How To Avoid Leeches While Hiking (and How To Get Them Off)

foot with leech bites

If you’re doing some hiking in a rainforest or anywhere else that leeches can be found, then it’s a good idea to prepare yourself for the inevitable. Those blood-thirty little suckers will ruin an otherwise good hike.

So we’ve got some tips on how to avoid them and what to do if some have already attached themselves to your legs, feet, or other areas of skin. 

First, let’s focus on making sure you never seen any of these little buggers on your skin after rainy hike or a trek through some water.

Avoiding Leeches & Leech Repellant

The best way to deal with leeches and their bites is prevention. So, the goal is to keep them from biting you, or to remove them from your clothing or body before they get a chance to bite.

1. Know Where Leeches Live

Not all hikers have the chance of encountering leeches. While these these creepy wormy creatures can be found all over the world, you’re not going to encounter them in arid locations. 

They are in areas that are wet and damp, like rainforests, streams, and other bodies of fresh water.

Some of the hotspots for leeches that hikers visit include the Amazon rainforest in South America and the rain forests of Southeast Asia. 

2. Wear Leech Socks

If you’re going on a trek in an area where that are leeched, then you need to be wearing leech socks. This is not negotiable – you MUST wear them.

Leeches was work through the weave of regular socks, which is why it’s so important that you are wearing leech socks. They are literally the only socks that repel leeches because they are made of very tightly woven fabric that the creepy little buggers can’t work their way through.

3. DEET Spray Your Lower Body

If for some reason you cannot get your hands on a pair of leech socks, then you can do a sort of DIY leech repellant socks by taking your regular hiking socks and spraying them with DEET.

Honestly, these things skeeve me out so much that I suggest spraying the DEET on your socks, shoes, and pant legs, even if you do have leech socks on your feet. 

4. Keep Your Shirt Tucked Into Your Pants

Leeches like anywhere on the body that’s warm, so if they can get in under your shirt then they will make their way to your arm pits, or anywhere else that warm and snug.

By keeping that shirt tucked into your pants, you make it more difficult for them to use it as an access point.

5. Don’t Lean On Anything

Long treks are tiring, believe me, I totally understand that. Sometimes you just need to stop and take a break, and maybe lean on a tree or a large rock.

Definitely do not do this if you are in the rain forest or anywhere else that leeches thrive. Cause you’re just asking for one of them to make your body their new home.

Tiger leeches are normally on tree leaves, and when they bite you it will sting a bit. Brown leeches are on the forest floor, and you likely won’t notice their bites until you find one securely attached to your skin.

If you need to stop for a rest, then look for an area with direct sunlight. Because they don’t like dry, hot areas and you’ll be safer stopping to rest there.

6. Make A Tobacco Spray

You often hear hikers talking about buying a little bag of tobacco leaves from a local market wherever in the world they are preparing for their trek. What you’re supposed to do this these is soak them in some water overnight.

Then, you take that tobacco water and put it into a spray bottle.

Much like DEET, the purpose is to spray your socks, shoes, legs, and pants with this tobacco spray. Yes, it will make you stink like tobacco.

What you need to know about tobacco is that it does not repel a leech. Instead, it slows them down and sort of intoxicates them, or makes them high, and they end up fall off you – typically before they bite. 

7. Make A Salt Paste

A leech looks an awful lot like a slug, huh? Well, they do have at least one thing in common – they both hate salt! 

So, you can make a salt paste with some salt and water and rub that onto your skin, socks, etc. This should keep them away simply due to their hatred of salt.

Of course, with this one you may have to reapply depending on how long your trek is and if you sweat enough that it slides right off your skin.

8. Be Careful Going To The Bathroom

The most at risk you may be when trekking in the rain forest is when you need to relieve yourself. Leeches see this as the perfect opportunity to creep between your buttocks or into your genitals.

It’s ideal if you can stop for a bathroom break in the sunlight, since there is a lower chance of leeches being in the area.

So, make sure you are extra cautious and check for leeches before pulling your pants back up.

What To Do If There’s A Leech On You Or You’ve Been Bitten

Even if you take all of the precautions above, there is still a chance that one really determined leech (or more) decides that you’ll make an excellent dinner. So, now you’ve got a leech attached to your skin, or maybe you’ve already been bitten.

Here’s what to do.

1. Don’t Pull The Leech Off Your Skin If It’s Attached

If you try to pull it off when the leech is already sucking your blood, then you run the risk of leaving the mouth parts of the leech attached to your skin.

Those mouth parts will stay under your skin and take a while to heal.

2. Sprinkle It With Salt

As previously mentioned, salt is basically kryptonite to leeches. So, if you have one on your and already biting you, then just sprinkle some salt on it.

As you’ll see, the salt makes the leech let go of your skin and start inching away from it.

3. Touch It With A Lit Cigarette (or Lighter)

Now, we’re not trying to burn the leech alive with this method. Instead, the purpose is to make it so hot that it wants to scurry away from the bite area.

And since leeches don’t like heat, this a good way to get them to let go of your skin and move on. Of course, it’s not the most humane method.

But, if you don’t have any salt, DEET, or alcohol, then this can work in a pinch.

4. Prepare For The Bleeding

When the leech moves away from the bite area, you will likely experience a lot of bleeding. You see, when a leech bites you, it secretes an anticoagulant that makes your blood not clot.

So, while that’s a cool science fact about leeches, it also means lots of blood pouring out of your wound for a bit. It’s best to be prepared with some gauze and tape or a thick bandage.

5. Apply An Antiseptic To The Bite

Now that you’ve got the pesky little bugger off your body, and you’ve finally gotten the bleeding to stop, you need to take care of the wound. The best way to do this is to immediately put an antiseptic on the bite area.

And you’ll need to continue regularly applying this to the wound until it heals fully.

Will The Leech Eventually Leave On Its Own?

If you find yourself with a leech firmly attached to your skin and sucking away, then you might be wondering if it will stay there forever or get off your body when it’s done. Especially if you don’t have anything on you to safely remove it without risking the mouth parts staying behind in the bite.

The good news is that yes, they will eventually stop biting you on their own when they get full of your blood. On average, this takes around 20 minutes before they slink away, leaving a trail of your blood in their wake.

Are Leech Bites Dangerous?

For most of the population, no, leech bites are not dangerous. However, for some people they pose a very real danger.

In fact, some people experience allergic reactions to leech bites. 

These reactions can be as harmless as hives on your skin to the more serious trouble breathing and anaphylaxis.  If you experience life-threatening symptoms after a leech bite, then you need to seek medical attention immediately.

Summary

Depending on where you do your hiking, you may never encounter any leeches. But if you do, it’s best to be prepared to deal with one of their bites.

And remember, while these creatures are mostly more annoying than dangerous, they can be life-threatening for those who are allergic to the peptides they release when biting. So, stay safe out there!

image credit: Ashish Gupta/Flickr, CC2.0

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