As summertime rolls around and you’re thinking about venturing into the wild, you should remember to bring protection against deer flies! The flying insects deliver a shocking bite and will be a major bummer to any outdoor adventure.
Among others, one of the best deer fly repellents is Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent, which is specifically marketed for biting flies, though it repels mosquitoes as well. It works well alongside Sawyer Products Permethrin Spray, which is for clothes and equipment only.
Below, we’re going to give you some of the BEST deer fly repellents, as well as guidance for what to look for in a product, what deer flies are and where they live, and other hacks and methods to deter deer flies if repellents are short at hand.
What Is a Deer Fly?
Deer flies are bloodsucking insects that feed on both humans and mammals, and often livestock (deer flies love cows).
They are closely related to the horse fly, which is slightly larger, but just as pesky. At less than an inch long, deer flies have dark bands on their wings and black or green eyes. There are multiple types of deer fly, each with different colors and patterns.
Just like mosquitoes, deer flies that bite humans are female, while the male flies mostly eat nectar.
Deer flies will lay eggs to reproduce in swampy, muddy areas, typically near a still pond or lake. They are most active during the day, and most prevalent in the spring and summertime. While deer flies can be found all over the country, there are particular issues with them in more Southern states, such as Texas, that experience very hot and humid summers.
Since deer flies are attracted by carbon dioxide output from both breath and skin, as well as shiny objects and scent, it’s hard to completely hide from the creatures. However, there are a number of repellents out there that can deter the flies from biting!
What to Look for in Deer Fly Repellents
There are not many deer-fly specific repellents, rather many repellents include “flies” as to what they work for. Additionally, there are certain chemicals that are effective against flies, regardless of what the brand suggests.
- DEET. The mosquito-repelling substance also to be effective in discouraging deer flies as well and can last a couple of hours if applied liberally to skin. Most insect repellents contain some percentage of DEET.
- Permethrin. A man-made insecticide used for repelling and killing bugs can be applied to clothing, but not directly applied to the skin. It can give longer protection against flies than DEET or other chemical repellents and is useful for campers and hikers with a lot of equipment needed to repel bugs. One study found that deer fly annoyance (activity) was reduced by 95% once permethrin was applied.
- Picaridin. This synthetic chemical is made to behave like the compound piperine, which is found in the group of plants that make black pepper. It repels, but doesn’t kill flies and mosquitoes, and can be applied to both skin and equipment as needed.
- Natural remedies. While the chemical stuff may be more effective, people with sensitive skin or allergic reactions to DEET or permethrin will want to experiment with natural repellents that rely on oils and scents rather than harsh chemicals.
- Combinations. While each repellent can be very effective on its own, many brands with multiple types (Picaridin and DEET, for example) recommend layering multiple types of repellents over each other for maximum coverage. However, make sure that the chemicals are safe with each other before attempting this.
Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent
Picaridin is a pesticide that mimics the plants used to produce black pepper, which turns out to repel biting flies quite well. This repellent can be applied to both skin and clothes. While it is not an insecticide (kills insects), it does a good job of repelling them. Picaridin has been scientifically shown to be effective in repelling biting flies.
- Claims to repel biting flies more effectively than DEET
- Comes in either a lotion or spray. The lotion lasts up to 8 hours for flies, 14 hours for mosquitoes, and evaporates more slowly off the skin. Spray also lasts 8 hours for flies, but only 12 for mosquitoes. However, it can be applied to clothing.
- Non-greasy lotion
- Gear-safe, and won’t dissolve or damage plastic coating or cloth material
- Must be applied a couple of times per day
- Does not kill insects, only deters them from biting you
- Can be a bit pricier for only 4oz of lotion
You can purchase Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent here!
How to Apply
Take a squirt of lotion in one palm, and spread it over exposed skin. Rub in thoroughly. Repeat for any other areas of exposed skin.
For spray, operate as a normal aerosol can and spray at a distance of 6 inches (15 cm) away from your body BUT Avoid spraying your face.
