Gear Review: Thermacell Backpacker Mosquito Repellent

I hate mosquitos. A big part of why I rarely backpack close to my Ohio home in the summer is because I don’t want to deal with them. The choice of getting repeatedly bitten or covering myself in Deet on a hot summer evening is picking one of two bad options to me. So you know, I’ve tried other chemical sprays and lotions, but for me, nothing works like Deet.

I’d looked at some of the Thermacell products in the past, but they all appeared to be too heavy and/or bulky to bring backpacking. I was intrigued however when I saw that Thermacell had created a mosquito repellent device targeting backpackers.

All Thermacell devices work on the same principal. They use a fuel source to heat a mat impregnated with a chemical called allethrin. The chemical is in the same class as Permethrin, which is used in insect repellent clothing. Both are synthetic versions of pyrethrum, a naturally occurring chemical found in certain types of the chrysanthemum plant. The device heats the chemical causing it to vaporize into the air where it does not kill the mosquitos, but repel them.

The EPA Material Safety Data Sheet cautions against eating it or putting into water (toxic to fish). However, the personal protection requirements are to use with proper ventilation (outside only). No protection is needed or recommended for skin, eye or respiratory exposure. The sheet for Deet looks scarier to me.

Anyhow, at only four ounces, the Backpacker version of the repellent device seemed to be worth a try. The repellent promised a 15′ by 15′ zone of protection by using the isobutane fuel canister that I already carried to power my small stove. The initial package was $39.99 and also contained three of the chemical mats; enough for 12 hours of protection.

The product appears to be well constructed and simple to use. Screw onto a gas canister, slide a mat under the guard, turn it on and push on the starter. A small viewing port lets you check that it’s lit. Gas usage is minimal. Thermacell states that a four ounce canister will power the repellent for 90 hours.

My first use was at a family picnic. I fired it up on my deck as the sun set and we spent the next hour or so mosquito free. No noise, no mess and no significant odor. When everyone came inside I just switched it off.

The real test was a recent backpacking trip. The skeeters were bad enough through the day’s hike that some Deet was required. Once we set up camp and had dinner, it was just getting dark. At that point I was expecting an onslaught. Done with the stove, I hooked up the device to my gas canister and started it up. I was still using the original chemical mat. They change color as they’re used up so I could easily tell it was still good. The onslaught never came.

I was thinking that perhaps the Deet from hours earlier was still working, but a quick stroll away from the Thermacell proved otherwise. The mosquitos were still in the area and eager to draw my blood; just not within range of the device. I did not bring a tape measure to gauge the exact size of the zone of mosquito protection, but it seemed like the advertised 15′ by 15′ area was a good estimate or even conservative.

With the included carry bag, the device weighs 4 1/2 ounces

Would I take this device on a thru-hike? No; just like I wouldn’t bring a camp chair. If I’m trying to cover long miles, the extra weight and time needed for these conveniences aren’t worth it to me. However, a weekend trip is a different story. This could make a summer evening spent hanging out at the campsite much more enjoyable than slathering on the Deet or being driven into the tent early.

Trail Report: Tahoe Rim Trail

Hiked: September, 2016  (This report first appeared at TheTrek.co)

Length: 170 Miles
Location: Encircling Lake Tahoe through the Sierras in both California and Nevada.
Trail Type: Loop
Scenery: The trail has daily mountain views, numerous small alpine lakes and countless views of the largest alpine lake in North America. The path often passes through open forests consisting mainly of various pines, firs and occasional aspen. Much of the trail is in National Forest or one of three Wilderness Areas. Desolation Wilderness is aptly named as a glacier once scraped most of the soil from the area and left the terrain beautifully stark.

