When Nature Sucks: Dealing with Mosquitoes and Ticks

It’s a jungle out there…

The outdoors are amazing – majestic views, beautiful flora and fauna, the chance to move your body and free your mind. The outdoors can also be a miserable experience – sudden blizzards, dried up creeks and streams, pack rash, and cranky porcupines. And then… there are the mosquitoes and ticks. You find out quickly the only thing you have control over is your attitude and your gear. Bug spray goes a long way to helping the first and is a must-have for the second.  

Mosquitoes suck. Ticks suck. And both can be dangerous.

The American Mosquito Control Association (it’s a real thing, look it up) mentions mosquitoes can carry and transmit malaria, yellow fever, West Nile virus, Dengue, and much more. And ticks – gah. Ticks can really mess you up, too. The CDC mentions several diseases, including lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and tularemia. There were a few hikers in my bubble on the A.T. that had to leave trail for weeks or even permanently due to contracting lyme disease.

Yes, there are a lot of things outdoors that can make you have a bad day. And we won’t even talk about how much the entire country of Australia tries to kill you. Both mosquitoes and ticks love to be where the humans are, whether a grassy prairie or an overgrown swamp (like the featured picture). But we can prepare for many of these things, including mosquitoes and ticks, and try to decrease our chances of illness and increase the fun factor outdoors.

Mosquitoes and Ticks

Prevention: bug spray. I know the outdoor camp is pretty divided on this. Many nature lovers prefer organic food and natural sprays or creams, and would never use harsh chemicals that must be applied directly to skin. Many people in this camp tend to gravitate to treatments like rubbing mint (or anything from the mint family) directly onto skin; citronella, eucalyptus, and other oils; even devices that claim to emit a frequency that repels mosquitoes (newsflash: it’s not a thing). Sometimes these natural remedies seem to work for folks – they’ve just never worked for me.

I use DEET. Yes, I know it’s a harsh chemical bug repellent, but it’s always been very effective for me. [Note to people with kids: the AAP suggests a repellent with less than 30% DEET for children older than two months.] But even the New England Journal of Medicine backs me up: DEET works. There’s a Repel 100 spray with 98% DEET that I carried most of trail because it was compact and inexpensive, but that’s overkill. The efficacy between 30% and 98% doesn’t really increase, so going with a 30% one should be OK.

Brief tangent here: Some people have concerns that DEET can cause cancer or harmful side effects. As far as cancer, researchers have found no evidence that DEET causes cancer in humans or animals, and it is currently classified by the EPA as “not classifiable as a human carcinogen.” For harmful side effects, if it gets in your eyes it may cause them to sting and water. If you leave it on your skin for a long period of time, it could cause irritation. (It never did for me, but it could.) If you drink it, it could cause nausea and vomiting. Y’all, don’t drink DEET, ok?

I also use permethrin. I have a big bottle of Sawyer permethrin that I use before every trip. I spray my tent, sleeping bag, silk sleep sack, clothes, boots, gaiters, pack, hammock, and anything else I can think of. It’s good throughout a few washings of clothes and gear.

permethrin

You can carry a lightweight mosquito headnet if you’re going to be adventuring in areas with lots of mosquitoes, like those New Jersey swamp boardwalks. I’m not going to lie – the nets aren’t comfortable, and get really hot and sweaty, and you look ridiculous. But they keep the mosquitoes out of your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears, and that’s beyond precious outdoors where there are few comforts. I was so glad to have my net with me on the few occasions I used it.

Ticks love to hang out – literally. They’ll hang off of high grasses and attach to whatever comes along, like hiking pants, backpacks, or dogs. I know it’s not always possible to avoid areas with high grass or lots of leaves, but try to walk in the center or the trail as much as possible. Tuck your pants into your boots (or gaiters). And make sure that when you are done hiking, you check for ticks. Remember, ticks especially like sweaty areas, so make sure you check your arm pits, scalp, behind your knees, and your groin. This can be a fun way to make friends (joking/not joking).

Even with lots of repellent and head nets and staying away from stagnant water and not running through brush, you’ll probably still get bitten. That’s nature. Make sure your first aid kit contains some hydrocortisone cream or benadryl. (Your kit should contain benadryl anyway in case of allergic reactions.) If you need to remove a tick, don’t try to do something fancy. Just grab the whole tick with tweezers and pull. If you have a tick key and know how to use it properly, go ahead. Don’t get caught up in some of the crazy methods you’ve heard (holding a lit match or cigarette next to it, smothering it in vaseline, corkscrewing it out) – just tweeze it.

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