How to Avoid Leeches – A Guide to Preventing Leech Bites
Updated April 6, 2020
One thing you can count on encountering in the jungle are leeches. These creepy creatures are adept at waiting in the right spot and hopping on your legs as you walk by.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the jungles of Borneo and I’ve learned some pretty solid methods of preventing leech bites.
In this article, I am going to teach you how to avoid leeches and how to prevent leech bites. (Spoiler: you can’t really avoid leeches if you are trekking in the jungle, but you can greatly reduce your chances of being bitten by following some simple tips.)
I will focus on leeches in Borneo for this article, however, these methods will prove worthwhile in any jungle or for most land based leeches.
This article covers land based leeches. Water dwelling leeches aren’t too much of an issue in Borneo, so I won’t provide information on those.
We’ve also summarized all of these tips in a short video at the bottom of the page.
Use the buttons below to jump to a specific topic.
How to Avoid Leeches
Leeches are most active when it’s relatively cool. Additionally, leeches prefer wet conditions. When it gets too hot or too dry, leeches aren’t as active and they often go hide and wait until it is cool. This means that leeches are usually most active in the mornings, during rain, and just after rain.
If you want to do your best to avoid leeches, you should do your trekking when it’s hot and dry. Let’s be honest, that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It’s more comfortable and safer to hike when it’s cool, like in the morning.
So what do you do?
There is no sense in risking heat stroke just to avoid some leeches, so I recommend just dealing with the leeches and taking the necessary measures to prevent them from biting you. I describe those measures in the next section.
How to Prevent Leech Bites
Wear Appropriate Clothing
Wearing appropriate clothing is step one for preventing leech bites. Ideally, you want to wear long pants and long sleeve shirts.
The jungle is hot, so long pants and long sleeves might be uncomfortable, but they work. One way to get around the potential discomfort is to choose the right clothing material. Lightweight, quick-dry material is best for jungle trekking. My go to pants are a pair of lightweight Marmot brand pants. They are light, tough, and dry quickly.
Some leeches are quite small and they are excellent at finding ways to get under your clothes. Because of this, it’s important to make sure your trousers and shirts aren’t riddled with holes. Additionally, they should fit fairly well and the fewer zippers the better, particularly with the trousers.
Now we’ve covered the basics, but the most important part is protecting your feet, ankles, and calves.
Use Leech Socks
There are some downsides to leech socks, however. Leech socks tend to be somewhat cumbersome and occasionally uncomfortable. They are made in a “one size fits all” sort of design, which means there is a lot of extra material.
Another downside is that the cheaper versions usually come with a drawstring which you have to tie. It’s nearly impossible to get this type of leech sock to stay in place. They tend to fall down, leaving an easy path for leeches to get to your feet.
As you can see in our video, this problem is mitigated somewhat with the more modern style of leech socks. Those leech socks use a stretchy drawstring and a fastener which allows you to keep them in place.
There is an alternative to leech socks that is as nearly effective and more comfortable: Football (soccer) socks.
Use Football Socks as an Alternative to Leech Socks
Football socks, also known as soccer socks, are my preferred method for preventing leeches. They are nearly as effective as leech socks and they are much more comfortable.
I have found the best method is to wear two pairs of socks and to tuck my trousers into the football socks. The video shows an example of using football socks. When you go trekking in the jungle in Borneo, you will notice that most locals prefer to use football socks rather than leech socks. I learned this method from locals and I haven’t looked back since.
In addition to being more comfortable, football socks don’t usually fall down like leech socks like to do. This means you will spend more time enjoying your hike and less time worrying about leeches or adjusting your clothing.
Speaking of locals, I have heard of a few local remedies employed to help prevent leeches. I elaborate on that below.
Local Remedies for Preventing Leech Bites
Over the years, I have heard of some local remedies for preventing leech bites. I don’t know that these methods are effective enough to go through the trouble of using them, but some people do use them, so I have included them.
Before we get into the local remedies, please note that if you use these methods, you should use them in conjunction with the appropriate clothing. Appropriate clothing is the most important.
Some people apply vinegar to their leech socks or football socks before heading out into the jungle. To employ this method, simply wet your leech socks or football socks with vinegar before you put them on.
Vinegar is readily available in Borneo. The Malay word for vinegar is cuka (pronounced chooka).
Personally, I have never seen anyone use this method, but I have heard many people talk about it. If you try it, let us know how it works for you.
As you can see in our video, the best way is to wet the soap and rub it all over your leech socks or football socks.
Bar soap is another method that I have heard about, but I’ve never seen anyone do it.
Tobacco is probably the strangest method I have heard about. I have discussed this with a few locals and they claim that tobacco is the only effective leech deterrent.
