Snakes

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Rattlesnake | Pacific Crest Trail, Mojave Desert, CA, USA, 2007

Snakes aren’t interested in biting hikers.

Whether you’re walking down the trail, sleeping under the stars or taking a sneaky number two behind a not-quite-big-enough bush, snakes want to avoid a potential encounter just as much as you do.

That being said, snakes will protect themselves if the need arises. Put yourself in their skin; if someone was about to step on you, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to prevent it happening?

Snake bites generally occur due to human carelessness or lack of awareness. Keep your wits about you, take the necessary precautions and the chances of being bitten are remote.

Prevention

Listed below are six safety tips that can help in minimizing the likelihood of snake bite:

1.  Wide Berth: Most snakes will slither off when they “hear”/feel the vibrations of your footsteps. In the event that this does not occur, use common sense. If a snake is sunning itself in the middle of a trail and shows no inclination of moving, let it be and go around it. If there is no way to bypass it, stomp your feet from a safe distance.

2.  Watch your Step: Without being paranoid, pay attention to the trail ahead of you. When crossing logs/blowdowns, whenever possible step on, rather than over obstacles. Snakes may be taking a siesta on the other side.

3.  Clothing: The majority of snake bites are to the ankle/lower leg area, followed by the hands (see below). If the path is overgrown or you are bushwhacking off-trail, it is a good idea to wear long, loose-fitting pants or gaiters.

4.  Hand Placement: As with your feet, try not to put your hands anywhere you cannot see (e.g. ledges, hollowed out logs).

5.  Trekking Pole / Staff: In conditions such as those mentioned above, it is handy to have a trekking pole/sturdy stick in order to push back vegetation as you are moving along.

6.  Footwear: Wear shoes/boots rather than sandals when hiking in snake country. Whilst taking a pee in the middle of the night, put on some footwear and carry a headlamp/torch.

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Tiger Snake | Bibbulmun Track, Australia, 2010

Treatment

Different snakes produce different types of venom. As a consequence, certain First Aid recommendations for snake bite are country or regional specific (see Treatment in Australia below).

Nonetheless, there are a handful of widely accepted steps that the victim can take irrespective of their geographic location. Ten Tips on what to do if bitten by a snake:

1.  Stay calm: People are more likely to go into shock from fear and agitation than they are from the actual bite itself.

2.  Do not try to capture the snake. If the snake is still in view and you aren’t sure of its species, take a photo of it for identification purposes. This would probably be a good time to use the zoom if you’re looking for a close-up. Definitely no “group selfies“………I was going to put a little smiley face here, but I suspect there have been numerous yahoos that have actually done this.

3.  Do not use antiquated methods such as cutting the area, sucking out the poison or applying a tourniquet.

4.  The value of Extractor Pumps is questionable at best, and their use is not recommended by snakebite experts.

5.  Remove any jewellery in case of swelling.

6.  Do not drink alcohol or caffeine.

7.  Limiting movement is vital. If possible, immobilize the bitten limb with a splint. Firm, but not too tight, as you need to allow for swelling.

8.  If you are close to trailhead, slowly walk out and then seek medical attention immediately.

9.  If you are a long distance from civilization and have cell phone service, call Emergency services and seek medical advice. If there is no phone service and you are hiking in a group, one of the members should walk out and seek medical assistance ASAP.

10.  Hiking Solo: If you are hiking solo and have no cell phone (or at least no coverage) you are left with a decision to make. You either wait for help or walk out. If you are hiking in a popular area then your best bet is the former option. On the other hand if you are bitten in a place where the odds of someone coming along are slim, your only alternative may be to walk out. If this is your decision, do not rush as it will only increase the rate in which the venom is spread. In such a scenario, it is even more important that you splint the bitten limb in order to limit any unnecessary movement.

Treatment in Australia

My homeland of Australia is the deadly snake capital of the world. Yay for us. Indeed, it is the only country/continent in which the majority of snakes are venomous.

Since the 1970’s the recommended treatment for all snake bites in Australia is the Pressure Immobilization Method, a technique that differs from regions with mostly non-neurotoxic snakes (e.g. North America & Europe) in the following ways:

Inland Taipan – The world’s most venomous snake | Endemic to semi-arid regions of central east Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

  • In Australia it is recommended the victim DOES NOT wash the venom off the skin, as it may help in identification. This point in direct contrast to countries with non-neurotoxic snakes, in which medical authorities recommend immediately cleaning the wound with soap and water or antiseptic solution.
  • Apply a Pressure Bandage / Pressure Immobilization Technique:  Instead of washing the bitten area, in Australia the victim is recommended to immediately apply a pressure bandage to the extremity in question. Beginning with the lower portion of the limb,  the bandage should be wrapped as high as possible; not to tight, not too loose. The purpose of the Pressure Immobilization Technique is to retard the movement of venom through the lymphatic system, by means of a combination of a firmly applied bandage and immobilization of the bitten limb. Click here for step-by-step instructions from the Queensland Government’s Poisons Information Centre.
    • Alternative Bandages: If you are not carrying a broad pressure bandage, your best option is to tear strips from whatever clothing items you have in your pack. Stretchy items such as thermal tops and bottoms are ideal.

Final Word

If after reading the above paragraphs you are a little concerned, take solace in the fact that death by snakebite is extremely rare. You have more chance of being hit by a car or being struck by lightning. Indeed, I have spent a great deal of time hiking in the boonies of Australia over the years and have never once been bitten. That being said, most of my friends have……….a few of them are still alive.  ;-)