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.
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!
Ah, yes, this would have been a helpful article before that kind of experience. Hope you figured out a system that worked.
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.
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!
Awesome thanks so much
Nylon shirt for bushwalking? With “back panel ventilation helps keep you cool”…..
Extra bonus of being great fire-starter if you get too close.
+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.
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.
Do not you worry the chemical used to treat this clothing may “leach” and penetrate your skin? Is there any chance?
I think you’re deciding between:
1. A so-far unsubstantiated risk of chemicals leaching through your skin, or maybe just touching your skin.
2. Dozens or hundreds of mosquito bites, possible contraction of West Nile (or whatever new virus they’re carrying), and Lyme disease if you backpack in the Appalachians.
Seems like a pretty easy decision to me.
I did see a study about parkinson’s association with permethrin: https://ianrnews.unl.edu/gloves-may-help-prevent-parkinsons, but in the highly concentrated and aqueous agricultural setting. The effect was heavily attenuated by wearing gloves. And if you look at how concentrated agricultural doses are versus those seen in clothes treatment variants, you can see the magnitude is quite severe.
People who are concerned with permethrin exposure (which I suppose includes me, since I bothered to check the literature) are advised to take care when treating their clothes with wet permethrin solution and having it dry thoroughly before use. I use some regular nitrile/cleaning gloves for sure, it always would otherwise drip on me. I wear a mask too (doesn’t everyone have them around these days?) to avoid breathing extra aerosol. Given the concentration, the health benefits are marginal, but is so also the effort?
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
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.
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.
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.
Can’t agree strongly enough with this one! We were backpacking through Vermont on a section of the AP/VLT with my family and everyone was marveling at how the mosquitos were completely ignoring me while they were being eaten alive. Turns out, I’d been taking Benadryl for my allergies and never made the connection. As soon as I stopped taking it once we left the trail I found out I’d been bitten up as much as them, just had no reaction. Knowing that, when I went to Boliva a few months later I never went a day without the Benadryl for a few weeks. Did my best to avoid bites (for obvious reasons) but at least the ones I got kept me from misery.
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.
They do that here is the Sierras too. Hitch a ride that is.
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.
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.
have you seen this? i’m very curious to know if it works …
Have you ever done anything with clothing made from merino wool?
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.
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…
I know this comment is five years old, but I must know–unfortunately it does not what!? 🙂
Unfortunately merino wool does not offer the same physical protection as a woven nylon or polyester 😉
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…
Agreed, I’m curious if there was any particular reason for the switch. Great article Andrew.
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?
Both companies make good shoes. Choose shoes based on how they fit YOU and whether they are designed for your activities.
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.
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.
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! 😉
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
Natural doesn’t necessarily mean safer. There are some very toxic chemicals in plant oils. If you use one of the mainstream repellants the toxicology is pretty well understood. For plant oils, you’re on your own.
My son is headed for the mountains in Kenya in May, 2015. We live in Montreal. Since he is about to begin final exams, I have volunteered to find the clothing he needs for 3 months. He is very worried about the mosquitoes.
He is 25, very far skinned and blond blond hair.
Please help me find clothing I can afford and that will protect him.
Thank you very much for your help.
I’ve worn Railriders clothing -pants and shirts – with the Insectshield protection and I can swear by the results. I don’t wear anything else in bug season. By the way the company that makes the active ingredient in protected clothing is in North Carolina and they will treat clothing for you for a fee (not much in my opinion, if it means safety from deer ticks, etc.). Google Insectshield for the website.
Interesting info. But my system is better. First off, I hike naked. It keeps me cool. I used to carry an extra pint of blood, so when the mozzies got really crazy, and I started to feel lightheaded, I’d just do a quickie, on the trail, blood transfusion. But I kept getting mauled by grizzlies. My new system is better though. Now I cover my whole body in honey. The mozzies stick in it, and the bears just lick with the occasional mauly nibble. So ironic that it comes in that bear bottle, huh? Trust me, one or two bear gnaws is nowhere near as bad as ten thousand mosquito bites to the reproductive organs when you are fifty miles out in the bush, buck naked, I know.
