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How to Repel Bugs While Hunting

While we pursue our game, we're also the hunted! Here's how to deal with blood-thirsty insects in the field.

How to Repel Bugs While Hunting

There are billions of insects that live to suck our blood and eat our flesh while coincidentally infecting us with debilitating diseases. Malaria, yellow fever, Nile fever, dengue fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease are a few of the better known illnesses transported by some of our six-legged co-inhabitants.

It makes no difference whether you are on the Mosquito Flats of Alaska or the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, bugs still find us, smell us out and enthusiastically feed on us.

I can personally attest that the Mosquito Flats were well named because I worked there for a summer. Each time anyone walked outside of a tent they were followed by a cloud of pursuing mosquitoes. While the mosquitoes were content with a blood meal, the white socks (so named because the bottoms of their feet are white) took a plug of flesh. Blood seeping from the bite telegraphed all their buddies that a free meal was nearby.

Anytime a light was on inside a tent, thousands of insects hitting the tent's walls sounded like rain. One commonly told campfire tale featured animals and men who were driven mad by clouds of mosquitoes and blindly jumped off cliffs.

Even in the high vastness of the Rocky Mountains, the expanses of the Great Plain states and the desert southwest, the buzzing hordes find us anytime there is open water and a few days of sunshine.

Parasitic insects are an amazingly successful group of adaptable insects that are everywhere we go. So, how can we avoid being their next meal?


When camping any spot that is exposed to wind will make it more difficult for mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies and sand gnats to approach. Similarly, clear areas away from water offer some protection from black flies that prefer woody habitats. The caution is that tents should not be so exposed as to become lightning rods or in danger of being blown away by a storm.

Location is no protection against hitch-along insects like ticks and red bugs that hop aboard as we walk by. Tall grass in pastures where herd animals regularly graze may contain millions of ticks and fleas. Once these insects are on your clothing they crawl around searching for a good place to attach, release the enzymes to promote blood flow and proceed to feed.

Physical Barriers

Not all hunting is done in cold weather. Spring turkey seasons as well as early-season archery hunts can take place in 80 or 90 degree weather in some regions. Anyone who hunts multiple seasons in many locations can count on finding some bugs looking for a meal.

Mosquitoes can wiggle their flexible proboscises through the weave of soft cotton fabrics. Many people choose canvas for their basic outdoor clothing. Blue jean cloth works fairly well, but the oiled canvas used in Filson's famous Tin Pants is better. The fabric in these garments has a higher thread count and offers nearly 100 percent protection against mosquitoes, but unfortunately not against bears.

In the South and Mid-Atlantic states, it is too hot to wear dense fabrics, and clothing employing one or more layers of net-woven fabric is used to push the surface of the garment away from the skin. Head and neck coverings are made of close-woven nets that sometimes extend from the top of the cap to the shoulders or as an over-suite worn outside camouflage clothing.

Insect repellants containing DEETr
Insect repellants containing DEET are another line of defense against biting bugs on a hunt. Photo by Wm Hovey Smith.

To avoid using smelly insect repellents during archery season, I have sometimes attempted to cover up with multiple layers of mesh clothing. With two head nets and two layers of gloves I could avoid most bites so long as the netting was not stretched taunt across body parts such as the knees. I finally decided that by the time I sweated walking into my stand, putting on the mesh over-garments and climbing my tree that I stank so bad that the odor from insect repellents did not matter. It was more important to be downwind of the animal.

Shannon Outdoors has been an innovator for lightweight camo-patterned bug gear and now offers both conventional and leaf-cut outwear. This mesh overlay concept has also been used by other makers and sold by a variety of brand-named products by Cabela's, Bass Pro and other retailers. Cabela's also sells an against-the-skin under-layer product, called BUGskinz, which offers protection against ticks and chiggers. Although retaining body heat, the BUGskinz combined with over-layer bug garments, offers as nearly a complete bug-protection system as can be had, short of an astronaut's suite.

Liquid Repellents

During the 1970s liquid repellents such as Off formed the mainstay of my first-line bug repellents. While these were better than nothing, DEET-based repellents that were developed during the Vietnam War proved to be a superior mosquito and tick repellent, but could initially only be applied to exterior clothing.

DEET-containing lotions are now available that may be used on the skin. I used all of the then-available liquid propellants at the Mosquito Flats, which had the highest density of mosquitoes that I have ever experienced -- even worse than in Florida's Everglades. The repellents mostly worked, but I would usually get nailed several times a day after I got wet or the repellents sweated off.


Smudges and Smokes

Smoke from campfires or other sources seem to keep flying insects away. Citronella and lemongrass oil candles are commonly used in many camps. Citronella works by disguising the body's CO 2 and lactic acid discharges that attract insects.

An American-made product, which has been used in Alaska since the 1890s Gold Rush is Buhac Power, which is ground pyrethrum blossoms. This powder has combined uses as a flea powder for treating carpets, to impregnate clothing, and I used a pinch of the powder to burn at night to kill the bugs inside my tent before going to sleep.

The most recent technological application of smudge-products has been don

e by ThermaCell and Off. Replaceable impregnated pads containing d-cis/trans alletherin and metofluthrin are heated to release the chemicals. The resulting vapors repel biting insects. I have used ThermaCells very effectively in Canada, Alaska and other U.S. locations.

Although both brand's plastic carriers contain heating elements, they may be carried in a belt pouch, hung nearby when in a tree stand or used inside a tent. Both the fuel (pressurized butane gas in ThermaCells and batteries in Off) and the repellent-carrying wafers are replaceable.

One advantage of the Off unit is that they are allowed aboard aircraft.

For long sits in deer stands, these are the best insect-repelling systems that I have found.

Summing It

The optimum strategy to keep from becoming a bug's meal is to be in a windy area, stay away from vegetation, avoid areas frequented by herd animals, cover exposed skin and employ an appropriate chemical protection. After being outdoors, shower and check carefully for ticks. Keep in mind that seed ticks may be no larger than a sand grain.

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