Summer is coming.
For many people, that means barbecues, beach days, road trips, festivals, and fun times. For those of us who are keen patrons of the outdoors, however, it means one thing more than any other: the midges are currently awakening from hibernation and sharpening their teeth in preparation for a hearty feast upon our flesh.
The “b**tard midge,” as it’s known to the locals in multiple languages around the globe, might be a tiny creature, but it’s nevertheless capable of driving even the hardiest outdoorsperson absolutely bonkers. Not only do these minuscule, airborne piranhas of the insect world casually breach the defences of even the best tents and best insect repellents out there with the utmost of ease, their bites can also continue to irritate for days on end, often to the point that we’re forced to abandon our hikes or camping holidays and head home, tails between our legs and itching from head to toe.
So how are we to carry on camping and getting in our outdoor time in midge season? Are prayers our only hope? While we wouldn’t wish to rule anything out, there are a few other strategies that might prove more effective. Before we get to how to stop midge bites, however, let’s first take a quick look at what midges are and why they’re considered the bane of the lives of summer hikers and campers the world over.
How to stop midge bites: what are midges?
The term “midges” is an umbrella term used to refer to any species of small biting fly, encompassing more than 4000 species located in every corner of the globe except for deserts and permanently frigid zones like the Arctic and Antarctic. In Britain alone, there are a total of 152 species of biting midge – the most infamous of which is Culicoides impunctatus, aka the Highland midge.
Midges are tiny little critters, boasting a wingspan of a mere 2mm. This makes it possible for thousands of them to attack an exposed limb at the same time. A swarm of midges can inflict in the region of 3,000 bites in an hour and it’s estimated that their breeding grounds can host around 24 million(!) of them per hectare.
Around a third of midge species feed on warm-blooded animals. And while midges are all but blind and deaf, they find humans courtesy of the scent of the CO2 and lactic acid produced by our bodies. Once midges have found their fodder, they emit pheromones that signal to other midges nearby that a feast is on the cards, and this is why these itty-bitty biters only even seem to attack in swarms.
How to stop midge bites: why are midge bites so irritating?
Midges have sharp mandibles that allow them to pierce through the hides of mammals – most commonly cattle, sheep, deer and, of course, humans.
When a midge bites, it takes around five minutes of feeding for the beast to become engorged and sated. The swelling and irritation their bites cause is a result of the histamines in their saliva, which increase blood flow to the area of the bite.
How to stop midge bites: our top 15 tips
This is the simplest way to avoid being bitten. While not ideal in hot weather, a little overheating’s a price most would be willing to pay in return for itch-free, unbitten skin, and some of the best base layers out there are so breathable and lightweight that you shouldn’t feel too uncomfortable.
Wear a head net
For reasons best known to the beasts themselves, midges love concentrating their attacks on the most sensitive parts of our anatomy and have never seen a nostril, ear, eyelid, cranium, or neck that they didn’t like. Following the advice above, our only recourse is to layer up our heads as we would the rest of our bodies – in this case with a fine-mesh head net (like this one from Smidge That Midge or the Lifesystems Midge Head Net ). Head nets look far from cool and limit your vision, sure, but are by far the lesser of the two evils.
Avoid wet ground
Midges love nothing more than a bit of moisture, doing most of their breeding and subsequent feeding in terrain that’s boggy, marshy, or near a still water source. Their highest densities are in areas that receive over 1250mm of rain each year.
Avoid still and dull days
These are the days when midges tend to be most active. If you’re planning a hike in midge country and know you’re sensitive to bites, your best bet is to wait until there’s a bit of wind or strong sunshine, both of which can help to limit their numbers. When camping, try to pitch your tent in a more exposed spot, facing the wind – a wind speed of just 6 mph is enough to keep midges at bay. If in doubt, check the midge forecast for your area.
Take cover at dusk and dawn
Midges do their hunting all day long, but usually ramp up feeding in the hour or so after sunrise and around sunset.
Pre-treat your tent
As many a camper knows, the mesh netting in tents is often no foil for the midge, who always somehow manage to squeeze through the minuscule gaps in the fabric and carry on feeding on our flesh well into the wee hours. To avoid this, douse your tent’s mesh panels with a repellent spray either before leaving home or as soon as you get to camp.
Avoid sheltered and shaded areas
Like crooks and criminals in dark alleys, midges tend to favour secluded, shaded spots. When pitching your tent or taking a pit stop on your hike, try to find a spot that’s more exposed.
Head on high
Midges aren’t fans of altitude, primarily because of the lower temperatures and stronger winds. As such, heading above the 750m / 2,500 ft mark should keep you safe or at least keep your bite count to a less tolerable number.
Use the shoulder season
Midges become less active when temperatures fall below 10 °C / 50°F and usually call off hostilities entirely when the mercury drops under the 3°C / 37.5°F mark. This, of course, makes spring and autumn the ideal time to get your hiking and camping in.
Use a repellent (or three)
Midge repellents are far from perfect – most will only reduce the number of bites rather than stop them entirely – but are far better than using nothing at all. The best repellents we’ve tried include Smidge, picaridin, DEET, and citronella. DEET is probably the most effective of the bunch, but because this can damage plastics and fabrics, take care to avoid getting them on your gear or tent.
Another popular repellent is Avon Skin So Soft Original Dry Oil, which some studies have shown to be 85% as effective against midges as DEET (it smells a lot better too!).
Use diet supplements
Some ingestibles that have been touted as mitigators of midge bites over the years include yeast supplements, Marmite, vitamin B1, and vitamin B12, all of which make your skin less attractive to biting insects.
Try traditional repellents
Natural repellents that some campers and hikers swear by include citronella, oil of lemon eucalyptus, lavender, fennel, pennyroyal, mugwort, and even pomegranate skins. Smoke from a campfire has also been known to keep the biters at bay.
Douse your duds in permethrin
Permethrin is an insecticide that can be applied to clothing using either a spray or wash-in treatment. Several studies have revealed permethrin to be a highly effective insect repellent, most notably an Alaskan study in which it was shown to have stopped 73% of bites.
Avoid using scented products
Deodorants, perfume, aftershave, and fabric softeners are just a few scented items that may alert midges to your presence and put you top of their breakfast/lunch/time menu.
Dress in earthy colours
Midges’ dodgy eyesight means they are less able to spot clothing that blends in with the terrain. This being so, it’s best to save your brightly coloured hiking threads for autumn, winter, and spring, and do your summer hiking in more subdued tones.
How to treat midge bites
No matter how well you try to protect yourself against them, getting at least a few bites when hiking or camping in midge country is an inevitability. While most people will heal quickly, for others the immune response may be worse and bites can feel itchy or remain inflamed for several days.
If your bites are itchy or cause swelling, apply hydrocortisone or antihistamine cream around the bite area. If these don’t help, you can also use an oral antihistamine such as Benadryl to ease the itching. If you’d prefer a more natural remedy, some treatments that might do the trick include ammonia, tea tree oil, calamine lotion, and aloe vera.
Avoid scratching the bite, as this can spread the bacteria causing the infection and will increase the release of histamine in the wound, which only makes them even itchier.
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Former Advnture editor Kieran is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.
He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.
Kieran is the author of 'Climbing the Walls', an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors.