Skeeter Beaters

June 7, 2011
Filed under Feature Stories

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When it comes to bad wildlife encounters, the littlest critters create the biggest concerns. If you doubt that, just ask any camper which is worse: a bear roaming the woods nearby or a cloud of mosquitoes in camp. The answer will be close to unanimous. A scourge of skeeters makes camp life nearly unbearable.

This family isn't letting insects ruin a hike in the woods.
The high-pitched buzz of rapidly beating insect wings only millimeters from your ear rates second on the annoyance scale, coming in just behind the incessant itching that results from being bitten by the bloodsuckers.

Fortunately, you can beat back the biters. A host of products pro­vide solid options for repelling mosquitoes, as well as black flies, no-see-ums and the like. Some even repel ticks and chiggers.

What You Wear and How You Breathe
Though the presence of carbon dioxide (CO2) proves the greatest attractant for mosquitoes, numerous studies — including one report from Iowa State University — have found dark colors attract more of the insects than light colors. So in mosquito country (which is basically all of the Americas between the polar caps) stick to wearing whites, khakis and pale yellows to minimize encounters.

Also, given the skeeters’ primary interest in CO2, you might try to hang around with friends who have higher respiration rates than you. Someone who gets winded faster on a hike will expel more CO2 and therefore be a more likely target for mosquitoes.

Stay near those heavy breathers (but not too close) and you’ll find the majority of the mosquitoes in camp hang around them.

Smarter Clothes
Apparel can actively repel mosquitoes, as well as flies and ticks. The Insect Shield treatment of clothing puts a stable, skin-safe repellent right into the fibers of clothing. Numerous companies use this patented treatment in apparel from shirts and shorts to hats and gloves.

Insect Shield repellent-treated hiking shirt
Insect Shield (insectshield.com) licenses its technology to an array of apparel and gear companies, helping provide plenty of options in styles and fashions. The Insect Shield technology applies permethrin — a synthetic form of a natural repellent found in chrysanthemum plants — to fabric in a patented process that binds the permethrin directly to the individual fabric fibers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has endorsed permethrin use since 1977 and the repellent is heavily used by the U.S. military. It’s also one of the most common disease-prevention tools throughout malaria country.

Baja Shirt
For our part, extensive testing in the damp, mosquito-rich Cascade Mountains and the insect haven of The Boundary Waters Canoe Area proved the products do work. Long-sleeved shirts from Ex-Officio proved especially useful. The ultralight, fast-drying nylon of the ExO Halo long-sleeved shirt kept two hikers nearly bite-free on a hike through clouds of skeeters along the swampy shore-line of Washington’s Packwood Lake. Meanwhile, their companions in the “control” group (hikers wearing simple cotton T-shirts) found multiple bites on the arms and bellies — the mosquitoes fed right through the cotton.

The Insect Shield Buff (buffusa.com) proved to be another favorite product among testers — much to some of their surprise. The Buffs were worn as skullcaps by some hikers to keep insects away from their heads and faces, while others wore them as neck gaiters. This kept their heads and faces relatively free of bugs, while also protecting the back of the neck from sun.

Insect Shield’s process earned the EPA’s stamp of approval for consumer products and has been EPA certified to last through at least 70 washing cycles on any products in which it is used. Prices vary, but expect to pay $5 to $10 more per garment for those treated with Insect Shield.

D-I-Y Bug Repellent
Though many brands (for example, ExOfficio, Orvis, Buff, REI, L.L.Bean and Outdoor Research) now use Insect Shield in their apparel lines, consumers still find limited choices in this protective clothing. Sawyer Products (sawyer.com) offers an at-home treatment for folks who want their favorite shirt and pants to be insect repelling. These spray-on permethrin treatments lack the durability of Insect Shield since the spray-on treatment merely dries on the fabric surface. However, testing found that, if applied exactly as directed, Sawyer Clothing Repellent worked for six to eight weeks, even through weekly washings. For greater durability, Sawyer recommends the treated clothing be stored in zipper-sealed plastic bags.

permethrin-treated tent
The ability to treat your own favorite outdoor clothes is nice, but our testers found the best use of the Sawyer spray-on treatment was on tents. A tent treated with the permethrin proved far less attractive to the mosquitoes around camp. As a result, tent campers could enjoy the bug-free space in their tent without worrying about having to run a gauntlet of bloodsuckers the minute they stepped outside the door.