You apply the tobacco to your leech socks or football socks using the same method mentioned above: simply wet the tobacco down and rub it all over your leech socks or football socks while they are already on your feet. You can see this method in our video.
Obviously, tobacco can be expensive. Luckily, here in Borneo, there is a local tobacco known as sigup (pronounced see-goop) that is readily available in local markets and it is quite cheap.
I haven’t tried this method, so I would love to hear from you if you have tried it.
While I haven’t seen people apply salt to their clothing before going jungle trekking, I have seen this method employed with some success. I’ve even used it myself.
Salt works great for driving away leeches that are already on your clothing. Essentially, you carry a packet of salt with you and when you find you have leeches on you, you sprinkle some salt on them.
I used this method on a trek to Maga Waterfall in Long Pasia. During this particular hike, the leeches were quite bad. Every time we stopped for a break, our guide would sprinkle salt around his ankles. I asked him if I could try as well. Once the leeches were hit by the salt, they started bailing off of my socks. They certainly didn’t like the salt.
The downside of this method is that the salt doesn’t stay on your clothing. Therefore, you have to constantly stop to sprinkle salt on your clothes to get the leeches to go away. That being said, it does work.
If you don’t mind hauling a package of salt around, this method will work when you have leeches on you. I don’t know if this method works if the leech is already attached.
What Does a Leech Bite Feel Like?
If you’ve never been bitten by a leech, you may be wondering what a leech bite feels like. Well, for Borneo leeches, there are two answers to this question. I explain the types of Borneo leeches in more detail later on in this article.
If you are bitten by a tiger leech, you might very well feel a slight stinging sensation. I wouldn’t say it is painful, but you definitely notice it. Sometimes, you don’t feel it at all.
When you are bitten by a brown leech, chances are you won’t feel it. When it comes to brown leeches, I often don’t know I’ve been bitten until I take my socks off and find the leech or find the spot where the leech was before it got full.
How to Treat Leech Bites
How to Remove a Leech that has Already Bitten You
There are several methods for removing leeches that are already attached. I’ll start with the most tried and true method: simply pull the leech off.
The quickest and easiest way to remove a leech is to grab it as close to the point of contact as possible. Then you pinch and pull. Leeches are somewhat sticky, so once you have removed it, the best way to get it off of your fingers is to roll it around a bit and then flick it. This may sound gross, but give a leech the same treatment as you would a booger and you should be able to effectively flick it back into the jungle.
Some people argue that you shouldn’t just pull the leech off. This is the method that I use and I haven’t experienced any adverse effects.
Another way to remove the leech is to just wait until it’s had its fill and let it fall off. This method works, but I prefer removing the leech as quickly as possible.
The final method I recommend is using heat to remove the leech. A lighter usually works pretty well. To remove the leech with heat, you can hold the flame of the lighter up to the leech or heat up the metal of the lighter with the flame and then touch the leech.
Using a lighter works well, but be careful not to accidentally burn yourself.
How to Take Care of the Area that has been Bitten by a Leech
When you remove a leech or find a spot where you have been bitten, chances are it will bleed for a while. This is because leeches secrete a substance that prevents your blood from clotting.
Your leech bite will bleed a small amount and eventually it will stop bleeding. I have found that the quickest way to get the bleeding to stop is to not wipe away the blood, but rather to just leave it. The leeche’s anticoagulant eventually stops working and your body does it’s natural job of clotting the blood and stopping the bite from bleeding.
Once the bleeding has stopped, wash the area like normal. Leeches in Borneo aren’t known to harbor diseases or to pass diseases between hosts. Subsequently, you don’t have to worry about getting diseases from leeches. To be honest with you, I would rather be bitten by a leech over a mosquito because I know that leech bites are low risk.
There is not much you can do in the way of treating a leech bite. Once the bleeding has stopped, you can apply a band-aid if you wish. Leech bites tend to be rather benign and you usually won’t feel any irritation at the spot where you were bitten.
Occasionally, the leech bite will be a bit itchy over the course of a few days. I have found that this is more common with the bites from tiger leeches. The itching is a minor inconvenience and it goes away after a few days.
What do Leeches in Borneo look like?
The tiger leeches of Borneo are the bigger of the two species you will encounter. As you can see in the photo below, they have distinct stripes. I’ve included some footage of tiger leeches in our video, as well.
The brown leech is typically smaller than the tiger leech. It is a rare occasion to feel a brown leech biting you. Brown leeches are pretty nondescript. They are small and brown. Here is a photo of one so you know what they look like.
Now there is just one thing left to do, watch the video of how we put these methods into pratice.
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Video About How to Avoid Leeches