Stuff Ya Gotta Have: Insect Repellent That Works

August 24, 2010
Swat ’em, spray ’em or smoke ’em? Our campers share their know-how on getting rid of mosquitoes and other annoying insects.

There you are, relaxing in your camp chair with your favorite beverage, soaking in the sights and sounds of the campground. And then it happens. That tiny buzzing, right near your ear. Your eyes shift from side to side.

The buzzing continues…and the flailing begins.

You slap your ear, then your cheek. It lands on your arm, but before you can make contact with it, it’s gone. You spy it on your leg, but not before it already sinks its syringe-like beak into your skin. You strike, it splats…but it’s already too late. In its place, a pink welt already begins to grow. And suddenly, you hear the buzzing begin again.

Mosquitoes and their pesky cohorts are some of the less-enjoyable things about camping. And for some, especially those who are allergic or sensitive to bug bites, it means itching, scratching and discomfort that can linger long after the trip ends.

There are many products on the market available to help repel bugs, including coils, candles and even clip-on units. We asked KOA Facebook campers what they liked best, and this is what they told us:

Tried & True

For some, like Janis Piccarreto, the good old-fashioned spray repellents are the only choice for them, despite having tried other products. Deep Woods OFF! was a popular choice mentioned by our campers, as were Cutter and Repel.

“We use anything that has DEET,” says Ami Rowland. “My boy gets horrible infections from mosquito bites, and I want nothing to do with the horrid little things.”

Several, like Mary Ellen Davison mentioned that she enjoys the OFF! wipes as well. “They don’t smell as strongly as sprays,” she wrote. Tommy Moore agreed. “You can put it exactly where you want it, and not in your eyes or on your lips, which is what happens using a spray.”

Another favorite? Avon’s Skin-So-Soft.

“I prefer the Skin-So-Soft spray from Avon,” says Jodie Carson. “It smells good and actually works. It works great for black biting flies, too.”

Billy Gognat agrees. “I use the Skin-So-Soft when I’m out,” he says. “It sounds funny for a man to use it, but it works fine for me.”

Feel the Burn

Although Phyllis Brunk says that they are fans of sprays, they combine repellents for the best results. “We use Deep Woods OFF!, citronella candles on the picnic table, tiki torches with citronella fuel and yard guard fogger.”

John Brewer says that they, too, opt for repellant sprays, but they still bring candles to the campground. “Tiki torches [and] citronella candles seem to be less effective,” he says, “but we still use them.”

“Lately we have been strategically placing the citronella candles around us ( in a circle ) while we are around the campfire or at a table and it seems to have helped,” says Beverly Nelson. “However, I think it may look like we are performing some sort of ritual (laughing out loud).”

“We started using these mosquito sticks that burn like incense,” says Karen Kline Boghossian. “They actually work fairly well. They have about a 10-foot radius so you can set up a perimeter or put one down next to your chair. They burn for about 3 hours before going out, and smell pretty nice, too.”

While mosquito repellent coils are also still being used as an effective way to combat bugs, according to campers like Cindy Whysall Willey, John Clarke shared an idea that those of us at the Kompass had never heard before.

“We use Tim Horton’s coffee cup holders,” he says. “Just light them on fire and they smolder and keep the bugs away.”

Melissa Caudle reminds other campers that caution should be used with products that use smoke or scents to keep away bugs. “Citronella candles give my husband really bad asthma attacks,” she says. “People need to be aware that this is a possibility.” And campers should also be aware of any specific restrictions about open flames at the campgrounds at which they are staying.

Fresh Ideas

One of the things that campers told us again and again also came as a bit of a surprise: using dryer sheets as bug repellent. How does it work?

“Pull them through a belt loop, lay them at your feet, or tuck them anywhere,” says Janet Thomson. “Ones with too much scent give me a headache, so I look for a light scent, but they do work!”