Area-Wide Airborne Protection
ThermaCell Lantern
Many products promise to rid a broad area of pesky bugs, but we found only one that comes close to upholding that promise. The ThermaCell Lantern (mosquitorepellent.com) does what citronella candles and sonic blasters can’t. It repels mosquitoes and most flies from a reasonably large area around camp. The ThermaCell Lantern has eight LEDs that provide nice evening illumination around camp, but more importantly, it also provides a cloud of allethrin to push back the bugs. Like permethrin, the synthetic chemical allethrin mimics a naturally occurring insect repellent found in chrysanthemums. Unlike permethrin, allethrin works as an airborne compound, creating a “force field” against mosquitoes and black flies. The EPA has endorsed its use, and the U.S. Army protects its troop bases in heavily infested areas with similar devices.

Four AA batteries power the lighting component of the ThermaCell Outdoor Lantern, while a small butane-fired heater releases the allethrin from a replaceable pad located in a chamber atop the lantern. We found the lantern created a buffer extending about 10 feet away — effectively creating a 20-foot diameter “bug-free zone” — though even a slight breeze will affect that. Therefore it’s important to always have the lantern located upwind of your outdoor living space.

Effective DEET-tails
Countless research studies conclude that the most effective skin-applied insect repellent is DEET. The U.S. Army first developed this repellent for troops serving in the Pacific during World War II. DEET, which not only repels mosquitoes but also works against biting flies, gnats, chiggers, ticks and no-see-ums, comes in a variety of forms. Pure DEET is an oily, yellow substance that is best applied as a spray-on — trying to apply it as a rub-on treatment usually results in uneven coverage with lots of product left on your hands. While 100 percent DEET is most effective for the longest time, lower concentrations generally work as well with less mess and fuss — they just require a reapplication or two in the course of a day. Note, too, that heavy sweating (such as when hiking) can flush even the high-percentage versions away, thus requiring reapplication.

Our testers dubbed 3M’s Ultrathon (3M.com) lotion their preferred DEET-based repellent. The 34.5 percent concentration in Ultrathon provided up to 10 hours of repellency in most cases. Meanwhile, the lotion-base of the product felt light and non-oily on the skin. Part of that smooth texture came from the micro-encapsulation of the DEET. Rather than being freely suspended in the lotion, the oily DEET is encapsulated and the micro-capsules break down on your skin over time, slowly releasing the DEET throughout the day. In effect, the lotion reapplies itself for you.

Even though DEET has more than 60 years of research behind it to verify its low health risks, it should be used carefully. DEET can exacerbate existing skin problems. No DEET product should be used on any broken or damaged skin, nor should it be applied where chafing may occur. For instance, it should not be applied under clothing, which may scour the solvent into the skin during physical activities.

OFF! Family Care insect repellent
Use of DEET on children can be done safely, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends DEET concentrations of less than 10 percent be used by children between 2 and 12 years of age, and nothing more than 30 percent for children 12 years and older. The OFF! Family Care repellent line (off.com) proved popular with testers with kids. The OFF! FamilyCare Insect Repellent IV employs a 7 percent DEET solution in a pump-spray bottle that makes application on squirming kids easy and effective.

Combating Nature with Nature
Campers who prefer to use more natural remedies for bug repelling have a number of options. One favorite commercial product among our test team was All Terrain Herbal Armor (allterrainco.com). This somewhat oily lotion utilizes a blend of the most common natural oils with repellent properties: citronella, peppermint, cedar and lemongrass oils as well as less commonly used soybean and geranium oils. Herbal Armor works well when faced with light to moderate mosquito populations, especially if you’ll only be out among the blood-seekers for a few hours. Deer flies, especially when encountered in large numbers, seemed to be unfazed by the product.

Another commercial herbal option comes from Burt’s Bees (burtsbees.com). This iconic natural products company was built on the use of beeswax for nearly everything from lip balm to shampoo. Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent lacks beeswax, instead opting for a fragrant blend of oils based primarily on rosemary oil, and backed with clove, soybean, cedar, citronella and peppermint oils, among others. The rosemary oils provide a piney/herbal fragrance. Though Burt’s ointment didn’t prove any more or less effective than the All Terrain product, some testers preferred its rosemary fragrance to All Terrain’s more minty odor.

