Repel Mosquitoes With Clothes Rather Than Chemicals

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Long ago, an idyllic and much-anticipated escape from the humid summer of Houston, Texas, to the North Cascades in Washington state ended in utter misery for me and my brother. We had both newly discovered backpacking, and we had never been in the Cascades – or any big mountains – in the early summer. This was a treat of staggering proportions to our new sense of wilderness and desire to escape into the backcountry.

Unfortunately, we were also newbies when it came to the bugs. Of course, Houston has its share of giant and horrific biting insects, but nothing could have prepared us for the aggressive hoards of bloodthirsty insects of all kinds that came out to feast on our bare legs and arms during those five days in the Cascades. I do not exaggerate: At day’s end, we could wring out blood from the spare T-shirts we turned into swatters. Aside from constant swatting, we cussed profusely, ran and bucked like mad people, and even lowered ourselves to asking the few passing hikers we met if they had any extra DEET, finally scoring a small bottle that mysteriously proved useless anyway. Meals and all spare time was spent in our tent, obsessively squashing any flies or mosquitoes that managed to find their way in through the mesh. Instead of enjoying the gorgeous wilderness, we dreaded the hiking.

Years later, I found myself sitting on a boulder near a stream in the High Sierra in early summer, enjoying a majestic view of the remote canyon I was hiking through along my Pacific Crest Trail route. Clouds of mosquitoes buzzed around – the deafening high-pitched whine the only annoying factor. This time, I was comfortable, relaxed and, for the most part, immune to the bugs.

The difference? No poisons or chemicals…just prepared with the right clothes.

In the intervening years, I admit that I used my share of DEET. Even on my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I carried the noxious chemical. It was not until I set out to walk across California, Oregon and Washington that I decided I couldn’t afford the weight of carrying insect sprays and would never have enough to last me on the long wilderness stretches through the big mountain ranges. Not only that, the sprays just didn’t seem to work that well. So, I set out to find a more organic, less smelly and sustainable way to deal with bugs.

That led me to finding the right combo of bug-proof clothing:

  • A lightweight synthetic loose shirt – I used a RailRiders Eco-Mesh shirt that also protected me from the intense sun.
  • A good sun hat (any hat will do, although wide-brimmed hats work best) over which a head net is tossed during breaks. During the most intense bug experiences, I wore the net while walking even though it slowed me down a bit because I wasn’t able to see the terrain as well through the net.
  • A pair of loose-fitting nylon hiking pants – be sure that they are not too tight – the bugs can get their biting parts through the nylon, but only make contact with flesh where the nylon is right up against your skin.
  • Any length or type of gaiter, which serves to keep bugs from flying up your pant legs.
  • Boots or trail runners that don’t have too much mesh (they’ll bite right through mesh panels and socks, so sandals and some light trail runners will not protect well).
  • The only missing element are your hands…so you’ll want to have a pair of light, loose-fitting gloves.

Yes, you might get a bit warm in these clothes on hot days. But, it’s better to be a little hot than the main course for a swarm of mosquitoes intent on dining on you. Most of the time, these clothes will be completely comfortable. The nylon hiking clothes that are popular nowadays are cool and light, and dry very quickly. And you only need to don a head net and gloves when you stop for a break.

If the bugs are insanely bad – hoards that blanket your body when you slow down and seem to find every little weak spot in your clothing – you can also don rain gear during breaks for 100-percent protection. Bugs are not out biting you when it’s freezing cold, so chances are good that it will be too hot to hike in rain gear, but at least while you are sitting still, you can relax, albeit a bit sweatily.

Here’s a little known secret about mosquitoes and some flies. They LOVE dark colors, with midnight black their favorite. Apparently, they are programmed to seek out dark colors, because most large, highly edible wildlife (e.g. bears , elk…) have black or brown fur. So, if you can find a white shirt, khaki pants and avoid dark anything, you’ll find the bugs are not as bad…or you’ll notice they are all hovering feverishly around the hiker next to you decked out in slimming attire.

Of course, the wonderful thing about using clothing as your first and only line of defense against insects is that, compared to bug spray: your clothes only stink as bad as you (no extra chemical stink added in), the method is forever sustainable (as long as you don’t lose your clothes….), there are no unhealthy or questionable chemicals to worry over, and there’s no extra hassle (no applying, reapplying and re-reapplying), and, finally, the clothes are full-proof. You don’t have to worry over whether or not they will work! And that peace of mind will allow you to enjoy any backcountry experience.


KSomers_ PhotoKaren Borski Somers is a native of Spring, Texas, and currently resides in Huntsville, Alabama, with her husband and two daughters. An avid hiker and cyclist, she has logged more than 9,000 trail miles in 36 states, including the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. Click here to read her journal concerning her journey on the 96-mile Lone Star Trail in Texas.

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