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Core Backpacking Clothing || Go Suit — Item 3: Bug Shirt

Peak mosquito season in the Yukon Arctic. The ExOfficio Halo Shirt, which is permethrin-treated and made of tightly woven nylon, kept bites to a minimum.

Peak mosquito season in the Yukon Arctic. The ExOfficio Halo Shirt, which is permethrin-treated and made of tightly woven nylon, kept bites to a minimum.

I learned the hard way that mosquitoes and blackflies can bite through my knit polyester and knit merino wool hiking shirts. Another lesson: A rain jacket is effective insect protection, but wearing one in the High Sierra during the middle of the day under a blazing sun is completely unbearable.

A better bug strategy is a dedicated bug shirt. It is Item 3 in my Core 13, a tight collection of backpacking clothing that can be mixed-and-matched to create appropriate systems for all 3-season conditions.

Bug defense options

There are two types of bug defenses:

1. Body armor, via a tightly woven polyester or nylon fabric through which bugs cannot bite. However, because such a fabric has less air-permeability than knits, I discourage using this type of shirt when the bugs are mild or non-existent.

2. Chemistry, specifically permethrin. Sawyer offers a permethrin-based spray treatment, but the performance of factory-treated fabrics such as BugsAway from ExOfficio and Insect Blocker from Columbia is longer-lasting, supposedly “the expected lifetime of the product.” Unlike the body armor approach, it is possible to have a permethrin-treated fabric with high air-permeability.

Fit & features

Regardless of the defense strategy, a bug shirt should have long sleeves, a high collar, and the ability to lock off potential entry points like sleeve cuffs and the neck. A long arm length, perhaps even with thumb loops, would help to protect the wrist and some of the hand, which is otherwise exposed. Venting features like a chest zip and button-front are a must.

To enhance the poor airflow of woven nylon shirts, some manufacturers add mesh vents under the arms and/or along the back. I think the performance benefit is marginal, and it’s entirely offset by the ease with which bugs bite through this type of fabric, especially if it is not permethrin-treated. In fact, I think the only bites I have received while wearing a bug shirt have been along these mesh panels.

These types of shirts are synonymous with “travel” shirts and thus always seem to be styled with large chest pockets. I never use these pockets and should probably cut them off, since the double-layer fabric makes my chest hotter.

My two bug shirts: the ExOfficio Halo, which has a tight weave and a pemethrin treatment; and the GoLite Paporoa, which is made of an untreated woven polyester.

My two bug shirts: the ExOfficio Halo, which has a tight weave and a pemethrin treatment; and the GoLite Paporoa, which is made of an untreated woven polyester.

Fabric close-up

Fabric close-up

My picks and suggestions

Based on personal experience, I can verify the bug-resistance of:

Pemethrin-treated woven nylon shirts such as the ExOfficio HaloI used this exact shirt on my Alaska-Yukon Expedition, and for two weeks in 2013 during peak mosquito season in the Alaska Range.

Non-treated woven polyester shirts such as the GoLite Paparoa Long-SleeveGoLite is no longer around and I have not seen this fabric used in other shirts, but it serves the point that a tightly woven shirt, even without a permethrin treatment, can offer an effective defense against bugs.

Pemethrin-treated knit polyester shirts such as the Ex Officio BugsAway Impervio Crew, which will have substantially better airflow and dry time than the aforementioned woven nylons and polyesters. Due to limited personal experience, I cannot verify that factory-treated permethrin will “last the expected lifetime of the product,” as is claimed. But I’ve witnessed its effectiveness when new.

If you love a shirt that you already own, you can turn it into a legitimate bug shirt through the aforementioned spray-on permethrin treatment or by sending the shirt directly to Insect Shield, which will give you a much longer-lasting defense.

On a very buggy trip in Alaska in late-June, Doug wore a pemethrin-treated knit polyester shirt from Columbia. It was new for the trip, and it seemed very effective. Long-term performance is unknown.

On a very buggy trip in Alaska in late-June, Doug wore a pemethrin-treated knit polyester shirt from Columbia. It was new for the trip, and it seemed very effective. Long-term performance is unknown.

26 Responses to Core Backpacking Clothing || Go Suit — Item 3: Bug Shirt

  1. Chris"Soggybottom" Vores March 11, 2015 at 4:42 am #

    Just adding another long sleeve shirt to the wardrobe. I will check out the Halo. Getting ready to do the High Sierra Trail and I hear bugs can be rough. Headed up there in late July early August. Thanks for the tips.

