For a lot of summertime hikers and adventurers, the biggest risk they face comes from a seriously small bug. If you’ve spent much time outdoors during the warmer months, you’ve almost undoubtedly found a tick on you at one time or another. The tiny creatures thrive in forests and tall grass and have an easy time climbing onto your legs as you walk through their habitats. But it’s not the parasitic bug itself that can hurt you—it’s the diseases they carry, like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, climate change has expanded the range of ticks, and per a 2018 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tick-borne diseases had more than doubled between 2004 and 2016. It’s never been more important to keep them at bay.
Thankfully, the tech we have at our disposal to deter the creatures has also gotten better in that time. Hikers have an array of tick repellents to keep the bugs away, and there are lots of simple ways to make sure if a tick does grab ahold of you, you’re not at risk of contracting Lyme.
Best Tick Repellents
Most PowerfulBen’s 100 Tick & Insect Repellent 1.25-Oz. Pump Spray (3 Pack) Ben's Read More
Best Picaridin RepellentNatrapel Picaridin Pump 3.4 Oz. Natrapel Read More
Best Wipe-On Tick RepellentOff! Deep Woods Insect Repellent Towelettes OFF! Read More
Best Tick Repellent for Your ClothesSawyer Permethrin Fabric Treatment Sawyer Products Read More
Best Pre-Treated ClothingInsect Shield Lightweight Hiker Socks Insect Shield Read More
The Expert: I started hiking and backpacking in the tick-riddled Northeast as a middle schooler and had to learn at a young age the importance of tucking my pants into my socks and doing a full-body tick check once I got home. It hasn’t always worked, either: I went through a bout of Lyme disease in high school and still feel some lingering effects of it today. At this point, through my work as a full-time adventure writer and gear reviewer for Backpacker, Outside, High Country News, and more, I’ve used nearly every spray and chemical on the market for preventing bug bites, which means I get to look a little less dorky, but I still make a point of doing tick checks.
Repellents vs. Pesticides
Among the anti-tick gear out there are four main active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, and permethrin, as well as natural ingredients like lemon eucalyptus oil. DEET, picaridin, and lemon eucalyptus oil are true repellents—they keep the bugs from getting too close. Permethrin, on the other hand, is technically a pesticide designed to kill the tick, which means you use it a little differently than the others. While repellents can be applied to your skin as sprays or wipes, permethrin is a treatment for your clothes and gear. We don’t totally understand how most of these chemicals work, but most scientists believe they disrupt a sensory organ on an insect’s legs, which steers them clear.
As with any chemical that you’re applying to or near your skin, double check that whatever you’re using is EPA-approved and safe for use. Also, pay attention to the quantity of the ingredient in the product. In most cases, you want it to be greater than 20% to be effective. Most products are in the 20 to 30% range, which is safe for most users (though, more potent chemical like permethrin use much less). Some products, specifically DEET-based products, can contain far more of their active ingredient, which might be necessary in extreme situations but isn’t best for regular use.
How to Protect Yourself From Ticks
Unlike mosquitos, ticks cling to low grasses and shrubbery and most commonly make contact with hikers below the belt. That’s where you want to apply these products. If you’re going to be traveling in an especially tick-prone area, like when bushwhacking through tall grasses, consider wearing long pants and even tucking the bottoms of them into your socks, to make it harder for ticks to find a way to reach your skin.
No matter what tick repellent you use, it’s important to finish every hike or outdoor excursion with a full-body tick check. When you get home, before hopping in the shower, look over your entire body to make sure none are hiding. If you find a tick early, it’s usually as easy as plucking it off—they take time to burrow. If you find a tick that’s already bitten you, don’t just pull it off—you can easily pluck the thorax (body) off and leave the head behind. Make sure you pull from the head, as close to your skin as possible, or use the tool we recommend below.
How We Recommend Tick Repellents
These tick repellents use a wide range of different methods for keeping ticks and other bugs off of you and have varying levels of intensity. I recommend repellents to match a variety of needs: Whether you need something long-lasting that you can apply to your clothes, need just enough protection to get you through a day hike, or are looking for an extra powerful repellent, there’s something that best suits your adventure below. Personally, I’ve used nearly all of the options on this list, most often when hiking and backpacking around New York’s Adirondack Mountains in the late summer—easily the most hospitable place for ticks that I’ve lived. If it works there, it works anywhere.
