Beginner Skills

LNT Confessional: I Swam Wearing Bug Spray

Taking a dip in a backcountry lake? Stop and think about what you're wearing.

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Like any backpacker, I’m a sucker for a nice swimming hole on a hot day. I’ve taken hundreds of dips over the years—often with sunscreen and bugspray on. A few spritzes of insect repellent can’t do much harm, right?
—Backstroking in Bozeman

Dear Backstroking,

Insect repellent, sunscreen, and lotion can, in fact, contaminate water sources even in small quantities. DEET is toxic to fish and insects that live in backcountry lakes and streams, and sunscreen containing oxybenzone has damaged coral reefs across the world. What’s bad for fish is bad for you, too, when you drink the water that they swim in.

Leaching all your sprays and creams into that lake means it’s less pristine for the next hikers looking to quench their thirst. But, relax: It’s still OK to go swimming. Just don’t take the lotion with you (solar shower, anyone?). Where fresh water is scarce, think twice before taking a dip.

Do the Right Thing

If you use sprays or lotions, treat yourself to an on-land bath at least 200 feet from shore before your next backcountry soak. And, if you’re a frequent ocean swimmer, invest in some reef-friendly sunscreen. You can’t scrub years’ worth of micro-contaminants from all those lakes and rivers, but you can set a good example to other hikers who take the plunge. Cannonball!

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