In This Post: How to check a mattress for bed bugs. And what you should do if you see signs of infestation (eek).
It’s late. Your hostel check in took forever. Maybe you just stepped off a 25-hour bus ride. Maybe you’re filthy and want to shower. You just really, really don’t feel like doing anything but going to bed. You know you should check the mattress, but it feels like an awful chore. It’ll be fine you think, as you begin slinging your bag on the bed. Or, more likely, you’re not even thinking about the risk of bed bugs at all. But you should be.
Bed bugs are a gross, scary and real part of any backpacking trip. We all know they’re out there, burrowing their filthy little bodies into flimsy mattresses and unsuspecting rucksacks leaning casually against beds. We cringe when we think about them, and pity fellow travelers who share stories of “that time I got bed bugs“…as we surreptitiously inch away from them just in case.
We hope we won’t be so unlucky and put bed bugs out of our minds. Until, of course, a suspicious bite appears in the morning and we’re forced to consider the awful possibility: “Did I just get bed bugs?”
Bed Bug Background: Reality Bites
Bed bugs can cause huge problems and severely impact your trip. They cover you in itchy, disgusting bites and are extremely costly and time-consuming to eradicate. Talk about a waste of time and budget money. Not what you want to deal with on your trip. Which is why it’s essential to check for bedbugs and avoid them altogether.
I’m continually shocked by how many travelers have never looked for bed bugs, and ask me with a confused look, “But how do you even check for bed bugs?” As with anything, there’s a middle ground between bed bug ignorance and paranoia. I err on the side of paranoia, as you might have guessed, which lead me to learn a lot about these little guys and how to spot them.
Bed bugs can be anywhere from hostels to nice hotels (gasp!). All it takes is a single infested bag to enter that room and – bam – you’re in trouble. Checking for bed bugs is certainly a pain, and after months on the road the idea of one more mattress inspection can make you want to cry. But in the end, it’s definitely worth it.
Before You Check: Be Aware
Because in this case, ignorance is not bliss.
The name “bed bugs” is a lie. They live in places besides beds – couches, furniture (including wood), bags, books. And they can lay eggs on even more things, even your toiletries or electronics (I KNOW). Nothing is really safe, but of course a mattress or suitcase is a better host than say, your cell phone.
A single room or bed may be infected. This does not mean the entire place is infected, although it might be. It’s also possible to sleep in an infested bed but not actually get the bugs (meaning they don’t make a new home in your bag).
Bites alone are NOT a good indicator of bed bugs. The telltale bites aren’t necessarily evidence. Bites can come from a variety of insects, so it’s always best to try to find an actual bug to confirm your suspicion. If you are basing your identification on bites, know bed bugs go for exposed areas — your neck, feet, face, arms (anything not covered by PJs), and they like to bite in rows.
You cannot feel bed bugs bite you. They inject you with a numbing substance before they feed on you. Ya know because ingesting your blood wasn’t enough.
Bed bugs don’t like heat. It’s not likely they’ll stay on your body long. Much more likely they’ll crawl into your bag to use that as a host. Good news is, the sun can actually kill them if it’s hot enough out.
Bed bugs are very hard to kill. It takes very high heat or (expensive) chemical treatment to get rid of them.
How To Check For Bed Bugs
- DO NOT put your bag down. I repeat, DO NOT put your backpack on the bed prior to checking it. Don’t lean it against the bed, either. When I get to a new room I keep my bag on the floor far from the bed, unopened, until I’ve checked for bugs. As a general rule I don’t ever touch my bag to the bed if I can avoid it.
- Strip back the sheet. If there is a plastic cover or any other cover, strip that back too. You need to be looking at the bare mattress.
- Check the seams first. Look for anything suspicious along the seams. This could be actual bugs or bed bug droppings. Bed bugs are most likely to be found in the seams or crevices where the stitching is.
- Check the mattress all over. Look for the droppings specifically, and be wary of large groupings of black or brown dots (more below).
Checking the Mattress: What To Look For
Bed bug droppings may be rust colored or dark black, depending on when they last ate. Droppings are generally clustered in groups on the mattress (meaning you cannot miss them) and can be found on wood bed frames, too. Isolated dots are less likely an issue (probably just a dirty mattress) but cause for a closer look. If you don’t know what you’re looking for pull up a Google photo – it’ll be obvious. Here, I’ve even done the search for you.
