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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!

Bob Angone
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.

arrghh
Aug 16, 2011

Well if you as paranoid as Karen with permethrin washing off and settling into the debris, you will be scared sh*tless when you think about killing all those fish when you do stream crossings after treating your socks and pant legs to ward off ticks.

Sorry, but there is only so far my eyeballs can roll back into my head when I hear about things like that.

Rick Woods
Aug 16, 2011

I did a test of different sprays and repellents compared to 100% Deet, granted it was non-scientific. Cutter's picaridin spray worked well for me, but did not last. Washes and sweats off within an hour or two. This was on the PCT in Sierra high meadows with clouds of mosquitoes hanging in the air. Only came in a spray can, bulky and heavy. Reluctantly went back to Deet because its effectiveness lasts.

Joshua Rank
Aug 16, 2011

We've used Bygone Bugs by Lakon Herbals for years. Works great.

Dan
Aug 16, 2011

I use a combo of spray on Permethrin (and YES, skeeters do bite through clothes!! Come backpacking in the Sierras in July and you'll see) and the Lemon Eucalyptus spray. That works very well. You really have to make sure to spray the Lemon Eucalyptus stuff on every exposed area of skin because they will find the one tiny spot that is not covered, like the knuckle of your pinky finger for example! Then, around sunset when the skeeters are really bad and I'm in camp making dinner and sitting around, I wear my rain gear and a head net. They can't bite through rain gear. This year has been horrific in the Sierras because of all the snow this winter. They should have done their test there! No problem finding bugs there this year.

Billstans
Aug 16, 2011

We used Sawyer Deet free with spf 30 sunblock from REI last year in the Canadian Rockies and it worked quite well for us.

Billstans
Aug 16, 2011

We used Sawyer Deet free with spf 30 sunblock from REI last year in the Canadian Rockies and it worked quite well for us.

Billstans
Aug 16, 2011

We used Sawyer Deet free with spf 30 sunblock from REI last year in the Canadian Rockies and it worked quite well for us.

Billstans
Aug 16, 2011

We used Sawyer Deet free with spf 30 sunblock from REI last year in the Canadian Rockies and it worked quite well for us.

Diana Johnson
Aug 16, 2011

Have you tested any sprays with picaridin? An example is Cutter Advanced. Picaridin is as effective as DEET in studies, isn't oily, and doesn't smell. I am disappointed not to see it mentioned. It works great for us in the backcountry.

Christy O
Aug 16, 2011

I, too, use the Repel lemon eucalyptus and find it a more-than-adequate Deet substitute. At least, I've never encountered bug conditions for which it was inadequate. I've never really understood the bug-repellent clothing - I can't say that I've ever been bitten through my clothing. Does this actually happen? The only bites I ever get on covered skin are chiggers, which are awful. Maybe the treated clothing would guard against this (which would be useful).

Kirsten
Aug 16, 2011

One consideration is, as the pesticide permethrin washes out over those 70 wash cycles, where is it going? If it attaches to sediments, it will end up in the wastewater treatment plant sludge, which often gets land-applied. If it doesn't it will end up in your local bay or river where your wastewater treatment plant discharges it.

Colin
Aug 16, 2011

A note on Shoo!bug:
As far as I can tell, the science behind Shoo!bug just doesn't hold up. If you look into their website, you will read a lot of technobable that may appear to make sense, but something doesn't add up. First of all, if this is a chemical-free way of repelling bugs that operates based on a magnetic strip on your own "energy field" (sometimes called "earth energies" on the site) why does the card lose effectiveness over time and why does it help to seal it in a plastic bag? If anything, that would apply to a chemical treatment.

Second, their website is filled with excuses as to why it might not work. You (or an animal) haven't been wearing it long enough, something is interfering with the frequencies, it isn't in close enough contact with your body, you are too old, you have had a surgery/sickness, you are being exposed to "weakening chemicals", you are taking a medicine that disrupts it, or the card has lost effectiveness. This on top of the argument that the user should not expect it to be as effective as chemical means of bug protection.

Third, two of the people the patent is filed under, Melissa Rogers and "Dubounant Desire" (drag name of William Nelson), have historically been associated with less-than-legitimate science.

Fourth, data on magnetic strips in the form of zeros and ones cannot be read by your body, or boosted by your body. Swipe cards such as these were designed to be read and interpreted digitally, not with biological/analog means. In short, your body is not a card reader and all it would amplify would be a series of numbers and letters if it was.

