8 Tips on How to Avoid Leeches While Hiking

I’ve been hiking rainforests trails quite a lot in the past, a few of them in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. The views are outstanding, and I highly recommend that you pay a visit one day. Although, the leeches I have encountered were less pleasant. Frankly, even in a desert country like Israel, there were a few times leeches got to my feet while I was hiking next to water sources. Knowing that’s a big issue in wild adventures, I’ve decided to gather you a few tips on how to avoid leeches while hiking.

To avoid leeches, you may apply salt on exposed areas, wear leech socks tightly, or even use leech deterrents; Dettol, Deet, and Eucalyptus lotions – in some cases, even sunscreen would do the trick. You may also try tucking your shirt while wearing two pairs of socks for a better seal. Regarding hiking habits, you shouldn’t take breaks in prone areas, such as lakes or puddles. If possible, hike outside water streams and rest on dry land.

1. Apply Salt

The first trick I will discuss is applying salt on your skin. Have you ever heard of snails sensitivity to salt? Well, it works the same way on leeches.

The idea is that their surface is permeable to water, so once you create an osmotic gradient, water would exit their cells and move to the salted area.

To do so, you should take a decent amount of salt and soak it with relatively little water, creating a paste. Then, apply it on your skin on exposed areas – especially on your legs, perhaps even in your socks. 

Still, leeches may attach to the surface above the salt line, although there is a low chance that they will do so by climbing on the salt layer.

This method is effective in preventing leeches from attacking your skin, however, using salt would also help you with removing those who have already attached.

Besides the leeches issue, applying salt would dry and toughen your skin. I’ve been discussing that phenomenon when I wrote an article on how to harden your feet to prevent blisters. You will find eight essential techniques in there, including how to stop blisters from forming.

2. Wear Leech Socks

Another way to avoid them is by using leech socks, although if you won’t wear them appropriately – they wouldn’t do any good.

First, wear thick socks and a high pair of hiking boots – they will act as another barrier against leeches. Then, pull your leech socks above your pants to the points they are close to your knees. 

Finally, tighten the socks firmly so they won’t be able to penetrate from above, however, do not exaggerate and hurt your legs. 

You should take into account that the trick prevents them from attacking although it doesn’t repel leeches – they can still bite the skin above the socks. Another disadvantage here is that the socks are uncomfortable and perhaps make long hikes even more difficult.

3. Use Leech Deterrents

As the name implies, leech deterrents are meant to avoid leeches from biting your exposed skin. Nevertheless, if a leech is already attached, you may also use these to remove it more easily.

I will list here a few popular materials, although you should consider applying them repeatedly while hiking since water might wash them off as time passes.

Dettol Spray

Whether you’ve been cleaning your sofa, bathroom, sleeping mattress or door handles, there is a good chance you encountered Dettol.

First used in World War II by the Japanese, this spray has been found useful in avoiding leech bites due to its strong smell. Also, this spray contains antiseptics that would decrease the chances of getting a bite infection.

Deet Spray

Frankly, I haven’t used this one in person, although readings across the internet made the impression it is quite popular.

The Deet spray is great in repelling leeches, mosquitoes, and insects in general, turning it into the ideal choice when hiking or camping in the wild.

Spray it on your arms, legs, or any other exposed areas before walking in rainforests or any other areas which are prone to leeches.

‘Off’ – Eucalyptus Lotion

Another one I’ve found useful is Eucalyptus oil – this one creates a thin layer on your skin that would slide leeches away and prevent them from sticking.

Besides, the fact that it is oil based makes it ideal to use under wet conditions – it stays in place and doesn’t get washed off easily.

Its smell also contributes to repelling leeches, although I guess that some of you won’t find it pleasant as well – for this, I suggest that you first try it at home.

4. Apply Sunscreen

I haven’t found any scientific justifications for this one, although during my hikes I’ve noticed that I had fewer leech bites on areas which had sunscreen protection.

Whether it was due to their oily components or perfumed smell – there is no doubt the lotion contributed in repelling the annoying creatures. If you ask me – there is no harm in giving it a try; even if it hadn’t worked, you still got yourself sun protection.

5. Wear Two Pairs of Socks & Avoid Sandals

Some of you might have a bad experience with this one – perhaps even got a bite while wearing two pairs. From my experience, wearing two pairs of socks lowers the chances of getting a bite significantly, although you should wear them right.

To do so, you should wear a thin pair first, which should be synthetic and tighten on your feet. Over it, wear a second, thick cotton pair – this one would be your primary protection against leeches. 

If you wear two thin pairs, there is still a good chance a leech will be able to bite through it.

In fact, I’ve dedicated a whole article discussing whether or not it is better to wear two pairs of socks for hiking. I have included all the pros and cons I gathered for years into this post, including what type of socks you should actually get for best performance.

Concerning your footwear – please stick to hiking boots, which are usually tall and sealed – hiking in sandals would invite leeches to your feet with no time.

Keep in mind that wearing socks which are too thick may end up with a snug seal which may be a problem. I’ve written all about that on a different article, describing all the reasons I could find on why hiking boots hurt your ankles. Check this out if you are suffering from that problem – I’ve also included a few essential solutions.

6. Tuck in Your Shirt

What I like about camping and hiking is that the smallest details make the most significant difference. If you’ve experienced bites on your belly or your thighs, there is a good chance that leeches got there from the gap above your pants.

Remember, when leech attack you – they do it by climbing on your skin, and it is far less likely that they have climbed all the way up.

When you are hiking, especially in rainforests or deep water – please tuck your shirt in your pants and tighten it with a proper belt. Although, you shouldn’t exaggerate it – leave enough room so that you can breathe comfortably.

