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Ticks, gnats, and mosquitos, oh my! Top bug busting tips from local Cook County experts

Jun 10, 2024 08:14AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: Jon Flabrant

By Laura Durenberger-Grunow - Boreal Community Media Exclusive - June 10, 2024

***Editor's note: This article was originally posted in 2022, but the advice from these industry experts given their positions at the time remains true in 2024. We at Boreal hope you find some good tips and resources so you can continue to enjoy the outdoors!

The dry winter of 2023-2024 left many wondering about the spring and summer bug situation. However, a recent wet period provided the necessary ingredients to bring them out in full force (while also eliminating the drought for most of Minnesota). While experiencing bugs this time of year is nothing new, currently, they seem to be out with a vengeance.

Ticks, black flies (gnats), mosquitos, and biting flies are here, and yes, they’re bad. But that doesn’t mean you have to lock yourself inside your home or cancel your trip to avoid them. 

Related: Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Sawtooth Mountain Clinic invite community members to get "ticked off" for science

With a little prep and knowledge, you can beat the bugs and still enjoy everything the area has to offer. 

Boreal Community Media reached out to local experts to ask them for their best bug-busting tips. These experts include local outfitters, lodge and rental companies, outdoor gear store owners, and others who make a living being outside (and who help others enjoy the outdoors). 

They’ve shared their top tips for adults and kids which we’ve compiled and shared below. From natural remedies to various product recommendations, these experts are a wealth of knowledge. 

Disclaimer: Boreal Community Media does not endorse or condone any of the products mentioned below. All opinions and recommendations are those of the experts sharing their tips, and not necessarily that of Boreal Community Media. Some responses may have been edited for length and clarity, and are listed in alphabetical order of the business name.

Cathi Williams, Owner/Operator at Bear Track Outfitting Co.

Your best and safest bet is to wear a mosquito head net to keep the bugs from your face and mouth. Additionally, wear a ball cap under the head net, as well as long sleeves and pants. Light colors are better than dark ones. 

Use caution with DEET as it can be toxic to children. It can also melt any synthetic clothing or even paddles. Avon makes a kid-friendly bug cream, and it is blue where it goes on so you know where you have already put it.

Carson LaRocque, Outfitting Supervisor - Gunflint Lodge and Outfitters

Due to a long winter and historic water levels, the bugs have returned with a vengeance. I have broken my tips down by category:


Pants/ long sleeves and bagging clothing are all reasonably effective (anything to keep them off skin). Tight clothing may mitigate the black fly bites, but hardy Northwoods mosquitos can bite through a lot of material. 

Mesh head nets/jackets/body suits also come in handy. They have been selling like crazy in our gift shops. 


Anything with a high DEET percentage works well, but needs to be reapplied when you sweat or wash it off. DEET is not healthy for the environment, so please do not swim after it has been recently applied. 

Permethrin is a heavy hitter applied to clothing ahead of time. It is excellent as a deterrent but READ THE INSTRUCTIONS first. Permethrin can be toxic when wet and fatal to many house pets until the treated clothing is dry.

For anyone sensitive to DEET, there are natural alternatives, mainly citronella. Other varieties work well, but often need to be applied more often than DEET repellents. 


Bites are soothed by hydrocortisone cream and other products. Baking soda and water mixture can take some of the edge off. A cold shower or a dip in a cold lake provides a lot of relief. Avoid itching bites, they only get worse. Normally with mosquitos, if you can power through the urge to itch for 15-20 min, the urge will subside. 


They cling to EVERYTHING. Check your entire body 1-2 times a day. They are best removed with a tick spoon or tweezers if they have already latched on. Although morbid, ticks should be "cut up", cast into a fire pit, or torched with a lighter. They are too hard to be stomped or swatted. They can occasionally carry some nasty diseases, and throwing one into the grass opens the opportunity for them to latch on again.

Dave and Nancy Seaton, Owners - Hungry Jack Outfitters

The main thing we tell people is that covering up is better than any bug spray. While repellants have their place, long pants and sleeves and a head net always work. The added bonus is that when you finally catch a breeze or hop in the tent you aren't covered in smelly, toxic bug stuff.

Picaridin and other "natural" repellents work best on black flies, while DEET is best for mosquitoes and ticks.

Another tip is to use scent-free laundry soap - the perfume and the "whiteners" make you look like a neon sign to the little bloodsuckers.

