What’s the one thing that people fear most when they head into the Australian bush, whether for hiking or some other form of outdoor leisure activity?
I’ve asked around, and the general consensus is snakebite.
Hopefully by now you’ve read my previous post on how to avoid a snakebite, so you’ll know how to minimise your chances of being bitten. As I’ve pointed out though, accidents can and do happen.
I promised a follow-up article on snakebite first-aid, but before I go into that I want to answer some questions that were sent my way by Mike (from Windy Hilltops), in the comments section of the aforementioned post. I’ve split up Mike’s comment, in order to answer more clearly. His questions are in block-quotes…
What would have happened if you’d trodden on it? (Ed.: Mike is referring to the close encounter with a tiger-snake that I mentioned in my previous post) Would it be likely that you’d get bitten?
I posed this question to Australian snake expert, Peter Mirtschin. His response was, “If you stand on a snake you are more likely to be bitten than if you walk past one.”
“The likelihood (or probability) of being bitten when stepping on a snake is unknown.” This actually tends to be the common theme when it comes to statistics on snakebite. Solid statistics are quite tricky to find, and many of those that I’ve found are potentially misleading.
“I would suggest that most times snakes are stepped on they don’t bite but frantically try to free themselves. I can’t attribute my latter thoughts however to any science.”
Are there any particular stats comparing off-track with on-track? If I end up surrounded by long grass then I sometimes get a bit wary, especially if it’s clearly a place where there haven’t been many or any other people making vibrations during any recent history…
Though I’m unable to find any statistics comparing off-track with on-track hiking, Peter Mirtschin gives a fairly definitive answer. “Walking in long grass, scrub, anywhere at night without a torch, or in any circumstances where you can’t see where you are walking, increases the chances of a bite. Snakes are quite used to striking in confined situations. Many hunt animals in burrows for instance.”
Snakes have very poor hearing and vision, so they will only know that humans are nearby if they can feel their footstep vibrations.
If you find yourself hiking somewhere where nobody has recently passed-by, it would definitely be more likely to encounter a snake.
How do bites typically pan out? Are they generally fatal, or generally not?
According to statistics from the University of Melbourne’s Australian Venom Research Unit (AVRU), there are several thousand snake-bite cases each year Australia-wide. Yet only about 300 of these require antivenom. I’d conclude that they are generally not fatal.
However, once bitten you have no way to know if you’ve been envenomated. You should always follow recommended first-aid procedures (read on to find out what they are). A study by Dr Ken Winkel at the AVRU found that in fatal snake-bite cases, the majority were not properly treated.
Do they leave you well-off for a reasonable enough amount of time to walk out and seek medical attention, or are you completely dependent on attracting attention from someone to get help or being able to treat it yourself?
Any movement after being bitten by a snake will make the venom move more quickly through your body. This will increase damage and the likelihood of a fatality.
I’m well aware of the reality that many of us like to hike alone, often without mobile-reception or access to a satellite-phone or emergency beacon. I do it myself. However, the only recommendation I can give you is just don’t.
When hiking in such areas without company or access to emergency communication, you are risking your life.
This brings me to my simple guide on the recommended first-aid procedure for snake-bite…
- Do not try to catch or kill the snake. Move just far enough away from it to be safe and then remain as still as possible.
- Remain calm, and send or phone for help.
- If the bite isn’t on a limb (this is unlikely), apply pressure to the bite. Make sure not to restrict chest movement.
- If on a limb, apply a broad pressure bandage and splint…
- The bandage should be applied from the fingers or toes, towards the victim’s body (as far up the limb as possible).
- Fingers or toes should be left visible, so that circulation can still be checked
- Apply the bandage firmly, but ensure that circulation is not being cut-off.
- Bandage over the top of clothing, rather than removing it.
- Any rigid object can be used as a splint.
- If the bite is on a leg, bind as much of the leg as possible to the splint.
- If it’s on the hand or forearm, bind the splint to the forearm and use a sling to further prevent arm movement
Those are the basics, but there are a couple of other things worth knowing…
If no compression bandages are available, one can be made from any piece of material (e.g. a t-shirt or pair of jeans). Pressure is essential in helping slow the spread of venom around the victim’s body.
It has long been recommended that you carry 2-3 broad compression bandages as part of your hiking first-aid kit. More recent wisdom suggests that Setopress bandages may be even better. These keep pressure on the limb more effectively and consistently over time, and are easier to apply with the correct amount of pressure.
According to researchers at the University of Newcastle, angina ointment might also be a valuable addition to your hiking kit. Applying this to a snake-bite has been shown, in experiments, to slow movement of venom through the lymphatic system, giving you more time to wait for medical help.
So there you have it… This is (I hope) about as solid a guide as you’ll find anywhere to the hiker’s worst-case scenario snake encounter. I hope you never have to use it.
Have I missed anything crucial? Do you have anything to add? Or a snake encounter story you’d like to share? If you have anything to say, please let us know by commenting below.