My clothing system for backpacking in peak mosquito season

Last month I guided two week-long backpacking and packrafting trips in Alaska’s Hayes Range, a sub-range of the Alaska Range located just east of Denali National Park. Were it not for some scheduling constraints, I would have preferred to schedule these trips at another time of year since they coincided precisely with the region’s peak bug season, which historically happens around the summer solstice, June 21.

The groups were fully aware of the likely bug situation, which they had researched as part of a broader Environmental and Route Condition Assessment that preceded their gear selection. It became the subject of more than a few nervous remarks and jokes via email before the trip. (My favorite: “You know what they say about the wilds of Alaska, ‘What doesn’t kill you, will make you itchy’. :-)”) And my co-guide, Alan Dixon, teasingly exacerbated their worries by sending this photo the day before they arrived:

Our rental car's plates after a 4-hour drive from Anchorage to Cantwell during Alaska's peak bug season

Our rental car’s plates after a 4-hour drive from Anchorage to Cantwell during Alaska’s peak bug season

The bugs were thick during both weeks, as predicted — I would rate the worst stretches as being of moderate/high intensity. Even so, no one in either group ever complained or “lost their Zen” with a futile mosquito massacre. I have two explanations for their muted reactions:

1. We avoided the bugs whenever possible by hiking, resting, and camping in more exposed and better drained areas — where the wind kept the bugs grounded, and where the drier soil offered less breeding opportunities for mosquito larvae.

2. We had proper equipment for the conditions, including bug-proof shelters and bug-resistant clothing, the latter of which I’d like to describe in greater detail in the remainder of this post.

Normally I avoid exposed campsites like this one, preferring instead to find areas with more natural weather protection, but during heavy bug pressure the winds help keep the blood-suckers grounded.

Normally I avoid exposed campsites like this one, instead preferring more natural weather protection, but the wind is useful for keeping bugs grounded.

Exactly what I wore

These are not necessarily recommendations, and these certainly are not the only viable options, but below is an exact list of what I wore on these trips:

Hiking tops and bottoms

For moderate or heavy bug pressure, I protect most of my skin with a long-sleeve shirt and full-length pants. My tried-and-true solution for mild pressure — normal hiking attire plus an occasional application of Sawyer Premium Maxi DEET Insect Repellant — is no longer enough.

Fabric

The shirt and pants are made of woven nylon or polyester fabric, which serves as a physical shield against a mosquito’s proboscis. In contrast, mosquitoes easily bite through knit fabrics. Most athletic apparel (e.g. running tops and base layers) are made with knit fabrics; woven fabrics are typically used for “travel” and lifestyle shirts, like the GoLite Paparoa Shirt.

I select lighter colors — whites, beiges, grays, etc. These colors don’t pop in photographs like bright reds or yellows, but that’s an acceptable trade-off if I can avoid being mistaken for a pollen-producing flower by a blood-sucking mosquito.

Unfortunately, woven fabrics have two major drawbacks versus knits:

1. The weave’s tightness limits breathability, and its uniformity hinders the wicking and evaporation of moisture. Therefore, to improve moisture management, I look for venting options: a generous chest zip or full-length snap-front, roll-able arm cuffs, zippered mesh baffles, and a looser fit.

2. Woven fabrics do not have any natural stretch. Therefore, to improve range of motion, especially for my legs, I prefer a pant fabric that contains about 10 percent spandex or elastane.

We wore long-sleeve shirts and full-length pants (or convertible pants) made of light-colored woven nylon or polyester fabric.

We wore long-sleeve shirts and full-length pants (or convertible pants) made of light-colored woven nylon or polyester fabric.

Permethrin

The bug-resistance of shirt and pants can be further enhanced with a synthetic chemical, permethrin. Some manufacturers have branded this treatment, notably Columbia (Insect Blocker) and Ex Officio (BugsAway). There are also DIY permethrin treatments but, like aftermarket DWR treatments, I think a factory-level application will perform better and last longer.

