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Shannon Walshe is no stranger to bed bugs. Every year the wildlife biologist spends a portion of her year traveling abroad. From Europe to Thailand to the Pacific Coast, Walshe has trekked popular and little-known routes to soak up some sunshine and have some adventure during her off-season. More often than not, she’s also
run into bedbugs.

“They’re everywhere,” she says. “I don’t want to take chances, because I don’t want to get bitten again.”

For some people, bites from bed bugs are no big deal, and many will never even know that they’ve been bitten. But for others like Walshe, the bites cause bad reactions, which equals scratching, swelling, and often, infection.

“One night [in a hostel] on the Pacific Crest Trail I got a bite on my eyelid that was really itchy. The next morning, my whole eye was purple and swollen,” Walshe says. Infected bed bug bites are definitely not the kind of thing you want to experience on your holiday, particularly if you are about to navigate the backcountry. But with the likelihood of bed bug encounters growing every year, what’s a traveler to do?

Thankfully, there are precautions you can take to reduce your risk of encountering these little creatures while on vacation, and to avoid bringing them home with you when you return. Information, tools, and a little know-how go a long way to reducing your risk of exposure to bed bugs.

Where Do Bed Bugs Live?

While bed bugs have long existed in developing countries, other locations like Canada, the U.S., Australia, and Europe have seen a surge in recent years. There are a variety of reasons for this increase, but one thing is certain: if you travel often enough, to enough locales, you are likely to encounter bed bugs. Hotels, hostels, cruise ships, dormitories, and even private homes: no accommodation is immune to infestations.

So how do you tell if bed bugs are present in your chosen Shangri-La? It’s not as easy as you might think. Bedbugs most often come out at night, when you are sleeping. They spend the daytime hiding in tight spaces, and can even work their way into electrical outlets and picture frames. “You hardly ever see them,” Walshe says, noting their small size and color doesn’t help. A full-grown bedbug is flat and small—about the size of a grain of rice. Their coloring will vary from almost clear to a brownish-red, depending on whether or not the bed bug has eaten recently. And while large infestations are often easy to spot, smaller ones may be almost invisible; but it only takes one bug to bite.

Still, it’s important to inspect your hotel room soon after arriving. The general wisdom is to look for bed bugs in crevices, seams, and under soft furnishings like pillows and mattresses. You can also look for signs like droppings, which are reddish-brown in hue, or white bed bug eggs.

If you don’t see any evidence in your hotel room, you can double check by leaving out non-toxic bed bug traps during the first night of your stay. These traps will lure bed bugs from their hiding places using heat, carbon dioxide, and a natural pheromone that attracts the creatures to their sticky surface. If you find any bed bugs in the trap come morning, it’s time to switch hotels.

But what if you have limited options? In some parts of the world, accommodations may be hard to come by and bed bugs may be widespread. Walshe notes that in popular destinations like the Camino de Santiago in Europe, bed begs are commonplace and even expected. In these cases, there are still things you can and should do to protect yourself and prevent their spread.

Practical Tips for Avoiding Bed Bugs Naturally

Camp:

Bringing along your tent and sleeping bag is one proactive choice you can make when traveling in areas known for bed bugs. If you don’t enter an accommodation in the first place, you can avoid these little visitors entirely. As long as your sleeping bag is free of bed bugs, your tent will be, too. Walshe suggests avoiding the worry and pitching a tent wherever possible.

Ask for mattress covers:

When tenting isn’t an option, ask if your chosen hotel or hostel encases its mattresses in a protective barrier. Since it’s harder for the bugs to live in the bed if the mattress is impenetrable, this is one proactive measure hotel owners can take to reduce the spread of bed bugs. If the mattresses aren’t protected, consider choosing another accommodation. Although protective barriers don’t guarantee the entire room will be bed bug free, they will lessen your chance of encounters with these nocturnal visitors.

Elevate your luggage:

Many travel organizations advise travelers not to place luggage on beds where bed bugs have ready access. Instead, use wire luggage frames or racks, or place on a tiled floor in the bathroom. Some travelers prefer to seal their luggage overnight in a plastic bag and hang from the bed frame (if bunk beds) or a shower rail.

Sleep in a silk liner:

If you are staying in an area known to have bed bugs, silk liners designed for sleeping bags are the best choice for minimizing contact. Anecdotal evidence from hikers and travelers suggests that bites are reduced, if not eliminated, when sleepers encase themselves in this type of protective cocoon. And although bed bugs can crawl to liner openings (and still have access to your head, neck, and face), many liners now come with hoods to minimize exposed surface area even further. While not cheap, silk liners are available from most outdoor retailers and offer the promise of a good night’s sleep and a more pleasant travel experience.

Spray mattresses with a preventative spray that repels bed bugs:

bed bug spray
To further repel these little critters from your bed, choose an effective, non-toxic spray and spritz your mattress before you go to sleep. Be sure to target the edges and cracks around the mattress. Walshe carries a tiny spray bottle filled with the following mixture whenever she travels: one ounce of water, 10 drops of essential oil (lavender or peppermint), and a few capfuls of rubbing alcohol.

Apply a natural repellant to your skin:

If you know you are sleeping in an accommodation with bed bugs, add a natural bed bug repellant to your nightly regimen. Cover all exposed skin thoroughly. This means any bugs that do crawl into your liner or get past your treated mattress will have a third deterrent to deal with. Effective natural repellents usually include ingredients like citronella, eucalyptus, or tea tree and should be oily in texture.

How to Avoid Bringing Bed Bugs Back Home

Although you may avoid bed bugs while traveling, there is still the possibility you can bring them home with you in luggage or backpacks if you have visited areas known for bed bug infestations. Follow this preventative routine when you return to keep your house or apartment free and clear:

  1. Remove all clothing and footwear outside your living space, before you go inside, and place in a sealed trashcan or a knotted plastic bag. Walshe performs this ritual in her garage each time she returns from overseas travel.
  2. Unroll your sleeping bag and liner and either place in the same sealed trashcan as your clothes or in another plastic bag, knotting tightly.
  3. Hang or seal your backpack or luggage in a similar way.
  4. After at least one week, wash your clothing, sleeping bag, and liner on HOT (at least 120 F) in your washing machine. Use a non-toxic bed bug laundry cleaner to get rid of bugs and eggs. Transfer to the dryer and set to HOT for at least thirty minutes. If your sleeping bag is made from down, follow the manufacturer’s drying instructions to ensure you don’t damage the loft.
  5. For treating backpacks or luggage, place in a bathtub and pour boiling water over all surfaces. Another alternative is to place in the freezer, or leave in a sub-zero garage, for one to two weeks. Temperatures must be consistently below 10 F (-12 C).

Educating yourself about bed bugs and how they spread is the first step to preventing ongoing encounters. For Walshe, the precautions are worth the effort. “I think people often don’t know they’ve encountered them until they either react, or come home and continue to get bitten. But bedbugs are extremely hard to get rid of once they’re in your house. It may sound extreme, but anything you can do to stop them in their tracks is worth it.”