Summertime means mountain time for those who live in the Roaring Fork Valley. Exploring the area’s rivers, lakes and peaks comes the inevitable onslaught of things to think about, like sun exposure and bug bites. Bugs become notably worse after a particularly rainy season, which Colorado has certainly endured this spring and early summer. It’s important to understand the small-but-mighty insects you’re up against and preventing and treating backcountry bug bites.
Understanding Backcountry Bugs
The types of bugs most commonly found in the backcountry include mosquitoes, ticks, flies, chiggers and bed bugs. Spiders (mostly non-poisonous in Colorado), hornets, wasps and fire ants are less common, but worth noting as some of these can cause severe allergic reactions. If you have a known allergic reaction to bug or insect bites, make sure to travel with the appropriate remedies, such as epinephrine.
Bug bites are most common in the spring, when the weather warms and backcountry bugs begin to hatch. Some insects, such as mosquitos and flies, are more common around a standing water source, like a pond or lake. Ticks tend to live in more forested or brushy areas while chiggers (tiny mites) prefer grassy or wooded areas near water.
Preventing Backcountry Bug Bites
If you fear the seasonal itchy arms and legs, or a tick making a home in your hair after a day outdoors, there are ways to help prevent seasonal bug bites. Perhaps the easiest and most obvious is simply wearing long sleeves and pants, preferably light-colored fabrics. Make sure to tuck in shirt tails and use gaiters to prevent bugs from sneaking in through the openings at your ankles.
Don’t shy away from bug repellant. If you’re concerned about which type to use, talk with your primary care provider. Apply repellant to exposed skin, and even your clothing, hat and gear, to help repel bugs and insects.
Once you’ve arrived at camp for the night, do your best to ensure it’s bug-free. Don’t set up shop near standing water or dense vegetation. If you’re allowed to build a fire, smoke can help deter bugs. Keep your tent fly zipped completely and your camper doors closed while the sun is up and bugs are active. In some instances, you might even consider using a bug net or screen. This is especially true if you’re pack rafting or partaking in backcountry travel that requires time on the banks of lakes or rivers.
If possible, avoid peak bug activity times, like the heat of the day or when there is no breeze to help keep bugs at bay. While the jury is out on their effectiveness, some backcountry travelers like to use natural deterrents like citronella candles or essential oils.
Determining the Type of Bug Bites
Before you slather on the calamine or cortisone, it’s important to identify different types of bug bites.
- Mosquito bites are typically raised with a small puncture point in the center, and of course, they can itch like crazy.
- Tick bites most commonly occur where ticks most like to bite – on the legs, groin, scalp and back of the neck. It’s best to do a tick check after you have been exposed to tick habitat. Run your hands through your hair, check children and dogs. Look through their hair and on their clothing, backs of ears and the base of the neck. Sometimes it’s easy to determine a tick bite because the tick is still attached. If the tick has dropped off, the bite might present as a red welt or itchy lesion. Some types of tick bites will look like a bullseye. It is important to remove ticks as soon as possible to prevent disease.
- Fly bites vary depending on the type of fly. Horse flies can take a sizable chunk out of your skin, leaving a welt. Smaller flies, like sand flies, can leave small, raised red bumps that can become itchy.
- Chigger bites appear in tiny clumps of small red bumps that become incredibly itchy.
- Bed bug bites tend to occur in a pattern or line across the skin. They are small red bumps or welts.
Treating Bug Bites
Once you have determined what kind of bug has left its mark, it’s important to clean the infected area. If the itching is too much to handle, there are a variety of over-the-counter remedies that can help quell the need to scratch.
Tick bites can be problematic given the insect’s ability to carry and spread illness and disease. While lyme disease is more common on the East Coast, it has been detected in all 50 states except Hawaii. According to the CDC, symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and a characteristic bullseye skin rash. If you’re at all concerned you might have a tick-borne illness, contact your medical provider.
As mentioned, allergic reactions from bug bites and stings are a concern, especially in the backcountry far from medical attention. Make sure you or someone in your group is carrying proper precautions to help prevent severe allergic reactions. If a bug bite becomes infected, make sure to continue to clean the area and apply antibiotic ointment as needed. If the infection persists, seek medical attention.
Natural Remedies and Alternative Treatments
Adding a few natural bug bite remedies to your camping first aid kit can help alleviate discomfort when in the backcountry. Consider packing the following before heading out into the mountains: aloe vera, tea tree oil, calamine lotion, witch hazel and certain essential oils. Some homeopathic remedies of note include arnica to reduce pain and swelling, Apis mellifica, Ledum palustre, urtica urens, staphysagria, and even acupuncture and acupressure for bug bite relief.
Staying Informed and Prepared
It’s important to be up-to-date on any bug-health related advisories, especially after severe weather events, such as flooding or excessive rain or heat. Know the signs and symptoms of insect-borne disease. You may even carry a small backcountry guide that outlines the bugs you might encounter and how to treat their bites. Make sure your first aid kit is properly equipped and bug-bite ready. If you want to make sure you’re following the best practices for your health, talk with your primary care provider, and always make sure to refresh your backcountry summer safety knowledge.
The best way to deal with bug bites? Avoid them entirely. Make sure to practice preventive measures when heading into the backcountry. Know how to treat the affected area if you do get bitten, and what to look for if insect-borne diseases are known in your area. Have some repellant handy. Don’t be afraid to build a small fire if allowed to help reduce the number of bugs in your campsite. It’s an amazing time of year to go have fun in the mountains. By taking a few proactive steps, this year you can explore the wilds without having to deal with pesky bug bites afterward.