I’ve been very impressed with the effectiveness of permethrin — you can see that bugs don’t even want to land on treated fabric. It’s telling that one member of the group reported great results with his treated knit shirt, through which mosquitoes normally would bite easily. However, I’m reluctant to rely on a chemical-only solution since it eventually wears off — after 70 washings, supposedly, though such claims rarely pan out in real-world conditions.

Doug was very happy with the performance of his permethrin-treated polyester knit shirt. A standard knit shirt would be a disaster in heavy bug pressure -- the mosquitoes can easily bite through the fabric.

Doug was very happy with the performance of his permethrin-treated polyester knit shirt. A standard knit shirt would be a disaster in heavy bug pressure — the mosquitoes can easily bite through the fabric.

Hat

I always wear a brimmed hat, regardless of the conditions — the brim helps keep sun, precipitation, sweat and brush out of my eyes; it prevents hoods from obstructing my vision; and it keeps my headnet off my face so that bugs can’t bite me through it.

Because of its superior ventilation, my favorite headwear is a visor, but in heavy bug pressure I wear a baseball-style cap made of polyester because otherwise the bugs will bite my scalp through my headnet and mop of hair. A cap with a cape offers additional protection for my ears and neck, against both sun and bugs; however, the cap can also hinder the headnet’s seal around my neck.

Headnet

A basic mesh headnet like the Sea to Summit Head Net is crucial for thick bugs. I suppose it’s possible to lather on insect repellant to prevent bites, but a headnet greatly reduces the nuisance factor — mosquitoes can’t dive bomb my face, or fly into my eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. If I’m only contending with mosquitoes, I use a headnet made of mosquito netting, which is more porous than no-see-um netting; it is cooler and more see-through. In fact, the headnet is so unobtrusive that I sometimes forget I’m wearing it, as evidenced by trying to spit and eat through it on several occasions.

It’s wise to bring a spare headnet since they can get lost or irreparably torn, especially during bushwhacks. When not in use, or when I fear it being snagged in brush, I store it securely in a hip belt pocket with my insect repellant. For this reason, a frameless headnet is preferable to one with flexible rings, which aren’t as packable (or necessary).

During my Alaska-Yukon Expedition I made the mistake during peak bug season of wearing a visor, which left my scalp vulnerable. I solved the problem with a bandana, but a ballcap would be a cleaner solution.

During my Alaska-Yukon Expedition I made the mistake during peak bug season of wearing a visor, which left my scalp vulnerable. I solved the problem with a bandana, but a ballcap would be a cleaner solution.

Footwear

For obvious reasons, closed-toed shoes or boots are a better choice than open-toed footwear.

Gaiters offer an additional layer of protection against mosquitoes, especially during breaks and in camp. They prevent bugs from biting through socks or from flying up pants and biting lower legs.

28 Responses to My clothing system for backpacking in peak mosquito season

  1. Chris Hillier July 22, 2013 at 3:36 pm #

    Wish I had read this BEFORE hiking the North Country Trail across Michigan’s upper peninsula. I crossed the bridge early in June and I just finished. Talk about peak bug season! I had to rely on long sleeves and pants, mosquito netting and lots of DEET. They were so bad that it really changed the way I hike. It was worth it though – when I got home, Tim and Ellen Hass had sent me a copy of your book. Can’t wait to dig into it!

    • Andrew Skurka July 22, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

      Ah, yes, this would have been a helpful article before that kind of experience. Hope you figured out a system that worked.

    • sasquatch September 15, 2013 at 4:48 pm #

      I walked that route this August. Anywhere not near a great lake was terrible for bugs. The blueberries were awesome though. Why can’t the whole NCT be like Pictured Rocks?

      My new solution for bugs is to not hike in the east or midwest during the summer. If that fails I run.

  2. Michael Byrd July 22, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    Great info! I seldom have to face such an onslaught of mosquitoes and bugs where I hike, but you never know where you’ll end up. Right? Better to be prepared. I’ll file this info for future reference. Thanks, Andrew!

  3. seth Souza July 22, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

    Awesome thanks so much

  4. Yellow July 22, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

    Nylon shirt for bushwalking? With “back panel ventilation helps keep you cool”…..
    Extra bonus of being great fire-starter if you get too close.

