If you’re reading this, chances are you’re either dealing with some signs of bed bugs, bites or you’re being an informed person before a trip. In any case, this article will help you with everything you need to know about bed bugs and specifically dealing with bed bugs while backpacking.

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A few years ago, before we started backpacking full time my knowledge of bed bugs was limited to “I hate those little itchy f*ckers!” That all changed once we started backpacking around Central America and Eastern Europe.

Bed bugs were everywhere and we quickly had to become experts on how to deal with bites and most importantly how to avoid bed bugs whilst backpacking. 

First Some Bed Bug Facts

What Do They Look Like?

Bed bugs are the nomadic Dracula’s of modern-day life. However, instead of black capes and appearing on Sesame Street, they are flat, oval-shaped insects the size of an apple seed. So, unlike what most people think, they are actually quite easy to spot with the naked eye.

Bed bugs start out as eggs the size of a dust particle and grow into adults over several months. The adult female bed bugs can lay millions of eggs over a lifetime. Or, enough to infest a whole room with a few thousand in just a few weeks.

The life cycle of a bed bug

The life cycle of a bed bug

How Much Do Bed Bugs Bite?

Like Dracula, bed bugs hunt at night. Once they smell the carbon dioxide given off by a sleeping human, they come out to start sucking your precious blood. They then feed for 3 to 10 minutes before getting full and creeping off into the dark to digest their food. They will then come back another 3 to 4 times during the night (breakfast-lunch-dinner) after they have finished digesting your blood.

Blood is the only food for bed bugs, it’s what they require to grow big and strong. Impressively, they can go a whole year without feeding while waiting for their next victim.

Where Do Bed Bugs Come From?

Bed bugs hide in mattresses, bed frames, cracks in walls, picture frames, backpacks and basically anywhere that has an opening the thickness of a credit card.

They can live in temperatures anywhere from -32C to 45C happily. When it’s on the lower end and they are a bit cold they’ll just have a bit of a snooze until it warms up and they want to get active.

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What Happens When You Get Bitten By a Bed Bug?

You’ll wake up with some red dots that aren’t very itchy. In a few days, though, this will change and they’ll become extremely itchy. This will continue for a week until they go away by themselves.

The bites normally follow a line where your exposed skin is in contact with your clothes or the bed.

bed bug bites on a person

Typical bed bug bites a couple days after getting bitten

How Do You Treat Bed Bug Bites?


The bites aren’t that itchy until you start scratching and then it becomes a big mental battle. As much as you want to, and you think it will give you relief, don’t scratch.

To help relieve some of the discomforts, washing the bites with warm water helps. This also prevents the spread of infection. If you do lose the mental battle and begin scratching, you could get some anti-itch cream (like corticosteroid cream).

If your bites start to have any of the following symptoms, you should see someone who can prescribe some proper medicine;

  • Allergic reaction
    • You have hives or swollen red skin
  • Infected bites (painful, pussy and oozy)
    • Infections normally come from scratching the bites too much and thereby opening the skin.


How Do You Know It’s a Bed Bug Bite?

Bed bug bites can be brushed off as other insect bites or skin conditions. This means the bed bug infestation goes untreated and they keep thriving and multiplying. To be sure that it’s actually bed bugs, you should look for signs of them living where you’ve been sleeping.

It’s hard to spot the babies and eggs, but the adults are quite easy to see. As mentioned, they are about the size of an apple seed, flat, oval-shaped and brown. When they have just fed they will be much rounder, longer and have a transparent reddish colour.

Close up of a bed bug

This is what a bed bug looks like…. Very ugly

If you can’t find a living bed bug, there are some other telltale signs that they could be around;

Signs of Bed Bugs

  1. Red blood or black specs: these are the result of the bed bugs feeding. The black dots are the poo they leave behind. If you do find black spots, it could indicate a previous infestation. It’s best to just use it as a ‘shit, I might have bed bugs’ and then keep looking for them.
  2. Old skins (shed exoskeletons): when a baby bed bug is growing up, it will shed its skin after feeding. This shedding leaves a shell of themselves behind.
  3. A musty odour: bed bugs basically fart a lot to communicate. So if you walk into your room and it has a dank, musty smell, there is most likely an infestation.

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Where to look for bed bugs while backpacking

  1. In and around the mattress. Take off the sheets and have a close look at the mattress, concentrating on the edges and under any plastic corner covers. This is where they like to hide and digest their food. If you don’t see a bed bug, look out for the dark specs.
  2. Get a torch and have a look in the bed frame for the adults and old skins. Pay close attention to the cracks and hard joints where bed bugs love to hide.
  3. If there are only a couple of bed bugs, they will tend to stay near the bed and the frame. If it’s a full-blown infestation, though, they could be anywhere! They could crawl from books or picture frames on the other side of the room, or even from the room next door.
Bed bug poo on a mattress we found while backpacking in central america

The black spec (poo stains) left by a bed bug

If you find any, squash them straight away or get someone to watch it while you get someone from reception. In a Nicaraguan hostel, they used a lighter and deodorant (e.g. flame thrower) to kill some on our bed frame!

Don’t let your vanity get in the way of flipping mattresses and taking off bed sheets for a closer look. Just remember, it’s better to be informed and look a little crazy than wake up covered in bites!

looking for bed bugs while backpacking in central america

Our bed bug guru Romi in action searching a hostel dorm bed

How Do Bed Bugs Spread?

Basically, bed bugs are freeloaders who hitch rides on your clothes, electronics, books, and backpacks. Not only do they live in bedrooms, but cinemas, aeroplanes and buses are also popular breeding grounds.

Bed bugs only need blood to survive, so even the cleanest place can still be infested. If you get bitten it’s not always the hostel’s fault. Most try their hardest to control bed bugs, but our nomadic lifestyles make the issue difficult to prevent.  Sometimes, YOU might even be the culprit who brought them from the previous hostel.

How Do You Get Rid Of Bed Bugs while backpacking

If you do find that you’ve been bitten or even just exposed to an infestation, it’s best practice to heat your stuff. This especially applies to your backpack.

This can be done in a dryer or sauna to keep the temperature above 50 degrees centigrade for over 15 minutes. Doing this will kill any live bed bugs and any eggs.

For electronics and things that don’t tolerate heat, it’s best to examine them in a bathtub. Look for any eggs or adults hiding in USB ports, spines of books and other strange places. Looking over a bathtub will help you see any potential runaways before they escape.

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How To Avoid Backpacking Bed Bugs

  1. Always check your mattress and bed frame for signs of bed bug poop
  2. Never leave your backpack on the bed
  3. Avoid leaning your bag against the bed frame
  4. If you’re staying in a popular hostel its best to check your bed straight away. The more popular and more people that go through a hostel, the more likely it is they’ll have bed bugs.
  5. Embrace the fact that even with all the precautions in the world, you’ll probably get bitten!

Just remember to always listen to your mum and those sound words;

“Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite!”

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