We went to a Civil War site last weekend that sat adjacent to a swamp and by the time we got 20 feet from the truck, we were bombarded by gnats to the head, so we're wondering if anybody has any tried and true product(s) to deter such critters. I will not use spray at all. I did buy Coghlan's "no see-um" head net, but it was too small. We're also wondering about being able to see properly through any such products to actually get any decent shots. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks - the two E's.
I can understand your reluctance to use chemical products for any of a number of reasons--but do consider whether DEET is less damaging to you than dengue fever, chikungunya, or West Nile.
Having said that, there are some things which research has shown to be less effective, but still noticeably helpful. Most of the critters are attracted to carbon dioxide, motion, and chemical compounds given off. In the latter category, some critters are now attuned to artificial chemicals in addition to natural excretions--the compounds in cologne, deodorant, and antiperspirant scents specifically.
To lower carbon dioxide, you can reduce your exertion and pace, stay in areas where wind scatters your breath, and if you are disciplined control your breathing a bit. To lower motion, settle down. Sometimes settling into grasses further restricts the ability of the bugs to find you, at other times it just causes the CO2 to pool around you.
There are a number of things you can do about chemicals. First, don't wear a bunch of smelly stuff (I use an unscented antiperspirant). You can also obtain modest gains by eating plants whose chemicals will come out of your pores--particularly garlic and onion. This may confuse a few into thinking you're a plant. Some skin creams and sun screens have citronella
in them, and this works similarly for some critters--this may be the most useful thing to try, but how effective it is depends on the particulars of your bugs and locale. One personal, untested observation I have made is that areas heavily trafficked by people have bugs more attuned to human scents and less thrown off by citronella. Still, give California Baby Sunscreen
a try and see if that works for you as it also has lemongrass and cedar.
A lot of light-weight outdoor pants and shirts do a good job of preventing larger bugs from biting through the fabric--especially mosquitos. I now wear such clothes exclusively when shooting in nature. These won't prevent some smaller bugs, especially noseeums, from getting under
the clothes and driving you nuts, but I find them very effective at protecting arms and legs. Button down the collar and sleeves to reduce the quantity of small nasties getting under your clothes. Hit an REI or similar "backpacker-oriented" store for this light-weight protective gear--North Face, Marmot, REI, and Columbia are common brands, and I buy convertible pants (the legs zip off to turn them into shorts). Recent visits to "sportsman-oriented" stores have revealed that some of their gear has caught up to or even surpassed the backpacking gear (IMHO), so check those out too (eg: Cabela's, Sportsman's Warehouse). Note that some of the fibers used are artificial and may be incompatible with using DEET so remember to ask a store clerk if that matters to you.
Sometimes your only defense is leaving. Once my wife and I were exploring NE Nevada, and decided to camp at Angel Lake which all the locals raved about. The large campground was virtually empty when we arrived because it had opened only two days before. The camp host informed us that tomorrow was Saturday, and all the locals would be arriving to enjoy the first weekend at the lake. This "lake" was basically a mud-hole that kids could float around on, nestled below a small peak in brushy hillsides. My wife and I were unimpressed with the photographic opportunities, though the little two-toned mice who joined us for dinner were adorable.
We were packing the car Saturday morning when I noticed something wrong with our cooler. I got closer and realized its normally blue sides were covered black with noseeums. I turned around and studied the hillside. Arising in great black clouds from the thick underbrush were billions of freshly hatched, hungry noseeums. My wife and I threw everything into the car, drove to a ranger station parking lot in the nearby town of Wells, and spent two wonderful hours unpacking the car, shaking off noseeums, and then repacking the car properly for travel. The locals can keep their sucky lake. We're not going back.