This is a guest post about insect protection on the trail by Mike Nicosia a passionate hiker and outdoor enthusiast. He’s also the founder of the blog conquerwild.com, a site dedicated to all things camping, hiking and the outdoors.
Insect Protection: Why it matters
Hiking and backpacking are some of the most beneficial things that we can do for our bodies. It’s a great way to increase blood flow to the brain, boost serotonin levels and get our bodies into shape. More about that in our post about the benefits of hiking. Unfortunately, when we spend time on hiking trails, we expose ourselves to pests and insects such as mosquitos, ticks and leeches.
If we don’t take the proper precautions while hiking, we run the risk of being bitten and contracting insect-borne illnesses that can turn any enjoyable backpacking trip into a nightmare. Luckily, there are things that we can all do for insect protection on the trail.
Mosquitoes: Why Are They Dangerous?
Do you know what the most dangerous animal in the world is? It’s not the lion. It’s not the king cobra. It’s not even the great white shark- but the mosquito! This is because of the multitude of illnesses that these insects spread throughout the world.
Malaria is the most prominent mosquito-borne illness. There are about 250 million cases of Malaria reported worldwide every year, resulting in around 1 million deaths. It’s found in over 100 countries, mostly in tropical regions. There are also viruses like West Nile, Zika, Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), Dengue and many more that can cause debilitating illnesses.
If you’re living in any continent other than Antarctica, you’re almost guaranteed to be exposed to mosquitoes. Even if you don’t live in an area where mosquito-borne illness is prominent, mosquitoes are still quite a burden.
About The Mosquito
There are over 3,000 species of mosquito found globally, though not all of them crave your blood. In fact, only female mosquitoes bite humans.
These little suckers have an anticoagulant in their saliva, which makes your blood flow more easily. The human immune system reacts to this anticoagulant by creating an itchy bump, which is how most people recognize mosquito bites.
Mosquitoes have no trouble finding their meals (meaning you and your fellow hikers) because they’re able to detect the carbon dioxide you exhale and the bacteria that rests on your skin. Since everybody has a different amount of bacteria on their skin, mosquitoes may target certain people more than others. However, even if you’re one of the lucky people that are getting mosquito bites less frequently, especially in groups, insect protection is still important as even a single mosquito bite can transmit a serious or even deadly disease.
Protecting Yourself From Mosquitoes While Hiking
If you want to keep your body untouched by mosquitoes while on the trail, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself. First of all, it’s always best to wear long sleeved shirts and pants. This will keep the insects from reaching the skin on your arms and legs. If you’re in an area where mosquitoes are rampant, you should wear a thin, outer layer on top of your clothes. This will keep them from biting through the fabric while also keeping you somewhat cool. Choose lighter colors because mosquitoes tend to be more attracted to dark colors.
If you’re looking to avoid mosquitoes all together, try hiking in the middle of the afternoon when the sun is beaming down in full force. Mosquitoes prefer damp and cool areas. This means that you should also stay away from standing water. This is where mosquitoes lay their eggs.
One of the most effective ways for insect protection and to deter mosquitoes is by wearing insect repellent. Most people recommend using sprays containing DEET. If you want to avoid some of the potentially harmful chemicals in those sprays, you can follow this recipe to make your own natural repellent. Here’s what you’ll need:
- 4oz. spray bottle
- Mortar and pestle
- A strainer
- Apple cider vinegar
- Fresh parsley
Once you have all of your tools and ingredients, here’s what you do:
- Add 1 teaspoon of fresh parsley and 4 oz. of apple cider vinegar into your mortar.
- Use the pestle to grind the parsley leaves into the vinegar for about 1 minute.
- Strain the liquid, filtering out all bits of parsley.
- Pour your strained liquid into the spray bottle and spray away.
Apply this repellent before embarking on a hike. You can put it on your skin, your hair or even your clothes. It’s sure to keep mosquitoes, gnats and other biting flies away. Once it dries, the concoction won’t smell of apple cider vinegar. You should reapply every 2 hours or so.
As an alternate option, you can mix either catnip oil or citronella oil with some baby oil and rub the solution on your skin. This usually works like a charm.
When using long shirts and pants another option is permethrin spray for your clothing. It can provide insect protection for several weeks, even through multiple washes.
Ticks: What Makes Them So Dangerous?
As tiny and inconspicuous as ticks are, they pose quite a threat to hikers. There are over 700 species of tick found globally and some of them can cause serious diseases. In the United States, the deer tick can spread Lyme disease, which is a debilitating illness with flu-like symptoms. While Lyme disease is rarely fatal, it often causes lasting effects.
Other illnesses spread by ticks include Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, babesiosis, tick paralysis (which is quite rare, but mostly found in children) and more. Even if you don’t contract one of these diseases, a tick bite is likely to leave an irritated spot on your skin. Plus, finding one of these mini vampires on your person is always a scary experience.
When a tick is feeding on its host (a human or an animal), they release an anesthetic compound in their saliva. This makes it nearly impossible for a person to feel when they’re being bitten. Ticks have barb-shaped feeders which help them stay attached to their host while feeding. This can last for up to 3 days if the tick isn’t removed. When it’s done feeding, it’ll fall off, fully engorged and full of blood.
How To Protect Yourself From Ticks
Contrary to popular belief, ticks do not jump or fly. Instead, they perform an act called “questing,” where they sit on the edge of a blade of grass with their front legs outstretched. They sit in this position waiting until a worthy host (either a human or an animal) brushes up against it. From there, they grab onto their host and crawl around looking for a place to bite. This is why it’s important to stay away from tall grass, shrubs and wild vegetation while hiking. Always try to remain in the middle of the trail, where you’ll be out of ticks’ reach.
