Insects and Hiking

Hiking practice

Hiking is very much an outdoor activity and with that you get both the good and the bad aspects of nature. The beautiful views, the animals, the sense of solitude and oh the insects! Sometimes insects can be so annoying that you feel you have no other choice but to quit your hike, if you can.

In this article we discuss what you can do to reduce the impacts that insects may have on your hike so you can keep on doing what you enjoy rather than focusing on the negatives.

The key perpetrators

There are millions of insects species worldwide but most don’t have a negative impact on us as hikers. The key concerns tend to be the various fly and mosquito species.

March Flies are found throughout Australia and consist of a number of different species. While they don’t travel in swarms like mosquitoes, they do make up for it with their painful bite. They are found in many different environments and can be a real issue in Australia’s alpine regions in particular.

These flies, specifically the females (because the males live on nectar) use their strong, piercing mouthparts like a needle to extract blood from animals (including people) to assist in the reproductive process.

March Flies have an exceptional work ethic. They will land on you, proceed to bite you and have the capacity to work their way through all but the thickest clothing fabric if you allow them enough time.

  • Did you know that March Flies are more likely to bite you if you are wearing navy coloured clothing? Go figure!

In the image below a female March Fly was slowly working its way through the fabric of my pants – had I left it there much longer it would have managed to bite me.

The stock standard ‘house flies’ while much smaller also tend to be much more numerous and in my case on the start of the Cape to Cape Walk in Western Australia they were so bad I needed to cover my nose and mouth with my buff because I was swallowing so many. Gill was more prepared and had packed her head net!

Midges while looking like mosquitoes are really a type of fly and often tend to impact you in certain areas particularly those near water and may often be seasonal.

Most flies tend to be an issue during daylight hours and tend to disappear at night time.

March Fly working its way through Tim’s trouser leg

Female mosquitoes, like March Flies, are also after your blood and some species can transmit particularly nasty diseases like Ross River Fever in tropical Australia and Malaria in many overseas areas. While the mosquitoes in southern Australia tend not to be disease carriers, they are really annoying and if there are enough of them they can make your skin quite itchy and impact on your sleep.

It’s not unusual when we sleep in a tent to spend a bit of time before going to sleep killing off any we have let inside otherwise we just don’t sleep well. Mosquitoes tend to be an issue during the night time or in shady damp forest during the day.

Mosquitoes biting an arm (image from University of Melbourne)

Minimising the impacts of insects on a hike

Being outside there is no way you can avoid interacting with insects but what can you can do to minimise it?

Long sleeves, long pants, and head covering help to minimise skin exposure and apart from reducing the impact of harsh UV exposure it also minimises insect interaction. The only time that I (Tim) wears short sleeved hiking tops is very early in the morning or during winter. I never wear shorts

If the insects are bad enough then a head net is a great option. In this image Gill is wearing a head net on the Cape to Cape Walk in Western Australia – she was smart and remembered to bring it with her to combat the flies that I wasn’t expecting

Sea to Summit Insect Net

Tim doesn’t use his that often but makes a conscious decision on each and very hike to take a head net or not. It weighs so little its worth carrying one if you aren’t sure

I didn’t bring a head net on our Cape to Cape Walk in Western Australia and the flies were so bad I needed to cover my mouth and nose with my buff  to stop me eating them. If you zoom in on the above image you can see the flies swarming around my head

Bushman Insect Repellent and similar products can make life a bit more pleasant when you’re encountering insects but use sparingly and remember, you can’t (and shouldn’t) try to eliminate all insects!

You may not need to use a tent fly which minimises the wind and helps to keep the moisture off you but if the insects are going to be bad, make sure you use at least the tent inner that has a nice fine mesh even if it’s a hot night

Final thoughts

It’s pretty rare that insects negatively impact our hikes but when they do, they really do! Probably the main take away for us is clothing that covers our arms and legs not just for insect deterrent but also for protection from our strong UV. Long clothing just makes sense on so many levels but you need to select the correct fabric weight that’s going to suit the temperatures you are hiking in.

After clothing choices comes face and head covering and this can be done in a number of ways. On a number of hikes I’ve worn a buff or a head net which has saved the hike when the insects are going ballistic and it can be anyone’s guess when they are going to be an issue. For this reason I will always carry at least one buff on a hike and for most of my hikes a head net as well.

Last but not least is insect repellent and this is a rarity for us but a small container will last most hikers for most hikes particularly if you are only having to treat your hand and face areas.

What options you use to control insects are going be a personal choice but like most planning aspects of hiking, a bit of conscious pre-thought will help develop a regime that suits your hiking adventures.

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