Eight ways to repel insects without bug spray

You don’t need a can full of DEET to keep ticks and mosquitoes at bay.

Neither bugs nor the chemical smell of commercial repellent are invited to this relaxing evening by the water.
Julie Rotter/Unsplash

This story was originally featured on Outdoor Life.

Unless you’re an entomologist (and on the clock), you probably hate being surrounded by bugs, especially if they bite. While these creatures play important roles in the environment, they can be a real nuisance to humans in the outdoors, and some of these bugs do transmit diseases. Your favorite store-bought bug repellent can keep them away for awhile, but what happens when the DEET can runs dry? Worse yet, what about when you’re in a survival situation and the bugs won’t leave you alone? Thankfully, there are some natural options to beat the bugs without all the chemicals.

1. Make your own repellent

While it’s not the strongest option in the world, you can make your own bug repellent from essential oils and other household products. Make a trip to a health food store or similar shop for the essential oils (or order them online). Then you’ll be ready to blend and bottle your own bug repellent. You’ll need:

  • A one-quart spray bottle
  • 1 pint distilled white vinegar
  • 1 pint water
  • 25 drops of tea tree oil
  • 25 drops of lavender essential oil

Add the ingredients into a clean spray bottle and shake well. Spray your boots, clothing and skin with a generous coating before heading outside. Reapply every two to four hours for best results.

2. Check often for ticks

Ticks are more than a nuisance for our dogs. These troublesome arachnids are found in every habitat in the US, and we host more than 90 of the world’s 900 tick species. Many of these species pose a significant threat to outdoor enthusiasts, transmitting diseases such as Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Powassan disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), ehrlichiosis, STARI (Southern tick-associated rash illness), tularemia, and other diseases. Spot them by wearing light-colored clothing and doing frequent “tick checks” throughout the day. Remove embedded ticks quickly to limit your risk of contracting a tick-borne disease. Use tweezers or a tick removal tool to grab the tick by the mouth, pinching your own skin if necessary, then pull it straight out.

3. Watch where you put your gear

Scorpions, spiders, centipedes, and other venomous creatures may consider your unattended boots, gloves, or other garments as a fine new home, especially if they have been undisturbed for a few hours. Then guess what happens when you suddenly pick these items up and put them on? The animal gets pressed against your skin and it bites or stings you. The venom can range from mild to intense, depending on the creature that you’ve disturbed and its size. Take scorpions as an example. With more than a thousand known scorpion species in the world, there are plenty we’ll encounter in our travels. Mercifully, there are only 25 known to carry venom that would kill a human. From that group, there’s just one that lives in the continental US. It’s the Arizona bark scorpion (Centruroides sculpturatus) and its venom is on the low end of the spectrum (fatalities are very rare, usually occurring in small children and those with health problems). So how do we avoid the sting or bite? Don’t leave your clothing, gloves or footwear on the ground or outside overnight. Don’t hang your jacket on a tree. Don’t give them a chance to crawl into your open backpack. Gear that’s not being worn should be put away, closed up or otherwise moved out of the creature’s reach. Yes, it’s a pain, but it’s less painful than getting bitten or stung.

4. Use wild plants as repellents

Depending on your environment, there may be many wild plants which contain bug-repelling compounds. Some of these may be native species and others may have been brought to this continent for various purposes. Either way, it could be very helpful to learn about the plant species that can ward off pests in the outdoors. Before you start scrubbing wild plants all over yourself, use a wild plant field guide to make 100 percent positive identification of any plant or plant part.

  • Paw Paw (Asimina triloba): This native tree species is commonly found along rivers and waterways throughout the eastern US. It bears large tropical-looking fruits (edible to people) that ripen in late summer. The trees also bear large ovate leaves which can be crushed and wiped on your skin as a useful insect repellent. The leaves are at their best in the spring and early summer, when their strong scent can remind us of fresh asphalt.
  • Catnip (Nepeta cataria): This common mint family member is a non-native species, brought to these shores for more than just driving your cat insane. A tea from the leaves can have a calming effect in humans and the plant can repel mosquitoes and other flying insects. The easiest way to use the plant is to crush the fresh leaves and stems onto your skin and clothing.
  • Pineapple weed (Matricaria matricarioides): Another non-native species, this unusual little wildflower doesn’t look like a pineapple but the leaves smell like it. Often found on roadsides and other disturbed ground, the feathery leaves and tender stems can be crushed and applied to skin and clothing to repel insects, especially mosquitoes.

5. Don’t forget the net

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