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Insect Shield Clothing for Preventing Lyme Disease on the Appalachian Trail

Pre-treated Permethrin Clothing is available from many companies
Pre-treated Permethrin Clothing is available from many companies

Lyme Disease is reaching epidemic proportions on the Appalachian Trail yet hikers still insist on hiking in short sleeve shirts and short pants. The easiest way to protect yourself from Lyme Disease is to wear long pants, a long sleeve shirt, and hat when hiking, preferably ones treated with Insect Shield or Permethrin, both fabric-based insect repellent treatments that have been proven effective in killing Lyme disease carrying ticks.

I’ve been a long time advocate of Insect Shield Clothing and wear an Insect Shield hat, pants, shirt, socks, and underwear when I hike and backpack. While long sleeve pants and shirts aren’t as comfortable as hiking in a t-shirt or shorts, I prefer not to suffer the health consequences of Lyme by taking antibiotics in the short-term or contracting chronic Lyme and its adverse neurological effects if the disease goes undetected.

How bad is Lyme Disease on the Appalachian Trail?

I sat in on a meeting between the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Insect Shield representatives last month when I visited ATC headquarters in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia and it was reported that 10% of Appalachian Thru-hikers surveyed contract Lyme Disease. That’s just Thru-Hikers who finish the Appalachian Trail. Imagine how many Section-Hikers, who dwarf the number of thru-hikers on the trail, get it too?

The threat of Lyme has grown so severe that the National Park Service is working with Insect Shield on a video to educate thru-hikers and section hikers about how to prevent Lyme by spraying their clothing and gear with Permethrin or using Insect Shield Clothing that’s been pre-treated by manufacturers. While the NPS can’t endorse the Insect Shield brand (they must remain vendor neutral), they are eager to work with commercial entities willing to foot the bill to educate the public.

While you can spray your clothing using Permethrin, it only remains effective for about 6 weeks (Permethrin breaks down when exposed to sunlight) or 6 washings. Factory pre-treated Insect Shield clothing (which is a proprietary industrial process for applying Permethrin) lasts for 70 washings, and is preferable if you hike outdoors a lot.

Who makes Insect Shield Clothing?

Many brands including Ex Officio, Outdoor Research, Buff, Columbia, and Cabela’s under several different labels including Insect Shield, BugsAway, Insect Blocker, and Insect Defense. The active ingredient behind all of these labels is Permethrin, which is an EPA-approved insect repellent designed for clothing textiles.

Factory pre-treated Permethrin Clothing offers protection that is invisible, odorless and as easy as putting on your clothes. It has no unpleasant smell or feel. It can be washed and dried just like a normal garment (just don’t dry clean it, as this removes the treatment).

Insect Shield Clothing and Gear

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  1. I contracted Lyme in 2011 along with three of my children when we were near the AT in Pennsylvania. Fortunately we caught it early when the bulls eye rash occurred (though only about 50% of those with Lyme ever manifest the rash). I truly wanted to die due to the fever and joint pain. I was treated twice with strong antibiotics. I became a firm believer in Permethrin. I buy it concentrate and dilute it myself. Its so inexpensive that way and I never want Lyme again.

  2. Couldn’t agree with you more. Craghoppers also make their gear with insect shield but not sure if available in US.

  3. Thank you for this – ticks are already out all over NJ. A mild Winter and moist Spring promises to make it a bad tick year. I never understood why so many thru and section hikers never seem to mention tick prevention in their blogs – paragraphs about saving 3 grams of weight on whatever piece of gear, but as for real health and safety issues, nothing. An InsectShield treatment on clothing would last for an entire thruhike with no added weight.

    I’m a big fan of InsectShield treated clothing. For those that didn’t watch the video, you can send in clothing you already own to InsectShield to be treated for about $10/garment with discounts for more items. They won’t treat underwear and a pair of socks counts as one garment. The treatment lasts for 70 washings just like the clothing mentioned in the post. The benefit is that you can send in your favorite clothing that you already have and you’ll get the benefit of the insect protection withough buying new clothes. I recently sent in two pair of Darn Tough socks and some hiking shirts. (Already had a couple of pair of ExOfficio Ziwa pants). They were back in about a week, complete with InsectShield use and care labels sewn in. A thermoset label was applied to the top of the foot portion of each sock. An added benefit of having pretreated clothing is that I can head out for a dayhike without having try and remember when I last sprayed clothing or waiting for newly-sprayed clothing to dry.

    • They do underwear. I sent in a pair of boxers and a top & bottom long underwear for sleeping in.

      • It looks like they changed their terms and conditions in the last couple of months. When I sent my items in, they specifically excluded underwear. I also noticed they now add that “water resistant”, “line-dry”, and “do not tumble dry” may not be suitable. It used to be only “dry clean only”.

    • I have never camped in the North East, mostly Pacific and Southwest, and I have never gotten a tick before. I don’t know if ticks just aren’t common around here or if I am just lucky, but I’ve never even though about tick prevention before.

  4. Besides spray ons, you can use the dip method like they used to do in the military. Just take a bucket and about a half gallon of water/permethrin solution diluted to about .5-1%. 1% will last about 50 washings, 1/2% will last about 20 washings.

    For examples, a gallon of 2% Permethrin/water will make about 2gallons of 1% mix or 4 gallons of .5% diluted mix. Using a quart of 2% will make a half gallon of 1% diluted mix, or a gallon of .5% mix.

