Several of my students have been emailing me recently on what to bring on an archaeological dig, so I thought I’d get creative and do a quick series on “what to bring on an archaeological dig.” I’m not going to give a laundry list here – my suggestions are an “advanced class” of sorts, where I drop a few pearls of wisdom on specific aspects of living in adverse conditions. Know that my experience is specific for a jungle environment, but many of the suggestions will work in other venues. Today’s topic – The sticky, stinky, and burny world of Insect Repellant, a.k.a. Bug Spray.
You will often hear the mantra of “more is better” regarding bug spray. Beware! This is true, except when it isn’t (more below). Bug spray is rated based on DEET content, where DEET is the poison that keeps the bugs off. To put this in perspective, the Fourth of July Barbecue might require bug spray with 10-15% DEET just to be comfortable, where the summer camping trip might need 25%. The jungle is a different animal entirely.
The day-to-day work life in the jungle demands a supply of bug spray with around 30-40% DEET. Bring two cans with you if you will be in the jungle for more than three weeks or so – be sure to pack them in your checked baggage, and put them in a sealable plastic bag (they always leak on the plane). When using the spray in the field, make sure you take your watch and sunglasses off first, unless you’re into the splotched, dotted, melty look. Spray as needed, re-apply as needed (although I almost never re-apply, because it’s just too much of a sweaty mess by lunchtime). Make sure to get your ankles, waistline, and neck a bunch. Helpful Tip #1 – don’t put a bandana on around your neck right after spraying, and then wipe your eyes with it several minutes later (I can still feel the burn…). Helpful Tip #2 – Don’t bother buying a cream insect repellant – you will never use it.
At night, you need a bottle of weak, 10% DEET bug spray that you use at dinnertime and for general evening hanging around. This bug spray will not keep every bug off, but it gives a little help, and most importantly it smells okay and doesn’t have the “thick” feeling of heavy bug spray. The 10% stuff is important to bring because as the weeks go by, you will get thoroughly and utterly sick of smelling like bug spray. It’s do-able during the day on site, but eating dinner with bug spray hands and spraying yourself with bug spray after a shower gets old quick.
Finally, never buy 100% DEET. Why? Because you will use it! 100% DEET is really bad for your skin. Once, on a really bad night in a really bad hotel in Guatemala, I couldn’t take it anymore and spread 100% DEET all over my neck, shoulders, and arms. It felt all hot and red all over, with an unmistakable undercurrent of “this is not good for me.” 100% DEET is supposed to only be applied to clothing, not skin. In a cloud of mosquitoes, I guarantee you will not follow those directions. Don’t buy it.
Also, don’t believe the hype when others tell you that you can use alternative remedies to keep bugs away like moisturize your skin with Avon Skin-So-Soft, smoke a bunch of cigarettes, take certain vitamins, or burn an insect candle. Actually, I hope you try the insect candle in the jungle, because it would look really funny.
Even heavy bug spray doesn’t really work in the jungle, but it is better than nothing. It kinda sorta mostly keeps bugs off, but I have seen mosquitoes land on my skin where I just sprayed moments before. Realize what you are playing here is a percentages game – bug spray will lessen the total number of bugs that bite you. It will not keep bugs away. They never, ever go away.