Surviving Alaska: Mosquitoes

Many an ode has been written on these critters. Threats to wipe out their entire population are frequently expressed on some camping trips. The vast tundra swarms with them and they are impossible to escape. Such annoyance in a 2.5mg package, it’s a wonder they cause such discontent. Some 17 trillion mosquitoes call Alaska home so a quick calculation reveals a total mosquito weight of 96 million pounds! Each female is capable of drawing 5mg of blood so it’s a wonder there are any of us left.

DEET has been around for nearly a century now. It was first developed in 1944 and entered military service in 1946. It is highly effective but comes with some drawbacks. It smells bad, leaves a sticky residue and can melt plastics. Using deet means you have to be careful around watches and wrist/neck gaskets on drysuits. It comes in many different concentrations from 10% to 100%. Always buy 40-50% which is the most repellant and least toxic; anything above 50% studies show is not more effective. As one of the most effective and well-known insect repellants it has staying power but there is a newer option that you should be aware of.

Picaridin was developed in 2001 and has gained widespread use. You may not have heard of the compound but it is often marketed as a “family friendly” insect repellent. The reason being, it is less toxic, nearly odorless, and does not melt plastic. It is most effective at 20% concentration. It is still not as easy to find as deet but is available at most stores if you look around. Studies show that it works just as well as deet in mosquito deterrence. This is now my go-to bug spray.

Permethrin is used in bug nets, tents, and some clothing. It is not to be used as a spray on the skin. It does actively kill insects and is highly effective. However it will wash out after a few cycles and needs to be reapplied. Reapplication is time consuming, akin to extending the life of your tent fly with waterproofing spray. Repellents like eucalyptus oil and other natural remedies may be slightly effective but usually less so and for a shorter period of time.

Don’t forget clothing. 2 soft layers (Apline Fit base layer plus a midlayer) is usually enough. Of course a dry suit is bomb proof on a packrafting trip, but a rain jacket will suffice. A bug net is essential on most trips in Alaska. Have a way to keep the bug net off your face, especially the ears which are easily forgotten.

For those that have experienced the interior of Alaska, there really isn’t anything like it. On a recent trip down the John river we descended from Alpine terrain in cold conditions to full summer early mosquito hatch. We couldn’t get our bug nets secure enough or into our tents fast enough. They found every potential opening and our hands swelled with cumulative bites. Sometimes the repellants just aren’t enough. We came by several long-abandoned hunting cabins and even an old town. Built by intrepid gold miners 100 years ago, they have not seen use in decades. It’s not hard to imagine what might have driven these early explorers out.

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