When a child or a family goes off to camp, or on a camping trip, the goals are often to learn about nature, meet new people, and likely experience the outdoors. Camps and camping should be about growth and recreation.
Depending on where the camp is, there can be some things that could get in the way of that personal growth. One is the possibility of mosquitoes and ticks. Most mosquitoes and ticks are an annoyance. However, some can carry diseases harmful to humans. The problem is that you can’t tell the difference between a mosquito or tick that carries disease and one that doesn’t, so the goal is to be to keep them all away.
For people who have ticks or mosquitoes in their own backyard, repelling them is second nature, and getting rid of them once inside is a priority. However, for people who are headed into the woods or the summer camps, bugs are just going to be part of the environment. We wanted to provide a few tips on what to pack, and what to do about vector bugs while at camp or on a camping adventure.
Determine What Bugs May Exist At Your Camp
Knowing what little insects or arthropods to prepare for can depend, based not only on location but on time-of-year. For someone who is going to a camp within 50 or 100 miles of their home, it is pretty easy to know what the risks will be. However, if you are traveling to camp, it is worth doing a little homework.
Disease-carrying mosquitoes live in every state. While some states have more mosquitoes than others, the ones that carry diseases like West Nile are active everywhere. It is generally safe to assume that any outdoor setting could have a risk of mosquitoes. Note that in the Northwoods of the Great Lakes and New England areas, the mosquito season generally peaks from June to August.
Just because there are fewer mosquitoes doesn’t mean there are fewer diseases. Some of the mountain states in the West have higher incidences of mosquito-borne disease than Northwoods states, even though the latter often is more flush with mosquitoes.
Ticks are a different story. Different ticks live in different states, and tend to be pretty rare in the drier areas of the West. Our main concern tends to be with deer ticks (blacklegged ticks), the ticks that can transmit Lyme disease. The deer (blacklegged) tick is found in all states across the United States. Areas in the Northeast and Midwest have the highest densities of the deer (blacklegged) tick.Ticks can survive for up to a year without blood meals and can be active at any time of the year when temperatures are above freezing. Peak tick activity occurs in the spring and early summer (April – July) and again in the fall months (October – December).
There are other ticks too, such as the more common wood tick or dog tick, which is annoying and a little creepy but not nearly as dangerous from a health standpoint.
In some areas, biting black flies are also a problem, but they tend to be active early in the summer (June in most parts) and then quickly are done for the season. As you get into fall, the problem often shifts to wasps and hornets, as they are active this time of year and especially love picnickers who have sweets and sugar. You may want to take some precautions to keep wasps and hornets away if you are out this time of year.
Pack Repellents, Per the Camp Guidelines
If you or your family are headed to camp, we recommend that you pack repellents. For most campers, a good mosquito repellent will be what you need. We recommend you pack a full can or bottle so you know that you have a good supply at the start of camp.
A mosquito repellent with DEET can also repel black flies as well as be a deterrent (but not completely stop) ticks, especially if used on the shoes and pantlegs. You will see different percentages of DEET in a bug spray – you do not need to go crazy on this. 25% is a pretty standard concentration of DEET in most products. Going higher than that doesn’t make the repellent more effective – it just makes it last longer.
One of the most questions we get from people is if they can use a natural or organic repellent for mosquitoes. We did a whole piece on that if you want to check it out. Studies have shown that the Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) stands above the other natural repellents when it comes to mosquito-repellent abilities. It is important to note, though, that DEET products almost always test out as superior when it comes to mosquito repellents. If you want to go green, however, the OLE products are the ones to consider.
As for ticks, if you or your camper will be in an area known for Lyme disease, you may want to also pack a tick repellent. The active ingredient is usually permethrin, and is best to apply only on clothing (not skin) from the waist down which includes: shoes, socks, and the ankle and shin areas of your pants.
Here are a few notes about packing bug spray:
- Pack a brand new container of the repellent. If you grab one from your closet, it might only be ¼ full and your camper could run out just a couple days into camp.
- Pack the repellents in zip lock bags. There is nothing worse than having a spray emit while in a suitcase or duffel. It will make all the clothes stinky.
- Keep it simple for your camper. Trying to send something that will require them to mix (as can be the case with some organic or essential oil chemicals) usually doesn’t work.