You should always wear a long sleeved shirt and pants. Wear high socks and tuck the bottom of your pants into them. Your clothes should be a light color so that you can easily spot a tick that’s crawling on you.
It’s also very important to wear effective tick repellent when trekking. Sprays containing DEET work the best. These are to be applied to the skin every 2-3 hours, or more frequently if you’re sweating heavily. As for your clothes, you can treat them with permethrin, which repels ticks and bugs such as mosquitoes and is a great option for more permanent insect protection.
As soon as you get home from a hike, immediately throw your clothes into the drier. This will kill any ticks that are lingering on your attire. Then, hit the shower. This will wash off any ticks that have not yet latched onto you.
Perform a full body check (preferably in the nude) and keep an eye out for any little black bumps. Ticks love to hide behind the ears, inside the belly button, under your arms, between your legs, behind your knees, on your head and in your hair.
If you find a tick that’s bitten and latched onto you, here’s what to do:
- Don’t panic. That will only make things worse.
- Grab a pair of tweezers. Use them to grab the tick by its mouth parts, as close to your skin as you can get.
- Pull the tick out in a careful, straight motion. Do not twist.
- Once it’s removed, place the tick into a sealable bag with a few drops of rubbing alcohol.
- Dispose of the bag.
The notion that you should burn a tick is a complete myth. Never do this. Always carry a first aid kit with you while hiking. It should include tweezers, antiseptic wipes and disposable bags. Use antiseptic to clean the site of the bite once the tick has been removed.
A Recipe For Natural Tick Repellent
If you want to opt for a healthier and more eco-friendly tick repellent, then you can make your own at home. Here’s everything you’ll need:
- 2 oz. glass spray bottle
- Geranium oil
- Tea tree oil
- Neem oil
- Peppermint oil
- Citronella oil
- Apple cider vinegar
Here’s what you do:
- Pour 1.5 oz. of apple cider vinegar into your spray bottle.
- Add 1 teaspoon of neem oil.
- Add 40 drops of geranium oil.
- Add 20 drops of citronella oil.
- Add 20 drops of tea tree oil.
- Add 15 drops of peppermint oil.
- Fill the rest of the bottle with water, leaving some air at the top.
- Shake your concoction well and spray it all over your body, clothes, gear and anything else that’s going to be exposed to ticks.
Remember that this recipe is not a magic potion that guarantees you’ll be tick free (neither is DEET spray). You still need to take all of the other preventative measures listed above.
Leeches: Do They Pose Any Danger?
Leeches are some of the notoriously creepy creatures out there. While most of them live in shallow, fresh water, they can also be found on land or in salt water. Leeches are actually a close relative of earthworms. They feast on the blood of fish, reptiles, birds, amphibians and sometimes mammals (which includes humans).
When a leech sucks your blood, it releases an anticoagulant into your body through its saliva. This is what keeps your blood flowing as it feeds. You may bleed for hours after being bitten by a leech, even if the bite itself is quite small.
Luckily, leeches aren’t known to spread any serious illnesses. However, if you receive dozens of leech bites at one time, you could suffer from excess blood loss. This is not a common occurrence, though.
How To Protect Yourself From Leeches
Although leeches don’t generally pose a serious threat to your health, it’s still a good idea to avoid them while out on the trail. Hikers in tropical climates may have to worry about terrestrial leeches (leeches that live on land). In this case, avoid leaning on pieces of vegetation for long periods of time.
If you’re venturing into shallow fresh water during your hike, you might want to consider buying leech socks. These come up past your knees and will help prevent leeches from getting to your feet. It’s also important that you tuck your shirt into your pants while in the water.
If you find a leech on your body, you might want to remove it. Here’s how to safely do that:
- Find a flat, solid object such as a credit card, driver’s license or your fingernail.
- Identify the mouth of the leech, which is where it’s attached to your skin.
- Slide your flat object in between the mouth of the leech and your skin, breaking its seal on you.
- Grab that sucker and toss it back into the water or wherever it came from.
Never burn or squeeze a leech while it’s feeding from you, as this can cause it to regurgitate bacteria back into the bite wound.
Although this may sound crazy, you also have the option of letting the leech finish feeding. After 20 – 30 minutes, the leech will remove itself on its own. This pretty much guarantees a clean removal. If you’re too squeamish to take matters into your own hands, you might want to let the leech handle things on its own.
Once you’ve successfully removed a leech, you’re going to need to clean the bite wound. Rinse off the site of the bite with some water and then clean it with antiseptic. Neosporin works great. Let it dry, then use hydrogen peroxide to clean it again. The peroxide will help to reduce the effects of the anticoagulant, thus slowing your bleeding down.
It’s important that you clean leech bites thoroughly to prevent bacteria from entering your bloodstream.
We should never let pests deter us from hitting the trail. The idea of mosquitoes, ticks and leeches potentially threatening our health is frightening. However, when you take the correct precautions for insect protection, there’s no need to really worry about your well-being.
Always remember to keep a first aid kit with tweezers, antiseptic wipes, hydrogen peroxide, disposable bags, bandaids, gauze and rubbing alcohol with you. It’s also helpful to have at least basic knowledge of wilderness first aid. Don’t forget the ways in which you need to properly remove these pests or how to treat your bites. Most importantly, don’t forget about the ways in which we can try to avoid these creatures in general. When you hike cautiously, there’s no need to live in fear.
These are not the only insects one might encounter, it’s also good to be aware of bees and wasps, spiders, ants and termites and other insects. If you are following general insect protection guidelines in this post such as wearing long clothes and using insect repellant it will keep away other insects as well.