off or Cutter brand area sprays or more intense insect treatment options like an actual service. The yard sprays are good for hitting an immediate area and will be effective for a relative short period of time. They may work well for a backyard party or a weekend campsite treatment (just don’t spray neighboring sites without permission!), but invariably insects will make their way over from unsprayed areas or the spray will wear off.
The other insect treatment options, like Sevin, should be used with caution. They are absolutely not safe for pets or children within a certain window of application, they are highly toxic, but very effective at treating your fruits or vegatables. We have a Japanese beetle problem and the only way to reasonably keep these things at bay from my garden and fruit trees is with Sevin. For that it works like a charm. I wear gloves, hat, painters mask, glasses, and long pants and sleeves to protect myself from the mist. I shower immediately after application. Though this is aimed at the beetles and garden pests, the same (or similar) precautions should be taken when applying all yard sprays, and you should be very cautious and aware of the wind when using the Cutter/Off insect sprays around your camp areas.
Last, there’s Thermocell. Lots of folks swear by this. There’s area protection and personal zone protection. I haven’t worked up the nerve to invest in a Thermocell yet, partly due to the hit and miss reviews. As an avid outdoors enthusiast I’m a little put off by the limitations of fuel and wind (time and weather). It’s only effective if you are going to be in the same area for an extended period of time. In other words, it’s not effective on a hike, but it will be great around the campsite, or sitting in a tree stand. These treatments are best as a first line of defense in a single area, but by no means should they be the only thing you rely on.
Outerwear and clothing treatment
When it comes to outerwear, this is the person’s first line of defense when on an outdoor adventure like a hike. Just wearing long sleeves and long pants (both a little baggy) will be effective eliminating most mosquito bites and most other flying bugs like horse flies and the like. At least over the covered area. To really get the most out of your clothing, treatment with a product like Sawyer’s Permethrin will really help protect you from most bugs. This product has worked wonders for me. Permethrin is incredibly effective. I have seen a tick that I picked up on my pant leg just drop off on it’s own seconds later. It lasts for several weeks and several washes. They recommend NOT using it on undergarments though, only outerwear with something in between outer clothing and your vital areas (groin, armpits, midsection, etc.). Do not spray on the inside of your hats either. Permethrin spray is really effective, but should be treated with caution. When faced with the horrible consequences of tick bites, though, it’s worth it to me. On top of that, it’s recommended and supplied to people who work in the outdoors for state or federal agencies like the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Sometimes it’s just way too hot to be wearing long pants and long sleeves, but the cloud of mosquitoes hovering around demands a solution, so what to do? Picaridin is the best solution I’ve found. Whether you choose the lotion or the spray, it’s the way to go. Up in the Boundary Waters I saw first hand how Deet (like ‘Off’ insect spray) eats clothing and destroys any waterproofing and eats through fabrics, it is less safe for skin contact, but not bad as a last resort. While on a week long camping trip in the Rockies, my friend and I were constantly surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes. No exaggerating, there were CLOUDS of mosquitoes! Despite not using any area coverage or a Thermocell, I only got 6 mosquito bites the whole trip! And those bites were the reminder that the 14 hour window was up and it was time to re-apply. How did we accomplish this feat? Picaridin lotion and Permetherin treated clothing. It worked wonders. Picaridin is generally safer than Deet for skin application, it doesn’t ruin gear like a backpack, and is more effective at repelling biting flies. The bottle of Picaridin spray that I have cautions against over application, use on clothing, and they urge washing hands thoroughly before eating, drinking, and chewing gum or tobacco. Despite these cautions it is the recommended choice from the World Health Organization for preventing malaria and other insect transmitted diseases like Zika, West Nile, and tick-born diseases. Between the lotion and the sprays offered, the right application of effective protection is available to you.
Improving your coverage
There are some other things you can do to help minimize your exposure to horrible and deadly insects. Tucking your pants into your socks and duct taping them in place is incredibly effective and keeping ticks from crawling up your legs and feasting on your nether regions (gaiters also help a ton). Top Secret offers a line of options from a body wash and shampoo, to laundry detergent, and even a field spray. I’ve been using the detergent on my clothes since the spring (but I have also treated my adventure clothes with Permethrin) and found it to be reasonably effective. I’ve used the body wash and shampoo last summer while out on adventures and found it to be decent, but I’ve also used other redundant methods of bug control. It’s hard for me to say if the Top Secret line is effective by itself, but I know it really can’t hurt to add this to the arsenal of protection.
Imagine what life would be like not being able to eat venison, hot dogs, burgers, steak, pork, carnitas, sausages, or anything else made with red meat, and if you slip up you break out in hives all over your body and become short of breath, possibly needing a trip to the hospital (I met a guy who suffers from this and is just now – after 10 years – getting over it). When I think about that before I go out, or think about my friend who has been recovering from Lyme disease for close to a decade now, or the girl in my town who was diagnosed with ALS, but passed away because it was a misdiagnosed tick bite, I welcome the body wash, laundry detergent, and Permethrin treated clothes, and I take the precautions to tuck my pants into my socks, shirt into pants, use the spray or lotion on exposed skin, and I enjoy my adventures with considerably less worry than if there was a gaping hole in my insect armor. Taking preventative steps to avoid a host of really nasty diseases is just a smart thing to do.
3 Steps to No Bugs On Your Next Adventure:
- WASH with bug repellent body soap before you go out;
- WEAR clothing treated with Permethrin;
- APPLY Picaridin to any exposed skin.
While I’m sure there’s more that some folks can add to prevent insect bites, the protections discussed above are cheap, easy, long lasting, and they will help us to continue to enjoy the outdoors with less worry about itching, stings, and worst of all horrible diseases ruining the fun. Please keep your family, friends, and yourself safe. Don’t rely on just one method of protection from insects; the consequences to life and body are too great. More fun, less worry. Enjoy your adventures!