Aloha Lake in the Desolation Wilderness

Terrain: The hiking would be considered moderate. You are walking through the Sierras, so there’s some considerable up and down. However, unlike the more famous John Muir Trail in the same range to the south, the elevation change is less dramatic. Tahoe’s shoreline is around 6,300 feet and the high point on the trail tops out at 10,330 feet. The tread is well constructed with switchbacks and even steps on the steeper sections.
Navagation: The trail is extremely well marked, easy to navigate and rarely confusing. Signage is ample and well located. On the trail I used the Tahoe Rim Trail Pocket Atlas link by Blackwoods Press and the TRT phone App by Guthook. Both appeared to be accurate and contained all needed intel.

Near Twin Peaks

Getting There: There are two cities on the trail, Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe. The closest major city is Reno, NV. From there to Tahoe City take I-80 West to CA-89 South. Traveling from Reno to South Lake Tahoe, the best route is US-395 South to US-50 West. In addition, there are regularly scheduled shuttles to either town straight from the Reno airport.

Why Hike This Trail

On every trail I hike, I end up with a song playing over and over in my head. On the TRT, the obvious choice was “Roundabout,” released by the English rock group Yes in 1971. This could be the official tune of the trail. Not only did the title match the route, but the lyrics did too. As I hiked, “In and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky and they stand there.” Multiple times I passed, “In and out the valley.”
Regardless of your musical tastes though, this is a great shorter “long” trail; especially for a first time thru-hiker. Logistics are simple; you finish where you start. The two best resupply options, Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe are close to equidistant and easy to reach. Permits are simple. The California Campfire Permit needed to operate a stove on the trail is free and can be had by passing a straightforward Internet quiz. (Don’t plan on an actual campfire though.) For thru-hikers, there is no quota for Desolation Wilderness Permits. I got mine with a phone call and $10. (Call two weeks out.) On top of that, it’s just a beautiful hike on an easy to follow trail.

Climate

John Muir described the Sierra Nevada as the “gentle wilderness” and the summer weather can be just that. Generally the trail is hiked Mid-July through September and the area averages about 2 inches of rain total during that entire period. I walked the trail over ten days in September and there was no rain and maybe 20 minutes of cloud cover during my entire hike. Bring sunscreen. At the elevations on the trail, the temperature is likely to go below freezing during any month of the year. I carried a 23-degree bag and was glad I did.
One note of caution for 2017. This past winter the area had the highest snowfall total in 35 years. As I write this, significant parts of the trail are covered with 10 feet or more of snow. The hiking season will most likely start late.

Camping

One of the interesting rules about the TRT is that camping somewhat near the trail isn’t discouraged, it’s actually required. All camping must be done within 300 feet of the trail corridor. That doesn’t mean there is a shortage of sites however. The Guthook Guide lists well over 100 spots to set up one or more tents. With that many options, finding a spot to camp was not an issue. On my trip, only once did I set up within sight of another tent; and they were on the opposite side of Dick’s Lake.
One issue is that within Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park (Mile 48-63.5) hikers may only camp at one of three park camp areas. I avoided the situation by hiking through the park in one day.

Water Sources

Despite the fact that the trail circles a Big Ol’ lake, don’t expect to be able to dip a cup in it whenever you want. You are rarely that close. The east side of the lake is significantly drier than the west side, but no dry stretch was extraordinarily long. By making use of a campround hydrant and going off trail for water a couple times, I never went over 14 miles between water stops. The west side of the lake had several small lakes and even some snowmelt; despite being Mid-September during the drought. Other than the hydrants, I did filter all my water. I consider it cheap insurance.

Resupply Options

While there are additional options, the simplest plan is to start/finish at either Tahoe City or South Lake Tahoe and resupply at the other. You then have either 80 or 90 miles to cover between stops. Both towns have post offices handy to hold a package. Or, in my case, I planned a zero in South Lake Tahoe and made a reservation at a hotel which also held a package for me (and had a laundry and a $2 happy hour!) Tahoe City is on the trail and South Lake Tahoe can be reached by either a steep walk on a busy road or a $2 bus. Take the bus. By starting at a trailhead between towns, one of the walks between resupplies could be cut into two.
A word of caution. Bears are in the area and good spots to “bear bag” your food can be few and far between. I solved that issue by using a bear canister.

