Every hiking season offers up its own set of challenges, and when it comes to the seasons of spring and summer the presence of flying and biting insects and other related concerns will need to be addressed in many locales. Dealing with insects such as mosquitoes, black flies, and ants along with other concerns like ticks to name a few is a top priority for any warmer weather outdoor excursion. These pests can be anything from just that – a simple pest, or they can even ruin a trip in short order or even be a consideration in regards to your health. In this article we’ll look at ways to keep these pesky critters at bay, and how to keep them from ruining those spring and early to mid-summer backpacking and hiking trips.
Boggy areas, as you might expect are a prime mosquito habitat and made this day a memorable hike for the wrong reasons.
Mosquitoes and Flying Insects
An annual rite of passage here in the mountains, spring hiking may quickly have you longing for drier conditions and late summer as mosquitoes and other insects come out in force. But with the right approach, you can still maintain your sanity and hike and backpack in the thick of the flying biting insect season. To do this requires appropriate use of physical barriers – clothing while hiking and in camp, and a tent at night – mosquito season might not be the best time to experiment with ultralight, non-screened tarps and shelters. By wearing long pants with a denser weave (I like the Prana Zion hiking pants), combined with a long shirt – I like something like a zip-neck REI Co-op Tech Shirt that offers more coverage with its long sleeves and higher neck, the difficulty of the job for the mosquito is increased, and don’t be afraid to wear a pair of light gloves either. While usually too hot to hike in, donning your rain gear in camp makes for an excellent impenetrable layer.
Headnets complete the physical barrier, but I’ve had mixed results…some headnets are so cumbersome to wear and interfere so much with my view that they’re almost as frustrating to wear as the mosquitoes themselves. However, not all headnets are created equal and an ultralight headnet, almost (currently) defined by the Bens Invisinet, is so light you won’t notice it in your pack and the mesh is so thin that you get used to it easily, almost forgetting it’s there. While I very rarely will need a headnet while hiking where you can stay on the move and out hike the majority of mosquitoes, when backpacking and in camp, a headnet is essential during this time of year for cooking dinner and to at least bridge the gap between the time you arrive at camp and the time you go to sleep. Keep in mind that dark colored clothing may further attract mosquitoes, so when choosing what color of clothing to wear for this time of year a good idea to go with those lighter colored pants and shirts in the spring and early summer…when it’s warmer out anyway as these colors will also run cooler in the sun.
Even if you’ve covered yourself head to toe however, the occasional mosquito will still be able to bite through your clothing and even this aside, having dozens of mosquitoes on you and buzzing around your head can be downright annoying. This is where the repellant factor comes in, and this is an essential item on my gear list spring through late summer. I like to go the natural route whenever I can, and after experimenting with just about every natural repellent out there the best that I’ve used is the All Terrain Herbal Armor product. The pump spray is more economical, while the pressurized BOV style wins in convenience. Either way, this product actually works very well against mosquitoes – as good as anything else in my experience with the caveat that it will not last as long as chemical repellents like DEET products and those containing Picaridin. The latter two synthetic repellents are very effective and long lasting (especially DEET), with Picaridin thought to be the safer option in some circles. If opting for a Picardin product you will want to go with an option that has a higher concentration – 20% - for adequate effectiveness and if you go the DEET route be very careful around your plastics, as DEET can melt these items and may cause damage to other gear – Picaridin is a more gear-friendly option. Another option is to pre-treat clothing with a Permethrin product - an insecticide, and some hiking clothing like the BugsAway line from ExOfficio is pre-treated with Permethrin straight from the factory.
No matter which way you go, a combination of clothing and the repellent of your choice is the way to go, plus campsite selection. Dry camping and choosing a campsite away from water, and one that will have a nice breeze are additional steps that can help thwart biting flying insects.
At least mosquitoes fly away after an attack; ticks on the other hand like to catch a ride. I’ve found that choosing a hiking locale is important during tick season – freezing temperatures at night help (ditto for mosquitoes), as well as gaining elevation and staying on trail in brushy areas. I’ve seen the most ticks in grassy prairie areas and in sagebrush ecosystems in the west, especially in any area teeming with wildlife or livestock.
"Trails" like this Wisconsin pathway may be best avoided during tick season, or only carefully approached.
If you find yourself in an area with ticks, many of the same physical barriers apply as we would use against mosquitoes. Ticks lay in wait on the ends of the grass or brush waiting for you to brush through an area so they can grab on, and mostly will attach at shoe, ankle, or knee height and crawl upwards. Thus, wear light colored pants again, and wear longer socks – tucking your pants into your socks. If you’re hiking through an area where you’ll be contacting grass and brush, make a habit to perform a spot check at intervals – the dark colored ticks will stand out on the light colored pants, and remove as needed before they can attach. When possible, avoid contacting grass and brush by staying on trail, or instead of brushing through these areas, it can help to use a walking technique of stepping over and on top of the grass, instead of brushing through it. Repellent can help, but is not foolproof in my experience; Permethrin however is found useful by some hikers during tick season. Regardless, if ticks are known to be present you will want to perform a full tick check at the end of the day and remove any ticks immediately. Again, a fully screened in shelter or tent will aid in a peaceful night of rest at these time of years and in these areas.
While I’ve found mosquitoes and ticks are the most common nuisances to deal with on my hikes, anything from ants to chiggers can also get in the way of a good trip quite quickly. While cowboy camping in Texas I quickly learned that there’s really no way to ant-proof a sleeping bag; and I’ve unfortunately found out as well that they can even chew right through a tent. Either way defense against other insects can be obtained by using similar techniques to more common concerns, by avoiding when possible, creating physical barriers with clothing and shelter, and utilizing your repellent of choice.
With the right approach, we can enjoy the splendors of spring and summer backpacking and hiking without mosquitoes, ticks, or other concerns taking over a trip – and having learned from experience, I can highly suggest taking the necessary gear anytime they might be present on trip, as there’s always the chance they could be out earlier or later than you might expect, and nothing is worse than being totally unprepared when these types of insects or ticks are prevalent.