- Make sure your camper knows how and when to apply the repellent.
- Know that there is research that suggests mixing chemicals like DEET with sunscreen can cause your skin to absorb the DEET at a higher rate, making it potentially less safe. Try to minimize the times when you are applying DEET and topicals like sunscreen at the same time.
Most repellents are good for about 8 hours, so re-application is necessary at some point during the day. If it is warm and the camper will be in shorts and a t-shirt, reapplying a little more often is a good idea. If using DEET products, the higher the level of DEET, the longer it will remain active.
We also recommend that people put little shot of repellent on the back of their neck and shoulders at night, as a mosquito in a cabin or tent can also be an issue. Just be sure to use it sparingly, as we prefer campers not to be inhaling fumes while they sleep.
Check your camp checklist (if one is provided) to verify if there is a preferred repellent or application type.
Use Gear to Make it Harder for Ticks and Mosquitoes
You can do some smaller things that will have a big impact when it comes to keeping ticks or mosquitoes away, and many of them have to do with investing in reusable gear that can do a great job of repelling the attackers.
First, you can use permethrin to treat the bottom of your tent, or your ground mat, so the ticks will be discouraged from joining you. While this is deemed safe by many permethrin manufacturers, we suggest doing your own research to get comfortable with it. After all, these are your sleeping quarters.
If you have a little more of a budget to work with, you can explore a roof top tent. These relatively new-to-the-market tents (at least in the USA) sit on the roof rack of your vehicle, and are accessed by a ladder. A big benefit is that they are off the ground, so bugs, ticks, and snakes are less likely to find you. They also setup and takedown very quickly, and tend to have built-in mattresses which are very comfy. But they are expensive.
Finally, do not overlook a simple mosquito net if you are camping in a mosquito-heavy area. They are proven to work, even Bill Gates is a fan.
Make Sure To Check for Ticks
If your camper will be in a tick-prone area, checking for ticks is important. Some deer ticks can be as small as a tiny mole or a sesame seed. They are dark, and sometimes burrow if given enough time. We did an entire piece on checking for ticks – our 4-step process. Make sure the child knows to look for “hot spots” – this is where 90% of ticks tend to end up. Behind the knees, in the armpits, skin folds, and around the groin tend to be where they like to make themselves at home.
It is important to check for ticks frequently. Just because you didn’t see anything crawling on you or feel a tick while you were outside doesn’t mean they aren’t there. In many cases, Lyme disease is transmitted to people who didn’t even know they were bitten. The solution is to be vigilant and proactive, and to check yourself every time even if you didn’t see or feel any ticks while you were out.
Think About Clothing
Clothing can make a difference in the fight against mosquitoes and ticks. We recommend a few points:
- Some studies have shown that mosquitoes prefer darker colors because they give off warmth. It might be a wives tale, but consider packing lots of white and khaki clothing.
- White socks are excellent because it is easy to spot a tick crawling on them. Most ticks grab on to a human in the legs at first.
- If your camper might be doing overnights in woods or long canoe-type trips, consider a light long-sleeved shirt. Some manufacturers make bug or mosquito shirts for this exact reason.
Ticks can also come into your cabin and/or tent by hitchhiking on your clothes. After being outside in tick habitat, store clothes in a plastic bag outside of your sleeping area. This will help avoid ticks from attaching to you throughout the night. If you have access to a dryer, place clothes in dryer on high for minimum of 10 minutes. This will kill any ticks that may still be crawling.
You will want to be sure you are dressing for the bugs that might be abundant at your camp or campsite. Generally speaking, having at least one light long-sleeved shirt and long pants is important, especially for those times when the bugs are active like in the early evening. Headwear is also critical too, especially if you will be around black flies.
Bug repellent clothing can be a secret weapon for people who will be outside in buggy conditions. Headwear, shirts, and pants are all made that are lightweight, comfortable for active pursuits, and often treated with a bug repellent for max protection. We have used mosquito shirts for the past decade and they are not some of our favorite summer garments for all uses.
Don’t let ticks or mosquitoes stop you or your camper from having a great time at camp! Just a little preparation, and you will be able to take the steps needed to repel most or all of the bugs.
Written by Tick and Mosquito Project Staff. Most recently reviewed by Nicole Chinnici, Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory Director at East Stroudsburg University