Planning a tropical getaway? Along with sun, sand, jungles and adventure, the heat and humidity often brings something a little less welcome on your vacation: insects. Malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus, Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases can all turn a dream trip into a nightmare, while even less-serious bug bites can leave you itchy and in pain for days.
There are several ways to reduce your chances of getting bitten, some more effective than others. Along with basic, sensible advice like covering exposed skin when bugs are most active, a combination of specialized clothing, sprays and accessories will help keep the insects away, and you and your family safer and more comfortable on your travels.
Here are five of the best options.
For a simple “all in one” approach, companies such as ExOfficio produce a range of bug-proof clothing options. Everything from underwear to hats, pants to shirts, socks, outer layers and more is available, in a lightweight fabric with an embedded insecticide such as Permethrin.
I've used ExOfficio's Bugsaway Lumos hoodie in the past, and it worked well as both a general piece of travel clothing and an insect repeller. As well as covering up exposed skin, ticks and other bugs are killed on contact with Permethrin. Because the insecticide is part of the fabric, it doesn't wash out, and is rated to last as long as the garment itself (around 70 washes).
If you're in the market for some new clothes for your trip anyway, or are particularly worried about the effect insects are likely to have, it's worth taking a look at clothing like this before you leave.
While BugsAway and similar clothing is infused with Permethrin, what about everything else in your suitcase? It's not practical or even possible to buy insect-resisting versions of every clothing item, so instead, use a Permethrin spray to treat the other items ahead of time.
Several companies make and sell these types of spray – the Sawyer Products versions are well-regarded. Available in various sizes, you simply use the pump or aerosol to spray the repellent on your clothing in a ventilated area ahead of time, then leave it to dry for a few hours.
It doesn't leave a smell or residue, nor damage the items its sprayed on. I've used it for everything from backpacks to sleeping bags, shirts, socks and pants, and haven't had any irritation (or been bitten on covered areas). It'll typically last for around six weeks, or as many washes, so you're covered for all but the lengthiest vacations.
There are many kinds of insect-repellent sprays on the market, but they're not all equally effective. I've tried dozens of them, and have generally found those containing a small percentage of DEET (diethyltoluamide) to be most effective at keeping the bugs away.
As DEET-based sprays can cause skin irritation in some people, it's best not to use them underneath clothing or on broken skin. While it's considered safe in moderation for children, most sources recommend that its use is avoided with young babies.
A spray with 20-30% DEET concentration is sufficient for most travel purposes, although you may want something a little stronger if you're heading into the jungle. Apply it to your clothing, and around ankles, wrists and the back of your neck.
If you'd prefer not to use a spray, you can buy travel-sized packs of DEET-infused wipes instead. In either case, remember to reapply after swimming or heavy sweating.
While natural products aren't as effective as DEET in keeping the bugs away, they're a lot better than nothing – and much easier on the skin as well. For a kid (and adult)-friendly alternative, a few companies sell bracelets and other accessories that contain citronella, eucalyptus and other oils.
Designed to be snapped together around the wrist or ankle, the bracelets emit a noticeable, though not unpleasant, odor. They're typically made from microfiber or other soft material to avoid irritation, and do a reasonable job of keeping mosquitoes, sandflies and other biting insects away.
I wouldn't rely on them in jungles, swamps and other bug-heavy environments, but they're ideal for keeping the kids protected in typical tropical vacation conditions.
For a slightly more versatile option, consider mosquito patches instead. They use the same natural ingredients, so have the same degree of effectiveness, but can be placed anywhere on the body, or on chairs or clothing, to help keep the bugs off.
No matter how much bug spray you use, there are times and places where the insects become just too much to deal with. I've been on jungle walks and swamp tours where I've been picking dead bugs out of my hair and ears for days afterwards, and spent more time slapping my limbs than focusing on what I was there to see.
While it's possible to cover most of your body with long pants, shirts, scarves and the like, keeping the critters away from your face isn't easy. If you know you'll be heading somewhere bugs are particularly bad, it's worth spending a few dollars on a mosquito hat or net.
The hats are typically of the wide-brimmed variety, with a lightweight mesh sewn all around the end of the brim. It falls to below shoulder height, putting a physical barrier in the way of even the most determined mosquito.
Wearable nets are similar to the hats, but fold up much smaller. While they're easier to travel with, they are just draped over the head or an exiting hat, meaning the mesh tends to rub against your face when in use. They're good to keep in your bag “just in case”, but if you need this kind of insect protection regularly, the dedicated hat is a better option.