Kathy Dykes also opts for dryer sheets to keep bugs away. “Golfers use [them] all the time,” she writes. “Just pin or tie one to your belt loop…the cheap one[s] work well.”

“I was told for infants and toddler to use fabric softener sheets on them,” says Cheri Adams. “Just rub it on their skin.”


Another surprise? Using mouthwash to create a “force field” around the campsite.

“Listerine in a spray bottle,” says Aimee Kennedy. “I’m not kidding—it works!” She suggests spraying the air, making a “wall” around the area that you are sitting in.

Pete Monsees also uses Listerine “…mixed 50/50 with water, sprayed on our chairs and benches—even the ground near us—works fantastic,” he says.

New Ideas

Other ideas from our campers including butane-powered repellent dispensers available through ThermaCELL, as well as the new clip-on repellent from OFF! Others suggested natural products, like eucalyptus oil, bug repellent soaps or even crushed wax myrtle leaves.

Perhaps the most unique bug repellent, though, came from Dale Henderson, who told us, “I just keep my wife close by. She acts like a magnet to mosquitoes, [so] they never bother me…”

Do you have a great way to keep mosquitoes and other bugs away from you when you’re camping? Share ’em with us, below:

  • Deborah Branch

    Use caution with sprays and dryers sheets. They worked for me but both gave slightly poisened my service dog. I rubbed him down with a dryer sheet and within an hour he was drooling and could not stand up. Smae reaction when we tried to spray a cloth and then rub on. It’s absorbed through the skin so be very careful. Thanks

    • Gayle

      Don’t use mosquito spray on your pets either. A friend did, and her dog survived, but is now hairless and scared and the Vet says the hair will not grow back due to the scarring!!!

  • Allan Bellefleur

    I agree with the mouthwash solution for fly repellant. Please note that the wash “Equal” purchased at “Walmart” is just as effective at less than half the price. We use it to clear areas around us. It is sprayed on bushes and in the grass all around. It must be repeated periodically for ir to remain effective.

    “Soft and Dry” from “johnson’s” is also nice to wear

  • F. B. Cullom

    Another trick we learned on a trip to Alaska — Vitamin B1. Taken twice a day it was more effective than Deep Woods Off. “Walmart” carries a 250 mg, 100 tablet bottle for less than $3, which is a 25 day supply for two people. It works on New Hampshire Black Flies as well.

    I’m told it doesn’t work for everyone, but it has sure worked for us.

  • Lois

    I never heard of the dryer sheets and the mouthwash, but as we are going camping this weekend and because I seem to be the family mosquito magnet, I will certainly give them both a try.
    I also had heard that if you eat a lot of garlic, your blood isn’t as attractive. Of course, my Italian husband told me this and it may have been that he was looking for more recipes like his Mama used to make.

  • Wyatt Sasser

    If you want to go “green” and use no chemicals try a 24″ box fan. The breeze will keep the bugs off you and keep you cool to boot.

  • Terry Engelstad

    We agree whole heartedly about buying the Equal brand Listerine mouth wash and mixing it with water, I don’t do half and half but almost! Spray it on the ground. Don’t put it where you will sit as it is sticky!! found that out the hard way! on a picnic table! We were in Missoula, Mt. and the evening bugs were out. I sprayed all around where we wanted to sit outside and also I took a paper towel and soaked it and driipped it all around our trailer window frame just in case they wanted to get in that way.I sprayed around the step too not wanting to get it on our screen door. We always KEEP THE LIGHTS IN THE TRAILER OFF! in evenings.. some folks will actually leave their screen doors OPEN??? no wonder their trailer is full of bugs! We never had one bug bother us all evening! NONE were on our ceiling of the trailer either. They were swarming around at our neighbors!

  • Theresa

    We like Mosquito Magic products — they work well for us, and they are not toxic. I haven’t found them locally, but I buy them online. We use the bar soap and rub it over skin and clothing, rather than wash with it and have it mostly go down the drain.