  5. samh July 22, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    +1 for Peter’s Headnets. Pants, long sleeve shirt, and one of his headnets will keep the worst the world can throw at you at bay.

    Excellent work in taking out clients during such heavy insects and managing their happiness (or should I say sanity?), Andrew.

  6. Jeff July 22, 2013 at 6:44 pm #

    I have been using Permethrin treated clothing on hikes for a couple of years from a small Massachusetts company named Railriders. I find these clothes to be cooler and lighter than the Ex Officio stuff. And although I hadn’t gotten any ticks on me when wearing the clothes until a recent hike in Shenandoah National Park gave me 3, I am not as sure that the stuff actually kills ticks as claimed. I found a live tick and put it in a ziplock bag with a new piece of treated clothing and the tick was still ticking a couple of days later. It makes me wonder if just wearing long pants and sleeves is 90% of the defense.

    I really do think they keep the mosquitos at bay, however. For that reason, I am the craziest looking lawn mower in my neighborhood, always wearing long pants and a long sleeve shirt.

  7. Ryan July 22, 2013 at 7:55 pm #

    So you don’t carry one of those electrified bug tennis rackets?! Haha, kidding… But a buddy of mine did indeed bring one on a low key backpacking trip in the Cascades. It was kind of fun… We killed dozens and dozens of mosquitoes with the Executioner: http://www.amazon.com/Executioner-Swat-Mosquito-Swatter-Zapper/dp/B003TT3GDC/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1374544494&sr=8-2&keywords=the+executioner

  8. blisterfree July 23, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    I’m actually surprised to hear shortie spandex gaiters are worth one whit during mosquito season in Alaska, especially when sitting down when even long-inseam pants would tend to ride above the top of the gaiter, creating a gap. The LevaGaiter isn’t designed for tucking pant legs into them – the cut is just too slim for most folks – though I suppose if also wearing calf-high socks (rather than ankle socks) that the pants could be tucked into these instead. Still I see an opportunity for mosquitoes to bite through such a setup, unless permethrin were used.

    • Andrew Skurka July 23, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

      I suppose it depends on your pant length and ankle girth. In my case, my pants are long enough and my ankles are thin enough that I can put the Levagaiters around my pants in order to seal the bugs off. YMMV.

  9. Alex July 23, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    I would like to mention adding some Benadril to first aid kit. Supposedly itching is an allergic reaction and you can reduce it greatly by taking an anti-allergic medicine.

  10. Tom July 23, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    I went trekking in Lapland in Northern Sweden this time last year. The mosquitoes were horrendous I hadn’t realized that they were so efficient at biting through clothing as in Scotland where i live the midges are bad but cannot bite through clothing.
    The mosquitoes would hitch a ride on my and friends backpack they fly down to bite when the wind dropped or when we took a break…Anyway good article Andrew I will be trying treated clothing if I go somewhere similar again.

    • Jason Cuzzetto June 14, 2014 at 4:26 pm #

      They do that here is the Sierras too. Hitch a ride that is.

  11. Damin Tougas July 23, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

    Have you done comparison of a tightly woven Permethrin treated shirt vs non-treated? I am curious how much of a difference it makes when the clothing already provides a good barrier.

    • Andrew Skurka July 23, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

      Not a formal one, though I’d be very interested in doing that. Here’s been my experience:

      1. Knit shirt, untreated, High Sierra in July 2008. Very bad results.
      2. Knit shirt (brand new), treated, Alaska 2013. Excellent results (reported by a client).
      3. Woven polyester shirt (new-ish), untreated, JMT 2011. Excellent results.
      4. Woven nylon shirt (brand new), Alaska 2010. Excellent results.
      5. Woven nylon shirt (old; same one from 2010), Alaska 2013. Excellent results.

      So my conclusion is that knit shirts really need to be treated, and probably preferably be new (because the treatment washes out). With woven shirts, it doesn’t really matter — even after the treatment washes out, the material is still bug resistant.

  12. justin July 24, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    have you seen this? i’m very curious to know if it works …

    http://io9.com/this-tiny-wearable-patch-makes-you-invisible-to-mosqui-894656159

  13. Jason July 25, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

    Have you ever done anything with clothing made from merino wool?

