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Hiking Bug Suit

Hiking Clothing

Bug season can be unpleasant, but it’s no reason to give up hiking and backpacking. You just need to cover up with insect-proof clothing and wear bug dope. If you never hike when insects are active, you’re not going to get much hiking and backpacking done, are you?

Here’s a look at the hiking bug suit I use to protect myself from mosquitos, black flies, and Lyme-disease carrying ticks. It’s comfortable, breathable, modular, easy to wash on the trail, and stylish. I usually augment this a dab or two of Sawyer Picaridin bug dope, because it won’t melt or fog synthetics or plastic like bug dope that contains DEET. It doesn’t take much though, usually just a squirt or two on my wrists and under my watch.

Hat and Head Net

When you’re hiking, insects are attracted to the highest part of your body, your head. While you can outpace them if you’re hiking fast, they’ll swarm around the crown of your head and face whenever you stop to rest. While a hat will protect your forehead and hairline from bites, it’s best used in combination with a mesh Sea-to-Summit Head-Net to protect the front and back of your head down to your upper chest and back. While you can cover your ears, face, and neck with bug dope, you’ll sweat it off quickly. I find it’s just easier to use a head-net for all-day protection since you can take it off if it’s not needed anymore.

The best types of hats to wear with a head net are ones with a wide brim, like the OR Sentinel Brim or a Tilley Airflow, because they’ll keep the netting off your face, the back of your head, and neck.  Bugs can bite through the holes in the mesh if it lays on top of your skin. While a billed baseball-style hat will keep the netting off your face, it won’t keep the netting off your ears or the back of your head or neck.

Fingerless Gloves

If it’s warm out, you’ll want to wear the thinnest, lightest weight gloves you can find to help protect your hands and wrists from insect bites. I like wearing Protector Sun gloves, from Outdoor Research or Buff  Solar Gloves because they’re cool and preserve my dexterity. They’re also good for water sports like canoeing or fishing. Bugs won’t bite your fingertips, especially if you dab a small amount of bug dope on them for extra protection.

Wide brim hat and head net
A wide brim hat is best for keeping a head-net off your face and the back of your neck.

Gaiters

Wearing gaiters helps protect your legs from ticks, so they can’t get into your shoes or socks and crawl up your legs. You’ll want to get gaiters that cover your socks and that you can tuck the bottom of your pants legs into. Most of the short ankle gaiters designed for trail running aren’t sufficient for this because they aren’t tall enough to seal off the bottom of your pant legs.

I’ve had good luck with the Outdoor Research’s Thru-Gaiters, which come up over my ankles and have a stretch cuff that will stay wrapped around the bottom of my pant legs all day. They incorporate OR’s ActiveIce fabric so they keep my legs cool and I don’t sweat when wearing them, which is a breakthrough as far as I’m concerned.

Hiking Gaiters
Outdoor Research Thru-Gaiters seal the bottom of my pants and don’t fall down.

Shirt, Pants, Socks

I wear a thin and well-ventilated long-sleeve shirt and long pants during bug season because I’d rather wear clothing to keep from being bitten instead of slathering myself with bug dope. Both my shirt and pants (from Railriders) have mesh panels built-into them along the arms and legs, that help vent perspiration. They’re also pre-treated with Insect Shield which is a long-lasting Permethrin-based insecticide treatment designed to bind with fabric, that kills insects that come into contact with it. I also send my regular Darn Tough socks, when new, out to be treated with Insect Shield for added protection (click for form). You can also treat them at home using the Permethrin using the Soak Method, but it doesn’t last as long.

I’ve also used Bugsaway (Insect Shield-treated) clothing from Ex Officio in this same capacity. For example, the Ex Officio Halo Check Shirt and Sandfly Pants, which are also mesh cooled so you can wear them in very hot weather. Ex Officio also has a MUCH better selection of Women’s Insect Shield tops, pants, and jackets than RailRiders.

