An Expert Guide to Insect Repellents: Picaridin, Deet, or Something Better?Published on 03/13/2023 · 15 min readManaging bugs is an essential factor in enjoying your time in nature! Camping & Hiking Expert Hunter Reed explains the different types of bug repellants!
Photo by Fairfax County
Bugs can be a real problem when camping or hiking. Mosquitoes and ticks can carry dangerous diseases and leave you with itchy bites. Luckily there are a ton of different insect repellents, both chemical and natural, which are incredibly effective at deterring mosquitos, flies, ticks, fleas, and other biting insects.
I have been camping and hiking my whole life. Though most of my recreating is done in the West, where there are significantly fewer ticks, we have a good amount of mosquitos, black flies, and other biting insects. Not so luckily for me, bugs seem to love me, and I always seem to be bitten way more than any of the people I’m with. And even unluckier, I am severely allergic to mosquito bites. Whenever I am bitten by a mosquito, my skin swells up way more than the mosquito bite of a normal person and lasts for at least two weeks. Though insects are a part of enjoying nature, they can totally put a damper on your trip when you're itchy and getting bitten by hungry bugs. The right insect repellent will make your trip way more enjoyable and help you avoid scratching the whole hike back to the car.
Thankfully, there’s no shortage of options for insect repellents, so if you’ve tried a few things that haven’t worked or don’t even know where to start on methods to avoid insects, you’re in the right place.
What Is Insect Repellent?
Insect repellent is a substance that is applied to the skin, clothing, or other surfaces to prevent insects from landing or biting. Different repellents work in different ways, but usually, a repellent will either mask the human scent that attracts insects or repel insects with a smell or taste that they find unpleasant. Insect repellents are either chemical based, such as DEET, or natural, such as citronella, but we will get into the specifics of those later on!
There are many different kinds of insect repellents for different kinds of insects, but some of the most common bugs that campers and hikers use repellent against are mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and other biting insects.
Aside from being itchy and annoying, bugs can carry West Nile virus, malaria, Lyme disease, Japanese encephalitis, Zika virus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and more. These illnesses can be life-threatening and sometimes incurable, so the best plan to avoid falling ill is the prevention of being bitten in the first place!
What to Consider When Buying Insect Repellent
When buying insect repellent, there are several questions you should ask yourself to help you choose the right product for your needs. Here are four key questions to consider:
What Insects Do I Need Protection Against?
First, what kind of bugs are you going to encounter that you need protection from? Different insects may require different types of repellent, so it’s important to get something that is going to work for the type of insect you’re going to encounter.
If you’re camping or hiking somewhere with a lot of mosquitos, you’ll likely want something with DEET or picaridin since those both repel mosquitos. But if you are hiking or camping somewhere with a lot of ticks, a repellent with permethrin would be more effective!
How Long Will I Be Outside?
The length of time you'll be outside will determine how long your repellent needs to last. If you're only outside for a short period of time, a product with a lower concentration of an active ingredient may be sufficient, or a more natural-based product might do the trick. However, if you plan to be backpacking for several days in the deep woods near water, you are going to want to bring your A-game to fight those mosquitos, which would require a repellent with a higher concentration of an active ingredient.
What Type of Activity Am I Going to Be Doing?
Similarly, the type of activity you are doing while exposed to insects will make a difference in how you approach insect repellent. If you are car camping and sticking close to the campsite, citronella candles and a light DEET spray might do the trick against mosquitos. But if you plan on fishing, you’ll want to avoid DEET-based products at all costs since DEET is toxic to fish and has been shown to repel fish. Therefore, in this case, long sleeves and a mosquito net hat will be the most environmentally friendly and best option!
Reduce Your Environmental Impact It’s important to do a little bit of research regarding the area you are going to and sensitive plants/wildlife before deciding on a bug repellent. DEET and fish is the most prominent example, but there are several others as well, including permethrin being highly toxic to bees, fish, and even housecats (so make sure they stay out of your permethrin-coated clothing as you’re packing for your trip!).
Therefore, a simple Google search should be able to tell you what kinds of sensitive plants/animals will be in the area you’re going to. From there, it’s pretty easy to look up if those sensitive species are particularly affected by the bug spray you plan on using! If they are, be courteous to the local wildlife and environment and choose a less toxic insect repellent.
What Is My Skin Sensitivity?
Lastly, If you have sensitive skin, you may want to look for a repellent that is gentle and non-irritating. Some natural repellents, such as those containing essential oils, may be less likely to cause skin irritation. If you aren’t certain about skin sensitivity, testing your bug spray before embarking on a camping trip or insect-infested hike is a good idea! Nothing’s worse than choosing between itchy hives from a reaction to the bug spray or itchy mosquito bites because you had to forgo the insect repellent for allergy reasons!