Linda Newman, Owner/Dog Musher - Points Unknown Dog Sledding

First and foremost, The Ultimate Bug shirt is a MUST. I am wearing one every single day while outside lately.

I use a product called Wondercide - the Cedar/Lemongrass formula. It is all-natural and is highly effective to repel ticks, black flies, and mosquitoes short term. It must be reapplied every 4 hours or so but, it does not leave an awful residue that makes you feel as though you need a shower at the end of the day just to remove it. I will spray it on my baseball cap to keep bugs from buzzing around my head. I'll also then spray it all over myself. 

A great secret for black fly repellent is pure vanilla extract. I buy a large bottle from Costco and it lasts years. I will put a dab behind each ear, a line across the back of my neck at the hairline, and then on my forehead where my hat meets my head. One of the best-kept secrets. And, again, no feeling that you need to shower it off. Because it contains alcohol, it evaporates. You do, however, need to be wary of attracting bears with the smell while on campouts.

Garlic is also an excellent repellent for ticks, fleas, black flies, and mosquitoes - eat garlic to repel bugs. 

Because the bugs are on overdrive up in my neck of the woods, I have provided a very large open area for my dogs so that the breeze can help move the bugs out of the area. 

One last item that I would not live without is my SkeeterVac. It is a contraption that you attach a small propane tank to. It emits carbon dioxide which attracts the black flies and mosquitoes. They either get sucked into a little drawer that you later dump out or they get stuck to the special patterned sticky surface on the outside of the machine. It interrupts the breeding cycle and helps to limit the little beasts. They are advertised to work for up to 2 acres. This is my 9th year using this machine. 

I rarely use DEET products but do know that they can be excellent to have while hiking as long as you can keep it on your clothing and not your skin. I recently attended a Plant medicine workshop in Grand Portage where Linda Black Elk taught how to use plants in various ways and one was as a natural bug spray. Her recipe worked for mosquitoes but not the black flies so one would need to add some cedar and lemongrass essential oils to take care of this pest. Here is the recipe:

Clare and Dan Shirley & Crew, Owners/Staff - Sawbill Canoe Outfitters

We live and work in the forest right on the edge of the BWCA Wilderness so we came to terms with "bug season" some time ago. Personally, I'm not a big fan of bug repellant, so I go with a different approach. The best way to enjoy the outdoors in June up here is to wear loose-fitting layers of clothing and a head net! 

If it's a really buggy spot, putting rain gear on over the top layer of your clothing keeps all the flying insects from biting through to your skin - mosquitoes, blackflies, deer flies, you name it. 

When camping, choose a site that is open, dry, and ideally windy. 

Half the battle is mental; if you can handle them swarming around the outside of your head net, knowing you aren't getting bitten, then you're pretty much set!

Jack Stone, Owner - Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply

We suggest first and foremost head nets. We sell them both with and without a bug shield on them. 

The ones with bug shield are treated with permethrin which keeps the bugs from even landing on the head net. Some folks don't like the idea of having a chemical in their face and that is the reason we sell both options.

Some people like to have an entire bug suit. This is basically mosquito netting in the form of a jacket hat and pants. And if they don't want an entire suit we have the Original Bug Shirt that does the same as the bug suit, but is more rugged and will last a lot longer.

Now my favorite: the Simms shirt and pants.

We all wear the Simms shirts and pants at the store. You can wear this stuff anywhere and not look like you just spent a week in the woods. It is treated but doesn't smell like insecticide. It can be washed 80 times and still keep bugs away. We all have stories of being out with others who are not wearing these shirts and watching them suffer while we are comfortable. A few other companies also have these types of shirts. 

When they first came out I did not like them because they smelled bad. Last spring I wore a brand new Simms Shirt to a staff get-together where we were all sitting around the fire. Everyone is spraying and swatting and I was very comfortable. So I talked it up, and the next morning when I came in the store there were a couple of employees trying it on. Everyone is crazy about these shirts and pants. 

Maddy Frawley - Voyageur Canoe Outfitters

Up here at Voyageur we are a big fan of head nets to keep the bugs away, especially the gnats this year! Sitting around a campfire also helps reduce the mosquitos at night when they are really out. 

Our neighbors also recommended Buggins insect repellent to help with the gnats, but I haven't tried it yet personally!

A huge thanks to everyone who shared their tried and true resources with the Boreal Community Media readers. 

Related: Where to find the best waterfalls along the North Shore to fit your itinerary 




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