Nothing compares to the joy of spending time in the great outdoors: fresh air, peace and quiet, wildlife-spotting opportunities, and of course the constant buzzing of mosquitoes… Okay, we all hate that last one; mosquitoes seem to serve no purpose but to annoy us and ruin our hikes and camping trips. And even beyond the general irritation, mosquitos can carry deadly diseases like malaria, dengue fever, zika, and West Nile virus.
Most people rely on insect repellent to shield themselves from mosquitoes – and while that’s a good first step, there are actually many other ways to keep mosquitoes at bay while you’re trying to enjoy the great outdoors.
It’s probably no surprise that repellent is at the top of this list. DEET is the most effective deterrent for mosquitoes, and it’s the key chemical found in most commercial repellents that aren’t labeled as “natural.” DEET’s popularity comes from its power to effectively confuse the insect’s navigational systems by muddling their ability to “smell” humans (and mosquitoes have terrible eyesight). Unfortunately, the chemical smells awful, and its scent can be nauseating at night, when your tent traps the fumes and combines them with your own body odor and smokiness from the campfire. It’s better than having your blood sucked, though. Repellent should be applied every few hours to be most effective.
The science is still out on this, but many users report that rubbing lavender oil over their exposed skin prevents mosquitoes from biting. It’s not as effective as DEET, but those who prefer not to use the synthetic chemical can rest assured that it’s probably better than no repellent at all. One downside is that it doesn’t seem to last as long, so you’ll need to reapply more frequently than you would with DEET.
On a hot summer day, hiking in shorts and a t-shirt is definitely more comfortable, but you won’t remember that when your skin is covered with itchy welts the following day. More clothing means less exposed skin, and that equals greater protection against mosquitoes. If you’re really worried about overheating, choose convertible pants and wear them as shorts midday when the temperature is at its peak and fewer mosquitoes are out. Go back to full-length pants in the evening when the risk of a bite is higher.
For the longest time, hikers were perplexed about why people wearing black seem to get all the bites and those wearing white went unscathed. It’s because mosquitoes have relatively simple eyes, which can only contrast between light and dark. Dark clothes stand out against the light background of the sky, making you a prime target for a mosquito’s next meal.
Mosquitoes love carbon dioxide, sweat, and the lactic acid it contains – all of which are produced during a strenuous workout. Have you ever noticed that the mosquitoes are most annoying during a grueling climb? It doesn’t just feel that way because you’re exhausted, you’re actually attracting them with your exertion. Go slow, and don’t choose the toughest trails during peak mosquito season.
Nothing keeps mosquitoes away quite like a strong breeze. When it’s windy out, they’re less able to detect the carbon dioxide wafting off of your skin, and they have more difficulty flying. Dense forests, on the other hand, have loads of mosquitoes, especially if there’s standing water. If you can, choose trails with more open areas, or better yet, ones that are above treeline. A little wind will also keep your body temperature lower and reduce the sweating that makes you a target for mosquitoes.
Mosquitoes love standing water – and that means you should stay away from it. Standing water is the ideal place for laying eggs, and just before the females lay eggs, they need a blood meal (i.e., biting you). One of the most successful methods for eradicating mosquitoes has been to eliminate standing water near where people live – draining swamps, covering backyard pools, etc. When you’re in the woods, one of the best things you can do is to scout out water in the area first. Pitching a tent near a fast-moving river is fine, but sleeping near a placid lake means you’ll likely wake up with itchy bites in the morning.
The bed nets used in tropical countries are soaked in the insecticide permethrin before they’re used, and it’s not hard to see why – mosquitoes die when they touch it. Many hikers are now choosing to wear clothing that’s been treated with the chemical, either at the factory or by the hikers at home. If you do choose to go DIY, be careful when applying – it’s quite toxic.
You might think that your clothes provide a layer of protection from the mosquito’s prickly, bloodsucking mouth (known as the proboscis), but that’s actually only true with some fabrics. Cotton and linen are designed for breathability, which means their weave is loose enough that the bloodsucker can go right through them. Fortunately, athletic wear made from synthetic fabrics has a tight enough weave to create an impenetrable barrier. Cotton dries out slowly anyway, so it’s a poor choice for hiking.
This should go without saying, but the mesh of your tent won’t keep any of the insects out if you leave the door unzipped. Every time you go in or out, even if it’s just for a two-minute pee break, make sure you zip it back up.
To prevent those pesky bites on your next hiking trip, try to implement as many of these methods as you can. While most mosquito bites are a minor annoyance, some species carry dangerous diseases that are much more than just a nuisance, so it pays to do everything you can to keep these insects away. Let us know in the comments if these methods work for you, or if you have any other ideas for keeping the bloodsuckers at bay. And if you have friends who enjoy spending time outdoors, be sure to share the article with them.
Jason Miller has been an outdoor enthusiast for over 20 years. His goal is to inspire people to participate in outdoors pursuits. For more information and inspiration visit SkilledAdventurer.com and follow Jason on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.