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How to Avoid Bugs and the Heat of Summer without DEET

No Mosquitoes
No Mosquitoes

How can you prevent bug bites without using DEET or other insect repellents, stay cool during day hikes or backpacking trips, and protect your skin from sun burn?

Easy – wear long pants, a long sleeve shirt and a hat when you hike. It’s really not as bad as you think. I’ve been doing it for the past 5 years and rarely get any bug bites. I know how to cool down without taking off all of my clothes, and I never get sun burn.

I still carry a very small quantity of DEET and a little tin of Dermatone sunscreen for my lips and face, but I hardly every need to use them. I stay much cleaner and don’t have to put tons of chemicals on my skin.

I also don’t have to worry nearly as much about have Lyme disease carrying ticks attach themselves to my legs because they’re completely covered. That alone makes wearing long pants and a long sleeve shirt completely worth it in summer, even when it’s quite hot out.

Common Questions & Answers

Don’t you sweat? What’s worse: sweating or mosquito bites? You can’t wash off a mosquito bite.

What if you get to hot? I walk into a lake or stream, or pour cold water over my shirt. It’s refreshing to do in hot weather and the bugs still can’t get you through my clothing.

Don’t your boots/shoes get wet? Yes, my mesh trail runners get wet. But they dry very quickly. Gore-tex lined boots and leather boots don’t, which is one of the chief reasons I don’t wear them hiking in summer anymore.

Can’t mosquitoes bite through thin fabrics? While true, they don’t bite through my clothes which are factory-soaked in a bug repellent called Permethrin and stay potent through 100 washings.

What kind of shirt and pants do I wear? I wear Railrider Ecomesh pants and a Railrider Madison River shirt. Both of these garments have mesh venting along the sides that lets me sweat freely but still protects me from bugs. The mesh is a very clever idea and really works. Of course, you could also wear any make of synthetic long pants and a long sleeve shirt and get the same results. This is why park rangers and trail maintenance crews always were long pants and shirts on the job.

Do I ever roll up my sleeves? If there are no bugs out, of course.

How many pairs of pants and shorts do I bring on backpacking trips. Just the ones I’m wearing. If they get too salty or dirty, I just rinse them out. They’re made out of nylon and dry very quickly.

Have you ever considered permanently replacing your hiking shorts with long pants?

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26 comments

  1. E, do you bushwack in the summer?
    If so, do you tuck in or close up your pants cuffs for ticks?

  2. Agree that the peace of mind is worth a little discomfort. However please keep in mind that permethrin can be extremely toxic to aquatic life. For certain animals even in very small amounts. When I was in Yosemite last the ranger at the backcountry office explicitly asked me to be careful not to get my pants in the water.

    • I didn’t know that Matt. How did he know that your pants had Permethrin in them?

      BTW – nice to hear from you. I still remember when you told me you were off to hike the PCT.

      • I did a little follow up research. Permethrin is not toxic to fish per se, but to the bugs that inhabit their ecosystem and are the major source of their food. Permethrin in low doses such as those found on clothes has a low impact directly on fish.

        Still you are right in pointing out that it is a toxic nasty chemical. I think I’ll switch to non-permethrin soaked clothes when these wear out. Whether they have permethrin on them or not is a moot point – the clothes themselves should provide adequate protection as a bug barrier.

      • The do-it-yourself permethrin spray is not environmentally friendly not only because it washes out/off very quickly, but also because it is applied via aerosol spray (outdoors, if you follow the instructions) that probably delivers 50% or less of the product onto the clothing. Thus you have basically unloaded half a can or more into your yard!

        On the other hand, the Insect Shield branded repellent is infused into the fabric during manufacture and studies have shown that it retains 80% or more effectiveness after 70 washings. http://insectshield.com/OurTechnology/Research.aspx. I think we can infer that this translates to a very minimal amount of product wash out.

        I am not affiliated in any way with any company selling insect shield clothing, but am a user of ExOfficio’s line of Insect Shield clothing. Living in the south, I can attest to it’s effectiveness against mosquitoes and ticks and can’t imagine going back to schmeering bug gunk on my skin.

        This article is my first exposure to RailRider products and I must say they look very interesting. I will likely be purchasing the pant/shirt combo when it’s time to replace my current set.

  3. While on the South Island of NZ i was told by an old timer of an alternative cheap way to stop the Sand-flys biting (they are nasty persistent little buggers)
    Bt mixing Dettol Antiseptic liquid and Baby Oil together roughly 30/70% used to work wonders and they hated it.
    A bit of a strange smell odour cologne de Dettol but it works i never got bitten on any area i had rubbed this concoction on to my skin.
    I would presume this mixture would possible work for Mosquitoes and other nasty bugs because of the Antiseptic Liquid.

