Are you worried about pesky mosquitoes on your next camping trip? Mosquitoes can be a real nuisance and even ruin your outdoor adventures. If you don’t take the right precautions, you might even contract a dangerous illness (even in the United States) like the Zika virus or West Nile virus. Thankfully there are several highly effective ways to protect yourself from mosquitos while camping. Read on to learn more about the best mosquito repellents for camping that actually work (and help you avoid those which don’t).

Know your mosquitos – And how to avoid them

I live in a mosquito hot spot – my home is on heavily wooded land and we get lots of rain. This is one of several “great” habitats for mosquitoes to breed and thrive. Wooded areas with heavy rain, isolated ponds, swamps, marshes, or spring thaw in some areas combine stagnant water and warm (or hot) temperatures – conditions where mosquitoes thrive. This is the kind of place you want to avoid if possible, and if not plan your trip around the dryer and colder temperatures.

Closeup of mosquito on white mesh
Learn how to keep these pests away

When and where mosquitoes are active and biting

Mosquitoes are simply not an issue for temperatures below 60° F. Below this temperature they are lethargic and they stop functioning at 50° F. During warmer weather mosquitoes become active and bite during specific times of the day. The common house mosquito is active in the evening and early night. Asian tiger mosquitoes bite in the morning and late afternoon. All mosquitoes avoid direct sunlight and hot afternoon temperatures you avoid dehydration.

Location also matters. If you are staying in an established campground, you will benefit from the facility’s mosquito control program. The campground managers keep the campsite areas comfortable through a combination of spraying and managing mosquito habitats. When you were hanging out at a campsite you need significantly less protection than you will out on trails or undeveloped camping spots.

A forest filled with pine trees
Mosquitoes flourish in wooded areas like this

Keep moving to confuse mosquitoes

Lastly, it helps to keep moving. Mosquitoes are attracted to the carbon dioxide from your breath, body heat, and skin odor. Mosquitoes are essentially attracted to the cloud of air around you, so as long as you keep moving you are difficult to find. If you are jogging or even walking, you are unlikely to need any mosquito protection.

Physical barriers – Mosquito nets and screens

The absolute best protection from mosquitoes are physical barriers such as mosquito nets, a pop-up screen room, or a head net over your hat. A bug net will also keep black flies and other biting insects out of your outdoor space. I typically use a bug net or screened canopy over the picnic table or eating area to keep pesky bugs away from food – especially at night when they are attracted to the light at my table.

A screened canopy next to a lake
An example of an outdoor screen room

Head nets are commonly used in areas with extreme mosquito problems. However, they are also a great way to avoid using harsh chemicals on the sensitive skin of your face.

Woman wearing a head net for mosquito protection
Head nets like this one keep mosquitoes away from your face and ears

Another physical barrier is clothing. Wearing long sleeves is a great option to avoid insect bites when hiking or spending a long time outdoors. Mosquitoes are more attracted to dark colors, so choose light colored clothing as well.

Bug spray

Mosquito spray is the most effective insect repellent for personal protection. The best-performing insect spray can last for 10 hours with a single application. When choosing a repellent spray it’s essential to look at the active ingredient and its concentration. For the best protection, look for DEET or PMD (found in lemon eucalyptus oil) as the active ingredient.

DEET Insect repellent

Sprays with a high concentration of DEET are my top pick to avoid bites (from personal experience and research). They are often referred to as the gold standard best mosquito repellent.  For the best results, look for 90% or more DEET.

You may be wondering about the safety of this “harsh chemical.” Experts agree that DEET is safe for use on adults and children (follow instructions and don’t drink it!).  DEET provides good protection against dangerous illnesses with a chemical that has a long history of safe use.

DEET has some issues to be aware of. If you have used it, you know it has a strong smell. It’s not so bad when hiking, but get in an enclosed space and it’s unpleasant. Some people have a reaction to it and develop a rash when it’s used directly on the skin. I’ve also noticed it can react with some plastics and can cause the surface to become tacky.

PMD – Lemon eucalyptus oil

PMD is a chemical found in lemon eucalyptus oil which is a highly effective mosquito protection. In this study, Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus repellent shared the top result with a 98% DEET repellent, so they are both highly effective chemicals. If you want a natural mosquito repellent, look for “oil of lemon eucalyptus” in a high concentration (this Cutter product has 30%, which is 65% PMD).

Lemon eucalyptus also has a strong smell, but some people find it pleasant. I haven’t used this yet (I’ve had very disappointing experience with other Cutter products), but after researching for this article I plan to try it on my next trip.

Cutter bug spray
This Cutter insect spray is highly effective with PMD as the active ingredient

Essential Oils

Some bug repellent brands use essential oils as the active ingredient, and are advertised as natural repellents. Some of these products work equally well to lower concentrations of DEET, but results will be hit or miss depending on the type of oils used and the concentration. The study referenced above found some protection from Kids Herbal Armor. I have to admit the “Oil of soybean” as an active ingredient in this stuff left me laughing.