Hi, great info! I live in Honduras where we have lot’s of mosquitos and lot’s of illnesses to go with them…I’m look for non treated woven nylon or woven polyester brands of clothing to protect myself here on a daily basis. I’m coming across lightweight polyester and nylon materials and others that are not 100% polyester or nylon. Being a guy you might not pay attention to women’s clothing but I thought I would ask if you might know of a trustworthy brand of clothing for women that will block mosquito bites. I would sure appreciate your advice!
You have two choices:
1. Tightly woven polyesters and nylons that are very stuffy.
2. Permethrin-treated clothing (of any variety) that has no proven long-term health issues.
Thank you for the advice in this article, Andrew. I participated in a Christmas Bird Count in the Everglades in January and survived the heavy mosquito numbers which far outweighed that of the birds. Some of the mosquitoes were so big they even looked like birds! All kidding aside, we saw at least 50 bird species and I learned how to handle those difficult conditions.
An interesting and informative article. Many of the suggestions here might be highly effective against mosquitoes but I doubt whether any of them would offer much protection against swarms of black flies.
There’s no doubt that clouds of aggressive mosquitoes can ruin your whole day but they can be prevented from biting. No so with black flies (aka buffalo gnats). These buggers land on any clothing and then quickly crawl around until they find a crack in your clothing… and there are plenty of them. They just love to crawl into any seam or zipper or cuff and get UNDER even several layers of clothing and then chomp away, leaving bleeding welts that sometimes last for weeks.
Head nets only make matters worse because after 5 minutes in the “great outdoors” during black fly season, there will be a dozen or more of them INSIDE your head net having a banquet on your blood. They also delight in crawling between your pant top and shirt tail and walk along your waist leaving a line of “tracks” that itch and swell like crazy.
I’m thinking of buying a Hazmat suit or a used astronaut outfit, complete with cooling system. I’m determined to thwart the black fly by sewing my own netting suit – like a mechanic’s overalls – that will have NO openings that aren’t closed tight by Velcro but still will be ventilated. Wish me luck!
Great advice – thanks!
Thx for info n discussions. My 21 year old son, 27 yo daughter n I will be traveling to the Cancun area, Zika environment in jan 2017. Treating clothing- do have comments on ease of use between permethrin aerosol or pump spray?
I would not bother with aftermarket treatments. Instead, buy factory-treated garments. Longer lasting and better guarantee of universal application.
Andrew, what has been your experience with black flies. I’ll be in Vermont in June and hear they are bad then. What if anything would you do differently for black flies than for mosquitoes?
A little bit of experience.
Would do everything the same.
A little off topic here but I was wondering what you think of the headsweats Protech. I’m planning on buying one but recently read several reviews on Amazon saying the drape is too short to keep sun off the lower neck. The whole reason I want the Protech is for the all round sun protection so if it’s very short I don’t think I’d get it.
I always wear a collared shirt in sunny environments, and the ProTech is long enough to cover my neck. If you wear a crew neck, it might not be. Not sure why you would be wearing a crew neck in such a location — seems counter-intuitive.
You’ve probably already seen this but a number of the ExOfficio shirts were capable of mosquito knock downs–but not quickly enough to prevent bites, 2 in less than 5 minutes as reported in Consumer Reports. So I’m wondering if there are any fabrics out there that do provide an actual barrier. Only the LL Bean shirt worked, and an ordinary shirt sprayed with DEET was more effective than etiher, against Andes and Culex mosquitos
Unfortunately DEET will ruin polyester fibers (and maybe merino, too, can’t recall), so it’s not a viable treatment option for clothing.
Any shirt made with tightly woven polyester or nylon will provide a physical barrier. Think, “safari shirt.” If it’s treated with permethrin, too, that’s even better.
thanks what about picaridin? Will it also damage polyester? The literature seems to indicate “no.” Have you tried Picaridin on any clothing fabrics?
Per the product labels, it will not.
No extensive first-hand testing for me with Picaridin. Thankfully I’ve been able to avoid peak bug season for a few years now.
What about the Original Bug Shirt?
I’ve never seen their products first-hand. In fact, I had never even heard of this company.
Just glancing at their products, I don’t see anything that I love. “Very densely woven” materials made of cotton. Bad idea for multi-day outdoor use.
How would I recognize a tightly woven fabric? How do I know that it is tight enough?
Regarding polyester. Any polyester pants is good? Does it have to be 100% polyester?