    • Andrew Skurka March 11, 2015 at 7:57 am #

      To be clear, you would not wear or carry a long-sleeve hiking shirt AND a bug shirt. If I expect frequent moderate pressure or worse, I just go with a bug shirt. It’s not ideal for the bug-free times, but it’s very bearable, whereas getting tortured by biting insects is not. If you desire the air-permeability of a normal hiking shirt but still have bug protection, consider treating your favorite hiking shirt with the spray-on permethrin treatment, or buy a permethrin-treated knit hiking shirt like the Columbia Insect Blocker Knit Shirt.

      Given the snow levels this year, the bugs will be completely gone by late-July. I would encourage you to follow exactly this gear list: High Sierra — Late Summer.

  2. Joe March 11, 2015 at 8:20 am #

    I’m very excited for this entire series as the last 2 years of my hiking have been in more of a weight conscience fashion and this season my goal is to dial in my clothing options to be both minimalist but also effective (avoiding ‘stupid light’). Would it be an effective option to use the #2 item (long sleeve shirt) from yesterday spray-on treated with permethrin? You obviously mention this as an option but I guess the question is how much MORE effective is a dedicated bug shirt? I’ve never been in a situation where I am swarmed with mosquitos and really not excited to learn this lesson the hard way.

    • Andrew Skurka March 11, 2015 at 8:29 am #

      A true bug shirt is extremely effective. As in, you won’t get bit.

      If you always backpack in areas with light or no pressure, a bug shirt is probably unnecessary. However, a permethrin-treated knit bug shirt has the potential to be no different in its performance than an untreated knit hiking shirt, so it’s not necessarily harmful either. (I say “potential” because the styling I’ve seen on permethrin-treated knit shirts are a far cry from what I actually want — they fit into that “poor-fitting, slopping-looking base layer underwear” description.”)

  3. Todd March 11, 2015 at 10:14 am #

    Have you ever used a hemp shirt? I have a long sleeve hemp/cotton shirt that is super comfy and I thought might be good for hiking is warm weather when cotton doesn’t have to be avoided. I’ve read that hemp is quick drying and very durable (more like polyester) and naturally odor resistant (like wool), but haven’t had to field test these claims just yet. Also hemp production is very environmentally friendly.

    • Katherine March 18, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

      Todd- In my experience in another context (cloth diapering) hemp dries more slowly than cotton. Nor is it odor resistant! (whereas wool actually is)

  4. Mark March 11, 2015 at 4:40 pm #

    Andrew,

    Any idea where to get a GoLite pack, besides eBay? Also, have you thought of designing your own line of backpacks?

    • Andrew Skurka March 11, 2015 at 7:31 pm #

      Why get a used GoLite pack online when you get a new pack that is at least as good. ULA Equipment also fills that niche of lightweight and durable packs. A suitable substitute for the GoLite Jam is the ULA CDT or ULA Ohm; for the GoLite Quest, the ULA Circuit or Catalyst.

  5. Andrew March 11, 2015 at 7:36 pm #

    On a thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail I also tried using a rain jacket as a bug shirt, far from ideal but relief from the flying hords. Have you tried a windshirt? I would think it would be more breathable while offering protection from bugs. Any thoughts or suggestions?

    • Andrew Skurka March 11, 2015 at 7:45 pm #

      Funny, two Andrew’s making the same mistake.

      A wind shirt would be better than a rain shell, but not as good as a woven shirt and not nearly as good as a knit top. Try breathing through the different fabrics — if there is any resistance, the fabric will most definitely trap some amount of heat and moisture, which is not what you want from your hiking shirt.

  6. Dave F March 11, 2015 at 9:57 pm #

    A little off topic since you’re talking about shirts, but I’ve had good results using permethrin for ticks as well. I hike in Chacos and thin wool socks, which ticks have an easier time latching onto than shoes. I remember picking at least 30 off of me throughout a day in Shenandoah Nat Park a few summers ago… treated the socks with permethrin when I got home and hiked the same trail the next weekend. Not a single tick to be plucked.

    • Andrew Skurka March 12, 2015 at 6:29 am #

      Living out West and only hiking back East in off-seasons, I kind of forget about the tick concern back there. Permethrin will definitely help with that. In fact, given that I had at least three people on my trips in Shen (15 people total on two 3-day trips) contract Lyme, I would probably be applying permetrhin on everything I wore.

  7. Albert March 12, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

    I’m a big fan of the Ex Officio BugsAway Halo shirt. Not because the looks or comfort – nothing notable there. It is because of the factory permethrin treatment. It results in a 6-12″ bug free force field. It’s rather amazing. This shirt was battle tested on Skurka’s guided Alaska trip and it did an amazing job keeping the bugs away. In comparison, my pants had spray-on permethrin. There was no force field effect, rather the bugs would land on the pants then instantly fly off. After a few days the effectiveness of the spray-on treatment was largely diminished. I guess the lesson there is factory treatment is much more effective.

