Category Archives: Gear

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.

There’s going to be bugs there?

When I’ve read books about hiking the Appalachian Trail, more often than you would think, the author contracts Lyme disease. A case of this tick borne illness can put a real damper on a person’s hike. In addition, without proper treatment, there can be long term neurological damage. And guess where a real hotspot for this disease is located? That’s right, Vermont, where I’m going to be hiking the Long Trail.

In addition, the sometimes swampy backwoods of the state are a great place for breeding mosquitoes, and this past July was one of the wettest in Vermont’s history.

pants

Sounds like I need to pull out all the stops in preparing for bugs. Clothing is one way to do that. I’ll be trying out some Rail Rider “Eco-Mesh Pants with Insect Shield.” I typically wear zip off pants on the trail. Ones that start out as long pants, but convert to shorts when it gets warm. Bare legs are a tick magnet though. The rail riders have zippers, but they run vertical the length of the pant leg. Unzipped, there is a mesh panel that provides ventilation without giving a tick a direct path in. Remember the pants MC Hammer wore? They’re not that bad. Also, they’re treated with permethrin, a natural insecticide that stays in the fabric to repel and/or kill the little bastards. The factory treatment is supposed to last for dozens of washings.

I also bought a Buff, a tube of material that’s also treated with the same chemical. A buff can be worn over the neck for shade, like a dew rag, Russian Peasant woman, you name it. They even have a video that shows all the ways to wear it. I just want it to keep the ticks off my head.

Beyond the fashion statement I’ll be making, treated clothing sounded like a good idea, so I bought some of the chemical and treated my shirts and socks. Home treatment only lasts for 6 washings or so, but that should be long enough unless I’m walking slow and/or doing laundry pretty often.

bug juice

If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m not a fan of either ticks or mosquitoes. So they’ll be more weapons in the arsenal. My sunscreen is a product called Skin so Soft. This is not a poison, but supposedly has a scent that repels insects. Based on my initial testing, I hope it’s a better sunblock than it is a repellant. Otherwise, it’s time for skin cancer. I’ll be carrying a small tube of Picaridin, advertised to be as good as Deet, but won’t destroy your nylon clothes or equipment. And, if that fails, I have some Deet. I’m trying it in solid form, which will help target which part of my body I douse with poison. That’s gotta cover it, right? I’ll let you know who wins this little competition, me or the disease carrying insects.

Take a Load Off

Recently I’d mentioned that, with the difficult climbs I’ll be encountering on the Long Trail, it’d be a good idea to try and lighten the load I’ll be carrying compared to what I brought on the Colorado Trail. Then, fully loaded with 2 liters of water and 4 days of food, the pack came in right about 31 pounds.

Let’s see, my new IPhone means I’m not bringing an IPad. That saves 14 ounces. With more resupply stops, the 4 ounce Solar charger can stay home too. And since the trail is (hopefully) marked pretty well, the 5 ounce GPS won’t need to be there to bail me out if I get lost. Wow, that was pretty easy. Nearly a pound and a half saved just in electronics.

electronics

Banking on warmer weather saves a couple ounces with no gloves or cold weather hat. A bigger risk with the sleeping bag saves some more. With the silk liner, an REI Travel Sack should keep me toasty all the way down to 46 degrees. Plus there’s no down (or much of any) insulation to get wet in the damp environment. The savings of 7 ounces only cost 30 degrees of comfort. (Actually 20 degrees of comfort and 10 degrees of survival.)

The “camp “sandals” that were abandoned in Colorado were replaced with a pair weighing 5 ounces less. (Whenever this new pair gets abandoned, there’s another pound of savings.)

The Long Trail has more opportunities for resupply, so three days of food will be the most carried, saving over a pound.

At this point, I’m down to close to 27 pounds. Unfortunately there are add-ons to fight. Food on the Colorado Trail was insufficient, to say the least. Adding in more trail mix, peanut butter and soft tortillas puts about a pound back. As an aside, I waited until the last minute to buy tortillas for my resupply boxes in an attempt to have them last on the trail. I needn’t have worried. I don’t know exactly what’s in the Old El Paso brand, but they don’t expire until next February.

I also had to fight weight with the guides. Instead of one (4 ounce) data book like for the CT, the information needed on the trail is spread between a map, an End to Ender’s Guide and a big honking Trail Guide. Fortunately, a razor knife can be used to edit the books. Between the two, close to 100 pages were carved out of the final product. What was left was split in two with the 2nd half being mailed in a resupply box. I think everything worked out to about a wash.

Guide

Considering it’s been a wet summer, and it’s Vermont, there’ll be more insect repellent to carry too.

All in all I’m still saving about 3 pounds, or 10 percent of the load. Time will tell if it’s enough.