If the fabric is tightly woven, you’ll struggle to blow air through it if you hold it to your mouth and exhale strongly, and you won’t be able to see much or any individual rays of light through it.
Polyester is preferred to nylon, but is not as tough. It can be blended with some spandex or nylon; stay away from cotton for most locations.
Great! Thank you so much Andrew for getting back to me.
That is very helpful. To go into more detail….
Does it matter how much of other blends is added to the nylon or polyester? Is there a max percentage (i.e. not more than 10% etc.) past which the bug” proofness” does not work that well?
Are there any blends that, when added, are making the pants not bug proof anymore? I see that they are mostly same blends to add elasticity.
Sorry about being so detailed. I just want to get sure that I do the best that I can.
Less is more. But some is okay for the sake of fit. If I were comparing two pants that fit me equally well, and one pair had less spandex than the other, I’d buy the one with less spandex. But if I was comparing two pants, one that didn’t fit me well with no spandex, and one that fit me did fit me well with spandex, I would go with the one that fit me well.
Brilliant article. A must read for anyone bitten to tears by mosquitoes. Thank you
Do you think loose or tight fitted clothes have an advantage? Such as yoga pants?
Thank so much!
Definitely a disadvantage. With tight-fitting clothing, the fabric is flush against the skin, so if the bug can bite through the fabric it will likely connect with skin. Whereas with loose-fitting clothing, the bug can bite through and maybe only reach air on the other side.
Hey Andrew. Great article. If you are in heavy bug pressure areas, do you use anything for hand protection? Looking at the moment for a glove or something lightweight and cool (for summer hiking in the rockies), but for peak skeeter season. Tough finding something both lightweight and mosquito proof. Or do you just spray your hands.
Just a give back here, last year i did some extensive testing across 6 days with different sprays. Deet, MPD and Icaridan. Icaridan was the champ! Also, it has no smell, not a neurotoxin (like deet) and not GREASY like deet. Won’t take any trips without it, no matter what clothing worn.
I started wearing sun gloves a few years ago, and pretty quickly asked where they’d been all my life. Great for protection against sun, brush, sharp rocks, and trekking pole abrasion. They’re not skeeter proof though. You could have them treated by Insect Shield, or maybe look for permethrin-treated models. My historical solution has been a little spritz of DEET that I lather in like hand sani.
Mosquitos do not have any interest in pollen, so your choice of colour in clothing is absolutely irrelevant. The female mosquito needs a blood meal to be able to produce larvae after mating. She bites to take that blood. Get your facts straight.
Yes, you should get your facts straight.
Mosquitoes feed on plant nectar, specifically the sugars, and thus would seem intuitively drawn to flower-colored fabrics. While feeding on plant nectar, they also become accidental pollinators, carrying pollen from one plant to the next.
Aloha Andrew Skurka,
Thank you for the informative article. I have been looking on line for information and products that are “mosquito proof”. Now from your article and the response to comments I feel confident in using woven polyester or nylon such that it is a barrier to the mosey proboscis. I have a farm on the island of Kauai, bordering the woods, and after 5pm the moseys are on full attack. I sometimes work till after sunset and have suffered some severe reactions to the moseys that last 3 days of itchiness. You mention Columbia and Ex Officio as brand names, are there another brands for woven poly or nylon ? Does the weave density (number of threads per cm as an example) or just using poly or nylon of any form do the work of keeping mosey bites out ? Mahalo nui loa, enjoyed your article.
Hi, I recommend VERY HIGHLY the Original Bug Shirt company. The shirts are heavy for backpacking but great for farming or working around the land. I have the cotton and the polyester shirts. No chemicals. Can’t work without one. Mosquitoes are bad but so are deer flies and horse flies. Also works for black flies in May.
curious if you’ve had experience with mosquitos getting through the vents on the back of shirts? i have an exofficio shirt with sizable back vents, running vertically on the left and right. i’m treating the shirt with permethrin, but i fear that mosquitos will fly right in the vents. Headed to the brooks range during peak mosquito season this year…
The vents don’t make sense to me either. Yes, they can get through if they do it just right. If you have some time, it’d be worth sewing them up. And zero loss of performance — the vents might look good in the shop but they don’t do crap in the field for you.