outbackjoe

a camping trip of ridiculous proportions

Snakes When Going Bush

last updated 18/01/2017

mountain viper snake

There’s a common perception, among both Australians and those from other countries, that the Australian outback is a dangerous place to visit because of snakes. TV shows will tell you we have the top 9 out of 10 most dangerous snakes in the world or something along those lines. Culturally we have been trained to fear snakes which compounds the dangerous perception. So how risky is it, and how do you reduce the risk? Is it safe to venture out into the aussie outback? This article explains my position on the matter.

I’m not an experienced snake handler but I have done a snake handling course when working on a mine in Western Australia. Combined with a heap of camping and touring around Australia, I’ve had some level of exposure to snakes. The first thing I learnt when trying to catch a deadly western brown snake (an extremely venomous and fiercely defensive snake) during the snake handling training was that snakes don’t consider humans as prey and generally want to just get out of the way and hide. As I found out when gingerly trying to coerce a snake into a sack, it’s much more likely to scurry off and get lost in some furniture in the training room than it is biting someone. During the training we tried catching numerous deadly Australian snakes, always with the same results. Snakes just want to get out of your way and be left alone. The instructor confirmed this as being typical across all poisonous snakes in Australia.

Snakes generally won’t pursue a human. They want to get out of the way and hide. Usually a human is bitten by a snake only when a snake is provoked, surprised, feels threatened, chased, cornered or stepped on.

I’ve been beating around the bush in Australia for over ten years and I’ve probably seen around a dozen snakes. That’s an average of not much more than 1 snake per year. Many of those snakes were seen whilst driving in a vehicle. It’s rare to see a snake when walking through bush. They are elusive creatures and will usually get out of your way long before you see them. I’m not a snake enthusiast and I don’t deliberately try to photograph snakes. However if I see a snake I’ll get out the camera and take a picture. I’ve only ever managed to take a couple of photos of snakes. Usually you don’t see them at all and when you do they are usually gone before you can take a shot. On our trip around Australia we’ve managed two snake photos – one in Fitzgerald National Park in southern WA and the other in the backyard of the place we stayed at in Katherine, Northern Territory.

snake crossing track fitzgerald river national park

One of my few photos of a snake, taken from a vehicle whilst driving along a dirt track in Fitzgerald National park.

brown tree snake in backyard

Brown tree snake we found in our backyard whilst living in Katherine, Northern Territory.

When a snake bites, often it’s a dry bite (no poison injected). When there is envenomation, often it’s not a fatal dose. Even if a dangerous dose of poison is injected, first aid is effective in prolonging life long enough to seek medical help. Once you get help modern anti-venom is universally effective. So you’re chances of being bitten by a snake are small and your chances of surviving a snake bite are good. Fatalities have been very rare since the advent of anti-venom.

So in my opinion snakes are inherently a pretty low risk. They don’t eat humans. They want to keep away from humans. Their bites are almost always survivable. The “most dangerous” claims come from experiments conducted regarding poison potency. This does not measure how aggressive a snake is towards humans, how likely a human is to be bitten by a snake, how much poison is typically injected during a bite, how effective treatment is and how likely a bitten human is to survive a bite. So you could have a snake that has never been involved in a human fatality being labelled extremely dangerous due to having potent venom. Actually that is exactly the case with the Inland Taipan of Australia, also known as the Fierce Snake. Never involved in a fatality, yet it’s the most venomous snake in the world. A TV show will sensationally convey that as being deadly. Actually, according to recorded history, it’s not deadly at all, having never caused a death. Think of something in the world that’s caused at least one death and it’s more deadly than the Inland Taipan. Sitting on your couch is more deadly.

Although snakes aren’t very deadly according to how many people they kill, they still pose a risk and we do see a couple of fatalities every year, so if you’re worried about snakes and want to minimize the risk then follow these guidelines:

  • If you see a snake, do not approach it.
  • If a snake is blocking your trail, wait for it to move away on its own accord.
  • Never chase, corner or try to kill a snake.
  • Wear sturdy shoes, preferably boots that cover your ankles. Your feet and ankles are the most likely place to be bitten by a snake. Protect them with tough boots.
  • Wear loose fitting trousers. A snake’s brain is programmed to immediately clamp down and inject venom as soon as contact is made with their target. If you have loose trousers, there’s a good chance a striking snake will clamp down on the trousers before making contact with your skin. Apart from your feet and ankles, your legs are the next most likely place to be bitten by a snake so loose fitting trousers are a good idea.
  • Take care with where you place your foot. Check several steps ahead to ensure you won’t step on a snake. Stepping on a snake is a sure way of getting bitten.
  • Make noise and vibration when walking. Tread firmly. Take a walking stick or hiking stick with you and smash it into the ground with each step you take. When traversing sections of trail that are obscured by vegetation, first rattle the bushes with your stick before rattling them with your body as you walk through. Poke around with your stick to scare away any snakes.
  • Avoid scenarios that would put a snake in a situation where it felt like it couldn’t escape. Close your car doors. Zip up your tent. Don’t leave  blankets and clothes and towels outside. For example, if a snake makes its way into your sleeping bag inside your tent then you have a dangerous situation. The snake will feel cornered and will likely become aggressive.
  • If using your hands to climb or scramble over obstacles, watch where you’re putting them. Look out for snakes.
  • If approaching on obstacle, like a log, that you must step over, first check the other side before stepping over. A nice way to avoid blindly stepping over is to get into the habit of first stepping onto the obstacle.
  • If you’re really worried you can get some snake proof gaiters / leg armor. These are protective sheaths that wrap around the lower half of your legs and are usually reserved for serious hunters bush bashing through remote areas. With sturdy boots and snake proof gaiters you have eliminated the vast majority of potential snake bites.
  • Learn snake first aid.
  • Carry a compression bandage with you on your travels and when you walk.

