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Michigan Backcountry Search and Rescue (MiBSAR)
Essential biting-insect gear primer

Michael Neiger
Marquette, Michigan
© Copyright 2008


Page contents
     • Permethrin clothing treatment
Insect repellents
     • Head nets
     • Bug jackets and pants
Smudge-creating bug coils
     • Long pants and long-sleeve shirts
Post-bite treatments
If all else fails
     • Vendors of insect-repellent gear
     • Learn more

The musquetoes[sic] continue to infest us
in such manner that we can scarcely exist;
for my own part I am confined by them to my
bier [framework of netting] at least 3/4ths of the time.

My dog even howls with the torture....
they are almost insupportable [unbearable],
they are so numerous that we frequently
get them in our thr[o]ats as we breath.
—Captain Meriwether Lewis, in his July 15, 1806 journal entry,
on the mosquitoes of the Missouri River's Great Falls.

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Permethrin clothing treatment

Consider treating your clothing, hats, bug nets, etc., with permethrin to reduce the number of biting insects that will crawl on or under such items as well as bite through them.

"Sawyer Duranon Permethrin Insect Repellent" image courtesy of Cabela's.

Manufacturers of permethrin-based insect repellent applications include

Sawyer Products

Application to clothing, netting, and fabric involves either spray treatment or liquid soak. Treatments last for several washings.

More About Permethrin, courtesy of Sawyer Products.....

Developed in cooperation with the U.S. Military, government agencies, universities, and others; this Sawyer Clothing repellent offers superior protection from disease-carrying biting insects. The active ingredient, Permethrin, is a synthetic molecule similar to those found in natural pyrethrum which is taken from the Chrysanthemum flower. Not only does this product repel insect, but will actually kill ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers, mites and more than 55 other kinds of insects. Sawyer Permethrin insect repellents are for use with clothing, tents, and other gear. A single application lasts 6 washings. Permethrin is odorless when dry, and during the drying process, it tightly bonds with the fibers of the treated garmet. It will not stain or damage clothing, fabrics, plastics, finished surfaces, or any of your outdoor gear.

Learn even more about Permethrin by reading Permethrin: Insect Repellent for Clothing.

I wonder if it is not within the possibilities of chemical science
to compound an unguent [ointment] protection against flies,
mosquitoes, and most especially midges and sand-flies.

It would be a constant companion in all country excursions....

Some one has recommended crude petroleum,
but it is an open question whether the remedy is not worse than the evil.
—A. L. Rawson, artist and travel writer, in the May 1867 issue
of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, dreaming of an insect repellent
as he explored the south shore of Lake Superior in 1866.

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Insect repellents

While there are lots of insect repellents on the market, many seasoned bush-men and -women who traverse remote, bug-infested bush for days or weeks at a time swear by DEET, or N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide, especially in high concentrations such as 100%.

Out of 8 billion applications
of DEET from 1966 to 1999,
less than 40 instances of toxicity
appeared in the medical literature.
—Dr. Mark Fradin on his study of DEET,
as reported on page 29 of the May 2000
issue of Backpacker Magazine

Apply it to exposed skin, bug netting, clothing, and hats, particularly at those points where your garments will pull tight against your skin—like the shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, etc.—that mosquitoes are known to bite through.

To prevent loss, attach a lanyard loop to your plastic bottle of bug juice using duct tape. The other end of the lanyard should be secured to a belt loop, buttonhole, or a sewn-in lanyard loop in a pocket.

"Ben's Max 100% Deet Formula" image courtesy of Cabela's.

Manufacturers of DEET-based insect repellents include:

Sawyer Products
Tec Labs

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) position on DEET in its March 23, 2007 fact sheet entitled The Insect Repellent DEET ...

After completing a comprehensive re-assessment of DEET, EPA concluded that, as long as consumers follow label directions and take proper precautions, insect repellents containing DEET do not present a health concern. Human exposure is expected to be brief, and long-term exposure is not expected. Based on extensive toxicity testing, the Agency believes that the normal use of DEET does not present a health concern to the general population. EPA completed this review and issued its reregistration decision (called a RED) in 1998.... Read more on this subject.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) use-and-application recommendations on DEET in its March 23, 2007 fact sheet entitled The Insect Repellent DEET ...

