Bugs and Bites at Camp


An excerpt from The Family Camping Guide

Mosquitos, Black Flies, Deer Flies and Deer Ticks

I recall one weekend camping near MacTier, not far from the Legion at – of all places – Mosquito Lake. At least that’s what we knew it as locally. It was accessed just off of Joseph Street and was a curious body of water only because it’s surrounded by a thick layer of floating vegetation.

Anyway, a friend and I took our motorcycles up, rode in as far as we could on the road then hiked the remaining distance around to the far side of the lake. We selected a rocky outcropping as a campsite and settled in to watch the sun set. About 7pm, the mosquitoes became so thick that if we inhaled too deeply we’d actually suck in bugs!

We reasonably assumed that once the sun set the bugs would ease off as is typical. It didn’t happen. The bugs got so thick that we had to drown the fire and retreat into the tent. We could actually hear them buzzing by the thousands outside the tent. By morning we each had dozens of little, scratchy red bumps all over our bodies and the sunrise brought little in the way of relief. It was heavily overcast and humid. The mosquitoes just kept coming.

If we wanted to eat we had to start a fire, so we did. The smoke helped to drive off many of critters, but it just about choked us. After breakfast I drove back into town and bought a big bottle of bug repellant and that seemed to help considerably – at least with bites. The mosquitoes would still buzz around and go into our ears or eyes. It was just awful and we finally broke camp and went for swim over in Stewart Lake – it was a tremendous relief.

The reason this story stands out for me is that its level of bug severity is rare. It’s the only time I ever let bugs get in the way of doing what I had originally planned. The vast majority of the days I’ve spent camping are nothing like this particular and singular experience.

A reminder that Ed Horner is not a medical professional. Any advice offered herein is anecdotal and should be used only as a reference for further investigation by the individual. Always seek professional medical attention when it comes to your health and safety.

Mosquitos and Black Flies

So, let’s start off by recognizing that you can’t make bugs go away and if you decide can’t live with that then you need to alter your plans and location to avoid high bug season. Typically, this is May and early June in areas of Ontario north of, about, Gravenhurst. Southern areas tend to be less buggy during this time, but that’s only my observations and experience talking.

  • Set up camp in a breezier area and avoid marshes, wetlands and stagnant bodies of water

  • Camping near the shore of a lake isn’t too bad, as the breezes tend to blow the bugs around too much and they seek shelter in the grass and vegetation

  • A sunny site, tends to keep the mosquitoes at bay more than shady areas

  • A smokey campfire absolutely helps – if you and your camp neighbours can stand it

  • Be sure the bug screen panels on your tent are intact and that zippers close properly. Mosquitoes find their way through any little crack in your tent defences.

According to the Smithsonian Magazine (October, 2013) mosquitos remains have been found in solidified amber that are estimated to be at least 46 million years old. These flies have been around a long time and don’t seem to be going extinct any time soon.

Adult mosquitoes are the problem of course, particularly the females, as they are the ones that bite humans and drawn our blood. Apparently without blood from a mammal, the mosquito can’t reproduce. The male of the species feeds on flower nectar. Surprised? Me too, but it’s true.

Many years ago most of the private and publicly owned campgrounds used to get the “Mosquito Guy” to come around with the propane powered fog machine and chemically fog the property to help kill mosquitoes. It definitely helped, the chemicals also harmed or killed birds, “good” insects and contaminated any edible berries in the area.

As far as I know, provincial authorities no longer fog their campgrounds, nor does it recommend fogging your campsite on your own. If you decide, against all reason, to fog your campsite, check with the park manager before doing so, as there may be a specific bylaw which prohibits your doing so. Also be sure to check with your campground neighbours, because the fog drifts around and they might not like it.

When it comes to personal bug repellant on your body, you still can’t beat DEET (,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamid). In 2002 Health Canada banned DEET solutions greater than 30%, citing health reasons. If used on children a DEET concentration of 10% or less is recommended. In any case, do not use DEET on infants.

DEET is very effective against many biting insects, when used properly. It was found in US studies that concentrations of 100% would protect the wearer for up to 12 hours. Lesser concentrations protected for lesser amounts of time. Rashes and skin irritation are the most commonly reported affects of using DEET – especially at higher concentrations. Keep it out of your mouth, nose and eyes. Avoid its use on broken skin – including badly sunburned skin, pimples, existing rashes and cuts.

Most of the previous advice seems to work with Black lies – those meat-munching early spring time pests that put a dent in a perfectly good camping trip by inflicting great welts on unsuspecting skin.

The Deer Fly

Then there’s the deer fly. It turns out there are precious few per hectare, but how many aggressive, persistent, razor sharp-fanged flying nuisances does one need before staying indoors?

I’ve been walking along a trail without any indication of mosquitoes or black flies all day, then all of a sudden I’ll get a tremendously painful sting on the back of my head or neck. Swatting at it, my hand comes away with nothing but a smudge of my own blood.

Deer flies are very persistent. They follow you and wait for an opportunity to land on your head or neck. They have very sharp mandibles which they use to slice into your skin to get the blood flowing then they drink deeply. They are the vampires in the bug kingdom.

They act like they’re immune to DEET, (they aren’t) citronella or any other repellant. Movement, such as swatting at them, only allows them to zero in on you quicker.