  8. Paul Osborn (@bcoutdoor) March 12, 2015 at 3:54 pm #

    Thanks for the recommendations on the Permethrin. I bought a bottle years ago, but haven’t used it on the kids’ clothes due to concerns. We bought Columbia Sportswear bugproof shirts for them instead and they seem to do the trick in the Pacific Northwest.

    I guess I’ll be spending some time at the Sierra Trading Post, checking out their Bugsaway options!

    Several of my close family have contracted Lyme and other tick related diseases. My nephew struggled with it for over 5 years.

    Thanks for the article!

  9. Craig March 14, 2015 at 7:59 am #

    Great thread Andrew. It’s worth checking out fishing shirts from companies like Orvis/Simms/Cabelas. The fishing world has been making bug/sun shirts for a long time.

  10. Heath March 15, 2015 at 8:48 am #

    Great post, thanks for the info. Just as a heads-up to all, permethrin can be toxic to cats so you want to be a little careful with it’s use and storage if you have cats in the house.

  11. Mike March 21, 2015 at 4:27 pm #

    I’m a fan of Rail Riders bug shirts and pants. They’ve held up really well through some heavy use.

  12. Jesse April 30, 2015 at 10:54 pm #

    Is there a currently available non-treated bug shirt you’d recommend for us paranoid folks who prefer to avoid permethrin?

    Is the best bet tightly woven nylon, and accepting that I’ll be hot and sweaty? Is there anything not too stuffy out there?

    • Andrew Skurka May 5, 2015 at 10:00 am #

      Do you have any evidence to support your “paraonia” about permethrin. According to our “mad scientist” at Sierra Designs, “In terms of balancing effectiveness/safety/durability, permethrin is in the sweet spot, at least compared to any competitive technologies.”

      If you want to avoid chemicals, the only alterantive option is to accept being hot and sweaty. The hotter and stuffier the better — if the fabric has high air-permeability, bugs can bite through it.

      • Jesse May 11, 2015 at 3:43 pm #

        Nope, no evidence at all, hence the term “paranoia” – just a personal preference for caution when it comes to wearing insecticides on my body, and the historical perspective that many chemicals long thought safe at low levels of exposure later turned out to have long-term health concerns, like BPA and many agricultural pesticides.

        We don’t know that permethrin is in this category, but without rigorous, large-sample size, long term prospective studies proving no risk to repeated permethrin exposure over decades, I’d rather be a little uncomfortable and keep pesticides off my body wherever possible. If such studies are out there, though, I’d love to know because it would sure make dealing with bugs easier!

        • Sam Weller June 4, 2015 at 9:35 am #

          I absolutely agree with the point about the unknown toxicity of many chemicals and the lack of long term studies. However the prevalence of tick borne disease (Lyme Borrelioisis and the many others) is thought to be under-reported and under-diagnosed. The long term consequences of these type of chronic multi system infections can be very serious and thought should be given to the risk/ benefit of potential permethrin toxicity in areas where exposure to ticks is likely.

    • Doug K August 25, 2015 at 10:56 am #

      not Andrew, but I have been using Columbia nylon long-sleeve shirts as bug shirts, and as basic hiking shirts when in buggy areas. Unbuttoning the front while hiking is usually enough to maintain some kind of comfort/breathability. Also have some cheap cotton/poly blend l/s shirts that work surprisingly well – with enough poly the shirt does not wet out like cotton, dries fast, and the blend is tough enough to stop mozzies.

  13. Daniel July 21, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

    What about bug pants? Are they necessary in heavily buggy areas, or do the treated shirts work well enough to repel insects across your entire body?

    • Andrew Skurka July 21, 2015 at 2:53 pm #

      Most pants, especially stretch woven nylon pants, are naturally insect-resistant or -proof because the fabric is too thick or too tight for insects to bite through. That said, my concern is normally flying insects, not ticks, and if I were dealing with the latter I would also insist that my pants be permethrin-treated.

  14. PS March 23, 2016 at 7:04 am #

    Anything new in 2016 that you might suggest for a bug shirt (either treated or not as I’ll do it myself if it doesn’t come that way) that would be good for high heat and humidity and heavy exertion environments?

    I’ll be off to central Brazil at the end of July for a mission trip to build housing and am working on the “perfect kit” for a minimal pack. It’ll be up to the 90’s + during the day and bright sunshine and I’ll be shoveling dirt, hauling brick etc.

    thx,
    P

    • Andrew Skurka March 23, 2016 at 8:57 am #

      In those conditions, I would stay away from tightly woven shirts with little air permeability. Instead, go with a treated knit.

      My current favorite knit is the Sierra Designs Long-Sleeve Pack Polo (long-term review). It is awesomely breathable, and it would make a killer shirt in those conditions with a DIY treatment or with a treatment applied by InsectShield, the latter of which will probably be more durable.

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