Read and follow all directions and precautions on this product label.
Do not apply over cuts, wounds, or irritated skin.
Do not apply to hands or near eyes and mouth of young children.
Do not allow young children to apply this product.
Use just enough repellent to cover exposed skin and/or clothing.
Do not use under clothing.
Avoid over-application of this product.
After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water.
Wash treated clothing before wearing it again.
Use of this product may cause skin reactions in rare cases.
Do not spray in enclosed areas.
To apply [aerosol and pump spray formulations] to face, spray on hands first and then rub on face.
Do not spray directly onto face.

In the June 2006 (and June 2008) issue of Consumer Reports, testers reported on their study of the effectiveness of 18 different insect repellents against deer ticks and two groups of mosquitoes. The results of this study revealed a very strong association between the concentration of DEET and the repellents effectiveness with regard to two species of mosquitoes: they concluded Deep Woods Off, with its 98-percent concentration of DEET, was the longest lasting mosquito repellent of the group.

1880s-era bug dope...

Pine tar was the primary ingredient in an old, highly-touted recipe for bug dope. Published in the Forest and Stream magazine during the summer of 1880, it consisted of three substances:

3 ounces of pine tar*
2 ounces of castor oil**
1 ounce of pennyroyal oil***

A Daniel Boone-type outdoorsman named George W. Sears—whose pen name was Nessmuk—wrote in his 1920 book Woodcraft that this "recipe is infallible" and "I have never known it to fail." Sears described how to cook up this 1880 concoction and how to apply it in the bush to repel biting insects—which he referred to as "venomous little wretches":

Simmer all [three substances] together over a slow fire, and bottle for use. You will hardly need more than a two-ounce vial full in a season....Rub it in thoroughly and liberally at first, and after you have established a good glaze, a little replenishing from day to day will be sufficient. And don't fool with soap and towels where insects are plenty. A good safe coat of this varnish grows better the longer it is kept on—and it is cleanly and wholesome. If you get your face and hands crocky or smutty about the camp-fire, wet the corner of your handkerchief and rug it off, not forgetting to apply the varnish at once.

Sears also described how this varnish changed his appearance: "I found the mixture gave one's face the ruddy tanned look supposed to be indicative of health and hard muscle."
    * Pine tar. Pine tar was a thick, very viscid (sticky), blackish-brown, oily substance with a burnt, turpentine-like odor. Obtained from the wood of pine trees through a process known as destructive distillation, pine tar was often used in the manufacture of soap, roofing material, paint, and medications such as expectorants, antiseptics, and disinfectants.
    ** Castor oil. Castor oil was a viscid, fatty liquid expressed or extracted from the bean of the castor-oil—or Ricinus comunis—plant. A member of the spurge—or Euphorbiaceae—family, the castor-oil plant was an Asiatic and African herb that grew shrub-like in temperate climates and tree-like in the tropics. When refined, the nearly colorless and odorless oil had a mild, but highly-nauseating, taste. The presence of ricin and other toxic compounds in the oil-rich castor bean—which was actually a large seed—made it very poisonous when eaten.
    Sometimes referred to as ricinus oil, castor oil has been used since antiquity: the Sumerians (Sumer was part of ancient Babylonia) used it to make soap and the Egyptians embalmed their dead with it. Where plentiful, such as in India, castor oil was used as a lamp fuel. The oil was also used as a lubricant, skin softener, and cathartic (purgative). Because of its broad, palmately-lobed leaves, the castor-oil plant was widely cultivated as an ornamental under the name palma Christi.
    *** Pennyroyal oil. Sometimes called hedeoma oil, pennyroyal oil was obtained from the small, pungently-scented leaves of the American Pennyroyal—or Hedeoma pulegioides—plant. Pennyroyal was also called fleamint. A member of the mint—or Labiatae—family, this small, creeping, hairy, eastern North American plant was characterized by tufts of bluish or pale-violet, aromatic flowers and smooth, hairless leaves. Oil of pennyroyal was used in herbal medicines and soaps and as an insectifuge (insect repellent). The pennyroyal name may well be a corruption of pulioll-royall, an old herbalist's term for Pulegium regium, named for its ability to deter fleas, or pulices.


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Head nets

A no-see-um-proof head net can be a welcome refuge from swarms of biting insects.

"Deluxe Spring Ring Headnet" image courtesy of Outdoor Research.