Closing Thoughts

The TRT is a great hike for newer long distance hiker, someone trying solo hiking for the first time or anyone that wants a great scenic hike with a minimum of logistical issues The bureaucratic hoops were relatively easy to deal with as well. The folks at the Tahoe Rim Trail Association were very helpful and their website is a great planning resource.
For those that want to hike the John Muir Trail, but have been unable to get a permit, this would be a great replacement hike for you.

Looking for more details? My entire journey starts here.

Tahoe Rim Trail – Up the Western Shore

Click here to get to the start of the journey. It was cold indeed camping above 9,000 feet at Freel Meadow. I ended up sleeping with the water filter in the sleeping bag again to make sure it didn’t freeze.

View from Freel Meadow

View from Freel Meadow

I rolled out of the warm sleeping bag at about 6 and was met by a cold and windy morning. The chill made it tough to put away the tent, plus the ground cover was wet and I wasn’t sure why. Matching the weather, breakfast was cold as I wasn’t sure I could get water to boil. That saved a little time so I was packed up and rolling by 7. Unfortunately, as I started hiking, I became somewhat dizzy. Not a good sign. This has happened on other long trips and I hadn’t figured out what the cause was for sure. The plan for the day was to stay hydrated and try to camp at a lower altitude. (After the trip I got checked out and found it was most likely a combination of dehydration and sleeping without a pillow that affected me.)

The trail continued heading away from Lake Tahoe through the morning and the scenery became even more impressive. Much of the day was spent traveling through multiple big meadows, such as aptly named Big Meadow, and surrounded by rugged mountains. 

Despite the topography I was making great time, getting to Round Lake for lunch and Showers Lake by 2 pm. The spot was so pretty, I almost called it a day, but decided to press on. By this time the trail had turned north again. 

Showers Lake

Showers Lake

Water got a more scarce beyond the lakes so I committed to a campsite around six miles further on. It was a tough climb, but the rugged beauty kept me going. The trail ran along with the PCT in this area and I spent a little time chatting with a southbound thru-hiker. He confirmed the stream was still wet near my chosen site for the night and I convinced him to make Showers Lake his destination.  

As I continued on, there were more discussions with other southbound PCT backpackers. They were all very nice and all young. At 58, I still can’t get used to being called sir. 

I rolled into my site at about 5 pm for a 20.5 mile day. The stream was but a trickle, but enough. The altitude was 8,400 and I drank throughout the day, so hopefully no dizziness in the morning. I had plenty of time for an Alpine Air freeze dried orange pineapple chicken entrée. It did not live up to my high hopes. 

Day 8 began by dropping down a steep hill then passing through another ski resort. The trail has passed through several resorts through the trip. After crossing a main road near mile 122 I arrive at what’s described in the guides as a seasonal stream. I expected, at most, a trickle but this is a raging torrent. Much smaller streams than this had been bridged, but here I needed to break out the wading sandals. Two TRT thru-hikers heading the other way had tried to throw their packs across the stream and it went badly, costing them their GPS. I took a test trip to make sure I could handle it, then went back and re-crossed with my pack. On the plus side my dusty feet got power washed. IMG_0302

After the rough creek crossing the trail and I climbed for a while. Met Gray Cricket who’s doing a section of PCT up to Mt Larson. He’d been section hiking for years and was hoping to finish in another 20. Sitting for a snack break I was interrupted by a chipmunk trying to get into my pack. This is a busy stretch of trail and they’ve learned. 

The next point of interest was Echo Lake. The reservoir is man made and generates electricity, which was probably why the creek was high. Beautiful vacation homes surround it and are only reachable by foot or boat. It’s also a great place for snacks and a milkshake, provided you get there before Labor Day. All I could do was look through the windows. There was a parking lot there and plenty of day hikers and some backpackers were heading for the Desolation Wilderness and Aloha Lake.