I can't speak on the legitimacy of the reviewer's experience with the tags, but in my opinion, this product deserves a good think-through and some research before purchase. This link has quite a bit of information and links on the subject. http://www.tetherdcow.com/?p=8304

Colin
Aug 16, 2011

A note on Shoo!bug:
As far as I can tell, the science behind Shoo!bug just doesn't hold up. If you look into their website, you will read a lot of technobable that may appear to make sense, but something doesn't add up. First of all, if this is a chemical-free way of repelling bugs that operates based on a magnetic strip on your own "energy field" (sometimes called "earth energies" on the site) why does the card lose effectiveness over time and why does it help to seal it in a plastic bag? If anything, that would apply to a chemical treatment.

Second, their website is filled with excuses as to why it might not work. You (or an animal) haven't been wearing it long enough, something is interfering with the frequencies, it isn't in close enough contact with your body, you are too old, you have had a surgery/sickness, you are being exposed to "weakening chemicals", you are taking a medicine that disrupts it, or the card has lost effectiveness. This on top of the argument that the user should not expect it to be as effective as chemical means of bug protection.

Thirdly, two of the people the patent is filed under, Melissa Rogers and "Dubounant Desire" (drag name of William Nelson), have historically been associated with less-than-legitimate science.

I can't speak on the legitimacy of the reviewer's experience with the tags, but in my opinion, this product deserves a good think-through and some research before purchase. This link has quite a bit of information and links on the subject. http://www.tetherdcow.com/?p=8304

Mary
Aug 16, 2011

Try Natrapel! It rocks and has no DEET! Best $6.00 we ever spent!

Colin
Aug 16, 2011

A note on Shoo!bug:
As far as I can tell, the science behind Shoo!bug just doesn't hold up. If you look into their website, you will read a lot of technobable that may appear to make sense, but something doesn't add up. First of all, if this is a chemical-free way of repelling bugs that operates based on a magnetic strip on your own "energy field" (sometimes called "earth energies" on the site) why does the card lose effectiveness over time and why does it help to seal it in a plastic bag? If anything, that would apply to a chemical treatment.

Second, their website is filled with excuses as to why it might not work. You (or an animal) haven't been wearing it long enough, something is interfering with the frequencies, it isn't in close enough contact with your body, you are too old, you have had a surgery/sickness, you are being exposed to "weakening chemicals", you are taking a medicine that disrupts it, or the card has lost effectiveness. This on top of the argument that the user should not expect it to be as effective as chemical means of bug protection.

Thirdly, two of the people the patent is filed under, Melissa Rogers and "Dubounant Desire" (drag name of William Nelson), have historically been associated with less-than-legitimate science.

I can't speak on the legitimacy of the reviewer's experience with the tags, but in my opinion, this product deserves a good think-through and some research before purchase. This link has quite a bit of information and links on the subject. http://www.tetherdcow.com/?p=8304

Mary
Aug 16, 2011

Try Natrapel! It rocks and has no DEET! Best $6.00 we ever spent!

Chris
Aug 16, 2011

To say "DEET works well, but smells bad and is a potentially dangerous chemical that gets absorbed into your body" is an unfair and potentially unsafe comment. DEET is like any chemical or pharmaceutical that is safe when used as directed. For preventing the spread of dangerous mosquito born diseases, nothing is as effective as DEET. I suggest you read the study of DEET in the New England Journal of Medicine that states "DEET-containing repellents would be the best choice for anyone seeking reliable protection from mosquito-borne or tick-borne infections such as West Nile virus or Lyme disease. And while the clothing may offer some help from misquitos, the ticks still bite long before they are repelled. When applied to hats, clothing, socks, and on exposed skin in accordance with the directions, nothing repells AND protects like DEET containing products.

Chris
Aug 16, 2011

To say "DEET works well, but smells bad and is a potentially dangerous chemical that gets absorbed into your body" is an unfair and potentially unsafe comment. DEET is like any chemical or pharmaceutical that is safe when used as directed. For preventing the spread of dangerous mosquito born diseases, nothing is as effective as DEET. I suggest you read the study of DEET in the New England Journal of Medicine that states "DEET-containing repellents would be the best choice for anyone seeking reliable protection from mosquito-borne or tick-borne infections such as West Nile virus or Lyme disease. And while the clothing may offer some help from misquitos, the ticks still bite long before they are repelled. When applied to hats, clothing, socks, and on exposed skin in accordance with the directions, nothing repells AND protects like DEET containing products.