Manufacturers of head nets include:

Atwater Carey
Buzz Off Outdoor Wear
Liberty Mountain
Log House Designs
Mosquito Control
The Original Bug Shirt
Outdoor Research
Sea to Summit

If a head net is critical to your sanity, carry a spare in your rucksack.

You can also improvise one by tying two bandanas together at their four corners.


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Bug jackets and pants

A no-see-um-proof bug suit—hooded jacket and pants—are popular among some wilderness trippers.

"The Original Bug Shirt" image courtesy of The Original Bug Shirt.


"No-See-Um Bug Jacket" image courtesy of Campmor.


"No-See-Um Bug Pants" image courtesy of Campmor.

For extra protection, bug jackets and pants—especially where their netting comes in contact with your skin and mosquitoes will bit right though it—can be pretreated with permethrin and/or DEET.

Manufacturers of bug suits include:

Bug Tamer
Buzz Off Outdoor Wear
The Original Bug Shirt


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Smudge-creating bug coils

Bug coils that create a smudge-like fog can help keep biting insects at bay, especially when confined a bit by a overhead tarp.

"PIC Mosquito Repellent Coils" image courtesy of PIC Corporation.

Manufactured by the PIC Corporation and Coghlans, mosquito coils help keep the bugs at bay during lunch and around camp. Since a bug coil started a ground fire on one of our past trips, make absolutely sure you set the little, metal coil-holder atop a piece of aluminum.

Unbroken coils are placed atop the holder; broken coil segments are supported by a small notch in the holder.

One way to carry and use bug coils in the bush is to break the coils up into two- to three-inch long segments and pack them, surrounded by a bit of toilet paper or paper towel for padding, in a metal Altoids' or Sucrets' container. The metal coil holder can also be carried in the metal container. This compact setup will prevent additional breakage during transport.

The male mosquito is a gentlemen, who sips daintily of nectar
and minds his own business, while madame his spouse is a whining,
peevish, venomous virago that goes about seeking whose nerves she
may unstring and whose blood she may devour...

Among ticks, fleas, chiggers, and the whole legion of blood-thirsty,
stinging flies and midges, it is only the female that attacks man and beast.
—Horace Kephart, in his 1917 book entitled Camping and Woodcraft, on the female mosquito.


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Long pants and long-sleeve shirts

To form an effective physical barrier against biting insects, consider wearing light-colored (some bugs love dark colors, particularly blue), tightly-woven, loosely-fitting, breathable, long-sleeved shirts and pants.

Keep in mind that while mosquitoes won't crawl under clothing, they will bite through all but the tightest of fabric weaves—especially where the fabric pulls tight against the skin—since they are equipped with very long proboscises.

On the other hand, while black flies don't generally bite through most fabrics, they love to crawl under clothing to get a meal.

To reduce the chances of crawling insects—especially black flies—from getting under your clothing, wipe the insides and outsides of cuffs, collars, and button-closed openings with DEET. Secure pant-leg-cuff openings by tucking them in socks and wearing short, ankle-style gaiters.

The mosquitoes...are very troublesome to me.

Their bite is so poisonous as to cause
the flesh to swell and burn for several days,
and finally to become a running sore.

This has been the case with my face.

One bit me last night under the left eye,
and I am now almost blind....

Their bite is so poisonous that my flesh
becomes swollen & inflamed,
and large sores are formed over my face, neck & hands.
—Charles W. Penny, a Detroit, Michigan merchant
with the 1840 Douglass Houghton Expedition to Lake Superior,
on how troublesome the mosquitoes were along the south shore of Lake Superior.


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Post-bite treatments

If itchy welts from biting insects are a problem for you, consider carrying a post-bite remedy.

"After Bite: The Itch Eraser" image courtesy of Forestry Suppliers, Inc.

Manufacturers of after-bite treatments include:

After Bite
Bite Rx
Burt's Bees

Field-expedient remedies may include toothpaste, ice, wet compresses, or even a daub of mud. Some wilderness trippers have had success with a simple counterirritant: using your fingernail, visibly indent the skin atop the site in the shape of an X.

Pitching tents, gathering balsam boughs to make our
bed to sleep on, cutting wood, all of us did
our part while Nolan, the [Indian] cook, was preparing supper.