The Barrier is what Matters

You DON’T have to wear Insect Shield or Permethrin-treated clothing, since wearing a long sleeve shirt and pants, provides a good preventive barrier by itself. However, when it comes to fabrics, you’ll want to stick with clothing that has a dense weave like nylon or polyester shirts and pants, and not cotton or merino wool garments that insects can bite through.

Wrap Up

Bugs suck. But a nice day without hiking? That’s even worse.

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15 comments

  1. How do you prevent ticks from crawling down your pants into your genitals? Serious question. This has happened to me on several occasions.

    • If you’re wearing a shirt and pants treated with insect shield (permethrin) and you’ve tucked your shirt into your pants, and the tick still manages to get past your waistline, it will be killed by the insect shield before it reaches your groin and embeds itself.

    • Brad, While I can believe that it is possible for a tick to crawl down, my observation is that they are pretty single minded about crawling upward. Is it possible that you hadn’t tucked your pants legs into your socks (or gaiters)? I’m curious because I occasionally find myself out without Insect Shield pants and shirt. In that case my primary defense is being sure that the upper item of clothing is always tucked into the lower item. I even have a hat with a “cape” to take care of my head.

  2. You make a good point, Doug. They could have crawled up my legs – but it just seems like a long way to go from my ankles to *******, which unfortunately is where I’ve commonly noticed them. I try to always tuck my pants into my sucks so there is no exposed skin. But during the course of a hike, my pants could have come untucked. Really not sure, but I guess need to make sure to treat my clothing with insect shield. Thanks for tips.

    • From everything I’ve read, it takes about 5 minutes for a tick to make its way from your feet to your head.

      • Ticks and chiggers do crawl onto waist-high scrub and try to land on any mammal passing by. At least that’s what the rangers say.

        I will look into those gaiters.

        It only takes one episode of chiggers “where the sun don’t shine” to make one compulsive about wearing long pants and tucking in socks. Chiggers don’t cause disease, just loss of dignity until the itch subsides.

        Carnivore humans visiting the Ozarks – beware – one of the local tick-borne disease side effects is meat intolerance.

  3. I have treated clothes from head to toe. Haven’t found a tick on me in years. Until this year. Got a tick bite in my belly button on a cabin trip in April and, on a car-camping trip last week, I found one in my hair and the next morning a huge one in my tent.

    I didn’t treat my daypack on either trip, so I will start doing that. If I keep having problems I may have to rethink camping. Lyme is no joke, and the odds are too high.

  4. Last week I did a 10 mile hike with three other guys. Each of them pulled off upwards of 20 ticks. I wore Permethrin treated hat, shirt, pants, and socks. My tick count was zero. I never even saw one, except for those crawling on the other guys.

  5. I treat all my clothes with permethrin. Pack and hammock included. Spent 2 days backpacking in Shawnee State Forest. When I started a ranger commented about the ticks and wearing long pants. Lots of foot high grass on trail. Not one tick.

  6. Lots of good tips, as usual. Just to provide an alternate view, I will say that I rarely ever cover up that way. I do carry a head net, and I do wear gaiters. The only thing I’ll let near my body, that’s been treated with chemicals are those gaiters. I don’t use bug dope either.

    These are absolutely personal choices on my part. I choose to put up with the biting bugs and I check for ticks constantly. I’ve had Lyme, and I know what it’s like. The treated gaiters are my concession to a modicum if protection.

    I’d recommend anyone follow your advice, but just know that it’s also possible to enjoy it out there in your short shorts and sleeveless top :-D. I grew up in northern VT, but live near the Catskills now. I see a lot of people sweating their way along the trails, all bundled up and soaked in bug spray. They often look at me and ask why I don’t get bitten. I tell them it’s all the tattoos.

    As always, love the site.

  7. An insect shield neck gaiter will never replace a head net but can be useful on “light” big days. Doubles as a sweat mop to keep me from dripping on my glasses

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