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Buzz Off: Outsmart Bugs in Washington’s Wilderness

Ah, long summer days in Washington's wilderness — a time of majestic mountain views, serene lakes, and... bugs. From mosquitoes and ticks to bees and flies, the insect population can make our idyllic hiking or backpacking trip a bit more challenging. Bugs employ various methods to pinpoint our location.. Some are drawn to the carbon dioxide we exhale, while others are lured by our scent, body heat, vibrations, or even the colors we wear. Take deer flies, for example—they're particularly attracted to CO2, warmth, motion, and dark colors.

Here are a few elegant adjustments you can make to be less appealing to these bugs, and enjoy the great outdoors. 

Common bugs you may encounter


These bloodsuckers are the bane of many hikers and campers. They thrive in wet environments, which are plentiful in Washington's wilderness areas. They are most active at dawn and dusk, making your evenings around the campfire prime mosquito time. Over 40 different mosquito species can be found in Washington, and many are vectors for diseases, such as West Nile virus, western equine encephalitis, and St. Louis encephalitis. West Nile virus can cause serious illness in humans and animals. Mosquitoes become infected by feeding on birds that carry the virus, and then spread it to people and animals through their bites. It was first detected in Washington in 2002, and is most often found in south central Washington. Symptoms include fever, headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea, and rash.


Particularly prevalent in grassy and wooded areas, ticks can carry diseases like Lyme disease. They often latch onto your skin after brushing against vegetation, so thorough checks are essential. (Ticks got a whole blog dedicated to them!)

Black Flies and Gnats

These small, annoying insects are often found near water sources. They might not be as dangerous as ticks, but their bites can be itchy and irritating enough to put a damper on your adventure.

Bees and Wasps

While generally less aggressive, these insects can become a problem if disturbed. They're attracted to food and sweet drinks, so be mindful during meal times.

Pro Tips to Keep Bugs at Bay

Timing and location

Avoid hiking during peak mosquito activity at dawn and dusk, unless you enjoy sunrise and sunset hikes like me! Stay away from stagnant water and heavily wooded areas. Insects, especially mosquitoes, congregate around pools of water. Deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease, are more likely to be in areas with lots of trees and brush.

Dress smartly

Opt for long sleeves and pants, even if it’s warm. Light-colored clothing makes it easier to spot ticks, and tucking pants into socks can prevent ticks from crawling up your legs. Save your bright clothes for after hike fun. Bright flowery prints attract insects, including honey bees and hornets (not so fun!)

Avoid scented products

Consider skipping the fragrant soaps, lotions, perfumes, hairsprays, and aftershaves. While these products may enhance your allure to humans, they also make you more detectable to bugs. Instead, opt for scents (aka bug repellents)  that mask your presence by blocking their receptors, making it significantly harder for insects to find you. 

Stay dry and clean

Insects are drawn to sweat and body odors. Try to stay dry and change out of sweaty clothes as soon as possible. Showering and washing off repellent at the end of the day can also help prevent bites and reduce the risk of skin irritation. 

Treat your gear

Clothing and gear treated with permethrin provide long-lasting protection. This method is particularly effective against ticks and mosquitoes, but remember to treat the items before your trip and let them dry completely. A hat treated with insect repellent can also shield your head and neck from bites.

Protect your pets

Your four-legged family members can also get diseases from insects. Make sure to bring and use your pet’s flea and tick repellants.

Let's Talk About Bug Repellent: 

You have three major options of insect repellents, choose wisely.

DEET is highly effective against mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects. Apply it to both skin and clothing, but be mindful to avoid the mouth and eyes. 

Picaridin is slightly more effective than DEET in repelling mosquitoes, and equally as effective as DEET against ticks. Unlike DEET, however, picaridin is odorless, non-greasy, and does not dissolve plastics or other synthetics.

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) is an excellent natural alternative. Oil of lemon eucalyptus has been tested against mosquitoes found in the US, and provides protection similar to repellents with 15%-20% concentrations of DEET. Oil of lemon eucalyptus products should not be used on children under the age of three due to a lack of testing for this age group. Other essential oils, such as citronella and peppermint, are sometimes marketed as bug repellents, but they have not undergone testing to prove their efficacy or safety. 

Another thing to keep in mind when using natural bug repellent is that you will need to reapply more often than the stronger formulas. 

Our recommendations

Best natural bug spray: Natrapel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent 

Best Lotion: Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Lotion

Best for Treating Clothing: Sawyer Permethrin

After the Bug Bite(s)

Treat your bites

If you do get bitten and develop a bite that is red or raised try: 1) applying an ice pack for 10-15 minutes 3-4 times a day and 2) taking Benadryl for itching will both provide symptomatic relief from the local insect bite reaction. DON’T scratch! When you scratch an itchy bite you cause more inflammation and release more histamine (the reason for the itch). Scratching makes the bite more and more itchy. Scratching creates greater risk for developing skin infections. My personal favorite is Badger Mosquito Bite Itch Relief.

Know the signs

As long as the reaction stays local (around the bite site) it's usually not serious. It’s normal for a bite or sting to swell and itch, which can last up to 2 days. If the bite is getting worse after 24 hours, call your doctor.

In some cases bees, wasps, or hornets bites can be dangerously anaphylactic (rapidly progressing allergic). Call 911 immediately, if you notice hives, swelling (of the face, eyes, tongue, and lips), throat tightness, difficulty breathing, vomiting, or feeling faint/lightheaded. 

Extra Tips for a Safe Hike

Hydration and Rest: Dehydration can sneak up on you, especially while focusing on bug defense. Drink plenty of water, take regular breaks, and use shady spots to cool down.

Wildlife Awareness: In addition to bugs, keep an eye out for wildlife. Bears and mountain lions are more active in the summer, so know your area's specific wildlife guidelines.

Stay on the Trail: Venturing off the trail can increase your exposure to bugs and other hazards. Stick to marked paths to minimize encounters with ticks and avoid disturbing bee or wasp nests.

By making these subtle changes, you can enjoy the great outdoors with a touch of sophistication and considerably fewer unwelcome guests.

Happy trails, and may they be bug-free!

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