    Then do as many cloths as will wet out all of them (this usually means two or three sets of cloths.) Some things take more or less. You should use plastic gloves while treating you cloths. Hang them to dry for about 4 hours after wringing them out. I do my down jacket after everything else is done because this will draw a LOT of liquid (and it is likely not needed over permethrin cloths.) After they dry, rinse them out by hand in the same bucket. Then scatter excess liquid from rinsing on your driveway or road on a sunny day so it will break down and not get into the ecosystem. (You can also use it to spray foundations/sidewalks for bugs. It lasts about a year in dark areas.) Then simply wash them normally. The rinse water should be fairly safe at less than .1%.

    This is roughly the same as a commercial treatment. The permethrin acts as a dye, so it is attracted to molecular bonding sites or hydrogen style bonding. This will normally last thru about 30-50 washings. It does not “wash off” of clothing onto your skin. Some things cannot be dyed. For example: POLYETHYLENE Fleeces. The poly does not dye well and it can wash out. Wool, cotton, nylon, down feathers, are a few items that will dye and work well with permethrin.

    It is deadly to cats in it’s raw state, but not on treated clothing. It is deadly to aquatic life (frogs, salamanders, toads, fish, etc.) Do not pour excess into your drain or in the storm drain. It is NOT broken down in the sewage treatment plants. Scatter it on blacktop to let the sun’s UV break it down.

    • and don’t hang your clothes in the sun to dry. It breaks down the Permethrin’s effectiveness instantly. Hang dry them in a dark place.

    • Do you have a link or a source for bulk treatment liquid? Just the shipping alone to get all my hiking and hunting gear to a shop would break the bank. Thanks.

      • Martin’s Permethrin –

        A lifetime supply costs $11. Just dilute it down to 0.5%. The bottle contains 10%, so dilute with water 19:1. The bottle comes with a measuring cap.

        The 10% solution is pretty nasty so wear gloves and do the treatment in a very well ventilated place, like outside, in the shade.

  5. In addition to ticks another benefit is protection from mosquitoes. I bought an Exofficio Halo Check long sleeve shirt (factory treated with Permethrin) for a four day June Georgia AT section hike after reading a review here. I also treated my long pants and cap with the spray-on Permethrin. I found the Halo Check shirt comfortable enough in the heat. One day I did try rolling up the sleeves to the elbow but in a short time I had three mosquito bites on the exposed skin. The sleeves went back down and stayed there with no further bites. I found no ticks on me during or immediately after my hike.

  6. i have insect shield 3x shirts, 3 pants, Hat , facebug net, silk sleeping liner,
    too bad darn tough doesnt offer socks with insect shield, but you can ship them off.
    ill have to try ExOfficio BugsAway Hiker sock

  7. Going to have to pick up the cabelas xpg cap and the exofficio bandanas , I take it the bandanas would still be effective against bugs even if soaked in water and used on neck or as headband on hot days?


  8. Never thought about treating a picnic blanket… is it possible that ticks could lurk in a low cut grass at a local high use park where people often picnic?
    I use Permethrin to wash clothes when hiking in tick season (March thru Oct).

    • Most definitely. The largest group of Lyme sufferers in the US are gardeners. Not pro gardeners, but homeowners.

    • Yes, absolutely. My son and I lay down in a meadow on a section hike on the AT last year. We lay there for about 20 minutes for a rest, lying directly on the grass. Our packs lay in the grass nearby. When we got ready to get going again, we noticed that each pack had about 10 ticks on it. Amazingly, a careful search of our bodies revealed no ticks. We picked off the ticks and got going again. The Section Hiker articles on permethrin have inspired me to treat my clothing before my next section in the spring. We have used DEET in previous years, but I like the treated clothing idea better.

  9. One can send their own clothing in to Insect Shield to be treated. Last year I hiked from Vermont to Harpers Ferry, between early June and August, wearing my AT logo Vermont Darn Tough socks, Dirty Girl Gaiters, shorts and merino wool tee that were all treated by Insect Shield. I used some less toxic forms of spray to keep the mosquitos and gnats at bay, did frequent tick checks, and I did not see a single deer tick on my body.

    Here’s the form on their web site:

  10. any advantage to treating your sleeping bags and tent too? Or is it only effective with clothing that can absorb the permetherin?

    • People mostly just treat their tents and hammocks. It doesn’t work well on cuben fiber though. Nothing to absorb it. Sun also breaks down permethrin so you’d probably need to retreat fairly frequently.

  11. Great article…thanks for posting it!

  12. Hi Philip!
    I’ve been wearing the Ex Officio Sol Cool Bugsaway Zip Neck long sleeve shirt for hiking:

    I really like it except that it really picks up and retains armpit odor. It’s 92% polyester and 8 % spandex. I’ve read that polyester is prone to picking up and retaining odors. Apparently the shirt contains Silvadur, which is supposed to activate silver ions which in turn reduce odors. But it doesn’t seem to be helping me.

    As a result, I’m considering switching to the Ex Officio Sol Cool Performance Hoody:

    and sending that into Insect Shield to be treated with Permethrin. The hoody is 92% nylon and 8% spandex. I was hoping that nylon doesn’t pick up and retain body odor as much as polyester. Would you tell me if that has been your experience? Do you find nylon less odor prone than polyester?

  13. This is helpful. Do you also have objective info about what health and environmental risks are associated with Permethrin and DEET when used as directed? I’ve researched quite a bit on line about tick bite prevention but haven’t come across anyone discussing risks associated with using these chemicals. I want to make an informed choice balancing the risk of lyme disease with the risks of poisoning myself with a potential carcinogen and poisoning the environment and wildlife (especially regarding wearing treated clothes in water sources, such as when crossing them, and effects on animals such as birds and fish that feed on insects.) Also curious to hear if there are effective alternative methods to prevent tick bites w/o use of chemicals when on trail? Thanks

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