Illustration of mosquito

Three Lines of Defense for (almost) Insect-Free Hiking

Summer is a great time for hiking. The days are long, the footing is as good as it gets (no ice and snow to contend with) and you don’t have to carry a lot of extra clothes (or, if you’re backpacking, a cold-weather sleeping bag) in your pack. 

But one thing that can be an enormous nuisance is insects. I’m one of those folks that is a mosquito and black fly magnet. It doesn’t take long for a swarm to be buzzing about my face and neck. Over the years, I’ve employed a number of defensive tactics, which has led me to develop the following three-stage system for keeping bugs at bay.

Stage 1: Bugs are annoying.

If things have progressed beyond an occasional swat, I stop and spray down with a picaridin-based natural repellant such as Natrapel®, which comes in both spray or towelette options. (I never leave the trailhead without at least two towelettes in my pack.) I liberally apply the repellant wherever the bugs are worst (nose, ears, ankles and behind the knees are important application spots). I also apply repellant to my bandana, which is my preferred hiking headgear.

Stage 2: Bugs are persistent. 

The most effective repellant I’ve found is Ben’s 100®. The reason why it’s so effective is that it contains 100% DEET (diethyltoluamide). As with anything, the Internet is full of claims and counterclaims about whether direct applications of DEET to the skin causes health problems or not. One thing I do know is that I have seen what the repellant can do to gear, which is why I try to limit its contact with anything made of plastic or nylon and why I always carry my Ben’s 100 in two zip seal bags as a defense against leakage. 

Because I prefer not to apply DEET to my skin, my second line of defense is to apply Ben’s 100 to a spare bandana that I carry in a plastic bag for the duration of insect season. I apply the repellant to the bandana, then tie it around my neck. I also apply a few dabs of repellant around my ears and on my headgear bandana.

An alternative Stage 2 approach is to use a repellent with less than 100% DEET. Ben’s is also available in a 30% DEET formulation. Off! Deep Woods® is another option that’s available in formulas containing 7%, 25% or 98+% DEET. 

Stage 3: Bugs are relentless.

There are a number of things you can do when the bugs are posing a threat to the enjoyment of your hike. One is to put on your rain gear. (Insects can’t bite through nylon.) Of course, it’s not comfortable to hike in rain gear when it’s warm and sunny, but if you need to take a break and you need relief, it’s an option. Another option is to use a head net. I really detest the things. They are hard to see out of and hot to wear. But if I’m on a short break, I sometimes use it.

If you’re on an overnight trip and you’re stopping for a long break, say lunch, you can set up your tent (without the rain fly) and dive in. It creates an instant bug-free zone for dining and relaxing without having to swat away. You can also apply another round of repellant before you step out into the world again.

Of course, Stage 3 is when you’ll probably want to reach for 100% DEET. If the bugs are that bad, I don’t hesitate to use it. On overnight trips, I also carry a travel size packet of baby wipes to remove the repellant and “wash up” at the end of the day in the comfort of the tent.

Want more hiking tips? See these additional posts:

Hiking poles

How to stay found on the trail

How to buy hiking boots

Staying hydrated

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