Exoskeletons are the discarded skins bed bugs shed when they grow. Their color also varies, from clear/yellowish to rust brown, depending on the life stage. They are visible to the naked eye.
Many people think bed bugs are microscopic, but bed bugs are visible to the naked eye. Bed bugs are generally rust-colored (again, depends how recently they had a blood meal) and vary in size depending on their life stage. But they are not secret and invisible. Here is their size as compared to a penny.
Tips When Checking for Bed Bugs
Don’t Be Embarrassed
It’s easy to feel uncomfortable when you’re teetring on a ladder, stripping the bed sheets and examining specks of dirt with a small flashlight. I get it. At first, my sister and I waited until the dorm room was empty to look for our BBs in peace. If someone entered mid-check, we’d quickly feign we lost something under the blanket. However, this became inconvenient. By week 3 we abandoned caution and took to examining mattresses without concern for who might be watching. There is nothing embarrassing about checking he mattress. In fact, others should be embarrassed they don’t check it. Who’ll be embarrassed when they didn’t check and got bed bugs? Not you.
With hundreds of strangers coming and going, hostel mattresses are obviously not the cleanest beds around. Huge understatement; they’re filthy. Meaning there can be some confusion when identifying bed bug droppings versus normal dirt, even if you know what to look for. I recommend doing a quick Google search and getting familiar with what bed bug poo looks like, and even saving a photo (or 5) on your phone so you can compare in case you don’t have wi-fi. Be warned: It’s very possible you’ll mistakenly show these photos to a stranger when sharing travel images.
Use A Light
The flashlight on your phone works well, and may speed up the process when checking in poorly-lit rooms. If you want to get hardcore about it or really freak your roommates out, your headlamp also serves as a nice bed bug checking light.
Don’t Cut Corners (Literally)
You peel back a corner, spot a pristine mattress, and think you’re good to go. Probably you are, but don’t be lazy! Ideally you should check all 4 corners of the mattress and the underneath before considering it safe.
Check The Reviews
If possible, I try to check hostel reviews prior to booking and do a quick scan for recent reviews that include mention of “bed bugs.” This can help you avoid bad situations altogether.
Better Safe Than Sorry
With all this checking, there are bound to be some false identifications. No matter how prepared you are, sometimes paranoia takes over and it’s easy to become convinced a random speck of dirt is actually a bed bug in disguise. This happens to me from time to time, but I always err on the side of caution.
Spotted: What To Do If You Find Bed Bugs or Evidence of Bed Bugs
This is the easiest and least stressful thing to do. If your dorm has free beds, go ahead and check another mattress out. If it appears BB-free, take that one instead of the one you were assigned. People grab the wrong bed all the time, so no big deal. This is an especially good method if you see some dirt that might be droppings but you aren’t entirely sure.
Ask To Change Rooms…Because of Bed Bugs
If you have evidence of bugs, certainly tell the hostel what you found. They will need to address the issue, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to tell them although it can be weirdly scary to do so. It’s possible they will deny it or get aggressive, but don’t back down. If you see clear evidence don’t stay and risk infection.
Ask To Change Rooms…For Some Other Reason
If there is uncertain evidence or you can’t figure out how to say “bed bugs” in a foreign language, make up another reason to move. We’ve done this – from telling the hotel I was scared of heights and thus our room on floor 12 was too high, to asking to move away from the “loud” bar or “scary” window, we’ve thrown some weird excuses out there. They have always worked, so get creative!
Share the Bed
We only did this once. It was late, the hostel was full (as was every hostel in the small town), and we had no other option. We were about 90% sure we found bed bug droppings, so I hopped into my sisters bed for the night. Sharing a twin was not pleasant and people gave us weird looks, but hey we didn’t get bed bugs.
Make An Exit
Moving hostels is a huge pain, and obviously not ideal if you already paid or it’s late. But if you see bed bugs and they can’t change your room, it’s not worth staying. The few bucks you lost on the deposit will pale in comparison to the cost of trying to get rid of the bugs.
Worried you’re bitten or infested? Check out: What To Do in the Event of a Bed Bug Scare