DEET vs Picaridin vs Natural Insect Repellent for Backpacking

My husband and I were in the Sierra Nevada right after peak snowmelt. Those who know, know: right after peak snowmelt comes peak mosquitos. We had some DEET lotion with us. I disliked the sticky, oily feeling on my skin. Frequent applications spread ash and dirt from my legs to my face and arms and locked it in for several days at a time.

My husband hated applying it so much that one day he decided to just take his chances. He had hiked up ahead of me, and I expected to meet him at the next water source. Suddenly, he came racing up the trail towards me, screaming “THE DEET! WHERE’S THE DEET?!”

The moment he had stopped to wait for me, he had been swarmed by a scourge of mosquitoes so thick he could barely see. Laughing, I handed over the bug-repellent lotion, and we applied it religiously every few hours for the rest of our hike. Even so, every time I stopped, I was surrounded by a cloud of insects that circled, circled, circled, and never attacked, fended off by the 16 layers of DEET on my skin.

best insect repellents for backpacking: mosquito against white cloth background

It’s important to use one of the best insect repellents for backpacking because mosquitoes and other bugs can transmit dangerous diseases. Photo by Pragyan Bezbaruah.

So Many Options

But DEET is far from the only option when it comes to effectively repelling bugs.When backpacking, you want an insect repellent that doesn’t weigh too much, feels nice on your skin, is safe, and actually keeps the bugs away. This is critical because, in addition to being annoying, bugs can also spread diseases like Zika, Lyme disease, and malaria.

Your grandpa keeps telling you that DEET is the only bug spray that works, your cousin heard that Picaridin is supposed to be good, your sister soaks her clothes in some weird chemical every six weeks, and your dad tells you to just tuck your pants into your socks.

Which insect repellents are best for backpacking? Read on for an overview of different methods. We’ll compare DEET vs. picaridin vs. natural insect repellent vs. permethrin and break down the pros and cons of each.

The Best Insect Repellents for Backpacking

bottles of insect repellent sprays, aerosols, and lotions from different brands lined up next to each other

So many options! We’ll compare some of the best insect repellents for backpacking.


DEET is a chemical widely used in insect repellents. It’s widely considered to be the most effective (though this is controversial). According to the EPA, it works by “making it hard for… biting bugs to smell us.” Products containing DEET can be anywhere between 5 and 99 percent DEET. The more DEET, the harsher the insect repellent, and the longer it lasts (though the CDC says that “concentrations over 50 percent provide no added protection). It lasts anywhere between one and hours, depending on the concentration. It can come in a spray or as a lotion and is meant for direct-to-skin application.

Pros: Time-tested and true, DEET has been repelling bugs since the 1940s. It is readily available in many different forms and sizes.

Cons: Feels greasy and unpleasant and has a nasty smell. May need frequent reapplication. It’s also corrosive to some synthetic materials (including things that may be in your hiking clothes or sunglasses). In rare cases, people may have an adverse reaction to DEET. You have to carry the extra weight on trail.


Picaridin is a synthetic compound made to resemble piperine, which is the spicy chemical in black pepper. It was only approved for sale in the US in 2005, but people swear by it, including Wirecutter by the New York Times. According to Sawyer, which sells a 20% picaridin insect repellent, it’s just as effective as DEET at repelling ticks and mosquitoes and more effective at repelling biting flies. Sawyer also claims that it lasts 8-14 hours.

Pros: Not as greasy or smelly as DEET and doesn’t damage plastic or synthetics. It also lasts longer than DEET and is just as effective, if not more so in some cases.

Cons: Since Picaridin has only been in use for around 20 years, there’s less evidence about its long-term safety than with DEET (though there’s also no evidence that it’s dangerous).

Natural Repellents

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE)

OLE is extracted from the lemon eucalyptus tree in Australia and enriched for its active ingredient, PMD. The CDC recommends some commercial insect repellents that contain OLE. There are other bug repellents available that contain a synthetic version of PMD.

Pros: A happy medium between a product that is tested/vetted/approved and one that does not contain harsh synthetic chemicals. May be better than DEET at protecting against ticks.

Cons: May be less effective than Picaridin at repelling all bugs. Like other skin products, it can sometimes cause an allergic reaction.

best insect repellents for backpacking: a bottle of translucent yellow oil of lemon eucalyptus bug spray from Repel with a green cap and label

Repel offers an oil of lemon eucalyptus-based insect repellent. Photo from Amazon.

Essential Oils

One of the most commonly cited insect-repelling essential oils is lemon eucalyptus oil. This is different from oil of lemon eucalyptus (I know, I was surprised too). It’s an essential oil made from the lemon eucalyptus tree by distilling the leaves and twigs. It has a more variable amount of PMD than OLE.

Other oils often cited as having bug-repellent effects are lavender oil, thyme oil, soybean oil, and tea tree oil. Peppermint oil is sometimes cited as a potential insect and spider repellent, but it may also attract bears. Ticks may be much more of a danger on the AT than bears, but that doesn’t mean you want to put a blinking neon sign on your back that says “Come eat me, bear! I taste delicious!”

Though anecdotally people sometimes report that essential oils worked well for them, unfortunately, the science says otherwise. An article published in the journal of Wilderness & Environmental Medicine claims that plant oils “would… repel insects for short periods,” but their “duration of effectiveness” is “limited.” Essential oils evaporate quickly, so need to be reapplied frequently. Wirecutter, by the New York Times, published a blog called “Why Essential Oils Make Terrible Bug Repellents.”

