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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Gear Test: Beat the Bugs without the DEET

DEET-free bug-repellent options from chemicals to high frequency sound

by: Dan Larson

PAGE 1 2 3 4 5
The tester wearing the ExOfficio shirt
The tester wearing the ExOfficio shirt

Nothing kills the joy of backpacking for me more than having hordes of mosquitoes and black flies as my hiking buddies. DEET works well, but smells bad and is a potentially dangerous chemical that gets absorbed into your body. What other options are out there for serious backcountry use?

I found a few DEET-free alternatives and tested them in Oregon and Washington for a few months from June through early August. This year, the mosquito hatch was delayed by an unseasonably cold spring. I called rangers from the Three Sisters Wilderness to the Olympics for the latest word on their turf, and came up empty. I turned all-out bug chaser, driving and stopping at day-use areas and trailheads for any sign of the winged beast.

Finally, in early July, one flat tire, and hundreds of miles later, I found what I’d been looking for—mosquito swarms blooming at a wildlife refuge, practically in my backyard, just in time for me to catch up with my old hiking buds.


PAGE 1 2 3 4 5

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Lynda
Aug 31, 2011

If you want an all natural(it says organic), sweatproof & waterproof bug repellent that lasts for 8 hours try Bite Blocker. I live on a river and have pretty much tried everything, since I am one of those people who the bugs LOVE. I refused to continually cover myself with deet so I looked for a good alternative. Bite Blocker is it! They make a spray or a lotion - I prefer the lotion(probably mostly for the initial smell, but it also has something in it that soothes current bug bites - and works), but the spray is great for my clothes. It has never stained my clothes either. I have turned numerous people on to it,and have received many thanks in return. I found it online at a natural health store. Love, Love, Love it!

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Aug 30, 2011

The best all natural repellent I use is from a company called Organnica, Inc. They make a spray on formula that's called Swerve. It's the real deal and the folks that make it are cool too. Smells a lot better than straight citronella and lasts until you sweat it off. It's rather cheap too and I always get compliments on the smell and packaging. You can buy it online at organnica.net

ProCamper
Aug 25, 2011

Wikipedia is an amazing source, academics use it all the time you see in all sorts of published articles. Reality is that any chemical you put on your skin or body hasnt been tested for its long term effects if you are truly concerned about that aspect of chemicals. How many people heat foods in plastic containers in the microwave? How many people have their water regularly tested? How many of us cook with teflon or use a plastic stirring device or flipper? Ground water contamination plumes are very abundant all over this country yet the government says its safe to drink if its dilute enough... Dilution is not the solution. Follow the labels and use what works. Or hope for the best and use nothing and toughen up like real woodspeople.

countryboy
Aug 25, 2011

i should have read this be for i took my daughter on her first trip on the pacific crest in WA we had avon skin so soft wipes {last years} and bens 35% deet we got ate up will go back in three weeks and try again.

Allison Woods
Aug 22, 2011

It's been a horrible, horrible mozzie summer out there. I'm loath to use anything against the little biters as every topical application is a piscicide, and will NOT help your high lake fishing game. I have one of those Ex-O shirts coming my way and will post on my blog after I give it a try. Way to go on braving the bugs to try this stuff out, thanks!

Josh
Aug 19, 2011

@Diana, I have used picardin in the form of "Natrapel" spray in heavily mosquito and tick infested areas of Northern Wisconsin and Illinois (the mosquito is the state bird of Wisconsin, and apparently the tick is the state animal of Illinois).

I have found picardin to be as effective as DEET, plus it smells better and has not destroyed any of our gear.

It does not seem to last as long as DEET, but that is a small trade off, as I hike with a seven-year-old who I would rather not soak in DEET.

outsidejim
Aug 18, 2011

I agree completely with permethrin based products for application on clothing. I've found nothing to work at all for ticks except permethrin. I also treat my ground cloth to use under a tarp with it with great success. DEET products are very effective for flying insects, but are harmful to plastics of any kind (nylon, polyester, synthetic insulation, etc.). If you doubt it, try the 95+% DEET products then handle the steering wheel in your car or a plastic flashlight. You'll feel the plastic begin to melt. It's especially significant if you're a fisherman, since fly lines and monofilament are both plastic. Picaridin products have proven very effective for flying insects in my experience. I also like that they're odor free (for the most part) which is a serious consideration if you're a hunter like me. I've also found Thermacel products to be very effective in the right situation. A slight breeze will make them less effective, especially from the upwind side. In a calm, no wind situation, they work great. In higher winds, insects aren't as much of a concern.

outsidejim
Aug 18, 2011

I agree completely with permethrin based products for application on clothing. I've found nothing to work at all for ticks except permethrin. I also treat my ground cloth to use under a tarp with it with great success. DEET products are very effective for flying insects, but are harmful to plastics of any kind (nylon, polyester, synthetic insulation, etc.). If you doubt it, try the 95+% DEET products then handle the steering wheel in your car or a plastic flashlight. You'll feel the plastic begin to melt. It's especially significant if you're a fisherman, since fly lines and monofilament are both plastic. Picaridin products have proven very effective for flying insects in my experience. I also like that they're odor free (for the most part) which is a serious consideration if you're a hunter like me. I've also found Thermacel products to be very effective in the right situation. A slight breeze will make them less effective, especially from the upwind side. In a calm, no wind situation, they work great. In higher winds, insects aren't as much of a concern.