  4. I wore leggings walking the other day and the gits bit through them. I could actually see them sitting on my legs, drinking away. So its not just the length of the clothing – I presume it has to be loose enough to keep them off your skin.

    • Good thought. My figure isn’t flattered by skin tight clothing anymore!

    • Actually, it’s more that woven shirts and pants prevent insects, while they can bite right through knits.

      • I guess it depends on the tightness of the weave then. Some knits are tighter than others – and some weaves are pretty loose. Good to be able to narrow this down a bit! Those leggings were definitely a fairly loose, thin knit. Might have better results with running tights…

  5. I also have been wearing long pants and long sleeves hiking in the summer for years to fend of insects and ticks. Wearing the right clothing, I find that I stay just as comfortable as when I wore shorts and short sleeves if not more comfortable. Keeping the hot sun off of my skin keeps me comfortable temperature wise and stops the sun from sapping my energy (I find that a full day in the hot sun drains my energy).

  6. Great post! I have found the Permethrin treatment makes a real difference compared to untreated clothing and like that I don’t have to mess with self-application of the chemical (which lasts for only about 15 vs. 70 washings for the pre-treated items). I always wear the same Railriders items you listed on the trail (and mowing my back yard) ever since your review of the Ecomesh pants a while back, and now add this:

    http://www.backcountry.com/exofficio-insect-shield-hat-w-cape-exo0358

    I am surprised the Railriders folks haven’t come up with a similar product.

  7. I have that same hat and love it. The cape folds up to make it a regular baseball cap as well. The cape also keeps the ears comfortable in mid range temps, too cold for no covering but too warm for a balaclava. I also have the RailRiders Eco Mesh Pants and Madison River shirt.

    I can’t stand the feel of DEET on my skin. Now I use Picaridin spray when I have to use some repellent. Walmart sells little spritzer tubes for under a buck that weigh approximately an ounce.

  8. I’ve become a walking REI Sahara advertisement this summer. Pants, LS Button-Up Shirt, and Booney Hat. I will admit I look pretty ridiculous/like my dad but this benefits are amazing– no sunscreen which I HATE at the end of a day, no scratches on arms or legs from brush, ability to open the front to vent/show off chest hair. In the end its just EASIER and for me that’s one less thing I have to remember to do/pack/reapply/clean/purchase. Love it.

  9. If the bugs are really bad they’ll land on your hands too. Not to mention attack you when you need to take your pants down. In these situations DEET is a godsend.

  10. Unless you wear a Permethrin Burka, clothing is going to leave a chink in your armor at some point.

    I just switched from convertible pants to synthetic basketball/gym shorts. I don’t think I would ever summer hike in pants in the Whites.

    I also use the Repel DEET-FREE Lemon & Eucalyptus spray and it works great. Also a sun hat + head net is good if they get real bad. I prefer not to spray within a foot of my face. Not sure why some people thinks it ok to blast themselves head to toe with 50% DEET.

    Heard they are developing a really effective spray using grapefruit oils or something of that nature. Might help with my body odor too :)

  11. Coming back from a dayhike a couple weeks ago, both my feet had several nymph ticks on them. I’m also wearing long sleeves and pants, and never thought that my mesh trail runners would be the weak link in my tick armor, but I guess the nymphs are so tiny that they can crawl right trough the shoe mesh and my wool socks. This yucky episode made me paranoid enough that I now bug spray my shoes .. better than spraying my skin for sure, but still, I’m using DEET again.

  12. PhilipS,

    You might try soaking your trail runners in a permethrin solution and then letting them dry out. That might keep the little buggers away. If you do much stream wading in ecologically sensitive areas, my idea might only be worth what I charged for it.

  13. FYI – Permethin is highly toxic to cats.

  14. I’ve been a fan of Railriders clothing for years. I particularly like their Xtreme adventure pants and expedition shirts for mountaineering and hiking.

  15. Great information Phil, as usual BUT…..I gotta break ranks on this one. When the weather warms and the sun is shinning…the LESS I wear the happier I am!! It’s a kind of “liberating” feeling from winters Eskimo bundling. Heck, I’d hike naked, except for footwear, if I could!!! I’ll do the deets and bug wipes and I can still cool off in the water! I just gotta have that freedom is all….and that’s just me. I fully understand and agree, if you are comfortable clothed up against sun, bugs and ticks…that’s all good for you…it’s all about choice and Phil imparts some great stuff to help to that cause!

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