A study of 38 essential oils on human skin found the following to have the best repellent properties: clove, citronella, patchuli, and makaen (Thai name). The study noted that concentrations of oil up to 50% provided bite free protection for less than 2 hours. Look for these ingredients and remember that higher concentrations work better (and last longer).


Picaridin is another active ingredient found in some repellents. I’ve had poor experience with it and the study’s back that up. It provides a little protection, but it would be my last choice.

Mosquito repellent devices

Spraying yourself with strong smelling products isn’t the only option. If you want to protect yourself or a small area, there are several products which disperse a repellent.

Thermacell Products

Thermacell products are great options for camping trips because they create a blissful insect free zone. In my experience, they do work very well. The best part is that they don’t require any application to the skin and the smell is very faint. Unfortunately they overstate the space they protect. Mine claims a “15-foot zone of protection” which I find to be about half that size. A breeze can also blow away some of you safe zone. Despite the limitations they are useful and a great idea – I place it under my chair when sitting outside at night for a bug free experience.

Thermocell rechargable mosquito repellent
This Thermocell model uses rechargable batteries

Thermacell devices work by heating a repellent to disperse it – either liquid or a saturated “repellent mats”. There are several varieties with different heat sources. Some are battery powered rechargable repellers, others use fuel cartridges, and there is even one which connects to an isobutane fuel cartridge (making it feasable for some backpacking trips). Some models like this one claim to have a larger area of protection.

If you are not famialiar with isobutane cartridges, check out our article on gas camping stoves and fuels.

Thermocell mosquito repellent for backpacking
This Thermocell device attaches to an isobutane fuel canister

Personal repellent device

Off! brand makes a wearable clip on device which uses a battery powered fan to disperse a repellent. I never heard of this product before researching this article, but it performed as well or better than the best insect sprays. This looks like a an excellent option for hiking and outdoor activities if you prefer to avoid sprays or have sensitive skin.

A clip-on mosquito repellent
This battery powered clip-on mosquito repellent is a great choice

Clothing treatments – Permethrin

Permethrin is a chemical used to treat clothing for insect protection. Once clothing is treated, it has no smell or a sticky texture like insect spray. Permethrin is awesome and I highly recommend it for mosquitoes, chiggers, and ticks. If the mosquitoes are mild you can avoid the use of strong-smelling bug spray.

In my experience Permethrin treated clothing will reduce mosquito bites, but it doesn’t seem to keep the mosquitoes away from you. If Permethrin is the only mosquito protection you use, be prepared to tolerate the pesky insects flying around you.

A spray bottle of pemethin insect treatment
Sawyer is one brand of permethrin for treating clothing

It’s critical that you learn to use permethrin correctly because liquid permethrin is not safe for direct skin contact. Do not spray it on yourself! Clothing should be treated by either spraying or soaking the clothing and then allowing it to dry fully before wearing it. Here is a CDC guide on using it.

CDC Video about the safe use of permethrin

You can also purchase clothing treated with Permethrin. Insect Shield branded clothing is pre-treated with Permethrin and will provide protection through about 25 washings. You can save money by treating clothing yourself and simply reapplying the treatment as needed.

Beware of mosquito “repellents” which don’t work

A surprisingly high percentage of products advertised to repel mosquitoes, basically do nothing (or worse). This is true even in countries where mosquito-borne diseases are frequently life-threatening (like dengue fever or malaria). In this study in China, 34% of the best-selling products were completely ineffective.

Citronella candles: busting the myth

Studies show that citronella candles do not repel mosquitoes. While high concentrations of citronella oil are effective, I don’t think it’s feasible to get enough into a candle for it to work well. They may provide a little benefit, so go ahead and use them if you like the mood or ambiance they create, just don’t rely on candles when you need real protection.

Citronella candle on a table with book and string lights in the background
Use citronella candles for setting the mood – not repelling mosquitoes

Sonic mosquito repellents: Nope

Ok folks, these things are just gimmicks. I received one of those sonic devices on a pendant in a gift bag one year and it did basically nothing. In one of the studies I looked at, a sonic device appeared to slightly attract mosquitoes rather than repel them. Don’t waste your money on these things.

Mosquito repellent bracelets: Ineffective

There are numerous bracelets (and skin patches) on Amazon which claim to repel mosquitoes. The studies which test effectiveness show they don’t work. But what about the glowing reviews? These products appear to absorb some essential oils which should provide a little help in theory – Maybe they work in a windless suburban park which is sprayed regularly. Or the reviews are fake – I’ll let you decide.

Bug zapper: Forget it

Bug zappers kill beneficial insects rather than mosquitoes. Fortunately these products seem to be losing popularity and I’ve never seen one at a campground.


In summary, plan to avoid areas which may be infested with swarms of mosquitoes. You can also reduce bites with by wearing light colored clothing that covers your skin, and protect some spaces with nets and screens. For more protection choose a quality spray which contains DEET or PMD and treat your clothing with Permethrin. For protecting a small area including you campfire, invest in a repellent device like Thermocell or Off! brands offer. With a few simple steps you can enjoy camping while without annoying bites. Good luck out there!

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