The section between Dawson City, YT, and Fort McPherson, NT, will be memorable for several things. It was the first of my huge pushes: 390 miles long with two weeks of food. This leg was also great training for the upcoming Brooks Range: conditions were cool and damp, my pack was heavy, the route was mountainous, and willow was the best material with which to make fire (no trees). But the most memorable part of this leg will probably be its living up to one of the names that was jokingly suggested for this expedition, “The Great Mosquito Loop.”
How bad were they? It’s all relative, of course, but they were certainly the thickest and most aggressive that I’ve ever experienced. For many consecutive days my ears were filled with a constant high-pitched whine, to the point where I took notice of the rare moments it was absent. I had a string of “worst bugs ever” situations–I thought my campsite had been bad until I dropped into a creek the following day, and I thought the creek was bad until I tried taking a break near a lake, etc. There were nights I stayed moving until 2 a.m., just so I didn’t have to stop and make camp. And I took many impractical routes (i.e. not the path of least resistance) just to minimize them.
I didn’t grow up in a buggy place (southeastern Massachusetts), and I don’t live in one now (Colorado), so I won’t claim to know everything about how to cope with mosquito season. But I’ll offer some tips in this post based on my experience, and perhaps some of the “experts” can chime in with other ideas.
Full-coverage clothing is a must. I’ve been very happy with my GoLite trekking pants and ExOfficio long-sleeve shirt (which has their InsectShield treatment)–it’s rare that I get bit through these garments. My Simblissity gaiters protect my ankles and create a good seal for my lower legs. I’ve been protecting my head with a few different things: I’ve worn the Backpacking Light mosquito headnet extensively, and much prefer it over a no-see-um headnet; I also have a Headsweats visor that I combine with a cheap bandana to protect my neck. The only skin left exposed by this clothing system are my hands, so I carry a .5-oz testtube-like bottle of DEET from Sawyer that I judiciously apply.
Route selection and trip planning
The mosquitoes are generally worst where there is water, green leaves, and blood-filled animals. They don’t fare well in the wind or in cold temperatures. So if you are planning a trip, consider avoiding the peak mosquito hatch that happens just after “green up;” bugs are usually at a minimum by the fall, especially after the first frosts. If you are out in bug season, then plan a route that stays away from marshy lowlands; stick to the ridges and wide rivers where there is usually a breeze. Mosquitoes tend to be most active in the morning and evening, so especially avoid bug-prone areas then.
Try to find open, wind-prone areas that are away from water sources. Tarps can be sufficient during bug season, but you may consider an inner nest or bivy sack, or just a headnet if you’re really hardcore. My current system is the Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid with its Innernet. In the past I’ve used A-frame tarps on conjunction with bivy sacks from Mountain Laurel Designs or Backpacking Light. When you first pull into camp, you’ll probably get swarmed. I’ve found that the swarm calms down once they figure out you’re a tough bite. And they really disperse once I start a smoky fire, by using damp wood or not giving the fire enough air.
State of mind
This is perhaps my best defense against vicious swarms of mosquitoes. It’s just a reality of the wilderness in some parts of the world, especially the parts that I have really taken to (e.g. Alaska), and it’s not something you can fight or stop. It’s just something you deal with. Even horrible bugs are surprisingly tolerable if you take the measures described above. And, finally, I find comfort in knowing that bad bugs are just a temporary feature out here–cooler temperatures and bug-free days are only a month or two away.
For what it’s worth, here’s a personal practice I resorted to while growing up and camping/backpacking in the very boggy Upper Peninsula of Michigan (one of those places in which the mosquitoes are so thick they actually blacken the screens on your windows) …
Problem: You shouldn’t eat your food in your tent, yet you can’t conveniently eat while wearing your head net. Hmm.
Solution: I found it’s worth its weight to have a separate drape of loose mosquito netting to throw over yourself to sit under (with your food in under that netting, protected together with you) to eat undisturbed by the li’l buggers. You can then use the same drape of mosquito netting, suspended from the center top of your pyramid tarp or rain fly later on, to protect yourself there.
I suppose if I had Skurka’s MLD InnerNet, I’d probably bastardize it by cutting it away from the base ‘tub’ and installing snaps along that bottom edge, so I could remove it and replace it, at will. (Hey, that’s how much I hate those humming little bastards.)