The climb out of Echo Lake was fairly steep and rocky. Most of the day hikers seemed to have turned back by this point. The trail was pretty open and, as always on this hike, sunny. Near Aloha Lake there was a trail intersection that was a bit confusing. I checked my GPS and it told me I was a half mile off the TRT. Everything seemed fine on the map, but without the GPS to agree, I began to lose confidence. Thankfully, while sitting under a tree rereading the map, two guys hiked up and assured me I was right and the GPS was wrong. 

Once I got to Aloha Lake, it was clear why the area was called Desolation Wilderness. The landscape was extraordinarily stark, with few trees and bare rock (boulders and cliffs) all around the lake. Some snow was still hanging on above the lake in the September sun. Aloha is a popular place to camp, but too desolate looking for me. I moved on. 

Aloha Lake

Aloha Lake

By the way, there is a permit required to camp within the Desolation Wilderness, and there are quotas in place to protect the area from overuse. Thru-hikers also need a permit, but are not affected by the quota. The only issue is that you cannot apply for the thru-hiker permit until two weeks before you enter the wilderness. Seems like no big deal until you figure the fact that I’d already been walking for over a week, had a day of travel time, and they mail you the permit. I received mine the day before I left for the hike.

Continuing my walk, I arrived at Susie Lake about 2:30. It was absolutely beautiful and the trail to it had been rocky and rough. By all accounts I should have stopped for the day. I was far enough that I could finish in 2 days and the next good camp spot was a difficult six miles away. 

Unfortunately, when I’m by myself, that simple logic doesn’t work. I can be at a spot so beautiful that you get a lump in your throat, but without someone there to share it with, after a couple minutes it seems sad and lonely. These times make me consider whether to keep doing long solo hikes. Sharing the moment with a text could help, but since I have Sprint, I wouldn’t know for sure. On every hike, I find extensive mileage where other carriers provide service and mine does not. That one percent difference seems to be centered over every trail I hike.

So, I decided to move on over Dicks Pass to Dicks Lake, 6 miles and a 1,600 foot climb and 1,000 foot drop away. The climb was open to the sun, rocky and unrelenting. In an effort to ease the weight of the load I only brought one liter of water, and that didn’t look like enough. After a mile or so, the plan was looking like a mistake. I was tired, hot and already dehydrated. 

Normally I frown on it in the wilderness, but music can help people through a tough effort. I pulled out my earphones and set the playlist to shuffle. The impact was instant. I could feel my heart rate rise and my pace quicken. 

A couple fast tunes had me moving right along. “Too Old to Die Young” (Brother Dege) had me thinking I might be pushing too hard. Then “L’estasi dell’oro {The Ecstasy of Gold} (Ennio Morrricone) came on. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s from the classic Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: the cemetery scene. If you haven’t seen it in a while, go to YouTube and watch the scene. I’ll be right here when you get back. By the time that song was over I was practically jogging up the mountain. The only thing to slow me down was hearing one of the songs from the U2 album that everybody got automatically. I have to find out how I can delete that. 

After a while I came across a PCT hiker filling up at a small spring and he told me I was very close to the top. All about perspective. For someone that just walked there from Canada, it probably did seem close. After another 20 minutes I closed in on the high point and the views were tremendous. Taking a break near the top I was joined by a couple marmots.. 

Looking back towards Susie Lake

Looking back towards Susie Lake

Despite being tired and thirsty, I can always go downhill. Kept moving and made the lake by 5:30. Lightheaded, but there after another 20+ mile day. A few other groups were camping in the area, but were plenty of spots around the lake and mine was in a group of pines on a bed of soft needles. 

As soon as I settled in, the coyotes started. The yipping serenade didn’t last long before I was asleep. At that point, I was 137 miles into the 170 mile trip.