    • Andrew Skurka July 25, 2013 at 9:49 pm #

      LOTS of experience with merino — thousands of miles in it. If it offered the same physical protection as a woven nylon or polyester, I’d use it without a doubt, but unfortunately it does not.

      • Randy September 9, 2013 at 8:08 pm #

        I sweat so much that my clothing becomes drenched during summer hikes. In results, mosquitoes usually have a feast over my body. At this point detects doesn’t work much… I hope try woven nylon shirt… But isn’t it hot? Prone to generate more sweat? More mosquitoes? I went to AT hike (a section) in July and encountered swarm of mosquitoes in a valley, near a spring… Was HELL. I never want to experience that again. Any suggestion for a person who sweats a ton? Thanks~ and u too sweated a bit in google presentation… Lol thanks for the great tips…

  14. Jeremy July 26, 2013 at 7:15 am #

    So, a little off topic, but I see you abandoned La Sportiva for Salomon. What were your reasons for doing that? I’m just curious…

    • Seth July 27, 2013 at 9:09 am #

      Agreed, I’m curious if there was any particular reason for the switch. Great article Andrew.

  15. Steve M July 27, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    I am also curious about the shoe change. I believe you put many miles on your Raptors. After trying several brands, including Salomon, I recently settled on the Raptor for its fit and the fact it seemed to be a shoe you relied on. Have you decided Salomon makes a better shoe?

    • Andrew Skurka July 27, 2013 at 10:48 am #

      Both companies make good shoes. Choose shoes based on how they fit YOU and whether they are designed for your activities.

  16. Jess February 23, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

    All good suggestions. For moderate bugs I’ve also found smoky fires and taking breaks in the sun (instead of shade) to help. Also for light to moderate pressure areas a lot of the pests will go to bed a bit after sun-down.

  17. Joe Gaffney March 27, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

    I got chased out of French Reservoir (north of Truckee, CA) by mosquitoes despite 45% DEET. The little suckers were biting me through the knees of my pants, and the shirt on my shoulders. I started using the wash from Nikwax and haven’t had problems since.

    • Randy Cain June 14, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

      Back east I used to forever be swatting flies and gnats off of my exposed skin, and the first time I threw on a RailRiders nylon long-sleeve shirt for a hike on a hot summer day, it was revolutionary! Up to that point I had always worn a light merino or poly shirt that mosquitoes could bite through. And my arms were always exposed, necessitating sunscreen and bug dope. I realized then that having a long-sleeve shirt covering my skin on a hot day really didn’t make me feel much hotter at all. In fact, I felt more comfy because I had built in sunscreen AND bug protection in a single package. I’ve never turned back. Maybe those desert dwellers draped in loose clothing covering their entire body are on to something! Now I’m living in Cali and doing my hiking in the High Sierras. And the sun/bug protection is awesome. The RailRiders shirt is the bomb because of the vents that run the entire length of the arms and down the sides. AND I tend to wear it mostly unbuttoned when I’m getting warm. The extra front venting that a button-up shirt allows is sweet. These days I giggle when I’m chatting with people on the trail who are getting nailed by mosquitoes through their magic wicking fabrics while I’m standing there not getting touched. My nylon shirt might might get a little sweatier in the back with my pack against it, but the speed that it dries is amazing. Thanks for taking the time to write this up, Andrew!! There is soooo much discussion about this online right now, and I’ve even heard people asking if they should postpone their JMT trips till later in the year just to avoid potential run-ins with bad bugs. So your timing on this is awesome! ;)

  18. Crystal June 30, 2014 at 7:18 am #

    Hi Andrew, Great article. I’ve been involved with moving to a chemical free lifestyle, so I thought I might mention that essential oils could be a more natural alternative to DEET. This article points out a 2013 study of plant oils that can repel mosquitos. I hope to experiment with my own homemade repellents soon, as I already make my own sunscreen from scratch, and it could be easily amended with plant oils that also repel bugs. The article with plant oil recommendations: http://www.alternet.org/personal-health/there-are-surprisingly-highly-effective-natural-ways-keep-mosquitoes-biting-you-it?page=0%2C1

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