How bad can an insect bite be?
April 25, 2007 1:06 PM   Subscribe

I was thinking of hiking in New England for three weeks this May. Was that is, until everyone started pitching in with scare stories of blackflies and other insects. Am I going to die?

I have three weeks to play with in May. My plan was to try some of the Appalachian trail through Massachusetts and Vermont, maybe taking in some of the Long Trail in Vermont.

Only now I'm encountering stories about plagues of insects. How bad will it be? Even if they're everywhere, are their attacks really that bad?

Can one make this a mere inconvenience with suitable precautions?

Thanks everyone!
posted by godawful to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Isn't the Long Trail closed during the muddy season (up to Memorial Day)? As for the flies, OMFG are they bad. Wear a bug helmet and bring lots of high strength DEET.
posted by caddis at 1:31 PM on April 25, 2007

Well, May is right in the middle of black fly season, but aside from that it can be a rather nice time to be in Northern New England. (I always loved Maine in the spring when I lived there, although it could have been that I was just desperate to see any sun after the winter...)

Bring some really good insect repellent. Stuff with DEET in it, if you can find it (doesn't need to be 100% DEET, because I've heard it doesn't get any more effective once you get past 25% or so, but don't bother with any health-friendly organic crap; it's you versus the bugs and you want chemical warfare on your side -- the fact that you may die of cancer later isn't going to matter when you have no-see-ums and chiggers on you now).

I have heard people talk positively about this stuff, but I've never tried it.

If you're going to be camping I'd think about a mosquito net, but don't forget to put on bug spray even when you're in it, because no-see-ums will go right through a screen.

You probably won't have as bad a time in the mountains as you would near the coast, because it's the swamps that are really terrible for the insects, but just make sure you have bug spray and I think you'll be okay.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:33 PM on April 25, 2007

I did a thru-hike of Long Trail almost six years ago, in early June. It was a great hike, but the black flies were your username. The bites hurt, and the flies seemed to find any exposed skin. And they were innumerable.

OK, that's the bad part. The good part is that, unlike mosquitoes, they can't really bite through clothing. So, take a tight mesh headnet thing, a couple light long-sleeved shirts (silk, preferably) and tights, and light gloves.

Seeing as how you're planning the trip for May, you'll probably have as much trouble with mud as with the flies. Be prepared to be wet, regardless the gear you pack.

Do the hike. You'll remember the views and interesting folks you meet on the way more than the flies. (If just barely.)
posted by cog_nate at 1:36 PM on April 25, 2007

You may have a better experience further south, the Virginia section of the trail is spectacular.
posted by BobbyDigital at 1:49 PM on April 25, 2007

When they’re bad they can really suck. But even that time of year a steady breeze or a cool night can keep them away if you’re lucky. It’s unfair to say “there will always be black flies so don’t hike that time of year.” Yes, it’s the season, they will probably be there, but it doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy yourself.

Prepare for them. In addition to the standard “New England weather is insane so be prepared for anything” clothing, bring some light long sleeve shirts, light nylon pants and a head net. Bring something with DEET in it. I prefer to spray it on my clothes rather than my skin and it seems to work ok.

We do have black bears in New England, and while they’re mostly harmless they do know humans are a good source of food, so don’t plan on eating in your tent to avoid the bugs.

That time of year also prepare for mud and bad stream crossings. Don’t let that scare you though as NE mountains are really beautiful that time of year, with snow in the higher elevations.
posted by bondcliff at 2:03 PM on April 25, 2007

Bring long sleeves and long pants for camp. You might get away with shorts top and bottom for hiking if you use DEET but all bets are off when you settle down for the night.

I've had excellent luck with permethrin-based clothing treatments. When applied as directed, they work wonders and survive several weeks/wash cycles. Do follow the directions to keep the environmental impact to a minimum.

Headnets: get a fine-meshed one. The cheapies in big-box stores are too coarse. Expect to pay 5-10 bucks for a good'n.

Mental state: Fear is your enemy. Hey, back in the day folks used to get bit all the time and just accepted it. On an especially bad day perhaps all of the above hints won't be enough. You'll surprise yourself how quickly you get used to it (and if it gets really intolerable, you're never more than a handful of miles from a bailout point in that stretch.)
posted by Opposite George at 2:54 PM on April 25, 2007

Also, several of the lakes along Long Trail have cabins in addition to huts. If the flies are really bad, the cabins are worth the negligible extra cost.
posted by cog_nate at 3:08 PM on April 25, 2007

And btw, I did a long hike a few years ago which included the stretch you're looking at and still am in the area a lot. Feel free to email me (in profile) for more general tips on supply points, lodging, gear etc.
posted by Opposite George at 3:22 PM on April 25, 2007

Headnets: They're really dark, especially in forests. Tip: Cut a rectangle of 3 x 12" out of a sheet of clear sturdy plastic. Glue it around edges on headnet where your eyes will be (measure first for the right height). Cut the piece of headnet away that is covered by the plastic after the glue has dried. Now you can see and you won't get bitten (as much).
posted by maremare at 4:47 PM on April 25, 2007

I remember a spring Vermont hike years ago where I reached back to scratch my neck and my hand came away just covered with my own sticky half-coagulated blood and scabs. Good times!