I once again got an early start in the morning, rolling by just after 7. Several groups were camping around the lake, but I was first one moving. The trail stayed open and rocky as I dropped by more beautiful lakes and campsites. My morning snack was a Larabar apple pie bar. If you don’t expect it to taste like Mom’s, or Mrs. Smiths, or any apple pie you’ve ever had, it’s not too bad.

Eventually, as I dropped, the trail returned back into the forest and the tread smoothed out. Once again, it was another beautiful day as I strolled downhill for miles. Just before Richardson Lake, I got my first glimpse of Tahoe in a while, but it soon disappeared. All good things, like the downhill, come to an end and I began yet another climb. It was nothing like the previous day’s though. Heading north, with the sun at my back, the climb wasn’t too bad at all. I was carrying more water in an ongoing attempt to avoid being overly dehydrated.

Near the end of the climb was Barker Pass Trailhead and good numbers of day hikers. I talked with several folks and was followed for a bit by someone’s drone. Based on the blinking red light, the high pitched noise machine seemed to be signaling to me. In an international language I thought it might understand, I signaled back. It apparently took the hint and flew off to disturb somebody else’s outdoor experience.

Once I finally got close to topping out there were some great views of the lake. Dropping back down a bit, I found a campsite with a small stream. The site was small and dusty, but I was tired and needed water. It would do after another 20 mile day. Tahoe City was nearly in reach!

After dinner, about 7 pm, I climbed into the tent to relax and read for a few minutes. Next thing I knew, it was about 5:30 am. After 10+ hours of sleep it seemed like a good time to get moving. I packed up by headlamp and started down the trail just as it began to get light. 

An early start, hiking by headlamp.

An early start, hiking by headlamp.

The trail dropped a little way while being etched into the side of some rugged cliffs. I was around 8,000 feet and starting to see the beginnings of beautiful fall color developing around me. It wasn’t long before the drop ended and the path began the climb up towards impressive Twin Peaks. After several switchbacks I entered Granite Chief Wilderness; no permit required. A few groups were camping there and I assumed the crowd must be due to it being the weekend.  Just below the peaks the PCT split off and I turned for Tahoe City. 

Near Twin Peaks

Near Twin Peaks

After a couple more views of the lake the trail began a long drop into the woods. Over the miles the trail smoothed out and leveled out, eventually turning into an old forest service road. I knew I was getting close to civilization as I start meeting walkers with dogs. You can tell how far you are from a parking lot based on the size of the dog. Once you see a Dachshund or a Bichon, you’re within a half mile. 

Talked with a woman with three Belgian Shepherds (2-3 miles from a parking lot). She ask, “Where you from? You got an ache-sent!”

 “Cincinnati, and from where I’m standing, you’re the one with the accent.” (All about perspective.) 

With that, she couldn’t stop laughing. “Har har. Ache-sent!”  She ended up telling me about a couple restaurants to try. 

Right on cue, based on my dog mileage meter, I came to a parking lot. The trail continued across the street, hit another forest service road and went straight up the hill, possibly the steepest half mile of the entire trail. This hike was not over just yet. 

Knowing I had to be getting close, I kept pushing as the trail flattened out. I passed through a grove of yellowing aspen, across a meadow and finally to a sign saying Tahoe City: 2 miles.

The path dropped for most of two miles to a park, joined a bike/hike trail and crossed a bridge over the nearly empty Truckee River. Across the street was the hill I started up to begin the journey. I’d hiked either 170 or 173 miles depending on which guide I looked at. Regardless, it was just after noon and I was done! I’d hiked the last 75 miles in 3 1/2 days. I don’t recommend that pace. 

Looks like I'm done.

Looks like I’m done.

On the quarter mile walk up to the hotel, I swung into a grocery store for a Coke and a razor. A two week neck beard looks good on no one. Once cleaned up, I hit the Blue Agave Mexican restaurant again. It seemed a little ironic as I had carried tortillas for the whole trip and never touched one.