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:
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.
Exactly what I wore
These are not necessarily recommendations, and these certainly are not the only viable options, but below is a list of what I wore (or a modern replacement) on these trips.
- Hiking/bug top: ExOfficio Bugsaway Halo Shirt
- Hiking bottoms: Sierra Designs Stretch Cargo Pant
- Hat: Headsweats ProTech
- Headnet: Sea to Summit Headnet with Insect Shield
- Shoes: Salomon XA Pro 3D
- Gaiters: Simblissity Levagaiter
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.