5 Effective & safe ways to repel mosquitoes while camping

If any bug has annoyed humans more than anything, it has got to be mosquitoes. Especially when you are outdoor camping in the wild, mosquitoes can not only be annoying, they can be carriers of malaria, Zika, or Dengue virus. For people suffering from Skeeter syndrome, it’s even worse.

So repelling and keeping away mosquitoes should be on our camping checklist.

To repel mosquitoes while camping, we can use DEET or Picaridin sprays on exposed skin, treat our clothes with permethrin, Use ThermaCell heated pads, apply essential oils like citronella or lemongrass or wear bug shirts to keep the mosquitoes away.

Based on my own personal experience, I will discuss all the above methods of repelling mosquitoes, look at the pros & cons, and discuss the safety and effectiveness of each. If you are in a hurry, click HERE to skip to the bottom to look at a comparison table.

Before you mosquito-proof yourself using any of the below methods, make sure you have the correct tent type and suitable clothes to help you fight off these bloodsuckers. Your tent should be airtight and your clothes should be thick enough for mosquitoes to not penetrate through (avoid yoga pants at all cost)

After doing all this, its time to make yourself mosquito-bite-proof by using any of the below methods.

1. DEET – King of mosquitoes repellents

Diethyl-meta-toluamide is also known as DEET is a chemical agent used worldwide to repel mosquitoes for more than half a century.

During World war 2, the US army needed a general mosquito repellent that soldiers can use in humid environments to keep mosquitoes at bay. DEET was finally discovered in 1946 to be an effective agent, and it was approved for general public use in 1957 and has been the most used repellent since then.

How DEET works?

This is an interesting question. When I sat down to write this article, I had no idea how it works. After doing some digging, I found out that no one knows for sure how it works either. DEET was originally developed using the exhaustive trial & error method.

The most conclusive study to find out how it works was done by Emily Denis from Princeton Neuroscience Institute. Her observation-based researched published in 2019 showed that DEET affects neural sensors in mosquitoes’ legs and frightens them off (how? still a question).

Is DEET safe?

DEET has been around for more than half a century and is recommended and considered safe by most health organizations including WHO (source), CDC (source), and EPA (source). DEET is not harmful to humans if sprayed on skin or if inhaled in slight quantity.

However, DEET is not safe for plastics, spandex, rayon, vinyl, and a few other synthetic materials. I once ruined my sunglasses made of plastic when I accidentally sprayed them with a DEET spray. It results in permanent marks because DEET reacts with plastic and dissolves it.

Another drawback of DEET is its strong smell. Specially, if you are using a spray that has higher concentration of DEET, the smell can become unbearable for people around you.

How to use DEET?

DEET normally comes in the form of aerosol sprays and cream tubes. You can find one in any general store or buy one from Amazon before leaving for your camping trip. 3M makes great DEET products under their brand name Ultrathone.

You can find Ultrathon DEET Spray and Ultrathon Lotion on Amazon. When applied, the DEET takes care of you from mosquitoes for 8 – 12 hours.

mosquitoes repellent DEET spray for camping

2. Picaridin Anti Mosquitoes Sprays

Picaridin is another chemical agent used in aerosol sprays to prevent mosquitoes from biting you red. Compared to DEET, this is relatively newer discovery (developed in 1980s) and is gaining market shares both in Europe and USA.

Is Picaridin better than DEET?

Picaridin is as effective as DEET when it comes to repelling mosquitoes and other bugs. But compared to DEET, Picaridin sprays are not sticky to the skin and have no strong smell. They are equally safe to use on both adults and children over 2 months.

Picaridin also has another plus point. It is not corrosive to plastic and other synthetic material, so that you can use it freely with your clothes and other camping gear without any risk. In my opinion, this sets Picaridin apart from the time-tested DEET sprays.

Where to buy Picaridin?

Picaridin sprays and lotions are commonly available both online and in stores. Sawyer makes great product ranges with Picaridin as active ingredients [check HERE]. You can get the sachet lotion or small spray bottle to last your camping trip.

Avoid mosquitoes during camping using Picaridin spray

3. Permethrin Treatment for Clothes & Gears

Why spray yourself when you can spray your clothes with an insect killer that can last for as long as 6 weeks even remain active after multiple washes?

Permethrin is an anti-mosquito spray but for your clothes, tent, hammock and other camping gears.

How is Permethrin different than DEET & Picaridin? Permethrin is a nerve agent that disables the central nervous system of any insect that comes in contact with the chemical. It is absorbed via skin contact. On the other hand, both DEET and Picaridin are just repellents. Insects don’t like them (for reasons yet unknown) and don’t want to sit on any surface treated with DEET/Picaridin.

Is Permethrin better than DEET/Picaridin?

There are both pros and cons to the use of Permethrin. The biggest benefit of it is its long-lasting effect. Once treated, the clothing surface kills mosquitoes for up to 6 weeks and even after multiple washes. It is odorless and harmless to humans and pets in normal use.

On the other hand, the limitation of Permethrin is that it cannot be used on the skin, so even if you treat all your clothes with Permethrin, insects can still bite your bare skin if they don’t come in direct contact with any of your treated clothing surface.

For best results, you can use BOTH. Use Permethrin as your long-term mosquito killer and use DEET or Picaridin spray to protect your skin.

