Mosquitoes, blackflies, ticks, gnats and no-see-ums are, at the least, a nuisance and, at worst, disease-carrying pests. Here are some tried-and-true (along with a few untested) tips to help you deal with bugs on your next backcountry trip.
Know Your Enemy
First, it's important to know your opponent. Some basic background:
1. They find their prey (read: you) by detecting body heat and the carbon dioxide emitted when you breathe.
2. They absolutely love warm, sweaty skin on a cool day. Warm days, however, seem to confuse them.
3. All species dislike pouring rain, cold days (when temps are below 30º F) and blowing winds (this last one particularly applies to the blackfly—bane of the North Woods—which is not a strong flyer).
4. Dark colors attract them much more than shiny or bright colors. So wearing blue jeans is just asking for it. Lime green neither attracts them nor keeps them at bay. Hot pink keeps them away.
How to Protect Yourself
1. In places where they're really bad, consider a bug hat or, better yet, a bug jacket to be an essential part of your equipment list. In Canada and the northern U.S., be ready to do battle from the first week in May until around the second week in July.
2. Tuck in your shirt, and keep your shirtsleeves and pant legs tight with elastic bands. Dorky but effective.
3. Bug repellent is also a must. There's no shortage of formulas available, but the best is anything that contains a high percentage of DEET (Diethyl Toluamide). In my experience, this chemical is mostly effective in keeping blackflies, mosquitoes, no-see-ums and ticks away from your exposed skin. I wouldn’t squirt too much on, though, since it's also a fine paint stripper and, oddly, melts plastic. Usually, I just spray the chemical on my bandana, which I keep wrapped around my neck.
4. If you don't want to use DEET for health or personal safety reasons, there are plenty of other repellents out there, both commercial and folksy. Try them for yourself to see what works for you. A few that I know of are:
• Repellents containing citron, like Avon’s Skin-So-Soft hand lotion, are more gentle to the skin and are almost as effective as DEET. They usually don’t last as long, though.
• Taking vitamin B tablets three months prior to your trip (yes, that's some serious planning) has also been proven effective.
• Eating lots of citrus fruit and garlic, and avoiding bananas, are other suggestions to think about.
• Even applying a combination of spices or their oils—cinnamon, rosemary, basil, thyme and allspice—may work.
My all-time favorite weaponry against bugs, however, is my Eureka Bug Tarp. The bug shelter (which Eureka calls Backpacker VCS 16 Tarp) is a regular rain tarp, but with a fine mesh netting attached to its four walls. The whole outfit weights about 4.5 pounds. It also uses no-see-um netting, which makes the price a little high but far more effective against nefarious “punkies.” The netting is attached to the four walls by plastic clips, making it possible to detach that section and just pack the tarp along during less buggy conditions.
My regular canoe mates teased me to no end the first time I brought the tarp along on our annual Spring fishing trip. They said I was a sissy. However, when the bugs got really bad and I went inside my bug proof shelter to cook up dinner in peace, they pleaded with me to be allowed in. Payment was a shot of brandy each and an immediate apology for calling me names.
So, what’s bugging you?