Mosquitos and ticks aren’t just annoying bloodsuckers, they’re also dangerous because of the diseases they’re capable of carrying.
To avoid getting bitten, it’s smart to pack along a proper bug spray or bug repellent while camping, hiking, backpacking, or while spending any amount of time outdoors.
Our top pick, OFF! Deep Woods Bug Spray, is the most effective at repelling insects, according to decades of research (and our own personal use).
For those who dislike DEET, Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent with 20% Picaridin is our favorite bug spray without it.
Bug spray isn’t always the first thing you think of when deciding what to pack for a camping or backpacking trip. Despite being often overlooked, it’s a vital addition to anyone’s pack (along with general mosquito repellents) — dealing with swarming bugs or mosquito bites is never an enjoyable way to spend time outdoors.
DEET (diethyltoluamide) remains the most popular bug spray ingredient due to its effectiveness at protecting from ticks, mosquitos, other bugs, and all the diseases they carry. Decades of research prove DEET to be the best for protecting humans from these bugs, though it is toxic to aquatic creatures like fish.
Worthwhile alternatives to DEET are picaridin and permethrin. These ingredients are less toxic but likely just as effective at repelling bugs. The scientific community is still testing these alternatives, though, so DEET remains king.
While chemical bug sprays may or may not harm you, or the flora and fauna you encounter, they’re highly toxic to many aquatic animals, can trash your clothes, and they just smell terrible. Some people are even allergic to them, too.
For anyone sensitive to DEET or other chemical bug sprays, we’ve found a few eco-friendly picks that won’t hurt you or the environment as much as other sprays. Just know that DEET and picaridin are still the most effective at repelling dangerous ticks and mosquitos.
A note to parents: The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) does not recommend using any bug spray on children under six months of age but suggests treating clothes with permethrin. After a child reaches six months, picaridin is the safest choice.
To learn more about which compounds are best for you and your needs, visit the EWG’s page on insect repellents.
Here are the best bug sprays:
Best bug spray with DEET: OFF! Deep Woods Spray Pump
Best bug repellent with picaridin: Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent with 20% Picaridin
Best bug spray for clothing: Sawyer Premium Permethrin
Best natural bug spray: Repel with Lemon Eucalyptus Oil
Best DIY bug repellent ingredients: Oil of lemon eucalyptus, geranium, cedarwood, lavender, rosemary, grapefruit, citronella, garlic, thyme, eucalyptus, peppermint, and lemongrass
Prices and links are current as of 5/18/20. We added more purchase options for several products on the list so you can choose which retailer you’d like to shop from. We are currently testing bug sprays and repellants, and an overhaul of this guide is planned for the upcoming summer months.
The best bug spray with DEET
OFF! Deep Woods Bug Spray has an optimal 25% concentration of DEET that keeps the greatest number of blood-sucking bugs at bay.
Most Americans have probably used OFF! bug spray at some point in their lives, and while the debate over the relative toxicity of DEET still looms large, research commissioned and/or conducted by the EPA and CDC continues to suggest that for humans, there isn’t much to worry about.
OFF! bug spray will keep blood-sucking insects like mosquitos and ticks well away from you and help you avoid the dangerous illness these bugs pass to humans.
DEET is still the best, most effective bug repellent in the US. The seven-plus decades of research data we have on DEET suggest that its potentially harmful side effects to humans are not that significant. However, that’s not so for aquatic animals, so consider keeping away from the water when wearing it whenever possible.
If you’re going to be wading around in a stream or swimming in the sea, consider going with a combination of Sawyer Picaridin and permethrin if you’re fully-clothed or lemon eucalyptus oil, thyme oil, and geranium oil if you’re just in your bathing suit.
To that point, fishermen and hunters should take note that DEET is a terrible choice for their respective pursuits, and is best left at home not just because it kills fish, but because it actively repels them.
Pros: Possibly the most effective bug repellent out there, though picaridin is a close second
The best bug spray without DEET
Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent with 20% Picaridin is safe to use on adults and young kids, plus, it’s almost as effective as DEET at repelling ticks, mosquitos, and other bugs.
Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent with 20% Picaridin is excellent at warding off insects of the gnat, sandfly, and mozzie varieties. Picaridin, the active ingredient found in this spray, has recently been deemed nearly or as effective as DEET in warding off ticks, though we’d like to see more research before we can confidently recommend it as our top pick.
Ticks are a big problem in North America because the continent has the largest contiguous deciduous forest on earth, and it’s just the kind of environment in which the little buggers proliferate. Plus, cases of Lyme disease are on the rise worldwide.
But, for those who choose to avoid DEET for one reason another, we like picaridin as an alternative. While it’s still toxic to the ecosystem, it is considerably less damaging than DEET. Picaridin isn’t half as offensive to the nostrils as products containing DEET, either.
Pros: Less toxic than DEET, potentially as effective, won’t ruin plastics or plastic-based clothing
Cons: Not yet enough longterm research suggesting its efficacy over DEET, still toxic to wildlife though not as toxic as DEET
The best bug spray for clothing
Sawyer Premium Permethrin doesn’t just repel bugs, it mercilessly kills anything that lands on it.
I don’t like killing anything more than you do, but “live and let live” just doesn’t fly when some pestilent little blood-sucking insect or arachnid threatens to sentence me to a slow, agonizing disease or, you know, death. Sorry little critters, but Lyme Disease and Malaria are no joke.
Permethrin, which is what doctors prescribe to patients with lice and scabies, is an odorless solution that works wonders against most any creepy crawly thing this planet might toss at you. The only shortcoming is that it does not stay on our skin for much longer than 15 minutes, so it’s hardly effective at all unless you’re wearing clothes.
For hunters and anglers, giving off any scent, let alone one so unnatural and odorously offensive as that of DEET is death to their pursuit. In fact, if a serious enough hunter or angler catches you applying the stuff on the way into the woods or out onto the sea, they are likely to make you shower it off, or worse, leave you in the parking lot.
I have a friend who bans both sunscreen and bug spray on their boat because, according to them, the scent it produces on the line makes fish that much more wary of taking a bait. A quick test proved them right.
Sawyer Premium Permethrin is the stuff the hunters I know swear by, and if anyone can attest to its efficacy, I’m sure it’s them. Whenever I go into the woods, I do my best to reach for permethrin because, even though I’m not much of a hunter, DEET can send plenty of animals running. Further, I do happen to be an angler, and I prefer to capture my quarry alive, and free of chemical spoilage.
Sawyer Premium Permethrin is also a good choice for babies and youngsters, so long as they’re well-covered, of course. Campers would also best serve themselves by spraying down tents, hammocks, sleeping bags, and any other fabrics they take camping with a permethrin-based product like Sawyer’s spray repellent.
Pros: Excellent efficacy on clothes and other fabrics
Cons: Evaporates from skin within 15 minutes, kills most insects that set foot on it
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