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Preventing and Treating Mosquito Bites in the Backcountry

How do we protect ourselves from getting eaten alive? Bug spray repellent and mosquito nets are the short, easy answers.

By: Kristen Fuller + Save to a List

Mosquitoes are some of the most adaptable and successful insects on Earth and are found in some extraordinary places. Virtually any natural or man-made collection of water can support mosquito production, hence why they flood the Eastern Sierra every summer due to all the natural sub-alpine and alpine lakes in the area. Mosquitoes can live at nearly any elevation as they have been discovered in mines a mile below the surface, and on mountain peaks at 14,000 feet. Approximately 176 species of mosquitoes are found in the United States, and only a few of these species are important as carriers of disease-causing infectious diseases in the U.S., but many more are important nuisance species that dramatically affect peoples’ quality of life. You truly have not yet experienced summer in the Eastern Sierra if you haven’t been eaten alive by mosquitoes.

The Life Cycle of a Mosquito

According to the centers for disease control and prevention, the mosquito goes through four separate and distinct stages of its life cycle: Egg, Larva, Pupa, and Adult. Each of these stages can be easily recognized by its special appearance.

How long each stage lasts depends on both temperature and species characteristics. For instance, Culex tarsalis, a common California mosquito, might go through its life cycle in 14 days at 70° F and take only 10 days at 80° F. On the other hand, some species have naturally adapted to go through their entire life cycle in as little as four days or as long as one month. In the Eastern Sierra, warm summers follow frigid cold winters and some species of mosquitoes emerge from hibernation during early summer, while other mosquitoes are born from eggs that were laid last year. Nearly all females must start looking for human blood to feed on after they have mated, in order to produce eggs. Mosquitos that hibernate need warm weather to become active, while mosquitoes that spend the winter, as un-hatched, laying eggs need rainfall, standing water, or melted lakes to flood the eggs and make them hatch. Peak mosquito season in the Eastern Sierra depends on when the snow begins to melt, which of course depends on the level of the snowpack during the previous winter. Usually, the peak mosquito season ranges from mid-June to the end of July.

So with all this mosquito knowledge, how do we protect ourselves from getting eaten alive? Bug spray repellent and mosquito nets are the short, easy answers.

Mosquito repellents

I seem to be extremely prone to mosquitoes and as a result, I have tried every preventable measure under the sun from all-natural remedies and natural repellents such as essential oils, oil of lemon eucalyptus, citronella, garlic, and non-chemical repellents to heavy-duty chemical deterrents and bug spray. I personally have found that chemical insect repellents and physical barriers such as mosquito nets are the only methods of mosquito prevention that work for me.

Mosquito repellents are sold as aerosols, creams, solids (sticks), pump sprays, and liquids. Use repellents containing active ingredients such as diethyl phthalate, diethyl carbate; N, N-Diethyl-3-Methylbenzamide (DEET), metofluthrin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, picaridin, and ethyl hexanediol. For more than 50 years, DEET has been the gold standard in mosquito repellents. Check the label for these active ingredients. Repellents do not kill mosquitoes and other insects, but they will help deter them from biting people.

I have tried all the above ingredients but I have found through my personal experience after spending decades in the outdoors, that DEET is the best repellent that works to keep the mosquitoes away from me.

Permethrin-containing products are recommended for use only to treat clothing, and gear, never on the skin. Permethrin was a huge game-changer for me. At the beginning of every summer, I wash all of my outdoor clothes and spray each garment with Permethrin and let it dry for a few hours. I usually go through 3 bottles of permethrin each summer to treat approximately 20 garments, including socks, undies, and sports bras. Permethrin-treated clothing can be worn for multiple washes so I only have to treat my outdoors wardrobe once per year! Permethrin-treated clothing repels and kills ticks, mosquitoes, and other arthropods. Always follow the label directions when treating clothes or outerwear with EPA registered permethrin products approved for that specific use.

Always check yourself and your dog for ticks at the end of your hike or backcountry day!

Mosquito nets to prevent mosquito bites

After a couple of years, I finally invested in a mosquito net that covers my head and entire upper body. I carry this with me on every summer day hike or multi-day backpacking trip as this is a lifesaver. It is not the most attractive garment but it works wonders for keeping the mosquitoes (and flies) from feeding off of you!

Mosquito treatment

Even with DEET, permethrin-treated clothes, and mosquito head nets, bites still happen because well, mosquitoes are pesty little guys! I always carry travel-size packets of Tecnu Calagel Anti-Itch Gel everywhere I go and apply immediately after a bite, whether it is from a mosquito or a biting fly, or even a bee sting. Calagel also works great for sunburns, cooking burns, scratches, wounds, and rashes. I have a bottle stored in each one of my first aid kits in my home and car and of course, travel-sized packets for my backcountry first-aid kit! Tecnu is tried and true skincare first-aid brand for the outdoors. They have a wide array of washes, scrubs, lotions, and sprays to help treat poison ivy, oak, and sumac as well and bites, burns, and stings.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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