- Very strong and effective
- Easy to apply to gear
- Not something to use regularly
- Can damage gear
- Strong scent
- Active Ingredient: 100% DEET
- Length of Protection: 10 hours
When you need real serious protection, it doesn’t get any stronger than pure DEET. If you’re spending much time off trail or in tick-infested environments, this is what you want. But be careful: This much of the chemical ideally isn’t something you want all over your skin. It’s potent and, while totally safe, is best used in moderation. Also keep in mind that any amount of DEET can damage the waterproofing on gear and clothing, so keep it far away from waterproof jackets or tents. I once got a drop on a waterproof map and was able to watch the ink run right off the paper.
- Effective against blacklegged ticks
- Won’t damage gear
- No strong scent
- Less effective against other bugs compared to DEET
- Active Ingredient: 20% picaridin
- Length of Protection: 12 hours
The big sell for picaridin-based repellents, like this one from Natrapel, is that they don’t have the same “bug spray” scent as DEET-based products. It also won’t do the same damage to gear as DEET will, making it safer to use around waterproof materials. The protection won’t last as long against other insects as it will against ticks, though.
- Easy to use and keep contained
- Smaller concentration of DEET
- Not as easy to pack for longer trips
- Active Ingredient: 25% DEET
- Length of Protection: 8 hours
If you’re going to use DEET, a lower-percentage wipe like this one from Off! is the easiest and safest way to apply it. Each of the 12 included wipes only features 25% DEET, which makes it much better suited for regular reapplication, and the wipe is easier for targeted application than a spray. It’s a little harder to apply to clothing, though, and won’t be nearly as space-efficient in your backpack compared to a spray for a longer trip.
- Easily treats gear and clothing
- Lasts multiple washes
- Doesn’t last as long as pre-treated garments
- Not effective on your skin
- Active Ingredient: 0.5% permethrin
- Length of Protection: 6 washes or 6 weeks
You can use permethrin to treat gear like clothes, tents, sleeping bags, and shoes to repel, and notably different from the other repellents on this list, actually kill ticks and other bugs. This bottle from Sawyer comes ready to spray and is especially effective on items like shoes and boots. It will last upward of 6 weeks to sun and air exposure or through 6 washes. Don’t bother applying it to your skin, though: It breaks down after a few minutes there and won’t do you much good.
- Long-lasting effectiveness
- No need to remember to re-apply anything
- Protection is limited to just the garment
- Active Ingredient: Pre-applied permethrin
- Length of Protection: Years
This sock from Insect Shield comes pre-treated with permethrin, which means there’s nothing for you to do before you head out, plus the chemical sticks around and keeps the bugs at bay for far longer than anything else on this list. If you’re going to get any pre-treated clothing, your socks might be the most important—that’s where ticks are most likely to grab ahold of you. Plus, the sock’s large percentage of bamboo-based fiber moves moisture easily and helps prevent blisters while you’re hiking.
- No harsh chemicals
- Shorter protection time that other repellents
- Less reliable
- Active Ingredient: 30% lemon eucalyptus oil
- Length of Protection: 6 hours
If avoiding chemicals like DEET and picaridin are important to you, there’s some evidence to suggest oils like lemon eucalyptus keep ticks away, though it’s not known to be as reliable as the others on this list. This spray from Repel smells far more pleasant than DEET-based repellents, nor is it greasy or slick-feeling. It’s safe around kids and also works well as a second line of defense, on top of those other repellents. You will need to reapply more regularly, though.
- Extremely easy to use
- Only helpful once you already have a tick on you
- Material: Aluminum
- Weight: 0.2 oz.
At the end of the day, no repellent can 100% guarantee that you’re going to get home tick-free. Although they can definitely make a difference, looking yourself over for the bugs once you’re back is important. If you find one, removing it doesn’t get any easier than using the tiny TickKey. Just slide the device over the bug to capture it, then pull to the side. It’s light and small enough that there’s no reason to not have one in your backpack for your next trip.
PM: Post-Lyme disease, have you changed any of your preparation before venturing outdoors?
R.W.: It’s really reinforced, for me, the importance of a tick check after a day outside. Repellents are helpful, but if you look yourself over regularly, you really don’t have anything to worry about.
PM: Do you prefer a spray, lotion, or wipe tick repellent? Why?
R.W.: Personally, I like sprays as much as possible. It allows me to get the product on my clothing—like the hem of my pants or the brim of my hat—rather than needing to get it on my skin, which is something I try to avoid if I’m backpacking or won’t be able to shower immediately.
PM: What’s the best way to remove a tick if people find one on their bodies?
R.W.: If I don’t have my TickKey on me, I’ll use the pointiest tweezers I can find. Push down toward your skin to grab the tick as close to the head as possible, then pull up slowly and consistently. You don’t need to yank it out. Then, just clean the area really well.