How To Treat Your Hiking Clothes With Permethrin

True story: I once forgot to pack bug spray for a backpacking trip in the White Mountains of NH. It was my first-ever multi-day backpack, but that excuse didn’t mean a thing to the swarms of black flies that descended upon me over the next several days. It was a pretty rough introduction—I’m originally from NC, where black flies are nonexistent—and quite frankly, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

What I do wish is that I’d known about a game-changer of an insect repellent called Permethrin. If I had known about this product, I would’ve been virtually impervious to those suckers, or any other biting insect for that matter. Let’s talk about all things Permethrin, including why you should use it to treat your hiking clothes and gear before your next trip.

If I'd thought to treat my clothes with Permethrin, I would've saved myself a lot of misery on this trip.

If not for the black flies, this trip would’ve been absolute perfection.

What Is Permethrin?

Permethrin is a highly effective insecticide that can be used as a first line of defense against biting insects. It is highly toxic to a whole spectrum of insects, including black flies, mosquitoes, and ticks. The best part is that you can treat your clothes with Permethrin before taking your first step into the great outdoors.

Fun fact: Permethrin is a synthetic version of a chemical that is naturally produced by the Chrysanthemum flower. Unlike the natural version, though, Permethrin lasts much longer—once you treat your clothes, it can last for up to six weeks or six washings (whichever comes first).

READ NEXT – Bears, Noro, and Lyme: What To Worry About (Or Not) on Your Thru-Hike

Can you really treat your hiking clothes with Permethrin?

Yes! You can actually treat your hiking clothes and gear with Permethrin. What article of clothing to focus on depends on what exactly you’re seeking protection from. If your main concern is deer ticks—especially important in areas where Lyme Disease is prevalent—you should concentrate especially hard on your shoes, socks, and the cuffs and waistline of your pants. If mosquitoes are the issue, you should probably go ahead and treat all of your clothing… just saying.

Pro tip: Treat your backpack, too, since it often comes into contact with the ground during rest breaks and whatnot. You don’t want to pick up a hitchhiking tick!

How To Use It

Hiking clothes being treated with Permethrin in Millinocket, ME, 2019. Photo via Mike Joyce.

For specific instructions, make sure to first consult the directions that are listed on the specific product you’re using. Generally speaking, though, you can treat your clothes with Permethrin by applying a spray or soaking it in a dilute Permethrin bath. Don’t worry, Permethrin dries odor-free and won’t stain or damage your clothes. Just make sure you’re outside or in a well-ventilated space. Avoid direct skin contact with Permethrin until it has dried.

With a spray, start by hanging your gear so that you can easily treat both sides of the material. Generally speaking, you’ll hold the bottle six to eight inches away from the fabric and directly spray it in a slow, sweeping motion. Once you’ve completely covered one side of the garment (~30 seconds), switch to the other side and repeat.

Permethrin for treating your clothes (and gear).

Sawyer makes a great Permethrin spray to treat your clothes and gear with.

You may want to use a soak if you have bulky pieces of gear (like a tent) or a bunch of different items to treat. This method can also help ensure that you don’t miss spots during application. You can either use a bucket or gallon-sized freezer bags. If you’re using a bucket, make sure to wear gloves since your skin will be coming in direct contact with the solution. Allow the items to soak for the recommended time and then hang to dry, ideally not in direct sunlight.

If possible, you’ll want to re-treat your hiking clothes and gear with Permethrin every six weeks or washes, whichever comes first. Wondering how you could possibly find time to do that on a thru-hike? Consider dedicating a zero day to the cause. Permethrin products are typically easy to find in trail towns along the AT. Otherwise, you can always order some ahead from REI and have it sent using General Delivery.

Where To Buy It

Treating your hiking clothes or gear with Permethrin can be as easy as paying a visit to your local outfitter or REI. Walmart and hardware stores like Home Depot should carry it, too.

Is it really safe?

Yes, just be careful during application! Any Permethrin spray product you use should have a concentration of 0.5%. If you buy a product with a concentration higher than that, make sure to dilute it first according to the instructions.

Pro tips: Always do it outside, pay attention to the wind direction, wear gloves and long sleeves, and avoid getting it on your skin until it dries. Easy enough.

Permethrin is also safe for use on dogs as a means to help protect against lice, fleas, and ticks. As always, just be sure to follow the instructions and the tips listed above.

Note to cat owners: Permethrin is toxic to cats while wet but safe once it has dried.

Treat your clothes (and tent) with Permethrin.

Ah, that fantastic feeling of knowing you’re safe from mosquitoes…

What if I don’t want to treat my hiking clothes with Permethrin at home?

If treating your clothes or gear with Permethrin yourself doesn’t appeal to you, you can buy clothing that comes with an even longer-lasting factory treatment such as Insect Shield or BugsAway. Alternatively, you can send your clothing to Insect Shield, and they’ll treat it and return it to you. Professional treatments last up to 70 washings—plenty for a thru-hike or two.

I used to actively avoid using insect repellent, but several negative experiences have changed my way of thinking. Carrying bug spray and treating your clothes and gear with Permethrin can dramatically improve morale on a backpacking trip in the buggy months. Seriously, don’t make things harder for yourself.

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Featured image via Hoozurmama.

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Comments 7

  • Ralph B. Mahon : Nov 4th

    Good stuff! Another use for it is to use it on a bandana to tie on your dog, or sweater/jacket if your best friend wears one.

    Reply
  • Rick Lohr : Nov 4th

    You can buy concentrate Permethrin online and mix with water in a garden/weed sprayer or just add to a regular spray bottle. HOWEVER, be sure to buy the NON-PETROLEUM-BASED kind or your gear and clothes will be an oily mess! A good option is Martin’s 10% concentrate Permethrin. Follow dilution instructions on the bottle. MAKE SURE IT’S NON-PETROLEUM-BASED!!

    Reply
    • Ralph B. Mahon : Nov 4th

      I use Sawyer, Tractor Supply and other farm type stores.

      Reply
  • Isabelle : Nov 5th

    Permethrin is highly toxic to freshwater organisms, which makes swimming or rinsing clothes problematic.

    Reply
  • Cheri : Nov 10th

    I love Insect Shield. They have awesome customer service. The treatment is supposed to last 70 washings which should suffice for a thru hike.

    Reply
  • Sparky : Nov 11th

    I am never afraid to read new trail suggestions on hiking, keep up the great blog!

    Reply

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