A Hiker's Guide to Insect Repellent

As the warmer summer weather approaches, many of us heed the call of the wild and go camping or hiking, to enjoy being outdoors and in nature. Unfortunately, one aspect of nature that we tend to forget about until we’re out there on the trail are insects. What was supposed to be a relaxing hike in nature can turn non-relaxing very quickly if you’re constantly swatting mosquitoes and other flying insects. Plus, many insects do still carry and spread diseases; mosquitoes can be carriers of encephalitis and West Nile Virus, and ticks can spread Lyme Disease.

As with many things, when it comes to insects an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure. Common sense can go a long way in protecting you from insects and their bites. For example, if you’re hiking and the weather permits, consider wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts to keep the bugs off of your exposed skin, and wearing a hat to keep them out of your hair. If you’re hiking through areas with tall grass, remember to tuck your pants into your socks to keep ticks from being able to leap onto your legs. Wearing light-colored clothing can help as well, because when you return home or to your camp you can more easily see insects and brush them off. Some specialty outdoor clothing has been treated with permethrin, which is an insecticide that has been rated safe for humans. If possible, always take a shower after your hike and check carefully for ticks. You should also avoid hiking or being outdoors near sunset, when most insects (especially mosquitoes) tend to swarm the most.

When it comes to insect repellents themselves, the clear winners in terms of effectiveness are commercial preparations that contain DEET (Diethyl Toluamide). Although it is chemical-based, it has been in use since 1957 and studies show that in concentrations ranging from 5% to 30% it can effectively keep insects away for up to five or six hours. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control rate it as safe for adults and for children over the age of two months, but some health-conscious consumers have worries about its long-term effects, as it soaks through the skin and into the bloodstream.

An alternative to DEET that has appeared in recent years is picaridin, which is sold in strengths ranging from 7% to 20%. Some feel that it has some advantages over DEET in that it doesn’t adversely affect clothing made from plastics (DEET does), and in their opinion it smells better.
Another more “natural” insect repellent is citronella, which is not nearly as effective as DEET and does not last as long, but can keep most insects away. One commercial formula called Repel (which is based on eucalyptus oil) was tested by Consumer Reports and found to be effective, but its manufacturer advises against its use on children under the age of three years. Some “completely natural” outdoorsmen even make their own insect repellents out of lavender and vodka. Really.

Whatever repellent you choose, apply it to all areas of exposed skin before you go outdoors, including your wrists and ankles if you’re wearing long pants and shirts. When using spray repellents, try to avoid getting any into your eyes, nose and mouth. For example, instead of spraying it directly at your face, consider spraying a little into your palm and using your hands to rub the repellent onto exposed areas of your face. Wishing you happy – and bug-free – hiking.

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