I have, quite literally, been chased down the trail by a couple of these things. I threw down my pack, kicked off my shoes and waded into the water to avoid them. I wasn’t panicking, but I wasn’t waiting around for the bites to come either. The ruddy things didn’t go away! They flew around me and were present when I came up for air. By sheer happenstance, I managed to splash them out of the air so they fell to the surface, where I drowned them by forcing them under water. I’m not making any of this up!

So, how can you reduce their influence around the campsite? Well,it turns out they are attracted to the colour blue, like a royal blue. I’ve tried a few things, but oddly, Tree Tanglefoot insect barrier (a very sticky product that you put around the base of a tree to prevent insects from climbing up) attracts deer flies. I’ve smeared a thin coating of this brownish goo onto a royal blue plastic bucket I found at a dollar store and set the contraption on a stick driven into the ground outside the dining shelter. It worked! It attracted and killed dozens of deer flies over the course of a week.

Use a disposable piece of wood as a spatula and use disposable rubber gloves, because I promise you, this stuff will stick to everything and it’s difficult to wash off. If you do get it on your hands, use a citrus based cleaner then wash your hands with soap and water.

Deer Ticks

These are a special outdoor pest and no matter how I spin this, it’s going to sound like the apocalypse is upon us. While Deer Ticks can be a serious threat, a few precautions can relieve a lot of stress.

The deer tick has been around a long time and it has always been an unusual threat to humans because it can carry a bacteria known as Borrelia burgdorferi (B burgdorferi). This bacteria can cause Lyme Disease in humans and is a serious health threat if left untreated or undiagnosed, as you’ll read below.

Not all ticks carry the disease. The Blacklegged or Deer Tick (and other species) can, if it bites a mouse or deer that carries B burgdorferi, transfer that bacteria to a human through biting.

According to the Canadian government website on this topic, ticks “live in woodlands, tall grasses and bushes – and thrive in wet environments.

They are most commonly found in areas along the north shores of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.” Still, ticks can be found just about everywhere in Ontario and, while remote, there is still a possibility that you can come in contact with a Lyme carrying tick almost anywhere.

  • Wear light coloured, long pants and long sleeve shirts. This makes it easier to spot ticks if they get onto your clothing. Then you can just flick them off

  • In heavily infested areas, you may want to put tape around pant leg openings or use elastics to close them

  • Use insect repellent containing DEET (discussed above). Re-apply as necessary. DEET is a very effective deterrent

  • After a hike or walk, check yourself thoroughly for ticks. Be sure to check the kids at least once or twice a day. Pay close attention to areas such as your scalp, ankles, armpits, groin, naval and behind your ears and knees. Use a mirror to check the back of your body or have someone else check for you

  • Wash and dry thoroughly. After a hike you may want to undress, shower or wash thoroughly to dislodge any ticks not attached to your skin.

If Bitten by a Tick

If you find a tick attached to your skin, do not just brush it off. According to the Canadian government website

  1. If the tick is attached to you, use fine-tipped tweezers or tick removal tool to grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible. Do not use your fingers

  2. Pull the tick straight out, gently but firmly making sure to remove the entire tick (including the head). Don't squeeze it – avoid crushing the tick’s body

  3. After removing the tick, place it in a secure container, such as a screw-top bottle used for medication

  4. Give the tick to your health care professional or Local Health Unit. They like to test ticks to see if they contain the troublesome bacteria

  5. Thoroughly clean the bite site with rubbing alcohol and/or soap and water.

Symptoms of Lyme Disease

Common symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • fever

  • headache

  • muscle and joint pain

  • spasms, numbness or tingling

  • acial paralysis

  • fatigue

  • swollen glands

  • expanding skin rash

Symptoms usually show up within 1-2 weeks, but symptoms can appear anywhere rom 3 to 30 days after a bite from an infected tick.

If you’ve been bitten by a tick and/or you’re just feeling unwell after a trip go see your doctor and be sure to explain you’ve been bitten and suggest a test for Lyme disease might be in order. With early detection, most Lyme disease cases can be treated with antibiotics.

Lyme disease, left untreated, can cause some serious health issues, including; recurring arthritis and neurological problems, numbness, paralysis and, in very rare cases, death.

Bug Wrap Up

You can help protect yourself from deer flies, mosquitoes and black flies by following a few simple guidelines;

  • Dress in lighter colours (tans, whites, but avoid pastels)

  • Wear long sleeve shirts and pants, use a hat

  • Some hiking shirts have a double-high collar to help with sun, but they also help against bugs

  • Use an approved insect repellant on exposed skin

  • Dusk and dawn are times of greatest activity for mosquitoes and black flies. Deer flies don’t seem as bothersome after dark

  • Chemically fog only where permitted by law and only when absolutely necessary.

Use special care in areas infested with Deer Ticks. See precautions in the Deer Tick section above.

Despite making it all sound so horrible, it’s not. I’ve enjoyed hundreds of days in the outdoors – essentially bug free and only on the rarest of occasions have I ever truly been annoyed by them or altered my plans.

A reminder that Ed Horner is not a medical professional. Any advice offered herein is anecdotal and should be used only as a reference for further investigation by the individual. Always seek professional medical attention when it comes to your health and safety.

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