How to Manage Mosquitos While Backpacking

March 18, 2021

How to Manage Mosquitos While Backpacking

Ahh, the great outdoors. The sight of pristine landscapes and mountain views. The smell of flowers and fresh earth. The sounds of birds, babbling brooks, and…buzzing mosquitos?!

Mosquitos can throw a wrench in any backpacking or hiking trip. Not only are they irritating (both in the normal way and in the irritated, itchy skin way) but they can also be dangerous. Mosquitos can carry a whole host of diseases that you do not want to mess with, including Zika virus and West Nile virus. 

Although mosquitos are an inevitable aspect of almost any camping or backpacking trip, there are proven methods to protect yourself from mosquito bites. Here are some tried and true steps for dealing with these belligerent bloodsuckers on your next great adventure. 

1. Use a Strong Insect Repellent

This one probably seems obvious for preventing mosquito bites, but not all insect repellents are created equal. Always inspect the label before making your purchase. Make sure your repellent is EPA-registered and pay special attention to both the active ingredient and the concentration. This determines how safe and how effective the repellent will be. 

Many repellents advertise as “natural” which really just means the main ingredient is an essential oil that is not very effective at repelling insects. The three active ingredients you should be looking for include: 

  • DEET
  • Picaridin
  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus

Let's explore the differences between these three types of insect-repelling agents. 

DEET

DEET is widely considered to be the most effective active ingredient for preventing mosquito bites. When it comes to concentration, look for a bug spray that is 15-30% DEET. Less than that will not be very effective in repelling mosquitos. More than that is not necessary for effectiveness and could start to pose health risks such as skin irritations and disorientation.

Do not use products containing DEET on infants younger than two months old. 

Picaridin

Although picaridin is synthetic, it is modeled after a naturally occurring compound found in black pepper plants. Products containing 10-20% picaridin are most effective. With this active ingredient, be sure to opt for a repellent spray rather than lotion or wipes. Picaridin has been shown to be less effective in these forms.

Picaridin is safe to use on infants but should be kept away from the eye region. 

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus

Similar to picaridin, this active ingredient is a refined version of a naturally occurring compound. Look for products that contain 30% oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) to ensure effectiveness. The CDC recommends not using products containing OLE on children under 3 years of age. It should also be kept away from the eye region.

How Do You Properly Apply Insect Repellent?

For maximum effectiveness, repellent should be reapplied often when hiking and camping. You should reapply after exposure to water (such as after rain or swimming) and excessive sweat. Apply repellent to clothing and exposed skin only. Do not apply to skin that is covered by clothing. Do not apply to cuts or irritated skin. 

Remember that mosquitos are most active at sunrise and dusk, so take extra precautions during these times. 

2. Treat Your Clothing and Gear With Permethrin 

The active bug spray ingredients discussed so far keep mosquitos away by masking the chemicals emitted from your body, confusing mosquitos as they search for human victims. By contrast, Permethrin does not deter mosquitos, it actually kills them. 

Permethrin is harsh on the skin and should therefore be used on your clothing, hiking boots, and other camping gear. Do not apply it directly to your skin. When mosquitos land on your permethrin-treated gear, they will die. 

3. Dress For Protection

Another hiking tip for preventing mosquito bites is to cover up as much as possible. The more bare skin you leave exposed, the more vulnerable you are to bites. Wear long-sleeved shirts as well as long pants and socks when possible. Tuck your pants into your socks to protect your calves and ankles.

You can also wear a mosquito net hat to keep bugs away from your face and neck. 

4. Choose Your Camp Site Wisely

Mosquitos love water and damp, low-lying areas. Mosquitos especially love still water as this is where their larvae thrive. Do not place your tent directly next to a water source. Your best bet is to set up shop at least 100 yards away from water, preferably in a dry, sunny area. 

5. Skip The Scented Soap

Mosquitos are attracted to smells, so it's best to leave behind fragrance-infused lotions, soaps, and other toiletries while camping and backpacking. When traces of these sweet smells are left on your skin, bugs will flock to you. Opt for neutral scents instead to avoid mosquito bites. 

6. Bug-Proof Your Campsite

There are some camping and hiking essentials that you must pack if you're hoping to keep mosquitos away from your campsite. Let's take a look at what they are.

A Quality Tent

If you don't want bugs biting you while you snooze, you'll want a double-wall tent. These tents have a mesh body that keeps out insects and another nylon layer on top to keep out water. Always keep your tent zipped to prevent bugs from getting in. Be sure to treat your tent with Permethrin just as you did for your clothes. 

Use a Fan

When it comes to hiking tips, there is a lot of information out there. There is no shortage of products claiming they will keep mosquitos away from your campsite, citronella candles and mosquito lanterns to name a few. However, research shows that fans are actually more effective at warding off mosquitos than these other more popular methods. 

A battery-powered fan at your campsite will throw mosquitos off in their flight, as they are weak fliers. 

Final Thoughts

When it comes to safety tips when hiking and backpacking, preventing mosquito bites is at the top of the list. You don't want to let these pests get too comfortable around you and your fellow backpackers. Luckily, if you take the steps discussed here, you'll be safe and able to enjoy your camping trip.

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