Knowing snake first aid is extremely important. The venom of Australian snakes travels through the lymphatic system before it enters the blood stream. This makes first aid very effective in slowing down the spread of venom. It’s so effective there’s a good chance the venom will spread so slowly that your body will be able to cope with no treatment at all. My understanding of snake first aid is as follows, but do your own research, the are some variations and I’m not an expert:

  • Make the victim safe from more snake bites or any other danger.
  • Wrap the entire limb in a compression bandage. It should be tight, like for a sprained ankle, but not tight enough to restrict circulation.
  • In general clothing should not be removed, since clothing delays the application of the compression bandage and causes unnecessary movement. If there are too many layers of clothing to effectively compress then limb then some clothing may need to be removed.
  • Immobilise the limb with splints or slings or by strapping the limb to another part of the body.
  • Keep the victim calm. Stop them from moving. Keep their heart rate down. Reassure them that snake bite first aid is effective and how important it is to stay calm and still to slow down the spread of venom.
  • It is extremely important that the victim does not move the bitten limb. The lymphatic system relies on muscle movement for flow. Moving the limb will cause rapid spread of venom. No movement combined with compression bandage is effective in greatly slowing down the spread of venom.
  • Keep the limb low so that the lymphatic system has to work against gravity.
  • If you’re on a hiking trail and the victim has been bitten on the leg, then the victim stays on the hiking trail. Walking will cause rapid spread of venom which could lead to rapid escalation of symptoms. Do not walk the victim out. Set them up with some shade, appropriate clothing and water and leave them there.
  • If not bitten on the leg, then it may be an option for the victim to walk, if it means the victim will get treatment much more rapidly compared to waiting on the trail. Venom will spread faster than if the victim remains motionless. It’s a tradeoff.
  • Get medical help as soon as possible.

There is one snake in Australia that sometimes doesn’t get out of the way – the death adder. The death adder hunts by coiling itself up in leaf litter or sand and sitting still waiting for an easy lunch to scurry by. It uses its camouflage to remain undetected from its prey. Unfortunately it also uses its camouflage to evade potential threats. So instead of slithering away it may remain still as you approach. Apparently the origin of the death adder’s name is deaf adder – the early settlers of Australia thought it was deaf since it had a habit of remaining still when approached. You need to be watching where you’re going and looking out for any circular shaped patterns in your path when beating around the bush, and using your walking stick to poke through any obscuring leaf litter. If you step on a death adder you’re going to get bitten. The death adder doesn’t want to eat you and won’t actively pursue you but if you step on him he’s gonna be pissed. If you’re watching where you’re going and leading with your walking stick the risk is mostly mitigated.

Hopefully this article helps reduce the worry out of travelling the Australian outback. Practice some common sense and be vigilant, and you shouldn’t have any problems with snakes. With the huge quantity of people travelling Australia and walking through the bush in Australia, it’s very rare to hear of a snake bite, and even rarer to hear of a fatality. There are other more important things to worry about when travelling Australia, like how are you going to visit all the beautiful places in the finite time you have.

See also:

Croc Safety – Land Based Fishing With Crocodiles

Bush Tucker, Plants and Animals

XXXX Gold – The Great Mystery of the Top End

back to Australian Places and General Travel

more articles by outbackjoe

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6 thoughts on “Snakes When Going Bush

  1. Hey Joe, great blog! I’ve just come across this and love the common sense approach to snakes mentioned here. I’m an engineer myself and can see the logic and sense coming through your advice, which is why I’d like your opinion on something else. I see a lot of people not using tents, either setting up a tarp, or simply sleeping out on the ground beside the fire in summer. Is there any real danger of spiders, snakes or other issues with this? I’ve always felt protected from these things in a zip up tent, ot my hammock, but would like to try the tarp thing for lightweight walking, just unsure if there’s any mitigation I can take to avoid pissing off local fauna. I see your snake advice above…how abbout spiders? Any thoughts? Cheers, and keep up the good work.