Pros: You get to feel like a hippie. They have a strong, distinctive smell (this could also be a con).

Cons: Not very much research has been done on the safety and efficacy of essential oils. They are not regulated by the EPA or FDA, and the CDC does not recommend their use as insect repellents.


Permethrin is an insecticide that’s toxic to a spectrum of insects including ticks, black flies, and mosquitoes. Instead of spraying it directly on your body, you treat your clothing and gear by spraying it or soaking it in a Permethrin-treated bath. It should repel insects for six weeks or six washings, whichever comes first. If home treatment isn’t for you, you can send your clothing to Insect Shield. Professionally treated clothing should last up to 70 washings. It can be used in combination with a topically-applied insect repellent like DEET or Picaridin.

Pros: Lasts longer than normal bug spray. No sticky residue on your skin. Better than DEET or Picaridin at repelling ticks. You can also treat gear like shoes and tents for extra protection.

Cons: It’s annoying and sometimes logistically complicated to have to treat your clothing every six weeks. It’s a pretty harsh chemical, so you have to be extra careful to avoid inhalation or skin contact while treating. While wet, it’s very toxic to cats, so keep your pets away until it dries completely. Also, Permethrin kills insects (other bug repellents just mask your scent), so if you care about insects’ lives, feelings, and rights, this might not be the choice for you.

READ NEXT – How To Treat Your Hiking Clothes With Permethrin

Best insect repellents for backpacking: pants, shirts, shorts, buffs, gaiters, hat drying in grass after being treated with permethrin

After treating clothes with Permethrin, let them dry for a bit. Photo via Mike Joyce.

Other Methods

Cover Up

A tried-and-true method of avoiding insect bites, you can wear long sleeves, long pants, and a bug net. You need to make sure your clothing is thick enough to avoid punctures from the most dedicated of critters. Your rain gear will work in a pinch. There’s even a Mosquito Net Jacket by Little Fly Design for those committed to this method.

Pros: Chemical-free, no treatment/reapplication necessary. No need to carry any extra weight.

Cons: You will still be swarmed by bugs; they just won’t be able to bite. It can be a freaky and unpleasant experience to watch dozens of mosquitoes land on your legs and try to impale you through your rain pants. It also may be unpleasant to be covered in thick pants and long sleeves while hiking.

Hiker with red shirt and grey backpack wearing black mesh head net in green forest - a mechanical approach that can be one of the best insect repellents for backpacking

“If you stopped for a second, dozens of mosquitos appeared directly in front of you,” said Scott Morrison near an AT bog that he calls “the buggiest place in the entire world.

Outrun the Bugs

Just what it sounds like. The faster you hike and the less you stop, the less the insects will be able to sink in their grubby teeth. When you do stop, the closer you are to a flowing body of water, the fewer mosquitoes there will be (I recommend at least waist-deep). Then, set your tent up lickity-split and hide in there as soon as possible when you get to camp. Gaze in defeat upon the three mosquitoes that got into your tent and cry as they spend the night feasting on your blood.

Pros: You’ll make a lot of miles because you won’t want to stop. Also, no chemicals, extra bug-spray weight, or logistical hassle.

Cons: Everything else. This is not a recommended method. Try at your own risk. For use in emergencies only.

Close-up of dozens of mosquitoes on outside of tent mesh, shot from inside tent.

They’ll eat you ALIIIIIIIIVE. Photo via Nicole and Alex Docta.

Eat Garlic/Onions

The thinking is that, apparently, mosquitos don’t like the smell of these pungent veggies. So just add them to your daily meals, and voila, no more bugs!

However, eating onions and garlic doesn’t exactly make you ooze it out of your pores. The New York Times called the claim that eating garlic can repel mosquitoes “wishful thinking.” So while garlic is delicious, it’s not one of the best insect repellents for backpacking. Oh well.

Pros: It’ll keep the vampires away.

Cons: It probably won’t keep the bugs away.

Featured image via Gail Barrett.

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Comments 4

  • Harry Poppins : Dec 27th

    I eat lots of garlic and have never had difficulties with vampires. I can also say that in Northwest Tennessee I have had better luck with tick repellent using Picardin than DEET. THis is not a good study since it was only me and 2 other people but I think worth mentioning. I have been told that should you encounter a vampire the best thing to do is run and never ever camp in an old spooky castle on your thru hike.

  • Christopher Fuentes : Dec 29th

    Thanks for explaining the active ingredients used in repellents. As the founder of Ranger Ready Repellents that markets Picaridin 20%, I’d like to note that your comment is correct that Picaridin has only been available in the U.S. since 2005, however, it has been widely used safely around the world since it was developed for the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1989. Picaridin based products are widely used in Canada, Australia and is the leading active across Europe. Ranger Ready has been offering premium Picaridin 20% repellents made in the USA since 2018 – our customer reviews are the rest of the story.

  • Kurt Neuswanger : Dec 30th

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about insect “feelings and rights” before. Wow! 🙂

    I was hoping your article would tell which repellent you have decided works best. Can you enlighten us on your preferred option?

  • Stealth AT 2022 thruhiker : Dec 30th

    This year on my successful thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I tried every kind of bug repellent. Nothing worked!!! I found that the $1 purple box of lavender incense sticks from Walmart works. Burn a stick when you stop and all bugs will leave you alone.


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