Which Permethrin spray should you buy?

Sawyer makes one of the best-selling Permethrin sprays for outdoor campers [check HERE]. Their product uses a low concentration of 0.5% Permethrin yet effective for up to 6 weeks and 6 washes.

Other notable brands are Coleman [check HERE] and Repel [check HERE]

4. Thermacell Mosquito Repellent

Ok, so you hate spraying chemicals all over your body and clothes.

That’s understandable.

This next solution is for those who want something more “subtle” to repel mosquitoes – something that can work in the background while you enjoy your card game with your friends outside your tent.

Thermacell mosquito repellent is a portable device that works by dispersing a mosquito repellent agent stored in a foam pad. It has 3 main parts;

  1. Allethrin foam pad (allethrin is active repellent agent)
  2. A metal platform to heat the pad and disperse allethrin
  3. A heat source to heat up the metal platform

The most famous portable Thermacell device looks like a handheld tricorder scanner used in the Star Trek series (star trek fan? anyone?). It uses butane liquid as a source of heat to disperse the allethrin in the air. Both the butane cell and allethrin pads are disposable and will need replacement when used.

Below is a short video demonstrating how to use the handheld Thermacell device.

The butan cartriidge lasts around 12 hours and the allethrin pad will work for 4 hours. Once turned on, it produces a mosquito-free safezone of 15 feet all around where the device is placed.

Is Thermacell safe?

Allethrin is generally considered safe for humans both indoors and outdoors but is toxic to fish, bees, and cats. If you have pets around, be cautious using this in closed quarters. But generally, allethrin is non-toxic for outdoor use and also not harmful to the environment. It breaks down in the soil after use, so it doesn’t pose any long-term threat to the camping sites where it is used.

Which Thermacell device you should get?

The handheld scanner type powered by butane is the most versatile and widely used, but it is not the only one the company makes. Over the years, Thermacell has come out with a variety of different types to suit different occasions. Some of the most loved outdoor devices are below.

Sr. No.DeviceFuel TypeWorking timeSafety Zone
1Thermacell MR300 [Recommended]Butane12 hours15 Feet
2Thermacell E55Rechargeable12 hours20 Feet
3Thermacell Patio ShieldButane12 hours15 Feet
4Thermacell Radius ZoneRechargeable40 hours15 Feet
5Thermacell MR450Butane12 hours15 Feet

5. Citronella Candles, Lanterns & Sticks

If you are not a big fan of synthetic fumes to repel mosquitoes, there are natural materials that you can burn to produce aromatic smokes that might be pleasant to humans but act as effective repellents for the mosquitoes. It is also an effective spider repellent and will keep spiders away from your tent as well.

One of the most famous natural extracts is Citronella. Citronella is an essential oil extracted from the Cymbopogon plant and has a strong citrusy aroma. When burned in candles and lanterns, the smoke act as a strong mosquito repellent.

You can find several companies that make citronella candles, lanterns, and burning sticks. Lanterns [Amazon Link] are better in the sense that they don’t have an open flame, so there is less risk of fire if used inside the tent while camping.

Coleman makes a great mosquito repellent citronella lantern that is perfect for windy outdoors [check HERE]

Candles [Amazon Link] and sticks [Amazon Link] on the other hand are pretty handy and take up less space in your backpack. But the biggest problem with candles is that they are pretty useless outside of your tent. A slight gust of wind will turn the flame off.

How to repel mosquitoes while camping? – Conclusion

So we discussed 5 different methods of repelling mosquitoes while you are camping in mosquito land. Which one is best for you really depends on your personal choice, experience, availability, and aptitude.

Most people don’t like chemicals and prefer organic and natural solutions. For them, an essential oil based solution like citronella candles and lanterns is the way to go.

Others who don’t mind a bit of harmless synthetic chemical on their body and clothes can use any DEET or Picaridin-based spray or use one of the Thermacell devices to create a safe zone around.

Here is a comparison table for all the 5 methods we discussed above to help you pick the right option.

RepellentEffectivenessHuman SafetyPets SafetyPortability
DEET Sprays+++++++++++++++++
Picaridin Sprays+++++++++++++++++
Permethrin Sprays++++++++++++++
Thermacell Devices+++++++++++++++
Citronella lanterns+++++++++++++++
camping mosquitoes

FAQs

Which is safer Picaridin or DEET?

DEET is a famous mosquito repellent that has been around for more than half a century and is endorsed by WHO, CDC, and EPA to be safe for all purposes. Picaridin is relatively new but has no reported safety issues as well. If you have to pick one, DEET is the safer option because it has been around much longer.

Is Picaridin better than DEET?

Both insect repellents are safe and effective. Picaridin is better than DEET in some aspects. It is odorless and non-greasy while DEET has a strong smell and feels oily on the skin. DEET melts certain plastics and synthetic material while Picaridin is safe to use on all surfaces.

Is DEET safe for dogs?

In high concentration (above 80%) DEET containing mosquitoes repellents should not be used around dogs. It can cause severe vomiting, ataxia, disorientation, tremors and seizures.

Is permethrin safe for dogs and cats?

Permethrin sprays are completely safe for dogs and can be applied to dogs’ skins for ticks and other bugs. However, permethrin is toxic to cats and should not be used directly. However, it is safe for cats once it is dried.