In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.
Bed bugs were my second largest fear (after blisters/foot injury) while preparing to walk the Camino Frances. I spent almost as much time researching bed bugs and how NOT to get them as I did researching gear, terrain, customs, clothing, etc. In my “normal” life pre-Camino, I looked up potential hotels on BedbugRegistry.com, which charts where bed bugs have been found, and avoided these places like the plague. But when I was researching albergues, I quickly came to the conclusion that many, if not most, have had at least one run-in with bed bugs, and it would be a waste of sanity to do more than keep an ear out for current reports and try to avoid the ones who were currently infested.
Still, when I first started walking, I spent a lot of precious time and energy worrying about bed bugs. I talked about them with other people. I diligently checked the corners of the mattresses, and all the nooks and crannies of the bunks. I always used my own travel pillow, and never touched the albergues’ blankets. I curled up in a ball inside my permethrin-treated sleeping bag, half-awake, senses pricked for the first sign of bed bug attack. In short, I was well on the way to losing my damn mind. Thankfully, the Camino helped me get my priorities straight, and I had a good long time to enjoy the journey without freaking out about insects. So that’s what I’m going to write about here.
I was lucky to never experience bed bugs, but I slept in beds next to people who did. I even walked with two different people who experienced severe reactions to bed bugs that required medical care, and several more who were attacked, but lucky enough to not experience the extreme itching and swelling that comes along with a bad reaction to a bed bug bite. From this I learned a few things: treating your gear doesn’t guarantee you won’t be bitten, getting bed bugs in one place doesn’t mean you’ll have them forever, and no matter what, getting upset just makes everything worse for you and everyone around you.
There are three layers to the bed bug issue: prevention, avoidance, and treatment.
Prevention – When I found out that one of the best ways to keep bed bugs from infesting your gear was to spray everything with a chemical called permethrin, I was dismayed. I try to avoid unnecessary chemicals as much as possible, and was wary of what kind of damage it might do. However, as time grew short, I made the decision to spray down my belongings, and was pleased to find that once dry, nothing smelled bad and my sensitive skin never experienced any negative side effects. Permethrin can be purchased online, and acts as a deterrent to not just bed bugs, but also fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes. It’s great for treating gear and clothing that you plan to use in any location that boasts a lot of insect activity. It’s also classified by the EPA as a likely human carcinogen, so pick your battles.
Once you’re in Spain, most pharmacies along the Camino carry a spray that you can use directly on your skin that has some permethrin in it, and it’s best used topically at night on any exposed skin. I don’t know the name of it, but several friends used it and the pharmacist will understand what you need. I believe that it’s a product also commonly used for scabies, as permethrin is typically used in scabies creams. If you’d prefer to avoid using chemicals, I’ve been told that lavender essential oil also works to repel bed bugs, and there are various lotions and sprays available on Etsy and across the Internet that might work with your normal sleep routine while helping prevent bed bugs.
Keep your clothing and other fibrous objects in an air-tight plastic bag, and make sure you seal it securely after every use. Bed bugs won’t chew through plastic, and this keeps at least one set of clothing safe and clean just in case everything else gets infested later.
One additional thing that I found during my original research was a thing called a bed bug undersheet, by LifeSystems. I bought one, but it didn’t arrive in time to go with me to Spain, so I can’t attest to its efficacy. It’s used by spreading it across the mattress and hooking it to the four corners of the bed. The fabric is treated to repel bed bugs. Let me know if you’ve tried one and find it useful!
Avoidance – First and foremost, keep an ear out for news. Pilgrims are always sharing information up and down the Camino. If you’ve made friends with any other pilgrims who’re walking faster than you, stay in touch via Whatsapp or Messenger and ask for updates if they hear about new bed bug issues. Contrary to popular belief, bed bugs don’t prefer wood over metal, so choosing your albergue based on the types of bunks it has won’t be of much help.
