Snakes. As we crawl out of winter hiking hibernation and start to hit the tracks again in early spring our slithery friends are usually top of mind and keep us on our toes when passing through the overgrown track.
There’s lots of info out there about the behaviours of snakes and what to do when bitten and it can all be a bit confusing. So we sat down with Dr Timothy Jackson a toxinologist from University of Melbourne recently to get his take as a snake venom expert on what hikers should be doing when out on the track this season.
Watch the full (1 hour) interview here and read the 5 tips we took from it below:
1. Be Prepared & Know The Right Bandaging Techniques
I feel like a bit of a dunce admitting this, but until being reminded by Tim, I had no idea what good bandaging is nor had I practiced it. Practice makes perfect and all that.
Dr Jackson on how to bandage a snake bite and immobilise a limb: "Start at the end of the bitten limb and bandage up and down, splint the limb, possibly bandage the limb to the body if you can, immobilise it in whatever way is available and you do want it to be tight."
He goes on to remind us not to bandage too tight. "You do not wanna be cutting off circulation for fairly obvious reasons, that could do more damage to the limb so you want to do the press test. [If you press the skin and] it goes white and stays white the bandage is too tight but you want it as tight as possible whilst protecting circulation."
Carrying a PLB is an important part of a good snake bite kit. We've written over on the Hiking in Australia and New Zealand blog about the benefits of carrying a PLB and if you're stuck in a remote place with no way out if you're all bandaged up because of a snake bite it's probably a situation where you may need to set your PLB off, if there is no other way to reach help.
And, if you're hiking solo it's important to be extra prepared and mindful of the risks.
"Not to mince words, you're obviously in a worse situation if you're on your own and you get bitten. That's just the reality of it. Because the first way, that we understand, that is effective in delaying the onset of serious symptoms following a bite from a potentially dangerous Australian snake is pressure immobilisation".
If you're 2 days hike from your car, by yourself, in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park in Tasmania and you get bitten by a tiger snake, you have a bit ahead of you. Indeed, you ought to be following the pressure immobilisation steps but you really need a way of getting help that doesn't require you to hike out. Again, the importance of the PLB. And, knowing how to bandage your own limbs effective.
2. Carry a Proper Snake Bandage
There are bandages and there are bandages suitable for snake bites.
Tim doesn't necessarily recommend one brand over another but said this on the differences between different types of bandages: "Some bandages will exert a broad and even pressure and maintain pressure for a longer period of time and some bandages, which might be suited for sprained ankle or something like that, so they'll give a bit of support, but they won't exert that kind of even sustained pressure needed."
He recommends a bandage with compression indicators. "These bandages are pretty available and they have these little squares on them. You stretch the squares to make rectangles and they also change colour and that tells you how much pressure is being exerted basically by how much you stretched the bandage."
St Johns sell this kind of bandage: go here.
3. Snakes Don't Necessarily Hibernate in Winter
When we were preparing the questions for this interview by asking folk in the Hiking in Australia and New Zealand group, one of the most common questions was: "Do snakes hibernate in winter and come out of hibernation in spring?"
Tim gave a detailed and interesting answer as to the behaviours of snakes in Australia:
"In Australia, we would tend to use terms like 'brumate' or maybe 'estivate', depending on where we are in Australia.
Most of the snakes brumate which means that they slow down a lot in winter. They're not necessarily feeding, they're certainly not mating, they're not doing a lot of foraging or moving or whatever but you still might see a snake on a nice day in winter.
I've seen a few tiger snakes this winter in my local area [in metropolitan Melbourne] but I know that as the weather starts to shift in early spring here in Melbourne we get a really big 'snakes in spring' kind of phenomenon. I'll see a lot more tiger snakes but it's not that they're not present or not above ground or whatever during winter they're just a lot less active. And, fair enough, Melbourne in winter can be a bit miserable.
Brumation is the term that we would use that is less extreme than hibernation. Estivation really refers to another kind of slowing down or almost a complete shutdown but that's associated usually, not necessarily, with colder temperatures but with lack of water. So, if you're up in the wet-dry tropics, a lot of animals, a lot of reptiles including some snakes, will also have this kind of seasonal pattern to their behavior so they're more active at times than others. But that might be more associated with rainfall than with whether it's hot or cold."
4. Admire and Respect Snakes and Give Them Space
It's been said before but it's true: snakes aren't out to get us hikers. They're autonomous creatives that we share a habitat with and they just want to survive, further their genes, and do their thing.
The advice to stay still if you come up against a snake generally holds. "If you stop moving, if you're far away from a snake, it will lose interest in you pretty quickly" says the toxinologist.
Importantly, if you see a snake on the track and there is plenty of space between you and them appreciate the moment. You've just seen a fascinating and beautiful creature in its natural environment.