My family and I just returned from our annual Killbear provincial park camping trip. Located near Parry Sound, Ontario (Canada), there are always three things we can count on whenever we camp at Killbear: racoons, black bears and mosquitoes. We follow bear-smart camping practices which help to avoid encounters with campsite raiders — both big and small — and always pack lots of sprays, candles and other measures that we hope will minimize the bug problem. This year, Thermacell provided one of its mosquito-repelling lanterns to add to our anti-bug arsenal.
I live in London, Ontario, an area where West Nile virus is a concern during the summer months. Transmitted by mosquitoes, West Nile can have serious consequences, so it’s something that we’ve learned to be cautious about; especially with kids, who are far less effective at swatting bugs than adults. We’ve had the same hot, dry, drought-like conditions that have hit much of the US Midwest and that has meant that that mosquitoes have been a non issue compared to most years.
Up North where we tend to go camping is another matter, however. When we arrived at Killbear, the mosquitoes were on us the minute we were out of the truck. Which made for a perfect scenario for testing out the effectiveness of the Thermacell lantern.
I really wanted this thing to work and not just because I like gadgets. I don’t like bug spray. We’ve used every kind of bug spray and lotion from the heavy duty stuff meant for deep woods exploration to more gently formulated lotions and DEET-free citronella sprays. I don’t like the fact that we’re spraying or rubbing DEET on our kids. It can be toxic and Health Canada recommends low concentration dosages and avoiding prolonged use with kids under 12. Besides the potential health issues, these products are smelly, they can damage some clothing and it’s tough to get 100 percent coverage. Alternatives like the citronella spray didn’t work as well and tend to be oily. In the confines of a trailer at night, the smell of five bug-bombed people can be a little overpowering, to say the least. We haven’t tried the patches yet, but that’s next on the list.
Back to the Thermacell, the lantern we were provided is a lightweight plastic unit that includes a battery powered light so it does double duty as a portable light as well. Four AA batteries are claimed to be good for 200 hours on low setting (we didn’t have it out long enough to confirm this). Operation is relatively simple. insert a mat into a slot on the top of the lantern, screw a small butane cartridge into place, turn the unit on, then push a start button a few times to ignite the butane. Kind of like lighting a BBQ. After about 10 minutes, the mat will start producing a haze (barely visible if you look for it in light and no overpowering odor). The lantern is rated to cover a 15 by 15 foot area and each mat lasts for four hours. When it’s done, the mat turns from blue to white. In terms of effectiveness, all I have to go on is anecdotal evidence. We tried the usual bug spray the first night and had minimal success. There was a lot of swatting. The second night, we fired up the Thermacell and during the time that it was running, there did seem to be a definite zone of protection from insects — I didn’t have to do any swatting. Not just mosquitoes, but all the flying critters were staying away from the area.
The biggest downsides to the Thermcell option are portability and cost. The lantern itself is quite easy to pick up and take with you, but then you’re taking it with you, leaving others unprotected. There is a handheld unit intended to cover off this issue, but that means buying sufficient portable units for everyone — although they at least use the same refills as the larger units. Count on an initial investment of $31.99 (MSRP) for a lantern and $25.99 each for portable units. And then there’s the cost of the supplies. You can pick up a value pack of four butane cylinders and 12 repellent mats (good for 48 hours of coverage) on Amazon for under 14 bucks. If you aren’t using the lantern constantly, this might be sufficient to get you through mosquito season, but if you’re using it constantly, the supplies could add up. Mind you, good bug spray isn’t cheap, so it may be a wash.
And because everything seems to have a catch, there are safety issues to be aware of with this product too. Although the Thermacell is EPA approved and uses allethrin (a synthetic version of a substance found in Chrysanthemums) instead of DEET, warnings include keeping the lantern away from uncovered food during operation and avoiding directly inhaling the vapor. Allethrin is also highly toxic to fish, bees and cats. In addition, because there is heat involved, it’s important to keep the lantern away from small hands.
Would I recommend the Thermacell? If mosquitoes are a concern and you want to be able to sit back and not have to deal with the mess and potential side effects of bug spray, then a lantern seems like a good investment. Like most insect repellent products, it has to be used with caution, but at least it’s not directly applied to the skin, its active ingredient has a low toxicity for humans and it does seem to work. At the end of the day, insect repellent is often a necessary evil to prevent kids from being covered in bug bites for weeks and potentially exposed to West Nile virus or other threats. And it’s also nice to have a conversation without constantly swatting at flying pests. We’ve actually bought a second unit to keep handy out on the front porch for when the dry spell ends and the mosquitoes are back out in full force.
Disclosure: Thermacell provided a review unit