Buggy skies in Canadian subarctic. Photo by Adam Shoalts.

How to choose bug spray and bug nets

Like fresh air and forests, bugs are part of the outdoors – but that doesn’t mean biting insects have to ruin your camping, hiking or canoeing trip. To protect yourself from buzzing blackflies, swarms of mosquitos and crawling ticks, you can choose from different bug sprays or insect repellents (with or without DEET). You can also use physical barriers, like bug-proof mesh netting.

Learn about your options to find out what bug protection method works best for you.

Top photo: A buggy tundra expedition near Hudson Bay. Photo by Adam Shoalts, who was sheltered from the swarms of mosquitos at night thanks to the MEC Spark 2 Tent.

Types of bug protection

You’ve got lots of options, and a lot of it comes down to personal preference. If you’re travelling internationally, check with your doctor or travel health clinic at least 6 weeks before you leave to see what they recommend to prevent insect-borne diseases where you’re heading.

Bug sprays and Lotions

Sprays and lotions, likely the most popular form of repellent, offer an invisible barrier of protection. Before you start spraying it on your skin, make sure to read the label to see what insects the bug repellent is designed to protect you from, how long it will last, and any age restrictions if kids are involved.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind:

  • Wearing a light-coloured long sleeve shirt, pants and hat is always helpful when it’s buggy out.
  • Tuck in your shirt and pant cuffs. If ticks are an issue, you can up the ante by taping your pant cuffs closed.
  • Don’t spray skin that’s going to be covered by clothing.
  • If the spray you’re using is approved for kids, make sure an adult puts it on them properly. Keep it off kids’ hands so they don’t accidentally wipe it in their eyes or mouth.
  • Remember to wash off all bug repellent as soon as you don’t need it anymore. Most sprays use chemicals, and even though they’re safe when used correctly, there’s no need to leave them on your skin longer than necessary.

Bug repellent with sunscreen

As tempting as it may be to use a sunscreen-bug repellent combo, it’s actually best to avoid this type since it might not work as well or as long. Plus, sunscreen needs to be applied liberally and frequently (and re-applied after you’ve gone for a swim), while you should apply bug repellent minimally and only when necessary.

When you use sunscreen and bug spray separately, what order should you apply them? Apply sunscreen first, give it time to absorb (15–20 minutes), and then apply the bug repellent.

Bug shelters and nets

Bug jackets and bug shelters in action on this SUP expedition, supported by MEC. Photo: Todd Lawson.

If you have sensitive skin and the thought of coating yourself in sprays and lotions doesn’t sound ideal, your best bet is to protect yourself with a more physical barrier.

  • Bug shelters: If you’re car camping or canoe camping, bring a bug shelter and set it around the picnic table to enjoy your meals and card games bug-free. Bonus: some bug shelters can double as rain or sun shelters too.
  • Lightweight mesh: If you’re heading into the backcountry and need something light to carry and quick to pitch, bring along a light mesh shelter that you can rig up using your hiking poles. These little havens will keep the bugs away and can act as a well-ventilated tent on hot nights.
  • Bug nets and bivies: Travellers and ultra-light campers can sleep comfortably at night by draping a bug net around their beds or hammocks. Bug bivy sacks are also an option for lightweight campers.
  • Bug clothing and hats: If you’re in prime bug country – think: Ontario summer canoe trips – you can layer on a mesh bug jacket, bug pants or a bug hat. They’re lightweight options that cut down on the need for repellents (especially around your face).

A hydration pack makes it easy to sip water under a bug hat when you’re hiking.

Types of bug sprays

If you’ve landed on a form of bug repellent that’s applied directly to the skin, the next thing to consider is the active ingredient. To make your choice, consider your destination, the bugs you’ll encounter and your current health situation. If you have any doubts, talk to a physician.

Bug repellent with DEET

Insect repellents with DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) are a popular option to protect yourself against mosquitoes, black flies and ticks. DEET doesn’t kill these biting insects, but it does repel them to help them stay off your delicate human skin.

Here are a few things to consider when choosing a DEET product:

  • If you’re a healthy adult (or a child over the age of 12), have no sensitivities to DEET and are heading into buggy territory, you should opt for a solution up to 30% DEET.
  • Health Canada has some specific guidelines around DEET and kids’ safety:
    • For kids between 2 and 12 years old, go with a concentration up to 10%, and you can put it on up to 3 times a day.
    • For kids between 6 months and 2 years old, you can also go with a 10% concentration, but don’t apply it more than once a day.
    • Don’t use DEET daily for more than a month on kids under 12.
    • For little ones less than 6 months old, don’t use DEET at all. Keep kids safe under a bug net instead.
  • Always follow the directions on the label. DEET products can last from 4 to 8 hours on your skin (depending on the concentration) and it’s important not to overdo it.

There’s been some controversy concerning DEET’s ability to dissolve plastics or damage synthetic fabrics at high concentrations. Be sure you’ve done your research and are comfortable with all the ingredients in your repellent before you leave town.

Happy baby under bug net

Bug nets are a great way to keep babies protected when they’re too young for bug sprays.

Bug repellent with Picaridin

Picaridin (or Icaridin) is a synthetic compound that provides an alternative to DEET, and can ward off black flies, mosquitoes and ticks. It’s odourless, non-greasy and doesn’t dissolve plastics or other synthetics.

Here are a few things to consider when choosing a Picaridin-based bug repellent:

  • Concentrations range from 7% to 20% and much like with DEET, the higher the concentration, the longer the protection time on your skin.
  • A solution with 20% Picaridin is as effective as a DEET solution of equal percentage.
  • HealthlinkBC notes that you can use up to 20% icaridin on kids 6 months or older. You shouldn’t use it at all on kids younger than that; protect them with bug nets instead.

Natural bug repellents

If you’re after a “natural” bug repellent, look for one that contains PMD (p-Menthane-3,8-diol), normally found in oil of lemon eucalyptus products. These products seem to repel mosquitoes and flies, although their protection doesn’t last as long as DEET or Picadirin. As with other bug sprays, check the label for age restrictions. Don’t use it on kids under 3.

According to Health Canada, lotions with citronella oil can repel mosquitos (but it doesn’t last as long or effectively as DEET). Don’t use it on toddlers or babies. You’ll want to find something more effective if you’re planning on travelling to countries with insect-borne diseases such as Lyme Disease, Malaria, West Nile and Zika.