The Happy Camper: Fight the Bite

Kevin Callan talks about the dreaded bugs of spring — and how to Zen out in bug season.

Credit: Kevin Callan

Oh, how we forget about the bugs.

Spring Fever has us running into the woods, then running back the moment a blackfly tries to suck your blood or a mosquito buzzes in your ear. Being bitten is not a pleasant experience. Think about what a blackfly does to you. After slicing your skin, it holds the wound open with a specialized mouthpart, ruptures your capillaries and then begins lapping up the blood. It also spits saliva into the wound — this stops the blood from coagulating and partially numbs the incision so you don’t know what’s happening until it’s too late. And this spit causes itching, swelling and nausea. Ouch! So, how do you deal?  


Wearing dark tones attracts blackflies more than bright colours. Wearing blue jeans is just asking for it; lime green neither attracts them nor keeps them at bay; and hot pink seems to deter them very well.

Bug repellents containing lots of DEET (Diethyltoluamide) best repel blackflies (and everything else). I wouldn’t squirt on too much, however. This stuff also works well for stripping paint and melting plastic. I prefer Ben’s. It’s water-based, not alcohol-based. This allows less DEET to soak into your skin and keeps you from smelling like insect repellent all day. Repellents containing citron or other harmless ingredients are gentler on the skin and are almost as effective as DEET — they just don’t last as long. 


A mosquito doesn’t slice you open, it sucks your blood up through a piercing nose-part — similar to how you feed on Tim Hortons frozen yogurt through a straw. That’s why it may be best to let the mosquito do its thing before squishing it. Slapping it dead halfway through its meal just forces more saliva into the wound and causes more itchiness.

Bug hats, or better yet, bug jackets are an essential part of your equipment list from the first week of May until around the second week in July. Make sure to buy no-see-um netting; mosquito netting will let everything in except mosquitoes. Basically, if it’s on the sale rack, it’s most likely just mosquito netting.

Eating lots of citrus fruit and garlic, and avoiding bananas (potassium is supposed to be an attractant), are suggestions to consider. Taking vitamin B tablets is known to work. Even applying a combination of spices — cinnamon, rosemary, basil, thyme and allspice — to your skin is somewhat effective against mosquitoes.


Deerflies emerge just about the time blackflies and mosquitoes are taking a break. They’re nasty biters, literally taking a chunk of your skin to get at your blood. They’re also incredible fliers and can keep up with any camper along the backpacking trail or portage. The top recorded speed for a deerfly is 112 km/hr. The only thing worse is being bitten by the similar, but much larger, horsefly. They’re less common but they’ll bring a tear to your eye if they get a hold of you. 

Deerflies hunt in packs and are well known for patiently “buzzing” around your head until they find a safe place to land. Shiny objects attract them, which is why the shimmer of a swimmer’s wet skin draws them in. This can be their downfall, however. One of the best ways to fight back is to place a folded piece of duct tape (sticky side exposed) on your hat. They’ll be attracted to the shine of the tape, the glue surface becomes their tomb and you can feel justified by counting how many you’ve killed at the end of the day. 


Credit: Kevin Callan


Another irritating insect is the sandfly, or what is more commonly known as the “no-see-um.” Their bite feels like hot ash from the campfire landing on your bare skin — hence the other nickname for them, “punkies,” derived from the Algonquin word “punk” (or “ponk”), meaning “living ashes.” 

Make sure to get no-see-um netting for your tent or you won’t sleep through an attack. Avoid camping on beaches. It’s their favourite hangout. Also, pack a bug shelter. It’s the ultimate bug protection at camp (aside from a stiff breeze). My choice is the Eureka VCS Parawing Shelter System. It’s a regular rain tarp with fine no-see-um mesh attached to the four corners. The whole outfit weighs about two kilograms. 

Stable Flies

Stable flies are commonly mistaken for houseflies — until they bite you with their straw-like proboscis. To make it worse, miniature re-curved spines at the tip of the proboscis grab hold while they wiggle the mouthpart from side-to-side, enabling the fly to dig deeper and deeper. 

They usually go for your ankles, giving them the nickname “ankle-biters.” Stable flies are also attracted to rotten smells — which might be the reason they like your socks so much. The worst part, however, is that both the male and female bite and they’re the best fliers in the group. That makes your prime defence a dollar-store fly swatter strapped to your pack. Don’t laugh. It works. 


Chiggers are unlike any of the others — they don’t pierce your skin or suck your blood. They inject saliva containing a digestive enzyme into your skin, which breaks down skin cells. Then they consume it, causing you to itch uncontrollably.

Chiggers are the larvae stage of a mite. They’re commonplace in the U.S. but now seem to be expanding their range into Canada. Southwestern Ontario has become plagued by them. The adult mite is harmless. The miniature chigger is parasitic, however, and lurks in wooded areas and tall grass, attaching to you as you walk by. Eventually they make their way to areas where your clothing is pressed tightly against your skin — belt, socks, bra-straps. You won’t see them, but you will notice several red welts where they’ve been feeding. They’re harmless except for the uncontrollable itching — and the nightmares you’ll have once you realize what’s been feeding on you.  


Ticks are the worst. The very thought of having one of these parasites feeding on me is enough to make my skin crawl. It’s not just that they are known vectors of Lyme disease, and that they feed by plunging their beaklike mouthpart deep inside you and then secreting a cement-like saliva, which literally glues them in place. It’s the fact that they prefer dark and moist places on your body; places like armpits, bellybutton holes, and, you guessed it, your crotch! 

Performing regular tick checks is crucial in heavily tick-infested areas. It’s best to use the buddy system for this, which could be either an embarrassing moment or a type of foreplay. If you do find a tick lodged into your skin, make sure not to panic and start yanking at it. You’re liable to pull the thing in half, leaving its head inside you and increasing the chances of infection. Don’t burn it with a cigarette or match either. This will just make the tick hold on tighter. Place a pair of tweezers (tick pliers can be purchased at most outdoor stores), and, without squeezing the tick, reach inside, beneath the body, and gently pull it out. Then disinfect the area with antiseptic or soap and water. 

Just Zen out — staying calm is the best advice for all these bothersome bugs. All blood-feeding insects find their prey by body temperature, activated by lactic acid produced by muscle movement and the carbon dioxide emitted when you exhale. So, the more frenzied you are, the easier you are to find.