What Are the Different Kinds of Insect Repellents?
Chemical-based repellents are the most commonly used types of insect repellents; typically, the active ingredient will be DEET, picaridin, permethrin, or IR3535. As mentioned previously, these products work by either masking the human scent or by repelling insects with a smell or taste that they find unpleasant.
All chemical-based repellents below have been certified as safe for human use by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, some of them are toxic to wildlife, fish, and pets. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend using any insect repellent on babies less than two months old.
DEET is a popular and effective insect repellent that has been used for decades. It works by interfering with insects' sense of smell, making it difficult for them to find you. DEET can be used on skin and clothing and is effective against mosquitoes, ticks, and other biting insects. DEET is available almost anywhere at any gas station, grocery store, or convenience store.
- Works on a wide range of bug types
- Shown to be the most effective against most types of insects, including mosquitos
- The most common insect repellent, so tons of options when it comes to DEET-based products
- Toxic to fish, so can’t be used around water
- Several different concentrations, so start with a DEET based product with a lower percentage of DEET and work your way up if you need to
Picaridin is a newer insect repellent that is similar to DEET but is less oily and has a milder scent. It is effective against mosquitoes, gnats, ticks, no-see-ums, and chiggers. It can be used on skin and clothing.
- Doesn’t leave as much of a sticky residue on your skin as DEET
- Works better on ticks compared to DEET-based products
- A less toxic compound than DEET, so better for those with sensitive skin or health concerns regarding DEET
- Being that it’s a newer product, it can take some more hunting to find picaridin insect repellent compared to DEET repellent
- Shown to be toxic to fish and several wetland plants
Permethrin is a synthetic compound commonly used as an insecticide that is effective against ticks, mosquitoes, and other biting insects. It is not meant to be applied to the skin but instead can be sprayed on clothing and gear. Once it dries, it provides long-lasting protection. You’ll be all set for your trip without worrying if you brought enough bug spray.
- Applied to clothing instead of skin, so it’s easy to apply this to your backpacking pants/socks/sun hoody, etc.
- Works against a wide array of insects
- Highly toxic to a wide array of animals, including fish, waterfowl, honeybees, and even housecats and dogs (though cats are particularly sensitive to it), so take great caution when you’re unpacking from or packing for a trip at home
IR3535 is an active ingredient used in some insect repellent products that was developed to mimic a natural repellent found in an African insect species. It is effective against a range of insects, including mosquitoes and ticks, and is generally considered safe for use by humans.
- Most environmentally friendly of all the chemical-based products, especially for fish
- Works the best against black flies
- More commonly causes skin irritation compared to DEET, so make sure to test it at home first to ensure you don’t have a reaction
As you’d expect, natural repellents are products that use natural ingredients to repel insects. These repellents can be effective against a range of insects, including mosquitoes, flies, and ticks, and are often seen as a safer and more environmentally-friendly alternative to chemical-based repellents. Though there are countless different natural repellents, here are four of the most common natural repellents:
- Citronella oil: Most commonly found and popular natural insect repellent. It’s derived from lemongrass oil, giving it a strong, lemon-like scent that repels mosquitoes and other flying insects. There are many different products made with citronella oil, including candles, lotions, and sprays, so you have a ton of different options for how to use citronella!
- Peppermint oil: Effective against mosquitoes, flies, and other flying insects. It has a strong, minty scent that is unpleasant to insects and can also be used in candles, sprays, and other products.
- Lemon eucalyptus oil: As a mosquito repellent, lemon eucalyptus oil has been found to be as effective as DEET. It is derived from the leaves of the lemon eucalyptus tree and has a strong, lemon-like scent. Lemon eucalyptus oil is the only natural repellent recommended by the EPA and the CDC.
- Neem oil: Derived from the seeds of the neem tree. Neem oil has a bitter taste and a strong scent that is effective at repelling a range of insects, including mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas. (Several dog shampoos contain neem oil, which can help your pup avoid fleas and ticks!).
- Much less toxic to animals, fish, and the environment
- All of the natural repellents mentioned above are available in a wide array of products, including candles, lotions, sprays, and soaps/shampoos
- Generally not as effective on a variety of bugs compared to chemical-based products
Lastly, one of the best ways to protect yourself from insect bites is to wear protective clothing such as long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and hats. Clothing is the most effective method of avoiding bug bites since you can achieve full body protection. It is also the most environmentally friendly since you aren’t spraying chemicals or products. If you’re looking for extra protection, you can also buy clothing that is treated with permethrin (but remember to keep it away from your animals and wildlife!).
