It is essential for every family to spend quality sleepless nights together in a tent—to strip off the tie, the watch, the shampoo, the cell phone, the bed —to forget the paperwork, the appointment, the meeting, the post, the tweet and get seriously dirty. Camping allows unstructured exploration. Every day starts with only the faintest outline of an agenda, with little expectations, rules or constraints. Pajama fishing, rock scrambling, hill hiking, worm finding, fairy house making, dusk swimming, s’mores making, star gazing—each puts your problems into perspective. And every day ends with a snuggly grubby family zipped up in an undersized bug-free (hopefully) spot.
Admittedly, planning for a weekend camping trip is overwhelming. To streamline the process, all our gear (tent, sleeping bags and pads, first aid, fishing poles, tackle box, pocket knife, lantern, flashlights, tarp, matches, cooking supplies) quietly anticipates an upcoming adventure in a corner of our small attic. As well, over the years we have found that the key to camping success is to 1) talk it up beforehand, 2) share the pure camping joy with another valiant venturesome family or two, and 3) have good bug stuff.
Although we typically camp in the Catskill Mountains, we spent last weekend in the Adirondacks. Here in the Hudson Valley, our particularly cool, wet spring has produced a bumper crop of spicy garden radishes and crisp looseleaf lettuce. Yum! Sadly, the overflowing lakes, ponds and streams just to our north have also produced a bumper crop of vampiric pests. A contingent of four different types of pests form the core of the biting or blood-sucking brigade within the Adirondacks right now, protecting the area from human overpopulation—black flies, mosquitoes, no-see-ums and deer flies. They have much in common—mouth parts that bite or pierce, females that feed on blood, and love of water. Alas, we camped on a lake.
In the Adirondacks, great swarms of insects, capable of raw torment, exist in such large numbers that the term “the Adirondack wave” is commonly used to describe the act of swatting these vermin hordes away. It has been said, “If you don’t use bug dope, you’ll be eaten alive. If you do use bug dope, you’ll only be eaten half alive.” Last weekend, we were eaten half alive.
Just a note on DEET. The majority of bug repellents contain DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) as their active ingredient. DEET is a registered pesticide. Need I say more? Don’t use it. My friend Jen makes superamazing bug lotion and spray with shea butter, lemongrass and pennyroyal. Due to differences among insect species, repellents containing multiple essential oils are more effective than those containing a single ingredient. Any mixture of following is fine—citronella, eucalyptus, peppermint, rosemary, cinnamon, lemongrass, cedarwood—but keep in mind that some people are sensitive to plant oils. Before applying to skin, put a small drop on a cloth and keep it nearby to test for any allergic reaction. Also, don’t be skimpy with natural remedies—reapplication every half hour is necessary, especially if you’re busy swimming and sweating.
Beeswax Bug Goop
2 oz beeswax
2 oz sweet almond oil
1 oz jojoba oil
½ oz canola oil
40 drops essential oil blend
With beeswax: Heat almond, jojoba and canola oils in saucepan and add beeswax. Allow the mixture to cool slightly and then add essential oils. Pour into a sealed container.
Lanolin Bug Salve
2 oz anhydrous lanolin (natural wax)
2 dropperfulls neem seed oil
60 drops essential oil blend
Warm the lanolin under hot tap water. Mix all ingredients and pour into a sealed container. Refrigerate to harden.
No-Bite Bug Spray
1/8 cup apple cider vinegar
1/8 cup almond oil, witch hazel or grain alcohol
1/8 cup distilled water
60 drops essential oil blend
Mix all ingredients and add to a smallish spray bottle.
And, just in case….
First, try not to scratch, since you should not apply this to open skin. Then, soak a cotton ball in witch hazel and apply to the bite for a few minutes. The astringent tannins, procyanadins, resin, and flavonoids help soothe pain and reduce swelling. Apply essential camphor oil (mostly harvested from the wood of Asian camphor laurel tree) with a cotton ball and wait for a minute. Camphor, a common ingredient in commercial anti-itch gels, stimulates nerve endings and relieves symptoms of pain. Then, apply a drop of essential tea tree oil to further reduce the itch.
Just a note: Although swarms of vampiric bugs can cause much misery, their presence should not be used as an excuse to avoid camping in the backcountry. Or the backyard. Also, remember to wash your hands thoroughly if handling amiable arthropods like our sweet dragonflies or any other cuddly camp critters.