When Mosquitos Attack: Tips for Surviving a Summer in Insect Country

   02.16.15

When Mosquitos Attack: Tips for Surviving a Summer in Insect Country

Ontario’s short, hot summers and boggy northern regions are ideal growing conditions for their unofficial Provincial Bird: the mosquito. Worse, in the late spring, hordes of particularly vicious black flies emerge from pools of standing water and begin to feast.

While mosquitoes are annoying with the buzz and the lingering itch, blackflies are truly fearful, evil little buggers. Small and silent, they creep under your collar, pant cuffs, and socks, and dig what feels like a miniature ice-cream scoop into your skin. The resulting welt bleeds freely for up to an hour and can swell to the size of an egg on outdoorsmen with allergies.

Here’s some advice that I’ve honed during several thousand miles on the trail during blackfly and mosquito season.

Dress Light

Biting insects evolved to suck blood from all mammals, not just humans. Before we roamed the earth, dark, hairy creatures like bears and moose were the primary source of food for these bloodsuckers. So ditch your favorite black windbreaker because it makes you look like a walking buffet table for insects! Dress in light, neutral colors like gray or tan. Lighter-colored garments keep you cooler in the bright sun and make it easier to find creepy crawlies like ticks and spiders.

Gear Tips:

High End: Rail Riders make the creme de la creme of outdoor clothing. Give their Men’s Bushwacker Weatherpants and Journeyman Shirt a go. Both are fashionable, practical, durable, and incorporate Insect Shield technology, an insecticide chemical that’s literally bonded to the fibers of the clothing.

Middle-of-the-Road: I’m a big fan of ExOfficio’s travel clothing, which is light, durable, and available impregnated with a durable insecticide. Check out the BugsAway® Ziwa™ Convertible Pant and the BugsAway® Breez’r Shirt. I like a collared shirt in the backcountry because it can be popped up to keep the sun off. The pants, despite being convertible, are surprisingly fashionable.

It’ll work in a pinch: Cheap nylon windpants from any big-box sporting goods store are shockingly versatile. Their tight weave prevents insects from penetrating but allows enough moisture to pass through. For tops, try a cheap polyester dress shirt from a thrift store. For 99 cents, you’ll get a synthetic shirt that wicks moisture and defends against bugs. Plus, you’ll be able to attend a formal soirée in the backcountry!

Smell Bad

Insects love sweet, fruity, and floral aromas more. Shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, and perfume—anything sweet and pleasant smelling is a magnet for flying insects. When you venture into Ontario’s backcountry, leave scented hygiene products at home. For hygiene, try unscented, biodegradable soap and, as much as it may pain your hiking companions, leave the deodorant at home.

Gear Tips:

High End: For the ultimate, light-weight, backcountry cleansing experience, try Sea To Summit Soap Strips. They’re compact, ultralight, and aren’t heavily perfumed.

Middle-of-the-Road: I’ve long been a fan of Dr. Bronners soaps. They’re free of synthetic detergents, mild on the skin and available in a wide variety. I am particularly devoted to Dr. Bronners Tea Tree Liquid Soap. It’s concentrated, strong, and the tea-tree oil is mildly antibacterial and antifungal—the perfect cleaners for when you might only wash once a week.

It’ll work in a pinch: The hand-soaps available in cheap motels are often brittle and unscented—perfect to break into crumbs for backcountry use.

Dope Up!

I’ll admit it: insect repellent chemicals concern me. I’ve melted more than one windbreaker with 100% DEET repellents, so I wonder what it’s doing to my brain. But most commonly used insect repellents have never been shown to cause harm, and the threat of serious insect-borne diseases like Lyme and West Nile (both of which exist in Ontario) are a compelling argument to dope up. For serious infestations and clouds of insects, I’ll rely on a proven synthetic insecticide like DEET. For less serious infestations, I’ve found various natural insect repellents like citronella, geranium oil, and other herbs work well, but for shorter periods of time.

Gear Tips:

High End: 
Bens’s 100 isn’t high-end because it’s expensive. It’s strong as heck! Reserve for use when the bugs are super-bad.

Middle-of-the-Road: Sawyer Insect Repellent 30% DEET works nearly as well as the 100% stuff in my opinion, the trade off being that you need to reapply it more often.

It’ll work in a pinch: There are a variety of folk repellents out there, anything from cinnamon oil and citronella oil to dryer sheets. In my experience, they’re better than nothing, but don’t compare to repellent effects of synthetics.

Dip Your Duds!

You’re a silly person if you don’t pre-treat your clothing with an insecticide called permethrin. It’s a semi-synthetic that’s very effective, odorless, and has the advantage of being applied to clothing! Most of these garment applied compounds endure 10 or more washes and can be re-applied to refresh the effect. A number of clothing companies are adding these chemicals to garments under a proprietary name, but the sprays are often cheaper per-use.

Gear Tips:

There are plenty of different products out there with permethrin. Most of them are totally identical. I like the pump spray dispenser of Sawyer’s Permethrin Premium Insect Repellent.

Cover Up!

In parks in Northern Ontario in the height of summer, a nylon shirt, permethrin treatments, and insect repellent won’t be enough. Your only choice will be to pick off individual mosquitoes with a sniper rifle. I’m (mostly!) kidding! In those cases when the bugs form a visible swarm, you’ll want your last, strongest line of defense: A bug net. These fine, nylon nets drape over your head and physically prevent the bugs from getting into your ears, eyes and nose. Do yourself a favor and wear one over a ball cap, so the brim keeps the net off your face. Do yourself a bigger favor and do not attempt to drink or spit through the mesh!

Gear Tips:

Again, there are many versions out there that are virtually identical. I’ll stick with my Sea to Summit Headnet. It’s got a simple, elegant design and is seriously lightweight and functional.

Burn One Down

If you’re absolutely desperate, you can try an old Canadian outdoorsman’s trick: fire up the rankest cigar you can find and puff away. In addition to coating your mouth with funky tar, nicotine is a potent insecticide.

Gear Tips:

Of course everyone has their own favorite cheap cigar, but I’ve always been a fan of the Backwoods!

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