Features to Look for in an Insect Repellent
Here are a few of the main features to look for when purchasing insect repellent for camping, hiking, or other types of outdoor recreation:
Duration of Protection
If you are going to be outside for a long time, make sure you choose a repellent that provides long-lasting protection, ideally for 6-8 hours or more. If you’re going to be outside for a shorter period, something with a shorter duration of protection will be sufficient. Most insect repellents will note how long it’s supposed to work somewhere on the packaging.
Broad Spectrum Protection
Look for a repellent that provides broad spectrum protection against various insects, including mosquitoes, ticks, and biting flies. This will help to ensure that you are protected from a variety of potentially disease-carrying insects. Suppose you are going to an area that mainly has one specific type of insect (a canoe trip in Minnesota where there are thousands of mosquitoes but few other insects). In that case, it might be better to focus on a repellent specific to one insect type. However, as a general rule, broad-spectrum protection is better and more effective.
Concentration of an Active Ingredient
If you are going to an area with many bugs, choose a repellent with a high concentration of an active ingredient, such as DEET or picaridin. These chemicals are effective at repelling insects and provide long-lasting protection. If your insect repellent is more of a backup, or for a few bugs you may see here and there, something less intense will do the trick.
Look for a repellent that is easy to apply and convenient to use, such as a spray or roll-on. This will make it easier to apply the repellent to all exposed skin areas, including hard-to-reach places like the back of the neck.
Ease of Use
Similarly, consider what type of product would be the most effective for you. If you are close to camp all evening, citronella candles may be easier to use to keep the bugs away rather than reapplying bug spray every few hours. If you are looking for something that keeps the fleas and ticks off your dog on a backpacking trip, a neem oil shampoo will be the best product.
Size and Portability
Choose an insect repellent that is appropriate for your needs. For example, you might need a small bottle for a weekend camping trip or a larger bottle for an extended trip. However, soaking your clothing in bug spray before leaving home would eliminate your need to carry any repellent.
As mentioned above, this is one of the most important features to consider regarding insect repellent since using repellent could have unintended negative effects on the local flora and fauna. Whenever possible, choose a product that is biodegradable or natural. If that’s impossible, try using chemical repellents in recyclable pump sprays instead of aerosol sprays. Be careful to only spray on yourself instead of carelessly coating the plants, trees, or dirt in the camping area or on the trail you’re on.
How to Choose the Right Product for You
With all the different insect repellent options, knowing which product is right for you can be hard!
Below are three examples of Curated customers I have helped who embody common circumstances and situations of campers and hikers who are on the hunt for the right insect-repelling product for their adventures.
Beth: Car Camper with Children
Beth is a car camper who usually camps with her two young kids. They go to some buggy areas, but she is always nervous about spraying chemicals around her little ones. They don’t venture far from the campsite at night and usually do short hikes during the day. Features Beth should look for:
- Natural products
- Broad spectrum repellent
- Other products that don’t spray but can still ward bugs off
Recommendations for Beth:
- Citronella candle for around camp
- Lemon Eucalyptus oil spray to use on her kids as a natural alternative
- Long pants and sleeves for her kids to wear hiking during the day
- Hats with mosquito nets for her kids to wear around camp as an extra layer of protection
Robinson: Cowboy Camping Backpacker
Robinson lives in Utah and often goes on backpacking trips. He likes sleeping outside under the stars when backpacking, as opposed to being inside his tent, but there are a lot of bugs, including mosquitoes and flies, in the areas he tends to go. Features Robinson should look for:
- Products effective against mosquitoes and flies with 6-8 hours of protection while he sleeps
- Something portable
- Broad spectrum protection
Recommendations for Robinson:
Nicole: Multi-Sport Enthusiast
Nicole lives in New Hampshire. She has two dogs, and her partner is very into fly fishing. They will typically go on long day outings fishing on his canoe with the dogs. She doesn’t do a ton of camping but will take the dogs out for trail runs and mountain bike rides quite frequently in the densely forested areas around her home. Features Nicole should look for:
- Products effective against ticks
- Products that don’t kill fish
- Protection for her dogs
- Something non-oily since she will be using it when she exercises
Recommendations for Nicole:
- Neem oil shampoo for her dogs
- IR3535 spray for her and her partner on the canoe
- Picaridin repellent for ticks when shes running or biking
There are many options when it comes to insect repellents. You might have to try a few before figuring out something that works well for you. Consider the activities you like to do and the insects you encounter. It’s important to remember that various bug repellents work better in different situations, and it's always a good idea to read the label and follow the instructions carefully.
Additionally, be aware of the active ingredients in your bug repellent, as some can be harmful to the environment or wildlife. Use natural products when you can, and try to find the balance between effectively protecting yourself from bugs without constantly spraying the highest concentration of chemical repellent available.
If you still have questions on insect repellents or any other camping and hiking gear, reach out to one of our Camping and Hiking Experts here at Curated, and we would be more than happy to help you find what you need!