No matter where you stay, look around the mattress seams for spots of dried blood. Pick up the mattress and look around the wood slats very carefully for signs of bed bug infestation (dried blood spots, bugs themselves). Check anywhere there’s a 90 degree angle. Bed bugs are not invisible; if you’re looking you can see them easily. Another trick a pilgrim friend of mine used was to carry a small spray bottle of lavender essential oil and water, and before putting anything on the bed, spritz over the mattress and around the frame. The bed bugs hate lavender, and will surface. Take a bug to the hospitalero immediately for proof, and so that they can institute treatment measures in the room.
Also, never put your backpack on your bunk. This works two ways – you’ll potentially protect your bag from getting any critters, and also help prevent the spread in case you’re already carrying some with you unknowingly.
Treatment – If you get bed bugs, do not panic. It’s not your fault. You’re not dirty, and you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just something that happens, and it’s definitely something that you can overcome. First, tell the hospitalero right away, so that treatment measures can be instituted in the room immediately. Chances are strong that they’ve dealt with this in the past, and will have a routine down. Also, tell your bunkmates so that they can be on the lookout for symptoms (which can sometimes take a day or two to surface).
Before heading off for the day or doing anything else, wash EVERYTHING that can be washed in the hottest water, and dry it all on the hottest dryer setting. This includes your backpack, sleeping bag, and all clothing/cloth items. If you’ve used permethrin on these items, you can (and should) wash them just in case. The permethrin lasts for a number of washes, and it’s better to take every precaution.
Next, go to the nearest pharmacy. Don’t worry about your language skills – even if you’re in a small town and the pharmacist isn’t fluent in English, he or she will understand “bed bug” and can provide you with the help you need, or tell you if you should go to the doctor for additional treatment. If you haven’t started using the aforementioned bug spray or some sort of lavender, this might be a good time to start. The pharmacist will recommend the right creams for bringing down swelling and itching. The worst case scenario is that you might have to go to the doctor to get a cortisone shot and perhaps a stronger cream to soothe your skin’s reaction.
Whatever you do, don’t avoid the situation, and don’t bring your bed bugs to the next town. As soon as you realize that you’ve been attacked, stop and handle it. If it’s first thing in the morning, stay at that albergue and have that hospitalero help you. If you don’t realize until you’re on the road, just be up front and honest with the hospitalero at the next place. Tell them that you think you might have bed bugs, and you’d like to wash all of your gear. Most hospitaleros will want to help you out, though they’ll be worried about bed bugs getting into their establishment. No one wants the bed bugs to spread, so you may find yourself wearing borrowed clothes and not allowed to go up to the bunks until your gear is washed, treated, and checked again.
Tips for Re-entry – If you picked up bed bugs on the Camino, or are just afraid that you might have even though you haven’t experienced any symptoms at all, you might be thinking about what you can do to make sure that none hitch a ride home with you. First off, come to terms with the fact that there is no 100% foolproof way to avoid bed bugs entirely for the rest of your life. You could get them anywhere – on public transportation, from visiting friend, from your next door neighbor’s apartment, even at your favorite department store. After you’ve done as much as you can, you will have to find a way to let go of the worry and let things take care of themselves.
That being said, here are some additional steps you can take once you reach Santiago de Compostela, just to ease your mind a bit. First off, wash everything you have with you one more time on the hottest washer and dryer settings. Afterwards, consider getting rid of clothing or items that you don’t want to keep. You can donate some things at Pilgrim House on Rua Nova, and they’ll have ideas for where to donate the rest. While you’re visiting, ask about getting your gear treated. When I was in town in November 2015, there was a service that treated gear, possibly by dry cleaning and spraying with pesticides. The kind folks at the Pilgrim House will know more.
Bed bugs suck. No one likes them, and no one wants them. One bad bunk bed could possibly lead to days of irritation. But I spent many anxious months worrying myself unnecessarily over something that wasn’t going to happen. I’m hoping that this post will give people the tools and peace of mind they need to address bed bugs on the Camino with grace, then move on with their lives, whether or not they ever suffer a bite.
Did you get bed bugs on the Camino, or know someone who did? Did you find any amazing preventatives or special treatments you’d like to share with others? Please leave your bed bug experiences in the comments below.