by Diane Spicer
Sad as it is for a nature loving hiker to admit, insect repellents are an important part of hiking techniques.
And why do we, sturdy and resolute hikers, want to repel insects?
Seriously, aren't we outdoors to soak up the full Nature experience?
The answer depends upon the hiker you're asking.
Some hikers are deathly afraid of bees and other stinging insects.
Other folks go all weird when they find a wood tick crawling on their pants leg.
Maybe you're unfazed by insects. But wait just a minute.
If you're hiking with a person who has insect phobias, it can lead to an unpleasant trail experience when that person transforms into a wailing, flailing freak out right in front of your eyes.
It's probably a good idea to ask your hiking partners about insect issues, if you haven't already.
Another reason for using repellents while hiking is to minimize exposure to disease.
There are certain insects (mosquitoes) and other small biting trouble makers (ticks) which act as vectors, transferring diseases in their saliva once they bite a human.
The mosquito borne Zika virus is working its way northward into the United States, too.
And because hikers are exposed to these insects at higher rates than people who don't venture outdoors, it makes sense to have an insect repelling plan.
Yet another reason to repel insects: insect bites hurt and itch.
If you scratch them with your dirty nails (unavoidable on the trail), you can set yourself up for a secondary bacterial skin infection.
Try this "after bite" product to minimize the discomfort. I've had good success with it.
So what should you rely on to repel insects?
You have some choices, and you need to be clear about the pros and cons of each choice.
All insect repellents are NOT alike.
The first choice of insect repellents a hiker can make: widely available, inexpensive chemicals.
Here's a fact sheet on DEET, the classic example of a heavy duty manufactured insect repellent.
It was developed by the U.S. military, and is now widely available in various strengths.
It can be applied to skin, or to clothing, or both.
Why does it work?
Insects can't stand the way it tastes!
Which is the first clue that it might be toxic.
So be cautious with your applications of this chemical, using it in small amounts only when you absolutely have to.
And avoid using it on very young kids whose nervous systems are still developing.
Another chemical name you may have seen: permethrin. It's used to kill ticks and repel insects.
This is a heavy duty chemical, toxic to cats and fish, but not dogs (good to know if your hiking dog licks your hand).
Use it carefully on your clothing, and be aware that it is considered a carcinogen.
I've used these chemicals insect repellents in Alaska, Greenland and the Canadian Rockies: hot spots for insects!
But sparingly, every so sparingly...
To avoid toxicities, you might be interested in natural insect repellents.
I've had good success with this herbal brand called Natrapel in buggy terrain, although it's quite odorific.
Store the bottle double wrapped, in your bear canister.
Or you could give Neem a try!
I carry a small amount of this Neem oil with me, to use not only to avoid bites but to take away the swelling and itchiness afterwards (if I forget to apply it before setting off on a hike).
So what is Neem?
It's a vegetable oil made from an evergreen tree which grows in India.
And you can use it to soothe and moisturize your dry skin and cuticles on a backpacking trip.
One more option: Use a blend of aromatic essential oils, including cedar, thyme, rosemary and garlic.
Unless all of those flavorful odors on your skin will make you hungry ;)
How about a portable insect repeller?
Thermacell has a wide range of options for your back yard, your day hike, and even your backpacking trip.
You don't have to spray anything on your skin.
And the repellent is from a natural source: chrysanthemums!
Take a look at their backpacker mosquito repellent for an easy solution to buggy campsites.
Or their backyard or camping lantern with built in bug repellent power:
In extremely buggy areas, bug nets that you wear are a life saver.
Here's why you should consider a head bug net and a brand that I recommend, based on past experience.
Or a complete upper body coverage bug net like this one.
Why, yes, but you won't be scratching your bites all night long, either.
It's a mistake to go into boggy, wet trail conditions or set foot on spring hiking trails thinking that you can just grit your teeth and bear it.
You might be able to endure the physical discomfort of dozens upon dozens of insect bites on exposed skin, but don't overlook your mental comfort.
The buzzing, whining and stinging will get to you after awhile.
Or the sight of a crawling tick could unnerve even the most rugged hiker.
Why not have an insect repelling plan?
And now you know how to put a good plan together!
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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