The colorful history of fighting off pesky pests

The history of battling biting bugs is long and colorful. During their journey across the American West in the 1800s, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark tried rubbing their faces with pork fat. Other travelers during that time burned cedar bark or dried orange peels, and then draped blankets over their heads to capture the smoke trying to keep the bugs away.

Fortunately, now we have more reliable ways to deter airborne irritants.

The CDC and EPA agree that repellents DEET and picaridin are effective at fending off insects. The BSA recommends these ingredients register at a 20 percent concentration. Add long-sleeved shirts, long pants (which can be treated with the repellent permethrin) and perhaps even head nets, and you will have a strong defense against what the authors of early camping manuals called “winged pests, dratted persecutors and fiends incarnate.”

The Battle Begins 

Early campers sometimes built fires in skillets or cook pots and moved them around their camps so they could stay bug-free in the clouds of smoke. Others hung dried toadstools around their necks from strings. If they could get the fungus to smolder, they would have a portable smokescreen drifting around their heads wherever they went.

“They say that a little gunpowder flashed in the tent will drive out flies and mosquitoes,” wrote John M. Gould in his 1877 book How to Camp Out. “I saw a man try it once, but noticed that he himself went out in a great hurry, while the flies if they went at all, were back again before he was.”

Henry David Thoreau splashed his face with a brew of sweet oil, turpentine, spearmint and camphor that he claimed would repulse insects “as long as it was fresh, or for 20 minutes,” whichever came first. The aroma was so disagreeable, though, that he concluded the remedy was worse than the “disease.”

Before DEET, the recipe for the most popular bug defense appeared in the 1884 manual Woodcraft and Camping by George Washington Sears. He simmered pine tar, castor oil and pennyroyal (a member of the mint family) over a fire. A small bottle of it would last for a season in the woods.

The success of this potion was not so much in its repellent attributes as in the habit of users to build up enough layers to form an impenetrable varnish.

“And don’t fool with soap and towels where insects are plenty,” Sears warned. “When I had established a good glaze on the skin, it was too valuable to be sacrificed for any weak whim connected with soap and water.”

When bites did occur, campers were directed to treat them with salt water or a baking soda paste. They could also try rubbing bites with raw onion, tar soap, ammonia, pine tar, castor oil and even creosote, none of them scientifically proven to do much.

Scouts and Skeeters

Since cleanliness has always been a part of the Scouting message and breathing smoke under a blanket has not, the BSA for many years offered little advice on how we might avoid being chewed upon other than covering up with clothing.

The promise of a bug repellent that really works finally began to be realized decades later with the development of the chemical DEET, which confounds the guidance systems of insects and impairs their ability to locate prey.

Of course, you will want to use any repellent only according to the manufacturer’s directions. While there are pros and cons to all repellents, concerns about the side effects of DEET have been largely put to rest, especially in light of DEET’s value in protecting against insect-borne diseases.


Checklist against bugs

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency have conducted exhaustive studies on the best methods to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. Here’s a quick checklist.

  • If possible, avoid areas known to be home to mosquitoes.
  • Wear long pants, socks and long-sleeved shirts. Add a hat, netting or other head covering.
  • You can treat your tent and clothing with permethrin. Follow the manufacturer’s directions.
  • Use an EPA-registered insect repellent containing DEET, picaridin or one of several other active ingredients.

Robert Birkby is the author of three editions of The Boy Scout Handbook, two editions of the BSA’s Fieldbook and the newest edition of the Conservation Handbook. Find him at robertbirkby.com

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