Snakes on the Trail

Our slithery friends

Ask most new hikers what their concerns are and snakes will be high on their list. While we need to be aware of snakes and show them respect, the chance of getting bitten is relatively low. The Australian Snakebite Project (June 2017) shows that on average between 2005-2015, that two people a year die from being bitten by a snake. This study also concludes that only 11% of the bites occurred in bushland however, from a hiker’s perspective that number is probably still worrying. Surprisingly 14% of envenomation occurred when people tried to catch or kill a snake, but this figure did include snake handlers.

As some stage, if you are an active bushwalker, you will come across snakes on the trail. I certainly do and how we react can determine the outcome. The following information is intended as a guide to assist in getting on well with our scaly friends while out in the bush.

Snake Behaviour

Snakes are cold blooded and as such in the southern parts of Australia it is less likely you will come across them in the cooler months however once the days start to warm up, they are often out and about seeking somewhere warm to heat up, looking for mates or feeding. It is not uncommon to find snakes coiled up on the trail sleeping as often trails will be in open sunny areas so what you think might be a stick may not be. Remember to always look where you put your feet and don’t assume that when you step over logs that the path is clear.

The majority of snakebites in Australia (73%) can be attributed to three species of snakes:

  • Brown Snake (41%)
  • Tiger Snake (16%)
  • Red-bellied Black Snake (16%)

While each of these snakes has their own ‘personality’ and is often very distinct in appearance and behaviours, sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart unless you are an expert particularly given the brevity of the sighting and sometimes they don’t have the ‘typical colouration’ you may expect. You are better off treating any snake you see with respect and leaving it well alone.

How do snakes view us?

Snakes don’t view us a food but they may consider us as a threat. They will usually (but not always) only attack if cornered or in the unfortunate circumstance where you have accidently trodden on them. In most cases they well try to get out of our way.

While most snakes have excellent eyesight, their main sense is that of smell (via their tongue). Snakes can also detect vibrations from when we walk but from personal experience when the ground is soft this sense doesn’t work so well and they may not know you are there. In the cover image for this article I came within about 60 cm of this Copperhead snake which was looking for food. I didn’t see it till I came around a bush, and it didn’t realise I was there as the ground was so soft and spongy. I carefully backed off a few meters before taking a photo and then found another way round.

What do I do if I encounter a snake?

  • If you see a snake stand still to try and determine what it is doing
  • Once you have determined its action, move away slowly preferably in the opposite direction and allow the snake to move on
  • Never try to kill or handle a snake. Apart from it being illegal to harm/kill snakes in most states, this is when a fair number of bites occur. People have handled dead snakes and managed to eject venom accidently so dead or alive, treat any snake with respect
  • Pay attention. Scan the trail ahead of you and don’t assume that just because something looks like a stick that it is
  • Don’t hike in shorts in areas where snakes are well known. Either wear heavy grade long pants or wear gaiters, or both
  • Wear solid footwear in areas where snakes are known to be present
  • Don’t walk off trail, or through long grass unless you have the right protective gear (gaiters and long pants)
  • Use trekking poles, particularly where there is dense undergrowth
  • Be careful where you put your hands, this includes when collecting firewood

What do I do if a snake bites me?

The Australian Snakebite Project (June 2017) has determined that approximately 52% of bites were to the lower limbs and given that many bites identified in this study were attributed to people trying to handle the snake, the lower limbs are where you as hiker are likely to be bitten. While snakes don’t always inject venom when they bite it is better to assume that this has occurred if you have been bitten. Follow these steps:

  • Do not wash or clean the wound, do not try to suck the poison out or discard the clothing. Identification of the snake will be drawn from these areas and will assist with the provision of anti venom
  • Stake calm and stay still until help arrives. Movement will just shift the poison around the body
  • Apply pressure immobilisation. Everyone who bushwalks should have training in First Aid training and should know how to apply pressure immobilisation to themselves or to others in addition knowing how to manage shock and other issues that may arise
  • Call for help either through your phone (mobile/satellite) or activate your Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
  • Without handling the snake in any way, try to determine what it was that bit you e.g. colour, general appearance etc. If you can, take a photo but make sure you don’t endanger yourself or others in the process
  • Many websites also suggest marking your skin where the bite occurred to make it easy to identify the bite area

Last words

So as far as snakes go, what it comes down to is plan for what happens when, and not if, you come across a snake when out hiking. In most cases just appreciate our natural fauna from a distance. In the unlikely event of a bite you should know what you need to do to help yourself or others.

Listen to our podcast episode 042 – Snakes, ticks and spiders on the trail

Red Bellied Black Snake crossing the management trail. This specimen appears to have only recently shed its skin as its very glossy in colouration

Brown Snake (grey in colour) sunning itself on the management trail heading towards Mount Gingera


The Australian Snakebite Project (June 2017) 

Australian Hiker Newsletter

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