Situation: It’s wet. A jacket invading, perpetual dampness, soggy kind of wet. And you’re on trek. The lush green hills rise around you. Birds screech in the trees, busting with green leaves and bright flowers. Maybe it’s raining or maybe the downpour just ended. You stop for a drink of water, perching on a rock. After a few swigs, you look down at your ankle and notice a tiny black, raised blob.
“What the?…” you think to yourself.
Upon further investigation, you realize what it is… A leech. A slimy, creepy, blood-sucking leech. You quickly peel off your socks and find a few, maybe a dozen more leeches that have somehow invaded your shoes and your socks. A few have even found refuge in your toes. Ugh.
This situation has become a reality for scores of trekkers in Asia. Whether you’re hiking in the Himalayas, in Northern Laos, or in the steamy Malaysian jungle, leeches will be there, especially if the environment is wet. The little black blobs are the bane of many trekker’s existence. Although their bite is not painful, the would looks rather ghastly because of the stream of blood that flows from the spot. There are some simple preventative methods to take before your trek to avoid leeches and, there are a few methods to keep in mind when removing a leech on trek.
What Are Leeches?
Leeches vary in size, depending on the environment. They can be found on land, in fresh water and in salt water. Many leeches found on treks in Asia are around 0.5-3 inches and very thin. They move like a slinky going down stairs: flipping one side over the other in a continual motion. Although the little suckers are an annoyance to hikers and trekkers, leeches were (and still are in some places) used in medicine for bloodletting.
Leeches sense heat and motion in their environment. Whether it’s a dog, cow or human that moves through the woods, leeches will likely sense the heat and quickly slinky over to the fresh blood source. When trekking in a wet environment, leeches sometimes fall from trees, but most often attach to their subject from the ground. This means that the leech will attach to the shoe, move up to the sock area and burrow down from there.
Once a leech bites and begins engorging itself in blood, it’s very difficult to remove them properly. When a leech bites, the subject will likely feel nothing: not pinch, no pain and no aches. After a bite, the leech will feed off blood until it is totally full, and then it simply drops off.
The tell-tale sign of a leech bite is a large bloody spot on the socks or shoes. Blood will continue to flow from the bite often for hours after the animal drops off because of the anticoagulant they secrete from their mouth parts. The anticoagulant allows for the free flow of blood from your body to theirs. This is why, even after you remove the leech or they drop off, the blood continues to seep out.
There are several measures you can take to prevent leeches from biting you in the first place. These measures take some a bit more time and planning than simply peeling the suckers off after they’ve bitten.
Choice 1: Anti-Leech Socks
Casual hikers probably won’t need these, but the more hardcore mountain trekkers might want to consider these anti-leech socks. This particular brand of socks cover the foot to the upper knee and are worn underneath the boot and over the normal sock. It’s very difficult for the leeches to penetrate these socks because they are long. This particular sock brand will set you back $40, but they are very durable and will come in handy for long, deep-jungle treks, or treks during monsoon season.
Choice 2: Soak Socks in Salt Water
This option is good for a while, but if you will be trekking through streams or other very wet areas, you probably won’t stay leech free for long. Soaking your socks in salt water and then drying them is a better option when you are trekking in dry weather.
Choice 3: Insecticide
Too much Deet is not a great idea, but applying some strong insecticide around the ankles, on the socks and even on top of the shoes is a good way to ward off leeches. Make sure to reapply the insecticide every few hours.
More Resources for Anti-Leech Measures: http://www.mysabah.com/wordpress/?p=177