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Citronella: FRIEND OR FOE???

I have seen contradicting information about citronella in the backcountry, regarding DA BEARS. 

I'm referring to citronella in bug spray particularly; I have a natural bug repellant that works great for me... I am not paranoid that bears want to eat me, but I also don't want to be wearing a bear-bell, if you know what I mean!


I use internal bug protection, when in bug country and throughout the seasons when they are bad I eat a garlic clove every 4 hours, it comes out in my sweat pores and the bugs don't bite. Started using it in Alaska in 2006.

Don't know anything about citronella and bears smelling it.

This subject always leaves me shaking my head. Because all it takes is a word search on the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) website to debunk so many myths about "alternative" repellents.

Garlic, vanilla, vitamin B, dryer sheets, sonic buzzers, mosquito bracelets are all proven to be myths.

It is the acidic smoke from Citronella oil that provides SOME relief from mosquitoes. I can't find anything supporting a spray citronella. The CDC clearly states citronella is ineffective against ticks. So I don't see the point of bothering with it.

Gary, garlic has been clinically shown to work for 20-40 minutes IF it is directly squeezed and rubbed into the skin--which is going to repel every living thing from you as well.I am naturally prone to not get bitten, and that may be your case. I can sit around a group of people who are swatting away and maybe come away with 1 or 2 bites. I'm almost always the last person to put on bug spray.

DEET reigns supreme, with Permethrin and a few other chemicals working as well. I've recently started spraying down my hammock and clothes with Permethrin, and it has worked well.

I am very very allergic to DEET, and have had skin reactions to Permethrin as well. I'm fortunate to not be loved much by bugs, but that clearly isn't sound insurance. 

The stuff I have works great, but I cannot remember what it is, the label rubbed off sometime early this year. I think I will give Permethrin another try.

This subject always leaves me shaking my head. Because all it takes is a word search on the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) website to debunk so many myths about "alternative" repellents.

Garlic, vanilla, vitamin B, dryer sheets, sonic buzzers, mosquito bracelets are all proven to be myths. . .


Just curious, do bears like ROASTED GARLIC or are they just as happy with RAW GARLIC ;-)

Goose, I couldn't agree with you more. 

In my early days I had tried Citronella and garlic and a host of other "natural" remedies and found they did not work nearly as affectively as DEET.

In the Arctic, where I live, every warm blooded mammal is plagued by mosquitoes and black flies during our relatively short summer. I recall a summer canoe trip and, while portaging, thousands of black flies would swarm under my canoe, bouncing off my face and get into my eyes and ears where they would feed. Tiny rivulets of blood would be running down my face and unprotected wrists and hands. The only thing that would protect me was DEET. 

I also travel regularly to such mosquito infested places as Equatorial Africa and Asia where mosquitoes are far more than a simple nuisance  as they carry such blood-borne pathogens as malaria and dengue fever.  Again, DEET is the only thing that seems to work. That and long sleeved shirts and pants; no al fresco sun bathing for us.

Now, in Canada, we can only buy solutions of no greater than 35 percent DEET, but I have a supplier who will ship 100 percent DEET to Canada. For some reason it passes Customs. 

While I have clue about bears being attracted to it I have had great success with Picaridin. Doesn't smell or melt things, works great, and initial studies have it being a bit safer than DEET. A hand fan is also pretty useful against mosquitos if you are just sitting around. Mosquitos are not strong flyers and gently fanning yourself is enough to discourage them. Won't work against anything else though.

In the late 70's when I first lived in Alaska for two years I was bitten all the time by the bugs as well as in Wyoming. But in 2006 someone I met in Denali was mixing powdered garlic into his OJ in the morning at camp. I asked him why and he said it repelled the bugs also someone else said powdered sulphur mixed into OJ did the same thing, but the sulphur had a bad after taste to me. I just started eating a garlic clove once in a while and actually got to where I liked them. The bugs stopped biting after that.

In my motorcycle camping days I relied on keeping my body topped up with JD and unfiltered smokes. Few biters are willing to attempt to feed on that mixture. A T shirt in hand used as a cow tail discouraged them from flying too close to my drink 8p

Now that I'm living a bit healthier (meaning I'm too old to feed on poison now too) I find long sleeves/pants treated with Permethrin augmented with a head net if the swarms are really thick works so well I rarely apply DEET on most trips.  I carry it, just don't seem to need it much if at all.

We use a natural mixture on The Tot, I think it is cedar oil based, so I know there are other options out there if chemicals really don't work for you. It doesn't work as well as DEET but it does smell nice!

Gary, your right about the garlic compounds coming out. Sweat is one way that the body sheds things it can't process, and the sulfurs in the garlic would be one of them. It does work to a small extent, but the main factor for insects gunning for you is more based on body type. This is largely linked to genetics, but also has to do with what foods you eat, google some health websites and they explain it much better than I can. As for DEET, it works wonderfully, the downside is that you're rubbing some pretty nasty stuff onto yourself. 

For backcountry, I know this stuff is out. But if just hitting the trails, with minimal bushwhacking, there is some mosquito netting hoodies and pants out there that work pretty darn well.

So what body type is the worst. I am tall slim at 6'7". I never use external repellents. Fact I never rub anything on my skin besides Neosporin on sores. And I use duct tape for a bandage because it stays on.