7. Don’t Stop Walking

Remember when I said leech climb on your skin from the bottom? Well, when you are taking breaks in leech areas, you make it easier for them to do so.

When you are hiking consistently, your feet touch the bottom for short periods, and they get fewer opportunities to catch your feet. If you wish to make a break, please do so in exposed areas outside the water, perhaps sit on a big rock or dry ground.

Another thing to avoid is leaning on things while walking – when you touch wet areas for an extended period with bare hands, leeches can climb easily without you noticing it.

Walking non-stop is crucial, although you shouldn’t exaggerate it either. I’ve discussed that previously when I explained why hiking boots hurt your toes. Make sure you take enough breaks and for that, try to pick areas in which leeches aren’t likely to be found.

8. Avoid Hiking in Water

I’ve kept this one for last since it is the most intuitive advice and there is a good chance you’ve already thought about it. Still, I find it crucial to mention that avoid hiking in water sources is the best practical way to prevent leeches since the vast majority of them leave in water. 

If you have a chance, walk on the ground along the water stream and stay out of it as long as you can. When you have to get inside, walk fast and get out of there as soon as you get the chance. If water is inevitable, wear leech socks and spray yourself with deterrents as I’ve already described above.

Does Tobacco Work?

When I was researching the topic on the internet, I’ve encountered several pieces of advice which indicated applying Tobacco water on your feet and socks.

A friend of mine also gave me that advice a few years back and from my experience – it doesn’t work. The idea is to soak Tobacco leaves inside water for a while, so they absorb the smell and components.

Frankly, besides making my feet stinky – that haven’t done any good; leeches still got to my feet and made my hikes horrible.

Which Areas do Leech Attack & Why?

If you are an experienced hiker you probably already know that, but the most common area which leeches bite is legs and feet in particular.

The reason for it is that they are found on the ground, at the bottom of water sources, and when you step in them, they climb up quickly. Once the leech found the blood it was seeking, there is no reason for it to rise any further, and that’s the reason why they are usually found on your feet. 

Leeches sense your presence by the vibrations you make when you walk in water and automatically swim towards that source of movement until they encounter your legs, which are warmer than the environment. When the leech meets your body warmth, it bites and sucks your blood until you remove it, or otherwise – when they are satiated.

What is The Right Way to Remove Leeches?

Getting leeches off your skin might be challenging, especially when you are doing it wrong. The intuitive and WRONG approach is trying yanking it off – that might end up with the sucker still attached to your skin. 

The right way is first to recognize the sucker part, which is usually the thicker part that is connected to your skin. When you know where the sucker is, you should get your fingernails underneath it – between the sucker and your skin surface. 

To do so, compress the area around the bite with one hand, and slide your nails under the leech with the other to remove it quickly.

How Should I Treat Leeches Wound?

After you got the leech off, your skin would probably be bleeding – that is due to an anticoagulant peptide called hirudin leeches secret. Don’t be scared – it will go off your system in a while, so in the meantime focus on keeping the wound clean.

Use alcohol or any other cleansing solution found on your first aid kit and bandage the wound properly. If you plan further hiking, you should treat the would like any other lesion by keeping it clean as much as possible. 

Avoid hiking in mud or dirty environments, for example, and replace the bandage every day until the rest of your journey. When you get home, seek the doctor, which would run some tests to rule out any severe infections.

Will Leeches Eventually Get Off?

Yes, and frankly – this is an easy way to go if you can endure the psychological difficulties.

Leeches tend to suck your blood for approximately twenty minutes until they are full. When they have reached their full capacity – the leeches will go off on their own, leaving a bleeding wound behind. 

The volume of blood they take is relatively small, and even after the injury has been bleeding for a while – you shouldn’t be worried about blood loss. When the leech finally got off – treat the wound as described above – the particular leech wouldn’t bother you for a long time.

Is a Leech Bite Dangerous?

In general, no – leeches are usually more scary than dangerous, and the vast majority of bites end up with a tiny wound which will resolve over time (according to this source).

Other cases might be more dangerous, and they are those in which people develop an allergic reaction, perhaps anaphylaxis in severe cases. 

In this case, you will be experiencing an itchy rash and red blotches over your body, swelling around your eyes and lips, dizziness and sometimes even difficulty in breathing.

The phenomenon happens when you are allergic to the peptides or proteins which the leech secrets to your blood and in this case you have to seek a doctor immediately.

Leeches usually carry parasites which cannot leave in humans and therefore aren’t dangerous, although, in theory, they can transmit bacteria and viruses from previous blood sources (some of them may live inside the leech for months). 

Still, only a few cases in which leeches transmitted diseases to humans have been reported so that I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

Conclusions

Leeches are a common issue most hikers would inevitably encounter at some point. In most cases, getting a bite from one is safe, and wouldn’t cause anything besides bleeding.

Nevertheless, people who are allergic might develop specific reactions which require a proper intervention by professionals.

There are ways to avoid leeches, starting from repellents such as salt, sprays, and lotions. In my opinion, the most efficient way to prevent them is by hiking outside their habitat, which is usually water sources such as rivers, puddles, pools fountains and lakes.

You may also use leeches socks, although you should focus on tightening them in the upper part appropriately – otherwise, they are useless. I also suggest that you hike with two pairs of socks, regardless of the leeches topic.

In a case you’ve got bitten, do not yank the leech – that wouldn’t do any good. Instead, use your fingernails to separate the leech from your skin and pull it off quickly all at once.

Treat the wound like any other – keep it clean with alcohol or any other disinfectant frequently and avoid walking in dirt or mud. Anticipate some bleeding and stay calm – that’s a normal reaction which would resolve in a few minutes overtime.

I hope my article gave you some insights on how to avoid leeches while hiking. If you have any questions or ideas – let me know all about them by leaving a comment below!

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