Snakes! A sign warning of snakes in the area

Snakes and snake bites – how to avoid them

Snakes are a reality when when hiking in Australia, and as we enter into spring and the great weather draws us out to head for the hills, so too are the snakes waking up from their winter hibernation.

It’s best to be prepared and know what to do should you be lucky enough to encounter a snake during your hike, and  know snake bite first aid in the unlikely event that you or a member of your hiking party gets bitten.

However, don’t be too stressed about snakes on your hike and don’t let the thought of venomous wildlife deter you from hiking. They’re really quite shy and are more scared of you than you are of them. Snakes sense the vibration of  your footsteps and tend to flee into the bush, so it’s rare that you will see one. Both my dad and I have been bitten by snakes, decades apart, and we both survived to tell the tale. More on that later…

Just think, for every snake you see, there are probably a dozen more you don't... Click To Tweet

When you see a snake

First, try not to panic. I know that’s easy to say and harder to do. My heartrate still goes up a few beats every time I see one. My instinct is to stop and stand still. This is a good thing. It gives the snake a chance to escape harmlessly. If the snake doesn’t move on, move away slowly.

While hiking, I’ve come across a few snakes that appear to be sunning themselves across a walking trail. The only thing to do is wait for the snake to move on, or find another path to hike.

Never deliberately approach a snake, try to catch, attack or kill it. Avoid these actions and you will avoid most of the reasons why snakes bite. Most snake bites in Australia happen when the snake is stepped on or when someone tries to catch or kill it.

Once my hiking buddy literally jumped into my arms because she almost stepped on a red-bellied black snake that blended in with the bitumen road in the car park. It was so well camouflaged that we didn’t see it until it starting moving swiftly for the bushes.  They make a bit of a racket, too when they go crashing into the bush to get out of your way.

Why snakes bite

Most snakes will only bite or attack:

  • in self-defence (such as if you accidentally stand on it – yeah, that’s what happened to me)
  • if they are provoked (resist the urge to poke it with a stick to get it moving off a trail)
  • if they are trapped and have no clear path to escape (think toilets, sheds and tents where their exit might be blocked off).

Be prepared

If you are hiking in an area where snakes are common, find out what the different snakes are that you might encounter and what their distinguishing features and characteristics are. This will help you identify any snakes you encounter and allow you to react appropriately. See the What Snake is that? website or the Museum of Victoria website.

Don’t wear sandals or thongs when you go hiking. Wear boots and long pants. I never hike in shorts. Not just because of snakes, but because of my propensity for tripping over and getting scratched by fauna.

If you’re going into an area where you know there is long grass and where snakes are common, wear gaiters, too.

Instead of stepping over a rock or log, step onto it first so you can see what’s on the other side. Also, don’t put your hands or feet in or under logs, rocks or any other crevice without checking first that there is no snake there.

Snake bite first aid

Be prepared. A compression bandage should be a mandatory part of your first aid kit for hiking. Don’t take my words as the holy grail of snake bite first aid – see the federal government’s Health Direct website for government’s recommendation for snake bite treatment.

Snake bite treatment

Start at the site of the snake bite and wind a wide compression bandage around the affected limb. Do not cut off the circulation. Snake venom travels around the body via the lymph system, not the bloodstream, so the intent of the bandage is to slow the progress of the spread of the venom. Forget the old wives tale of cutting the wound and sucking out the venom. Not helpful. In fact, it’s harmful.

If you don’t have a bandage, then you may have to make do with strips of clothes. Immobilise the limb and the person. It’s really important to keep the person as still and as calm as possible to reduce the spread of the venom.

Call for help – did you know you can call 112 from you mobile phone and even if you’re out of range with your telco service provider and as long as you’re in range of another telco carrier, you can get through to triple zero (000) emergency services.

Even if you can’t get help, some people say that it’s better to wait it out than get the person moving, that you will do more harm by helping the person to move (and helping the venom to spread) than by keeping them still and allowing their body to fight the venom.

Snake bite symptoms

Snake bite symptoms can include:

  • pain and swelling at the site of the bite
  • nausea or vomiting
  • stomach pain
  • dizziness
  • breathing difficulties
  • difficulty swallowing
  • weakness
  • confusion.

In really severe cases snake bite symptoms can include paralysis, coma and death! (Eeek!)

Dry bites

When snakes bite, they usually strike first with a warning bite that doesn’t contain venom (it’s the second and third bites that will inflict damage). This is known as a ‘dry bite’. So even if you are bitten by a snake, the snake might not ‘envenomate’ you, meaning you won’t experience any of the above symptoms, apart from mild pain and swelling at the bite site.

The time I got bitten by a snake

When I was bitten by a snake, it was a dry bite. I had been rock climbing at Camel’s Hump in Mount Macedon with my housemates and it was late in the day when we returned to my car.

It was right on dusk and we lost the path and were bush-bashing in the general direction of the car park. It was right on twilight and when I looked down into the bush, I could vaguely see my white runners, that kind of light.

I must have stepped on the snake. It bit me on the ankle. I felt a very sharp, stabbing pain and cried out. I didn’t know what it was at the time. I hopped and limped back to the care, which wasn’t very far. (So much for the immobilisation rule!)

When we got back to the car, my ankle had swollen. It looked like there was a boiled egg on it, with two holes in it, one slightly larger than the other, and two trails of blood trickling out.

“Snake bite!” My housemate cried in delight. They both thought it was hilarious and one took my keys and insisted on driving me home. She said to let her know if I felt like passing out and she’d take me to the hospital…

This incident happened more than 20 years ago and my two housemates had been camping, hiking and rockclimbing for most of their young lives and I was a novice, so I trusted their experience and judgment. Silly me. You should always assume that the snake envenomated you.

But thankfully I was perfectly OK. I had a nice scar for a few years that has since faded. 

My dad also received a dry bite from a snake when his leg fell through some rotten wooden planks and into a shallow ditch. The startled snake bit him on the calf and like me, he had a sore and swollen area on his leg with puncture wounds.

My tales just go to show that snakes aren’t evil.

Snakes are shy creatures. If you are lucky enough to see a snake while hiking, just think, for every snake you saw, there were probably a dozen more you didn’t…

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