Chris
Aug 16, 2011

To say "DEET works well, but smells bad and is a potentially dangerous chemical that gets absorbed into your body" is an unfair and potentially unsafe comment. DEET is like any chemical or pharmaceutical that is safe when used as directed. For preventing the spread of dangerous mosquito born diseases, nothing is as effective as DEET. I suggest you read the study of DEET in the New England Journal of Medicine that states "DEET-containing repellents would be the best choice for anyone seeking reliable protection from mosquito-borne or tick-borne infections such as West Nile virus or Lyme disease. And while the clothing may offer some help from misquitos, the ticks still bite long before they are repelled. When applied to hats, clothing, socks, and on exposed skin in accordance with the directions, nothing repells AND protects like DEET containing products.

Chris
Aug 16, 2011

To say "DEET works well, but smells bad and is a potentially dangerous chemical that gets absorbed into your body" is an unfair and potentially unsafe comment. DEET is like any chemical or pharmaceutical that is safe when used as directed. For preventing the spread of dangerous mosquito born diseases, nothing is as effective as DEET. I suggest you read the study of DEET in the New England Journal of Medicine that states "DEET-containing repellents would be the best choice for anyone seeking reliable protection from mosquito-borne or tick-borne infections such as West Nile virus or Lyme disease. And while the clothing may offer some help from misquitos, the ticks still bite long before they are repelled. When applied to hats, clothing, socks, and on exposed skin in accordance with the directions, nothing repells AND protects like DEET containing products.

Mr. T
Aug 16, 2011

You were doing pretty well until you got to Shoobug. You have got to be kidding me. This is in the same category as magnetic bracelets and other pseudo science products. Backpacker is better than this. I don't want to have to start reading Backpacker with a tin foil hat.

Mr. T
Aug 16, 2011

You were doing pretty well until you got to Shoobug. You have got to be kidding me. This is in the same category as magnetic bracelets and other pseudo science products. Backpacker is better than this. I don't want to have to start reading Backpacker with a tin foil hat.

Joe
Aug 16, 2011

I think I would go in September than have to go to all this trouble to keep the bugs down. Maybe even spring. Joe from Backpack and Gear

http://www.backpack-and-gear.com

Joe
Aug 16, 2011

I think I would backpack in September than have to go to all this trouble to keep the bugs down. Maybe even spring. Joe from Backpack and Gear

<a href="http://www.backpack-and-gear.com/"><b>www.backpack-and-gear.com</b></a>

Isle Royale
Aug 16, 2011

I agree with your review of Thermacell. We took one to Isle Royale and even on windless days it did little to deter mosquitoes.

Bruce Mattingly
Aug 16, 2011

Spent a week in the Wind River Mountains with friends in late July...clouds of Mosquitos everywhere...the Thermocell was a life saver! it does take about 10 minutes to clear an area but after that we were Mosquito free.Highly Recommend!

Enohiker
Aug 16, 2011

Several years ago, you did a test of mosquito repellants (including deet-based sprays) and Repel Lemon Eucalyptus spray ranked number two, right behind a deet formula. I've been using this product ever since and have been very pleased with the results. It requires re-application after about 5-6 hours but since it's deet-free I don't mind.

Beth Gaede
Aug 16, 2011

I've used Sawyer Permethrin treatments many times. They also sell a version you use to soak your clothing for two hours (and then air dry). I'm surprised by your comment about the "greasy feeling." I haven't been able to feel or smell any hint of the product on my clothes. It works great, though--as my canoeing companions who did NOT use it will vouch!

mike harrison
Aug 16, 2011

I would like to send you our product to trial. We have just received excellent results from hiker in NC mountains and see hikers as possible customers for our product which we have just started to market online after successful introduction in our home market of South Africa. For details please visit www.onguard.me and http://bit.ly/r4g0yQ
Thanks

mike harrison
Aug 16, 2011

I would like to send you our product to trial. We have just received excellent results from hiker in NC mountains and see hikers as possible customers for our product which we have just started to market online after successful introduction in our home market of South Africa. For details please visit www.onguard.me and http://bit.ly/r4g0yQ
Thanks

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