Updated: May 25
When I was a boy in England, there was nothing my friends and I liked better than to tie our pup tents, groundsheets, sleeping bags, and ‘vital victuals’—as we called our food supplies—to the back of our bicycles and head off into the countryside for a weekend ‘safari.’
Of course, it was never as idyllic as we would have liked, what with midnight thunderstorms; damp, bumpy ground that wasn’t great for sleeping on; the occasional irate bull who objected to our invading his pasture; and a ‘dawn chorus’ that invariably began at 4:30am. No sleep after that!
In one respect, however, we were luckier than campers and hikers here, in America. At least we didn’t have to contend with the insect onslaught that seems to go with any trip in the great American outdoors. We had a few bugs, of course, but nothing compared to the hordes that dwell here in the U. S. of A! From today’s treacherous ticks to chiggers and horseflies, there are plenty of tiny predators on the loose.
Bug-Free Camping: How to Camp Like a Pro
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t want to be a buzzkill (pun intended)! But I will take a look at the peskier side of camping so that you can take the precautions needed to keep your next outdoor adventure free of bites, stings and bug-borne diseases.
Common Bugs in America’s Forests
So, before you grab your camping gear, or reach for those well-worn hiking books, you need to know how to keep yourself safe from the unwanted attentions of all those inconsiderate bugs you will encounter.
These whirring bugs are quite possibly the most persistent ̶ and irritating ̶ insects you’re likely to encounter in your travels. The only thing more annoying than the noise are the bites you will endure, especially if you’re in the deep woods, or close to standing water or wetlands. More troubling, though, is the fact that mosquitos carry a range of unpleasant viruses, such as dengue fever, malaria, yellow fever and the infamous Zika virus.
Fortunately for us, ticks can’t fly, but they are expert ‘hitchhikers.’ They quickly attach themselves to unwary hosts (that is, us) when we brush against the grasses and bushes that they usually call home. And they love moist, shady surroundings. But the biggest problem with ticks is that they’re known to carry a number of dangerous diseases, including tick-borne relapsing fever, tularemia, Colorado tick fever, Q fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Powassan encephalitis and, of course, Lyme Disease.
Flies and Midges
When you venture into the wild, it’s more than likely that you’ll be the target of a number of types of flies. However, unlike their (relatively) benign cousin, the common housefly, the flies who prefer the great outdoors usually bite. That’s because most of them, including deer and horse flies, black flies, biting midges and sandflies, need human blood to survive. Their bites not only produce skin inflammation of various degrees, but can also cause skin ruptures. And if you have an open wound, these bites can turn into serious infections.
Contrary to popular belief, chiggers are not a species unto themselves, but actually just juvenile mites! Like most of their country cousins, they have an affinity for fields, forests, and moist, damp places. But watch out, because their bites can produce bumps and blisters that are extremely itchy.
Bees, Wasps, and Hornets
We’re all familiar with wasps, bees, and hornets, so we all know what to look for and what to avoid. Still, before you head out into the wild, check that no one in your party is allergic to any kind of stings. If they are, make sure that they have the required antidote on hand. And if you have an EPI-pen with you, check that it’s not expired. Keep your eyes and ears alert and steer clear of any buzzing nests.
The only kind of ant encounter you really have to be concerned about is a ‘meeting’ with red fire ants. However, they are rarely found in Northern climates. Watch out for fire ants particularly if you’re headed hiking or camping in the south or southwest USA.
The A to Z of Hiking
Admittedly, this section has nothing to do with protecting yourself against bugs, per see, but it does take a look at the items that should be top if your mind when you’re planning a walking trip, however short and close-to-home.
Weather-permitting, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts. This should help protect you from the attentions of flies, ticks, and mosquitoes. But, make sure they’re thick enough that bugs can’t bite through them. You could also try wearing a hat with neck and face netting attached. It looks a bit weird, but who cares as long as it keeps the bugs off? One last point: avoid fragrances of any kind. They not only attract bugs but can also lessen the effectiveness of insect repellents.
Have the right footwear. Even if you’re only going on short hike ̶ one that doesn’t require you to heft a heavy pack, trail shoes are perfect for the task. However, if you’re headed out on a longer hike and carrying a heavier load, you’ll find that real hiking boots will provide more support. Take it from one who found out the hard way ̶ on the unforgiving slopes of Mt. Pillar, perhaps the single hardest climb in England’s Lake District. Good boots make a huge difference!
Keep maps and a compass close at hand. Having a map and a compass on your person is, quite possibly, an essential part of any hiker’s must-have items. However experienced you think you are, and however well you think you can read the stars or cleave to your infallible, internal compass, nature has a way of nullifying all of that! That’s why a map and a compass can tell you where you are, and how to get to where it is you need to be. GPS is great, but not when you run out of power. A map and a compass do neither!
Always carry extra water. Always, always, carry extra water. You never know when you might need it. Not consuming enough water will make you susceptible to hypothermia and altitude sickness if you’re hiking in the mountains.
Stow extra food. Suppose that you get lost on your hike, or that you miscalculate time-wise and can’t get back to your base. Or imagined you’re injured and the weather and/or terrain make it hard for a rescue team to reach you. Any number of things could keep you in the wilderness longer than anticipated, so make sure you have extra food to hand.
Bring a First Aid Kit. Smart hikers (and campers) carry a well-stocked first-aid kit when they travel. Be sure to memorize the contents—and know how to use each item. Even better, take a first-aid course.
Pick the Right Camp Site and Be a Responsible Camper
The truth is, you cannot avoid all those pesky bugs, but there are some steps you can take to minimize their assaults:
Step #1: Select the right camp site. Look for a site that shady and dry and as far away from standing water as possible (lakes don’t count, by the way!) Mosquitos prefer damp areas, so the dryness will keep them at bay, for the most part.
Step #2: Make sure there’s a minimum of organic matter on the ground. Bugs just love the leafy material carpeting a forest or wood floor.
Step #3: Light a fire is to keep bugs away. The fact is that they hate smoke and will avoid it at all costs. You can also add Sage or Citronella leaves to the fire, since they are naturally occurring insect repellents.
Step #4: Try burning mosquito coils or repellent sticks. Just double-check that open fires are permitted in your camping area and always extinguish the fire before you sleep.
Some final tips about camping:
First, keep your foodstuffs covered. (They’re a bug magnet.)
Dispose of any waste properly.
Hang any lanterns or lights away from your tent(s); they really do attract bugs.
Ticks are on the rise, and with them are tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease. Don’t miss our guide on how to protect yourself against ticks.