Michael Z
Aug 18, 2011

I've used the Sawyer permethrin clothing treatment with good success on hikes across the length of Isle Royale NP in Michigan. The mosquitos were think and swarming, especially in the lower, swampier areas. But with my permethrin-treated shirt, permethrin-treated pants, an ex-officio bugoff bandana around my neck, and 100% DEET on my ears, face, and hands, I only got 3 bites over 4 days of hiking. It is completely odorless, and I would have never known it was on my clothes had I not applied it, myself.

I also used Dan's technique of wearing rain gear when in camp so that my sweaty hiking clothes could dry off. Rain gear + headnet also did well to prevent bites.

I do have some concern about the permethrin though. Right on the box it says:

ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS: This product is extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms. Do not apply directly to water. Do not contaminate water when disposing of equipment washwaters.

DIRECTIONS FOR USE: ... To be used for treatment of clothing and bed net only. Make all applications outdoors. In case of accidental contact of skin, face, or eyes, see "First Aid" on side panel. DO NOT TREAT UNDERWEAR, HATS, CAPS OR INNER CLOTHING.

I don't know what is meant by "inner clothing" but aside from my boxers/shoes/socks, my hiking shirt and hiking pants were the only thing I was wearing. And they were drenched with my sweat and sticking to my skin. Was I exposing myself to permethrin toxicity? Maybe, but who can be expected to wear TWO full layers of clothing in 95 degree weather?

Regarding Kirsten's concern about permethrin in wastewater, Wikipedia states that the chemical degrades quickly, especially when contaminated water is exposed to sunlight.

In summary, I'm still not entirely sold on this permethrin stuff.

Mad Chemist
Aug 18, 2011

DEET has been proven safe and effective through billions of applications so why settle for anything less? DEET has no effect on nylon or sleeping bag fill. This is just a non-urban myth that has been said so often that people believe it's true.

Robert M
Aug 17, 2011

Several years ago the US Army Corps of Engineers tested DEET. Later they spoke with my group of Health Officials, and made some remarks that have stuck with me ever sinse.
1. DEET exposure can cause problems, especially with certain sensitive people.
2. The best repellent, though, is DEET. [Also, check the labels on the containers. ... The higher the % of DEET, the better the repellency.]
3. The best way to apply it is NOT to put it on just before you need to. In stead, treat your clothing with it the day before you intend to use them and let them dry. You will get good repellency and will minimize your exposure. Additionally, you will still garner some benefit from the DEET in the clothes even after washing them.
Since the area on the East Coast where I live not only has problems with mosquitoes, bt also with ticks (including the infamous Lyme-carrying Deer Tick), I personally continue using DEET. Every time I have tried something else, results have been less than pleasing.

Stuart
Aug 17, 2011

I just returned from an eight day backpack in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. The mosquitoes were thick and hungry. I wore an older Ex Officio 'buzz-off' shirt and hat and did not receive any bites through the hat or shirt during the trip. The mosquitoes did not seem to have any problems landing on the clothing but would not bite through it. The shirt was made of cotton, which worked for the rain-free trip we had, but a synthetic material would have been better. For my face and hands, I was forced to use deet; I tried the Repel lemon eucalyptus spray in camp the night before we started and it only seemed to work for about an hour. Plus, we were in heavy bear country and we were very aware of odors. The deet was odor free.
By wearing the Ex Officio hat and shirt together with a dense weave hiking pant, I was able to keep the deet exposure to a minimum. I highly recommend this product.

Brian
Aug 17, 2011

This is a great article, thank you. As a side point, if you do use a DEET based product, wash off as thoroughly as possible once you're in the tent. Sleeping with DEET on the skin is not only putting your body through unnecessary chemical exposure, but DEET will also harm your sleeping bag. With time, layers of DEET that rub off onto your sleeping bag will irritate your skin as well as damage the fill material by making it sticky. Sticky fill doesn't "fluff up", so you lose warmth retention. A washable sleeping bag liner is also a great way to beat this.

Joe
Aug 17, 2011

I'll stick with DEET. Skeeters love me, and DEET is the only thing that works reliably.

Greeny
Aug 16, 2011

Just came back from 12 days in the upper portion of the John Muir Trail, and it was a total mosquito-fest (or feast!)

We brought Deet and Repel Lemon Eucalyptus. We were STUNNED by the performance of the Repel Lemon Eucalyptus. Yes, the Deet made us sort of "invisible" to most of the mosquitoes. But the Repel actually DROVE the buggers AWAY! They really HATE the Repel!

Two problems with the Repel: Our bottle was exceedingly hard to spray (the pump would frequently do nothing). Often the long feed tube even become disconnected from the spray nozzle. We resorted to unscrewing the sprayer and slathering it on.

Second, the smell would be initially overpowering. Sure, it was all "lemony" and "Eucalyptus" -- but if you examine the ingredients, you'll see a lot of other non-natural stuff, too.

Sometimes, the mosquitos were so bad (Island Pass, for example) that we had to resort to rain pants, windbreakers, mosquito nets and gloves. On the night we spent at the top of Island pass, the mosquitos were so bad we cooked in the tent (with the rain fly off), despite the potential danger.

One interesting note: the mosquitoes in the Lyell Canyon area of Tuolumne Meadows were less aggressive and their bites left no welts, compare to the mosquitoes south of Donahue Pass.

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