Sawyer Products Permethrin Spray
Another Sawyer one! Permethrin is a chemical that is, plainly, not good for bugs. An insect that comes into prolonged contact with a permethrin-covered substance won’t be around for too long. That’s why it’s chemical class is a common ingredient in many insecticides.
Sawyer advertises this product to work especially well in combination with its picaridin spray or lotion.
- Lasts on clothing or equipment, such as tents, sheets, or backpacks, for up to 6 weeks or 6 washes
- Does not have to be applied to the skin
- Can be used on animals to repel insects for them, too
- Easy-to-use aerosol can
- Can kill mosquitos, gnats, or ticks on impact
- Need to spray on your clothing and NOT your skin
- Has a sharp smell when sprayed
- Not specifically marketed for biting flies
You can purchase Sawyer Products Permethrin Spray here if you’d like!
How to Apply
Since permethrin is for equipment and clothes, not skin, you should be careful when first applying. Make sure to spray outside, in a low-wind but well-ventilated area. Spray in slow, even sweeps over clothes or equipment and make sure to keep the spray out of your face and eyes.
Make sure to read all info on the label on the product before and after ordering to make sure that it fits your specific needs.
Ultrathon Insect Repellent
This repellent from 3M specifically mentions that it wards off deer flies, as well as other biting flies, mosquitoes, and ticks. It uses 34% DEET, which is slowly released from the concoction over time.
- Specifically repels deer flies
- Controlled release of DEET to provide continuous protection
- Comes in either a spray bottle or lotion
- Also protects against mosquitos that carry West Nile virus, and ticks that carry Lyme disease
- Claims to provide 12 hours of protection
- On the pricier side for 2oz of lotion
How to Apply
3M states that heavy application isn’t totally necessary to see results. You can apply like regular lotion and rub thoroughly into skin (while avoiding eyes and mouth, of course).
You can view the products page for Ultrathon Insect Repellent here!
Coleman 100 Max 100% DEET
DEET products, which are most heavily marketed towards those who want to repel mosquitoes, is also effective against deer flies, due to its bitter taste, which deters bugs from puncturing the skin. However, while DEET protects against bites, it won’t mask the carbon dioxide (which attracts more deer flies) output or your scent, so deer flies may still come near you.
- The strongest DEET repellent on the market, at 100% DEET (in actuality, the percentage is around 98%)
- Can work for more than just deer flies- also repels mosquitoes, gnats, and ticks
- Sprays on quickly, without needing to rub in the repellent with your hands
- A little goes a long way
- Claims to offer up to 10 hours of protection
- Must be applied continuously for maximum effectiveness
Please keep in mind all of the cautionary information on the back of the bottle since this is one of the strongest if not strongest DEET products on the market.
If this fits your specific needs, take a look at Coleman’s 100 Max 100% DEET product page!
Buggins V Extreme Insect Repellent
With both DEET and what the brand describes as “2x biting fly repellent,” this combo is recommended for all types of biting insects.
- Combines mosquito repellent and biting fly repellent
- Comes in a spray-bottle 2-pack
- Fragrance-free (safe for those with allergies to fragrance)
- Includes ticks, gnats, and fleas in the insects it deters
- Spray evaporates quickly
- Must be reapplied every few hours
- More on the expensive side of repellents
How to Apply
Apply sparingly on the skin but make sure not to get the product in your eyes, ears, nose, or mouth. As always, please make sure to review all of the cautionary information on the back of the bottle before using it.
You can learn more about Buggins V Extreme Insect Repellent here.
Buggins Natural Insect Repellent
For those who dislike the idea of chemicals, but would rather not mix up a concoction of essential oils themselves, there are a few all-natural repellents out there that claim to deter bugs. This one is specifically for flies and gnats and contains geraniol (a scentless oil that is known to deter bugs), peppermint oil, and lemongrass oil. Aside from the geraniol, the other essential oils are mostly for the scent but do have other insect repelling properties.
- No DEET or chemical component
- Smells nice (for humans!)
- Easy-application spray bottle
- Repels both flies and gnats, both which can leave itchy bites
- May be less effective than a chemical spray
Check out Buggins Natural Insect Repellent here!