Hate to say it but @lonestranger that method during your motorcycle days sounds way more fun than any of the others listed ;)

Mosquitoes are attracted to CO2. If you stop expelling CO2, they won't bite you... and even if they did, it wouldn't hurt.

As with goose and north, I have heard about all the repellents mentioned and perhaps a few others. While some may have very limited effectiveness(minutes) in some places with mosquitos, I have found none as effective as DEET, or just protecting yourself by wearing the right clothing. In the Yukon, bugs are not as prevalent as many believe(it keeps the human population low) but when the bugs hatch, nothing beats DEET as an effective repellent. I don't doubt that there are instances where some one might think, "Wow, that Vitamin B really saved me" but there is no scientific evidence to support those claims. I wear clothing from the Original Bug Shirt Company(no affiliation they just work for me). The old timers used to use bear grease. Possibly effective, but a PITA.

Mosquitos are also attracted to certain shades and colors, dark blue being the worst. This is why I was so disappointed in the outdoor clothing industry a couple of years ago when they decided that the bright flashy colors were out and the earth tones and subdued colors were in. I couldn't get a bright yellow, lime green or orange anywhere, just dark greens, blues, and browns.

I hang anything that smells, regardless of whether or not it's edible. I have no studies to cite, or relevant experience - I just know that it keeps me from worrying and helps me sleep!

What do they use in malarial countries where it is a life/death issue?  I don't hear of them using much else but DEET and mosquito nets.  I have no firsthand experience to back this up though. 

I'd think the bears would rather eat someone pre-seasoned with garlic though.  Just a guess.

People living in countries with a high risk of malaria and other diseases which use mosquitoes as a vector, will often use nets. However, there are problems that arise in using cheap netting that is not fine enough to keep the little pests out. Also, some communities I have worked in often use the nets for fishing rather than disease protection; people will often find it more prudent to deal with the short term problem of hunger than the long term one of disease.

I remember working in one community in which the people regularly painted their homes with a solution made of DDT. I was quite surprised to find out that, although prohibited in much of the developed world, countries such as the U.S. still sell DDT to developing nations. When used properly, DDT is relatively safe.

In spite of this protection, the mortality rate from blood-borne pathogens like malaria is astronomical, especially for children. My hope is for a vaccine.

Citronella has a sort of sweet smell so I wouldn't be surprised if it could potentially attract bears.  

Avon Skin So Soft works well as an alternative to DEET IMO.  Has worked well for my 2 kids and I.

North, an interesting side note to the malaria issues in Africa, is the growth of sickle cell anemia. Those with two red blood cells will often succumb, but those born with one normal cell and one sickle cell have a resistance to the higher temperatures that result in infertility. Ultimately, the Europeans were responsible for the widespread growth of malaria in Africa because of the deforestation that allowed mosquitos to breed. 

I think that other alternatives to DEET do exist where the mosquitos are not as prolific. Fortunately, few of us in the central part of NA rarely experience either the predominance of mosquitos, and/or the ones who carry infectious diseases.

I have only been to Africa and South America a couple of times through work as a cinematographer, and I have to say, the number of pathogens flying around in the bodies of insects is quite frightening.

Funny thing about DDT is that it has saved more lives worldwide than penicillin.  Too bad about the Carson book though. 

Erich said,

Ultimately, the Europeans were responsible for the widespread growth of malaria in Africa because of the deforestation that allowed mosquitos to breed.

Erich, I have never heard this before. Historically, Malaria was quite rampant in Africa long before humanity even evolved, being found in mosquitos preserved in amber dating back 30 million years or so. In fact, it is believed that we first contracted Plasmodium falciparum from Gorillas; Malaria after all is not a human specific pathogen, but seems to like all primates. Some of the first recordings of malarial epidemics are from the Chinese civilizations dating back some 6,000 years. It was also quite prevalent in Europe; the Romans documented many cases of this disease and drained swamps to help eradicate it under the premise that it was caused by swamp gas. Hence the name mal – air or bad air. In so doing they inadvertently reduced the mosquito population by destroying breeding habitat. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that a British doctor by the name of Ross discovered that the mosquito was the leading vector between Plasmodium and humans. Today there is a well-documented link between poverty in rural areas and malaria epidemics. This has more to do with poor sanitation and lack of access to hospitals and medicines, among a host of other causes, not at all immediately related to European Colonization in the 1800’s. In more urban areas of Africa and Asia malaria is less of a problem.

I am curious though; what is the connection between deforestation and an increase in mosquito population?

Sage, it was the misuse and over-use of DDT in North America that lead to it being banned. However, when used properly, such as painting it on walls, that the benifits far outweigh the risks.

As you note, North, malaria did exist long before humans. And malaria certainly existed in other parts of the planet. Washington D.C., because of its swamps, terrestrial if not political, was considered risky enough for foreign embassy employees to warrant hazard pay.  In Africa, beginning with European colonization, the rate of malaria increased in the human population. The anopheles mosquito needs sunlit stagnant pools of water to breed well, and the clearing of large areas of jungle increased the areas where the mosquitos could breed(at least in central Africa). In the case of sickle cell anemia, the issue of survival is connected with malaria. Sickle cell anemia was always part of the population. What changed was that those born with one sickle cell and one healthy red blood cell, were selected for because the sickle cell helps to remove the parasite when the blood passes through the spleen. A side note is that those born with one sickle cell have a higher resistance to increased body temperature from the malarial infection and in the human population, this translates into the difference between fertility and infertility.

September 28, 2020
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