Any of my friends will tell you that I loath black flies and mosquitoes. They turn the perfect part of the spring into an obnoxious swat-fest.

I remember the first time I went canoeing with my wife and father-in-law. He was gung-ho to find the best route and followed the directions of “seasoned” canoeists on an internet database. I should have inspected the route, but I assumed they knew where to go and how long it would take. It was not my first time canoeing, but being the better man, I let my father-in-law run the show. He will never live it down.

It was toward the end of day one, when we ended up in a small lake. Actually, a large island, ringed by a small “lake”. Ok, it was a swamp. An island in the middle of a swamp. The map indicated a single swamp symbol, and that was more than enough apparently. When we got there it was about 3pm and as the day turned to night, the hordes of insects descended. First it was the black flies… because why not canoe during black fly season. And as soon as it dipped in temperature, the black flies would disappear and then for five minutes, everything was great. And then the mosquitoes. And they never left us alone until well after 8pm.

A little swamp icon is all it takes to make a swamp

Flying, Biting Insects

Mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies and company, are the bane of every woodsman. I am not talking about the single mosquito that lands on your arm, I am talking about the cloud of mosquitoes that have nothing better to do than drain you dry. Essentially the female of each species needs the protein in your blood to make her eggs. And humans are the perfect victim to attack. Thin skinned, sweating, heavy breathing, with bright clothing – we are natural attractants. It is no wonder, that any good survival and woods craft book contain a section on pest control.

Images of A mosquito, black fly and deer flyFrom left to right: Mosquito, Deer Fly, Black Fly.

“Bug Season” tends to come right when the weather turns nice and we want to get out into nature. Without the proper precautions, biting insects can make outdoor activities unbearable. You are more likely to motor through nature, than stop to smell the proverbial roses. Try using the following techniques to help keep biting insects away so you can slow down and enjoy in the woods during even the worst that bug season has to offer.

Rule #1

Rule 1 is simple, don’t go where black flies, mosquitoes, etc. live. And that doesn’t mean don’t go outside. It means pick the right spot to enjoy the outdoors. Don’t pitch your tent in a swamp… or next to the lake… or in a valley. Don’t sleep and camp in a moisture collector. Bugs love moisture – especially mosquitoes. Place your camp high and dry. If you aren’t about to freeze to death, a nice breeze can make all the difference. When you are hiking… go around swamps, not through them. It seems like a no-brainer, but you will regret a marshy short cut.

Rule #2

Don’t be a target. Avoid heavy exertion – which will cause you to sweat (a moist environment), breath heavy (they can “smell” carbon dioxide) and they are attracted to movement. It may be better to take a single bite to the arm, then to flail around, drawing in biters from every corner of the woods. Mosquitoes and the like are also attracted to bright coloured clothing that looks like flowers. And also black.

Use a physical barrier. Until last year, I had never really used a bug jacket. I bought one long ago, but I felt like an alien and I was constantly over heating. Then I found the Coghlan’s Bug Jacket.  First of all it comes in at the rock bottom price of around $15.00 CAD. It is entirely mesh, which mean it breaths like a dream. If you’re cold, add another layer underneath. It packs down into a fist size ball and it is mesh, which means in an emergency, it could double as a net, a basket… the options are endless. And it breaths – I can’t stress this enough. The previous version coming in at $60.00 CAD was like wearing a parka in the summer.

Breathable and non-breathable bug jackets

Rule #3

Smell bad and taste bad. Not B.O. bad, bug bad. There are two chemical ways of keeping biting insects off of you – a repellant (to drive them away), and an insecticide (to kill them when they land on you).

The single most effective bug repellant is DEET. There is nothing that comes close. DEET screws with the biting insects ability to hone in on you. They may be around, but they will be blind to exactly where the air ends and your arm starts. There are different percentages of DEET, but the more DEET, the better. In Canada, we can only buy 30% DEET because that is the maximum you can put on a kid. But in the states, you can get what locals down south call “Jungle DEET”, the good stuff – 99% DEET. And it works, but don’t touch your camera equipment with a freshly sprayed hand or other plastics which can melt slightly as the DEET off gasses. As long as you are not using DEET as an anti-perspirant, or rubbing it on your eye lids, you are good to go. If you notice the buggers coming back after a while, rub on a little more. It always seems to help.

Assorted bottles of DEET spray

Some people think citronella is good, or eucalyptus or any other herbal remedy. They are all proven to be junk. If you read old woodscraft books they might include early 1900’s recipes for bug dope (repellent). Not only it is ridiculous that you will tramp all over the woods with a shellaced skin coating, but the ingredients are suspect as well. They are just not as effective. DEET is the now defacto bug repellent. If you are worried about spraying DEET on small children, get them used to a bug jacket.

For another chemical barrier on my clothing, I use an insecticide – a spray bottle from Sawyer of Permethrin. You spray it on wet, it dries into the fabric, and now you are a walking mosquito killer (watch this video). Once dry it is inert to everything except insects.

A note on permethrin. You can buy it at a pet store and it is often used sprayed onto dogs and dog beds. Don’t ever spray permethrin onto cats – they cannot metabolize it and they will die. Once dry, it is inert to them though, so spray it in a well ventilated area well away from them, let it dry and then you are fine.

Permetherin spray bottle and outdoor clothing

If you are worried about the chemical nature of permethrin, it is probably on your clothes already. That bug jacket earlier that was hot as hell was pre-treated with permethrin. Military spec clothing is generally pre-treated with an insecticide. Permetherin is not DDT, but treat any chemical with respect.

Rule #4

What if it is a survival situation? What if you don’t have access to modern methods of insect management. Well my friends, there is always smoke. The rule of thumb is smoke them out. All you need is a fire and some punky wood. If you have a container, you can place the smouldering mess inside the pot and carry it around. Or just work around the fire. Pretend you are a bee keeper and you want to work on the hive. Smoke makes the bugs dopey and errant. Mors Kochanski has an excellent video on using smoke to deter the bugs.


Mosquitos, black flies, deer flies and all the other biting insects can annoy the crap out of you and ruin a good vacation. They can also drive you crazy. When possible, avoid places that biting insects congregate – swamps, the water’s edge and places that collect moisture like valleys. Remember “high and dry”. Don’t exert yourself if possible, as everything that you are trying to do to swat them is also exactly what they are attracted to.

Wear physical barriers, such as bug jackets, and pre-treat your clothing with insecticides such as permethrin. And when it doubt, use modern advances like DEET and enjoy the wonders the woods.