Outdoor Skills + Advice: Bug Bites Begone! – Which Bug Repellent to Use?


By Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, faculty member and Diversity and Inclusion Manager at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Photograph by NOLS/Juan Queirolo

It’s finally spring in the Rockies, and I’m about to head out on a five-week expedition into the Wind River Range, where I'll find high alpine meadows carpeted with wildflowers and clear lakes teeming with trout. But record snowmelt this year and balmy weather will also bring a more unwelcome prospect—swarms of mosquitoes attempting to infiltrate my orifices.

My eyes are glazing over at the mere thought of standing in front of a store display of bug juice, trying to pick the best ones. So I chat with Tod Schimelpfenig, Curriculum Director of the Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS. At NOLS we’ve been observing the effects of a cornucopia of repellants on our backcountry travelers for 45 years, and Tod has been with us for 40 of them. Here’s what Tod has to say:

DEET Used in moderation and in concentrations of 20 to 30 percent, DEET is the single most effective repellent. Despite the negative media blitz, DEET is actually deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends choosing repellants with less than ten percent DEET on children. On adults, anything higher than 30 percent is not any more effective, so don’t buy in to the gimmick of “more is better.”

Picaridin – Picaridin’s manufacturer (Bayer) claims it works well and is odorless, nontoxic, and non-injurious to clothing and tents. I checked out the website (www.picaridin.com). Emblazoned across the top are the words, “an effective alternative to DEET.” But is it? Field testers have given me a resounding “No!”

Lemon Eucalyptus – Still skeptical about “chemical” repellants? I am. A recent study showed lemon eucalyptus-based repellants are the most effective of the natural repellents, protecting skin for 120 minutes (versus only 20 minutes for citronella-based repellants). A fellow NOLS faculty member says he swears by the stuff; he just has to reapply more often. I’m sold.

Body Armor - Besides bug juice, there is a single solution that can protect me from bites and burns alike—a thin long-sleeved shirt. OK, so it’s not like I was going to traipse around in a sports bra (I couldn’t get away with that!), but I was planning on just wearing a hiking t-shirt. Now, I’m thinking of buying something with long sleeves. I’m going to avoid cotton, because it doesn’t dry as easily. But maybe I can look stylish and keep from getting eaten with a cute Western-styled poly-pro long-sleeve hiking top.

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