Bed bugs on the Camino

Since 2006, there have been infestations of bed bugs along the Camino Francés.  All albergues are now well aware of the problem and most have procedures in place to deal with outbreaks and to assist pilgrims who have come into contact with bedbugs. Please do not be deterred from embarking on pilgrimage by the thought of bedbugs, most pilgrims report having no contact with them at all during their journey.  Bedbugs are not a unique feature of the camino, but are found the world over, from the lowliest hostel to the most luxurious hotels.  They are not a sign of poor cleanliness but are simply an unwelcome consequence of the enormous rise in global travel in recent years.

Here are some bedbug facts to arm yourself with before you go.

  • Bedbugs are small, flat, apple-pip shaped insects that feed on human or animal blood.  They tend to hide away in dark areas during daytime but come out at night to feed, attracted by the carbon dioxide emitted by sleeping humans.  They are not restricted to beds but can infest furniture and fixtures too.
  • Bedbugs are not known to transmit diseases in temperate climates, but for some people their bites leave painful and itchy welts. Occasionally people have more severe allergic reactions to bites and need medical attention.  Bites are often in a distinctive line or zig zag pattern.
  • Bedbugs can crawl into bags, luggage, sleeping bags or clothing while you sleep, thereby hitching a lift to the next hostel.

So, what can you do to minimise your risks?

Before you go:

  • You can buy undersheets or sleeping bags that have been chemically treated to repel bedbugs.  Some people recommend silk liners as insects find it hard to penetrate silk, others spray their sleeping bags and rucksacks with insecticide.  In most cases the chemical treatments are permethrin-based.   Please take advice from the retailer and always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions if you decide to spray any kit, since permethrin is very toxic to cats and aquatic creatures , and can be toxic in liquid form to humans by skin contact or inhalation.
  • Pack a small torch and consider bringing anti-histamine pills if you normally use these at home for insect bites.

On Camino:

  • When you arrive at an albergue, examine the bunk frame, mattress and any pillows, paying particular attention to cracks, joints and seams.  Use your torch if necessary. You are looking for spots of blood, clusters of black specks, cast-off skins and live bedbugs.   Also check any cracks in nearby walls or other furniture for tell-tale signs.
  • If  you find anything untoward, please inform the hospitalero discreetly.  If you cannot be moved into another room then you should go to another albergue.  Don’t spray chemicals in the albergue to try to deal with it yourself.
  • Don’t put your rucksack on or under or against the bed.   Keep your rucksack tightly closed when you are not unpacking or packing.  Consider sealing it in a plastic bag overnight.
  • Try to keep covered up in bed since bedbugs usually feed on exposed skin.
  • Shake out your sleeping bag thoroughly in the morning before packing it.

If you have been bitten:

  • Try not to scratch itchy bites. Get advice and treatment from the local pharmacy, or if you feel unwell, seek medical attention.
  • Tell the hospitalero discreetly.  If you do not notice the bites until you have walked on, please tell the hospitalero at the next albergue that you stay at.  They should be able to assist you with washing and treating your pack and possessions and may put you in a segregated room to avoid further spread of bugs.
  • If you don’t have hospitalero assistance, wash all your clothes in hot water and if available, use a dryer on a hot setting.   Outdoors, take everything out of your rucksack, turn it inside out and open all pockets and leave in the sun for a few hours.  You can spray your pack with insecticide (only use according to instructions and keep away from food stuffs and eating utensils, water sources and animals) before leaving in the sun.
  • When you get home, do not bring your rucksack indoors, but keep sealed in a plastic bag in a shed or garage.  Wash and tumble dry all your clothes at high temperature, carefully check other items, spray with insecticide if necessary. Alternatively, wrap whole bag in plastic and leave in a freezer at -17.8C (0F) for 4 days.

You can see pictures and information on bedbugs and signs of infestation here and bites here. Please remember, this is likely to be the closest you will ever get to them!

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