    • Hey Andy interesting question, it’s actually something I’ve thought about, to sleep out under the stars in some super simple bedding. But I have never done it and have no experience with it. Like you I have always had a tent. I am interested to find out more. In the old days the explorers and livestock drovers, prospectors etc all just slept on a blanket or something, under a tarp if necessary. And recent popular survival dudes sometimes sleep without a swag or tent. I am sure some people still do it. Clear out all the loose material down to bare earth – this reduces the risk a lot. Most of the time there would be a campfire nearby which helps to keep things away. Clear up all rubbish and food scraps and put it somewhere else. This prevents mice and bugs coming in that would attract the bad guys. Probably you just have to put up with the odd spider in your pants. That’s not too bad, a bit of a scare and irritating bite. But what about snakes? I dunno the answer. A snake in your bedding would be rather unpleasant. I’ve heard of the old tale of laying a rope on the ground enclosing the camp. Snakes don’t like crossing it. But I think that idea was refuted on an episode of mythbusters. A wide ground sheet may discourage snakes since they may be spooked slithering across something they have never encountered. This is all third hand info, I have no experience. Can’t help ya much, I’d love to find out more.

  2. Good article. There is far too much fear and disinformation spread about these rather beautiful animals, having said that, getting bitten is likely to spoil your trip somewhat. A compression bandage, splint and a calm demeanor in those helping is definitely the best initial first aid, however getting the correct amount of tension on the pressure bandage can be a bit of a trick – too loose and it doesn’t work, to tight (for too long) and well that doesn’t really bare thinking about, also a lot of pressure bandages are just not long enough. Fiddling about and botching up the dressing of someone who rightly or wrongly thinks that they might be not long for this earth is really not something that you want to do. Setopress make a brilliant bandage. It has offset squares printed on the bandage and when you pull it to the correct tension the squares stretch to the correct shape and form proper squares. That way there is no need to guess the correct tension in the bandage. They are a bit expensive though – $16. each. I now have one in the bushwalking gear, one in the glovebox and one rather grubby battered looking one that has been used for practice by me and the rest of the family.

    http://www.baysidebush.org.au/system/files/articles/SetopressBandage.pdf

    also love this poem about a snake by Mr D.H. Lawrence

    http://homepages.wmich.edu/~cooneys/poems/dhl.snake.html

    • Hello Joe, I just found your impressive site. What a great resource mate.
      I am also an engineer by trade, but more importantly an avid fisherman and keen outdoors man.
      A few years ago I had six months travelling to the remote and wonderful, we were certainly not as organised as you.

      We started in Melbourne, drove west around the coast at the bottom to Port Augusta, then north to Alice springs, Katherine, Darwin, back to Katherine, east to Ramingining for a couple of weeks, back to Katherine again, and then out to Nhulunbuy to spend time with Djalu ( a Yolngu elder and custodian of Yidaki), yes back to Katherine again! ( I liked Katherine can’t explain why, it just seemed to fit with me, do you know Coco? He lives there) Then west on highway 1 to Broom for a few days, continued to follow the coast south, we stopped for six weeks in Exmouth, mainly fishing, then the coast road to Perth for a week, Albany, finally east along the coast to Melbourne.

      I went completely a novice traveller, and I had a very steep learning curve. Made plenty of mistakes but thankfully we all survived.

      Next time I would like to be prepared and organized, so with that in mind finding your site will help immensely, thank you.

      Last time I took our dog, he is a splendid creature but trying to keep him safe was a full time job, every day we had a different set of threats to him, I remember a few evenings spent suturing his cuts and worrying myself to sleep.
      Do you know if there other folk that travel with there dogs?
      I just wondered if you knew of any sites or maybe you have friends that have dogs, that could share advice or info on keeping them as safe as possible when traveling.
      I see you have a great section on snakes, like you I believe if you leave them alone; they won’t come looking for you.
      Before we set off on our next adventure, I will have the dog, snake awareness trained. (Small electric shock via a collar as he approach’s a snake)
      Any idea where and who might be able to help train him?
      It would be great to keep in touch, I left my email address when posting this, and hopefully you can retrieve it from there.

      Kind regards Stu and the crew.

      P.S. congrats on the little one.

      • Hey Stu not too sure about dogs. We’ve never traveled with one. We have friends who short term travel to dodgy bush camping sites up and down the coast from Perth where no one cares if you have a dog. No special training but the dog naturally hangs around the owner and always returns on his own accord after venturing out exploring. Long term travel is harder, especially since you aren’t allowed to go to any National Parks. We found people we met on our trip who had dogs mainly stayed in caravan parks and stayed in towns. If you want to head out bush you need to find out where you’re allowed to go and plan accordingly. Training and stuff I dunno anything about. Also need to plan ahead for caravan parks because many don’t allow dogs. I’m not much help for ya sorry dude, don’t really have any experience. A dog does restrict you and reduce flexibility, but I’m sure with some planning you can still have a great time. Good luck with your planning and travels.

  3. Further info on pressure bandaging: As a ‘snake rescuer’ I use and recommend horse fetlock bandage. The reason is that it sticks to itself as you wrap it so that if, for example, you get bitten on your good arm/hand you do not need to waste time fumbling with pins, clips or, even worse, knot tying while you are meant keep the arm still.

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