Alternative Ways to Deter Deer Flies
There are plenty of non-repellent methods, natural concoctions, and scout tricks that claim to keep deer flies from circling and biting you. Here are a few that claim to be effective:
Use Deer Fly Patches
Hikers and runners can attach these sticky TredNot Deer Fly Strips (Deer Fly Patches) on hats or clothing to attract and catch flies before they bite. The flies are attracted to a good-smelling (to them) scent on the patch, and when landing, will be stuck to the sticky adhesive. The patches can last for up to three days before disposing of both it and the flies.
Deer fly patches are kind of cool, and nasty if you think about it. Just imagine, you take off your hat and BOOM, you have 10-15 deer flies and other flying insects stuck to the top of your head.
These could work well in conjunction with a repellent spray or lotion listed above. Or you could just use a repellent. EITHER WAY, something will work for you.
Deer Fly Traps
If you’re struggling with deer flies in a specific area, say your property, you can buy traps to eliminate some of the swarm. For example, this Bug Ball (That’s fun to say) can be hung around an area in order to attract and catch flies. It advertises up to one acre of coverage and needs Tanglefoot Sticky Coating for the flies to stick.
Deer flies, black flies, and horse flies are all attracted to the trap. After enough flies are stuck to cover the trap, you need to dispose of them and reapply the sticky substance for continued effectiveness.
With traps, your backyard can again become a pleasant place to be outside during hot months for people and animals alike.
You could also place these on your porch as well, or any area where you commonly sit outside that you get bothered by with Deer Flies.
Tea Tree Oil Instead of Insect Repellent
It’s commonly claimed that a blend of essential oils is enough to keep flies and mosquitoes away. Tea tree oil is recommended for deer flies, while citronella and lemon are said to be good for repelling mosquitoes. While experts typically vouch for the chemical-based sprays, a more natural approach is also possible.
Walk Away From the Flies
A simple method to avoid deer flies could be just to move away from a swarm. Deer flies are typically very territorial and won’t venture much past their living zone. Additionally, moving away from wet or swampy areas should help, since these places are where deer flies lay eggs and populate. Additionally, plan ahead. If you’re planning to hike near a swamp in the summer, perhaps choose a different route or remember to bring bug spray.
However, if you’re going on a long hike in an area with many deer flies, this method isn’t foolproof. Sprays and repellents are always good to have on hand whenever possible.
Tape a Fern on Your Hat
While it may sound silly, taping a plant or even a feather on your hat is an old trick that is touted by boy scouts and wildlife enthusiasts. The idea is that the flies will circle the plant rather than your head, and are much less likely to bite you.
Since ferns are tall and often plentiful, using one may be the answer to avoid the flies if you’re short on bug repellent and already deep into the woods. While this isn’t a foolproof technique, using a plant may bring a little relief for the annoying buzzing of flies.
Wrapping Things Up
Deer flies can be pesky, painful, and very very annoying. Overall, it’s best to try and avoid the flies altogether. However, if you’re going to be venturing into areas known for deer flies, or near swampy areas in the summer, you should bring insect repellent with you.
From Sawyers Picaridin or Permethrin sprays for skin and clothes, respectively, or DEET sprays that are either very strong or controlled release, or even all-natural sprays, there are a good number of solid repellents for biting flies.
A combination of two sprays with different chemicals, provided they are safe to mix, is an even better option than a single spray. Additionally, there are other methods, such as traps, sticky paper, or even taping a fern to your hat that can provide some relief from biting deer flies.
Sutcliffe, J. F. (1987). Distance orientation of biting flies to their hosts. International Journal of Tropical Insect Science, 8(4-6), 611-616.
Juckett, G. (2013). Arthropod bites. American family physician, 88(12), 841-847.
Anastas, P., & Anastas, D. D. (2010). Assessment of Completed Carroll-Loye Biological Research Study LNX-002: Efficacy Test of KBR 3023 (Picaridin, Icaridin)-Based Personal Insect Repellents (20% Cream and 20% Spray) with Black Flies Under Field Conditions.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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