(Actually I remember the hike fondly. Especially the part where another hiker gave me his extra headnet.)
posted by LarryC at 5:27 PM on April 25, 2007

Mud season will be long over by May, but you will face black flies big enough to slap around a chicken. They're cute, though. Sometimes the young flies will let you climb up on their backs and fly you around... fun!
posted by wordwhiz at 6:48 PM on April 25, 2007

I hiked in that area in June a few years ago. After two weeks I looked like I had the plague. I can't wait to get back though. Still a few hundred miles of the A.T. left to finish.
posted by roue at 8:02 PM on April 25, 2007

"How bad can an insect bite be?"

Bad enough to make moose act crazy.

20 years ago, I was driving through northern Maine in early May, on a long motorcycle trip down from Gaspé to Tennessee. I had the bad luck to break a rear shock on a rutted road, and to have to stop to make temporary suspension repairs to make it into another town. I was covered head to toe in cold weather motorcycle gear, the morning being still a bit nippy that far north. But I made the judgement error of flipping up the visor on my full face helmet to try to get a black fly out that had crawled in.

Bad mistake.

Within 2 or 3 minutes I had enough bites about my eyes from his fellows, that they began to swell nearly shut. In desperation, I broke off the remaining parts of the busted shock (bending the shock mount in the crazed effort), threw away some gear at the side of the road to lessen my load, and got the hell out of there. The first motel I found 65 miles further on saved my life, as I could only see out of one eye by that time, and was having trouble with that. It took 2 days of ice and anti-histamines at that motel before I was at all road worthy again.

The morning I was getting ready to leave, at the coffee shop across the street, I heard one of the locals complaining to the other of black fly swarms coming through the walls (presumably uninsulated wood paneled walls) of summer cabins he was working to get ready for the tourist season. Ugh.
posted by paulsc at 9:25 PM on April 25, 2007

Bugs can be bad so be prepared. As others said that means nylon pants, nylon long sleeved shirt, headnet, brimmed hat to hold the headnet away from your face, light glove liners and DEET. Black flies, unlike mosquitoes, will crawl down your collar and up your cuffs and start munching. DEET will help to discourage them. Try to camp in exposed, windy areas like ridge tops and avoid the lowlands and lake sides.

Just be thankful you're not going to Alaska. The mosquitoes are so thick you can barely see out of your headnet. The caribou sometimes go crazy from the bugs and stampede for hours. They will wade into the Arctic Ocean covering everything except their nostrils.
posted by JackFlash at 10:07 PM on April 25, 2007

Not that you need more warnings, but black fly bites get infected easily so bring some antibacterial ointment to smear where you're bitten. Also, when bondcliff mentioned snow at high elevations he wasn't kidding, but he forgot to mention wind. Bring warm layers and a wind/rain blocking layer. It's be a pain to carry at the lower elevations but you can run into a storm on the mountain and you'll be glad you have it.

That said, don't let the tales of woe keep you from going. You'll have a great time, and at worst a few war stories of your own to tell later.
posted by cali at 10:18 PM on April 25, 2007

Try to camp in exposed, windy areas like ridge tops and avoid the lowlands and lake sides.

Just a heads-up on that. In CT and MA, anyway, AT camping's officially restricted to established campgrounds and shelters (not that people don't stealth -- but if you're a by-the-rules type you might have a problem with that.) Pretty sure that's the case in VT, too -- I just don't remember for sure.

Be sure to stay at Upper Goose Pond Cabin in Lee, Massachusetts if it's open. It's on a lakeside in the woods but it doesn't matter. You will never want to leave.
posted by Opposite George at 12:07 AM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Don't wear anything scented (deodorant, cologne, after shave). That seems to attract them more. Bring antihistamine, because those bites will be itchy, large, and hurt. Some people seem curiously immune to them - some attract them like crazy. Wear long pants and long sleeved shirts.

Have fun, though. :-)
posted by Flakypastry at 3:52 PM on April 26, 2007

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