The mosquitoes were very numerous and bothersome,
and the Admiral who had spent all his life in the woods,
showed us how to pitch our tent, banking it with earth,
and upon retiring to carefully roll and pin the door
so that the annoying pests could not enter,
we would then burn off the wings of the flies
as they would alight on the walls of the tent with a candle,
crawl into our blankets and rest in peace and comfort.
—Philo M. Everett, a prospector, on how he and his party managed
mosquitoes along the south shore of Lake Superior in 1845.


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If all else fails...

If all other strategies fail, and wildfires are not a hazard, create a smudge with a low-impact fire as our fore-fathers and -mothers regularly did when bivouacked.

To turn a fire into a smudge, simply choke it off with a layer of rotten wood, pine needles, grass, or other damp or green vegetation. Once you've thoroughly smudged your clothing, create a low-hanging cloud of smoke in your immediate area by using an overhead tarp to contain it and slow its escape.

Using his lightweight woodstove as a smudge, LandNavMan thwarts hordes of biting insects on a 1997 wilderness canoe trip in Canada. (Photo by Michael Neiger)

If you're in dire straits, plaster yourself with Mother Nature's natural and organic repellent—good ol' mud—like animals do. If insects are biting through your clothing, place thin sheets of birch bark under your garments.

You could also try rubbing or crushing conifer fronds and needles—particularly those of the pine and cedar—between your hands, and then spreading this oily residue on your exposed skin.

Insect-repelling oil can also be extracted from conifer fronds and needles, and from the bark of tannin-rich trees, by heating them in a pot of water.

One expert suggests peeling the bark from conifers—namely the spruce—to expose the sap, which can be wiped on exposed skin as a repellent. Another source says a concoction of pipe tobacco steeped in water and smeared on the skin will repel biting insects.

Others have claimed that a number plant products or extracts have insect-repelling properties: catnip, pennyroyal, allspice, bay, cinnamon, garlic, nutmeg, thyme, peppermint, wintergreen, citronella, eucalyptus, geranium, verbena, and lavender.

Native Americans often used bear fat or grease as insect repellent.

It doesn't take but one experience
to convince the amateur of the absolute necessity of fly dopes,
to varnish withal the visible pelt of him [her] in any wilderness trip.

A very well recommended recipe
and one which has no objectionable odour [sic]
is comprised of the following ingredients:

30% Salol [phenyl salicylate]
30% Camphor
40% Heavy Petrolatum (jelly)
—The Canadian National Railways, in their 1927 wilderness guide
entitled Campcraft and Woodlore, on the utility of fly dope.


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Vendors of insect-repellent gear

Ben Meadows
Brigade Quartermasters
Forestry Suppliers, Inc.
Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC)
Piragis Northwoods Company
Recreational Equipment Coop (REI)
U.S. Cavalry


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Learn more...

To learn more about insect repellents, review:

The Insect Repellent Network
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Just before sunset we land on the beach [Miners Beach,
along what is now the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore]
and in a few minutes as we were fixing our tent and baggage
we met several porcupines. We call our camp Porcupine Camp.

Late in the evening we finished our tent, lay on the ground and
fighting mosquitoes, with our Indian guide between us, we fell asleep....

[During a storm the next evening] our tent blew down after the worst
was over and mosquitoes came by the million....

Last night was one of the worst I ever experienced. The mosquitos [sic]
were fiendish and about midnight the midges [these tiny, biting
midges—or punkies—were called no-see-ums by Native Americans]
attacked us.

This is an insect very much smaller than a mosquito
and is shod with red-hot steel-pointed shoes which it stamps into
your flesh always just when you are not looking for it.

It made us perfectly wild.

Judge built fires, opened both ends of the tent, and with brush danced
a wild war dance of half an hour. It grew cooler and our enemy left us
and sank to sleep only to awaken in the morning half frozen.
The thermometer touched 38.
—Columbus H. Hall, a professor of Greek and vice president at Franklin College
in Franklin, Indiana, in his journal entitled Journals in the Michigan Woods: 1883-1912,
on the biting insects he encountered along the south shore of Lake Superior in 1883.



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In God's wilderness
lies the hope of the world,
the great, fresh, unblighted,
unredeemed wilderness.

 — John Muir, 1838-1914
Alaska Wilderness, 1890

If you've been able to read this Web page...
thank a Teacher;
If you've been able to read this Web page in English...
thank a Veteran.
—Author unknown

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by Michael A. Neiger

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