Worst mosquitoes ever for me? Working solo at the junction of the Smith and Liard rivers, northern British Columbia. 50+ killed in a one-handed slap on the thigh. I wasn’t wearing the best clothing – quick dry light pants, but their looseness helped a lot (didn’t see loose clothing in your list; even thin clothing will be pretty effective if its not touching the skin – skin tight jeans on the other hand will just will lead to bug-mad craziness). Its odd though how it changes your perception, after experiencing really bad bugs in BC and Alaska, now when they are just light to moderate in my rating, other people are going crazy and slopping on bug dope, when I haven’t even be bothered yet.
I remember the absolute bliss of stopping at Summit Lake in the Rockies along the Alaska Highway on the way back from that job, and going for a virtually bug-free hike in the mountains, with rocky slopes and some wind to keep them at bay. Now if only I’d had my bear-spray to relax about the bears hiding behind every rock……….
I have experience mosquitos like in Canada and Ak in the rice fields of northern california,after the rice is harvested, I headed out across one and the mosquitos were in the grass and engulfed me,esp the legs. I have found in Ca you can minimize the bites by not crossing ricefields and camping approx 100 yards+ from any water or grassesI. Yes wind and smoke help too. What I never see mentioned is once youre in the bag,tent and shut them out,some always manage to get in as you zip up,so you will spend some time getting bit untill youve killed all them sunsabitches..
I forgot to mention the rice field was as bad or worse than my trip from Fortnelson BC to Fairbanks then the arctic circle. i went to Anchorage to Seward area and it wasnt mosquitos as much as black biting knats.
Andrew, I’ve abandoned my bulky heavy RAC gaiters because I couldn’t see the benefit with the added weight. Do you recommend a good light weight ankle gaiter that seems to work for most hikes? I do most my hiking in Arkansas, Tennessee, and on the AT. Thank you!
I like the Simblissity Levagaiter but you can always never get them. If that’s true now, too, try Dirty Girl Gaiters. They’re not as durable but they’ll get the job done for on-trail hiking.
I’ve been considering a MLD mid tent for backpacking with my daughter (14 y.o.) in Canada, mostly in spring, summer and fall. Bugs are usually pretty mild in the locations we choose. Evenings tend to be the worst time. For cost and weight reasons, I’d prefer not to purchase the inner tent.
I’m wondering if a simple mosquito net like the one sold by Sea to Summit might suffice. Cost is around $30. Weight is a few ounces. At that price and weight I could buy one for each of us.
(What I’d really like is your new High Line tent, but I almost never camp solo.)
Any thoughts? Particularly wondering what you might think about my mosquito net idea combined with a polycro groundsheet.
So long as the bugs are not in swarms, that should be adequate protection. Obviously it’s not as good as a fully enclosed system: you might have to swat a few more bugs when you first get inside, and you should probably expect some to find their way in somehow.
I currently use a ZPacks Hexamid solo tent (with inner net) and am considering switching to the tarp only version to drop 5 oz of weight. I do most of my backpacking in Colorado, where the bugs can be bad sometimes but not usually terrible. Thoughts? Should I just go with a headnet or skip the headnet altogether? The shelter sits about 8″ off the ground but can be dropped a bit lower if necessary. My experience is that usually in Colorado once it gets cold (say, after 9 pm) the mosquitoes go away.
Don’t forget about adequate music / audiobooks / podcasts for tuning out the sound from your ears! Even a pair of cheap foam earplugs will block the noise since it’s so high-pitched. I find mosquitoes easier to deal with if I never have to hear them (assuming I’m already protected, physically).
Had an ExOfficio Bugs Away Breez’r shirt. It was a little too much Breez’r and not so much Bugs Away. Little vents towards the back (just out of reach) allowed attacks that the Bugs Away treatment did not fend off. So my question is about venting. ExOfficio Halo has a vent but maybe sort of closable and factory applied treatment with otherwise mechanical barrier? vs. hosing down a looser weave/alternative fabric with primethrin? Thanks.
I wonder if that vented fabric is treated. Even if it is, maybe the bugs are biting you through the large pores. Kind of a dumb feature — it’s like the vents work anyway when wearing a backpack.
I’ve seen a full range of permethrin products — factory-treated, DIY treated, tightly woven nylon, mesh knits, etc. What consistently works is a factory treatment, regardless of the fabric. Last month I had someone on a trip who sent their very light OR Echo Hoody to IS for treatment, and they reported no bites during a 7-day trip in Alaska.
Great reads with good advice. Thank you!