  • Sean

    Forget about the dryer sheets. These past few years have not worked at all. Ants and flying bugs still come around to bother us … My guess would be the companies might have changed their formulas like coke did with there drinks (and it cost them customers big time).

  • Papa

    When we were in Texas, visiting our daughter at an Air Force Base, we asked the owner of a nursery there what he did to keep down the mosquitos at the coast. He put us on to some spray called mosquito barrier. It’s 99% garlic extract. You mix up a spray out of the concentrate and spray it on the ground all around, maybe benches, etc. Not people. We use it around our patio and spray in the early evening. Seems to keep mosquitos away although it does attract Italians. They’re nice company, don’t bite and often bring food.
    For people, they also used an extract of Cedar called CedarCide. It’s 33% cedar oil. It doesn’t attract loggers, so it’s safe to use in the forest. If you can’t find them locally, we got the garlic spray from and the cedar from greenlight at

  • Bob Spangler

    Sometimes, other flying insects can be a bother particularly around lights outside. Try filling a shallow pan with a little water and add dish soap and make lots of bubbles. Hang or position the pan under the light. Flying insects attracted to the light get caught in the bubbles and that’s the end of them. You’ll be surprised at all the insects big and small you’ll catch and eliminate!

  • Chuck Conner

    In regards to Bob Spangler’s note, a squirt of dishwashing soap, particularly Dawn, mixed in water in a spray bottle, kills almost all flying and crawling insects with exoskeletons (crusty outside) almost immediately. Wasps, flies, ants, etc. It’ll knock a wasp down and kill it almost immediately. I used it to kill a trail of ants that found our chocolate brownie tray. It works on contact only.

  • Coy Gomez

    BELIEVE ME!!!!!!!!Avon’s Skin So Soft, lotion or oil spray WORKS. We won’t be without it. They had men go into the jungle with it on their clothes & when they came out – all the ticks fell off of them. When I saw that, I knew it had to be good. Plus it is all natural & any kind of bug hates it. They have recently also came out with a repellant, but I prefer to go natural. I draw anything that flys, crawls or bites. Skin So Soft works & I am NOT an Avon representative. I am a customer. Give it a try. You will be impressed & smell good too.

  • james cobb

    We had Biting knats this last spring in the campground, found out that they don’t like anything with vanilla in it, was using vanilla extract, but have found that “Victoria Secrets Vanilla Lace body spray worked great, and it smells good.

  • Ashley

    If you are looking for a more natural insect repellent you should try Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE). It is the only plant based ingredient recommended by the EPA and Center for Disease Control for use as a repellent. Numerous tests have been conducted and OLE is proven to work as well as DEET in repelling tick and mosquitoes. Check out this site for more information
    I absolutely love this product. Not only does it keep the bugs away but it smells good too!

  • Alison

    Wasps hate the scent of clove oil which is very strong so a single drop rubbed on bare skin will keep them away from us and the kiddies …. and a drop on the edge of our plate will keep them away if we’re eating outside.

    I’ve tried leaving a bowl of cloves on the picnic table, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as the clove oil.

  • Beverley and Jan

    The Tim Hortons drink tray is the newest strategy, it really does work in the Kawarthas anyway!

  • Larry

    Fill some zip-lock bags with plain old water, tack or tape them around your campsite. It works! Safe for pets too.

  • Cindy

    I used listerine and as it did ward off mosqitoes they were replaced with swarms of beas.

  • Tom Sanetti

    Earthlog Citronella Fire Logs are a great way to combat mosquitos, just toss one into the fire and they disapear for hours and theres no toxic chemicals.

  • psmulvaney

    Thanks for the great suggestion. We’re always interested in hearing from our campers and appreciate you taking the time to share!
    Polly Mulvaney, KOA

  • Manda

    Please don’t rub dryer sheets on your babies. The fragrances and other ingredients in them are not designed to be used in anything but the diluted quantities they leave on your clothing. Many babies have sensitive skin, and dryer sheets can irritate them.