Because black flies seldom shied away from those commercial herbal remedies, we turned to a more rustic natural approach to beat them. A cedar oil/lemongrass oil blend suggested by a country veterinarian in Eastern Washington was deemed the most effective among the natural repellents when it came to fighting off those biting flies. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as good as the other herbals against mosquitoes. It does smell wonderful, however.

We found cedar oil was available in many pet stores, and lemongrass oil usually is found in the herbal supplement aisles of health food and/or vitamin stores. A 50/50 blend of the two oils, placed in a small pump-spray bottle, kept this treatment handy for easy application. This treatment can also be used sparingly on pets.

Playing it Safe
Campers seeking alternatives to DEET usually turn to lotions based on plant oils, or clothing that provides a physical barrier to biting bugs. But another alternative exists — one that, though available for more than a dozen years in this country, just recently launched into the mainstream outdoor market.

Coleman’s (colemanrepellents.com) SkinSmart brand of repellents utilizes IR3535 as the active ingredient. The EPA reports IR3535 mimics a naturally occurring B-amino acid, and has deemed it safe for use in the United States since 1999, while it has been used extensively in Europe for more than 20 years. First used in Avon’s Skin So Soft line of body lotions, Coleman adopted IR3535 for its new SkinSmart line.

Though it lacked DEET’s long-term effectiveness, the SkinSmart spray proved to be effective in moderately heavy mosquito infestations for two to three hours before reapplication was needed, and helped keep nasty horseflies at bay for about the same duration. It also proved very soothing on the skin and dried quickly.

When the clouds of skeeters became a little thicker, we found the selective use of another Coleman product, its 15 percent DEET Go Ready Pen, kept the bloodsuckers off your skin. Also available in a full 100 percent DEET version, the Go Ready Pen kept the repellent close at hand, without added weight or unnecessary bulk. The pump-spray application device works wonderfully when bugs are present, but not dense enough to need constant all-day, full-body protection.

What You Bite Affects What Bites You
Country lore suggests consuming garlic — lots of garlic — with every meal as one of the best ways to naturally repel biting insects. The theory suggests that consuming enough garlic that your skin starts to ooze garlic odors will create a natural barrier against mosquitoes and biting flies.

After our team of testers endured the garlic-diet test, we discovered that the garlic diet as a repellent theory was disproven by a University of Connecticut study. On the other hand, research conducted by the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association found that regular consumption of significant quantities of beer made people more attractive to mosquitoes. The lesson seems to be that you should ditch the garlic fries and beer if you want to avoid mosquitoes. This will also help you attract more humans!

Keep Your Canine Companion Comfortable
A camping canine
Bugs bother your best friend as much as they bother you. While many of the topical repellents work well on canines, pups tend to have the habit of licking themselves. That means you need to be extremely careful where you apply even the most “natural” repellents.

Dogs with healthy, thick coats tend to draw mosquitoes and flies to their heads and tummies — places where their fur is thinnest, and therefore the skin is most accessible to bloodsuckers.

A careful application of a mild DEET-bearing lotion (3M Ultrathon works well) to the earflaps repels insects around the dog’s sensitive ears. Since black flies can be even more bothersome to dogs, a very light application of cedar oil to the backs of the ear flap can also be effective in keeping the dog comfortably bug-free.

For areas that dogs can reach with their tongues (for most dogs, this is pretty much everywhere except their heads), turn to an oil that’s safe for ingestion. A solution of one part peppermint oil to 10 parts water works as a good non-toxic spray-on repellent that is moderately effective against flies and mosquitoes. When applied to a dog’s back, it can help keep the dog fly-free for a couple of hours. The sharp mint flavor discourages dogs from licking it off, but even if they do get a few licks in, the peppermint won’t harm them.

The best bet, though, according to several dog-loving campers, is an Insect Shield Buff slipped down over the dog’s neck. This repels mosquitoes, flies and even ticks, without the worry about the dog somehow finding a way to lick off an oily treatment. For dogs with bald bellies, you can also work a second Buff down around their waist for hindquarters protection.

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