Wandering Around Out There With A Canoe On My Head

Repelling Bugs

It may be great advice to avoid bugs, doing whatever you can not to attract them, but just like those boring chatty guys at parties, some of them will eventually find you. Basically biting bugs are attracted to carbon dioxide and heat, both of which you expel regularly and by necessity. So often your only choice is to bring out the big guns and find some way to repel them. So let’s discuss some of the ways to keep those bugs away.


Did you know that mosquitoes have been known to bit 4cm away from apllied repellent? This is why the most common strategy for keeping the bugs away is to apply bug spray all over any exposed skin. There are many types of repellents out there, and each has its pros and cons. Some are smelly, sticky, bad for the environment, bad for you health, or just not very effective. Whatever type you use, make sure you get one that focuses on keeping away the type of insect that will be out where you’re going. Most target mosquitoes, but if you’re going out into the Canadian wilderness, you should also make sure they’ll repel black flies and ticks.

The Chemicals

Deet is the most popular main ingredient out there right now. It’s been proven effective over many years, and is currently considered the best option. It’s also pretty long lasting, some brands suggesting up to 8 hours. Practically though, after sweating and moving around, or by getting wet, it will reduce the length of the spray’s effectiveness. The brand of bug spray doesn’t seem to affect how well the bugs stay away so much as the amount of deet being used, but there are people with strong brand preference (I do not have a brand preference). I know some people who swear that bugs get accustomed to some brands or types, and so bring several different types to switch when one isn’t working.

Unfortunately it’s a pretty bad-ass chemical. It’s technical names are diethyltoluamide or diethyl-3-methylbenzamide, and so the popular name Deet certainly sounds much more appealing. Some people get headaches and red burning skin to varying degrees. It can also cause numbing and/or tingling in areas – especially the mouth – and can cause irritation in areas like the eyes. It’s also pretty gross to accidentally taste it. Don’t apply it under your clothes, as it will absorb into your skin more readily increasing the chance of irritation. Speaking of which, Deet is actually damaging to synthetic materials used to make tents and some clothes. It’s a solvent, and will eventually disintegrate the material. I should mention that there are rumours that deet will cause cancer, but most sources suggest that the chances are not very likely. They do however recommend that you use it in accordance with the directions on the label. Oh, and finally, it stinks.

In Canada, they allow for only a 30% concentration of Deet, but elsewhere you can get some pretty high amounts. For children from 2-12 they suggest no more than 10%, and not to be applied more than 3 times a day. It’s not recommended for children younger than 2, and for any of the young children, they suggest you keep it away from them, and not applying it by spraying, rather rubbing it on their skin. They do make bug jackets for kids and even babies, which is a great alternative to applying chemicals to young kids.

Picaridin (Bayrepel) on the other hand, is a deet alternative that claims to be odourless, colourless, safe on clothing and plastics, non-toxic and non-irritating. They say it’s just as effective if not more than deet. Sound too good to be true? Well, I have no idea. I’ve heard and read great things about it, but it’s not available in Canada. I will update this post as soon as I get a chance to try it out myself.

Non Chemical Based

Most people will tell you that you can either use a chemical based repellent like deet and suffer the side-effects or try a more natural option and get bit. I think that’s a little unfair, if not inaccurate, but it does seem that the non-chemical options aren’t as powerful and don’t last as long. To some people having to apply more often and dealing with a few more bites is a small price to pay compared to the stink and stick of the chemical options. Some of these options include oils made up of lavender, citronella, soybean and lemon eucalyptus – listed in order of which lasts longer, but sadly none are as effective at keeping away the bugs as well as the chemicals.

One item that I had high hopes for was a vitamin B1 solution called the Insect Defend Patch. I got some samples at an outdoor show, then read all I could about it. It sticks to you like a nicotine patch and the repellent flows out of your pores, and even claims up to 36 hours of protection. I’ve since talked to some people who are very much in love with this product because there’s no re-applying, no sticky stuff on your skin and no smell.

I tried it out on a weekend solo trip up the Mattawa river. I was a little disappointed that there weren’t a lot of bugs out to make for a better experiment, but with as few mosquitoes that I encountered, I was still getting bit. They will tell you that because it needs to be released through your skin, you may have to wait a couple of hours to work, but this can be accelerated by some activity to get the blood and chemicals flowing. After applying the patch in the morning, and after a half day of paddling, I had got caught by a sudden wind coming around a bend near the take out. I furiously paddled trying to keep the boat straight pretty steady for about a 45 minute workout. After tying the boat, I rolled onto the dock in exhaustion to lie there a moment to catch my breath. After the 6th or 7th bite while lying there, I concluded that the patch clearly wasn’t working.

Other ways to repel bugs

Other proven methods that can keep the bugs away are smoke and breeze. Try a fan at home, it works. In the bush it’s more about taking advantage of rather than creating breeze, so try and set up camp where they’ll be a nice cross breeze. Smoke is something you can take advantage of by creating a fire – something you’re probably going to do anyway. Once the fire gets going, you can create a bit more smoke by throwing on some dried foliage and pine needles – which cleans up the campsite as a bonus. Some people also suggest some green needles as the smell will repel the bugs, but I really don’t like the idea of burning anything that’s still alive. Unfortunately, both breeze (in the cold) and smoke can cause some annoyance to us humans, but I think we’d all agree that it’s less than that caused by getting bit a few thousand times.

Not worth carrying over the portage

I’ve found that unless you’re sitting on a citronella candle, it’s really not worth bringing on a canoe camping trip. Mosquito coils are also pretty useless. Both would be effective in the confines of a tent, but you should never do that! Modern tent materials are flammable, or will melt very easily, and with everything being too easy to tip over in a tent, it’s just a bad idea.

What just plain doesn’t work

There are a lot of options and products out there that claim to work, the most popular are those “ultra-sonic” devices. Most of them claim that they give off a sound similar to the dragon fly, which is the mosquito’s main predator. The theory sounds interesting, and even makes sense, but in reality they either don’t do a well enough imitation or the bugs just don’t care. (Maybe they’re giving bugs too much credit for being smart enough to figure that one out.) Chances are, anything that isn’t widely used but claims to work, probably doesn’t. People hate bugs, and will do just about anything to keep them away. If a new product worked as good as it claims it would be adopted immediately, by just about everyone.

Read more about dealing with bugs

  • Well I would agree that bugs are anoying but also needed. I live in the muskoka area where mosquitos and black flies are a big problem!!!!! This spring more than usual due to flooding in the area and more standing waters. I hate bugs like most ppl so i have tried about every remedy known to man- and a few more lol
    Ive tried many name brands of repellent but nothing work like a smokey fire!! I also smoke cigaretts while i am not close to the fire which does help to reduce the number of bugs irratating me but it seems like I need to have a smoke burning constantly which is less than desireable and unhealthy!! If anyone knows a better idea how to rid us of blackflies please let us know!!

  • The only sure-fire way to avoid getting bit is camping in fall or winter. Any other time of year we resort to lathering up the Deet and using it twice throughout the day. Breakfast time and dinner time.

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