A Hikers’ Guide to Snake Encounters & Snakebites

A Hikers’ Guide to Snake Encounters & Snakebites


If you are a regular hiker in South Africa. you would have walked through many forests and grasslands, over majestic mountains and rivers in this beautiful country. You also may have wondered, as you follow the trail, “are there snakes in the grass, behind that log or under that pile of rocks?”. I have done many hikes in the few short years that I have taken the sport seriously and besides hearing a rustle in the leaves alongside the path, I had never encountered a snake or even seen a snake while hiking.

Although I had certainly considered the possibility of encountering a venomous snake while out hiking on a very hot summers day, I had never really considered the consequences of getting bitten by a snake far away from a hospital emergency room. Each time I went for a hike and returned home without seeing a snake, the possibility of a snake encounter grew more and more remote. So much so that I never included any snakebite specific supplies in my hiking first aid kit.

This all changed quite dramatically on the 14th of January 2018, whilst hiking in Newlands forest with a colleague, when a boomslang slithered across the path in my direction.

At the last second, the snake turned away from me, giving me the opportunity to take the featured photo for this post. Absolutely nothing happened. I was nowhere near being bitten and nor was my colleague, but that brief encounter with a highly venomous snake changed my perspective on hiking and the likelihood of snake encounters. A snake encounter might be extremely rare, but when it happens, possibly in the middle of nowhere, you should know how to handle yourself.

The very next week, Belinda and I enrolled in a snake awareness / snakebite first aid course presented by Johan Marais of the African Snakebite Institute. I wholeheartedly recommend signing up for this course. It is practically focused and packed with useful information on what to do when encountering a snake and more importantly, what to do if you or one of your fellow hikers gets bitten. For more information on the courses offered by the African Snakebite Institute visit their website.



Different Types of Snake Venom

The first thing that you should be aware of is that venomous snakes have different kinds of venom. These different kinds of venom cause very different symptoms in the human body.

In First Aid for Snakebites, a booklet written by Johan Marais, he describes the three types of venom as follows:



“Neurotoxic venom affects the nervous system. Symptoms may include drowsiness, vomiting, increased sweating, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech and difficulty in swallowing, speaking, breathing and weakness of other muscle groups. The respiratory muscles are gradually paralysed which leads to respiratory failure”.

Snakes that have neurotoxic venom include: Black Mambas, Green Mambas and all non spitting cobras like the Cape Cobra.




“Cytotoxic venom affects the tissue and muscle cells. Symptoms may include immediate burning pain at the site of the bite followed by local swelling that could continue for several days. In severe cases the entire limb may swell. Local tissue necrosis is quite common and may result in the loss of the limb”.

Snakes that have cytotoxic venom include: the Puff Adder, Night Adders and the Mozambique Spitting Cobra.




“Haemotoxic venom affects the clotting mechanism of the blood. There is little or no swelling and very little pain initially. The bite is followed by oozing of blood from the bite site after a few hours, headache, mental confusion, nausea, vomiting and increased sweating… Kidney failure and brain haemorrhage may occur after a few days”.

Snakes that have haemotoxic venom include: the common Boomslang.



What to do if you Encounter a Snake on a Hike

If you come across a snake in the field, or even in your home, the first thing that you should remember is that the safe distance from a snake is 5 metres.

Do not approach the snake or attempt to pick it up by the tail. You will get bitten.

If you are out on a hike and you see a snake lying near you, move away and keep a minimum distance of 5 meters between you and the snake. It also important to calmly warn your fellow hikers about the snake and point to where it is. If the snake is on the move, try and work out the direction it is travelling in and move away in the opposite direction. Johan Marais advises if the snake is travelling in your direction take two or three steps away from it and let it pass. Do not stand still. It is far better to put 5 meters between you and the snake and then you are certain that you are safe from a bite.

Snakes do not chase people. However, the snake may have decided on a route to take and you may be  in the way. Simply step aside, maintain a safe distance and let the snake pass.



Treatment for a Snakebite

If there is one thing that I have learned from Johan Marais’ course is that treating a snakebite is actually quite simple. The best treatment you can give for a snakebite is to get the patient to the hospital where a doctor can treat the symptoms. If you are close to a hospital, instead of spending precious time treating the snakebite in the field, rather get the patient to the hospital as quickly and as safely as possible.

If you are a few hours away from a hospital or doctor, there are a few things that you can do to help the person who has been bitten, but your main focus should still be to get the person to a hospital facility especially if the person is experiencing difficulty with breathing.

If you call an ambulance, you can find out where they are travelling from and meet them halfway.  The ambulance will have the necessary equipment to stabilize the patient en route to hospital.



First Aid Measures For Snakebites

Johan Marais advises following these simple steps when someone is bitten by snake:



The DOs

  1. Stay calm. It is easy to panic when someone shouts that they have been bitten by a snake.
  2. Keep the victim calm and limit their movement – this may assist in slowing the spread of the venom in the body.
  3. Get the victim to a hospital as quickly and as safely as possible.
  4. Remove rings, watches, tight clothing and shoes before significant swelling occurs.
  5. Apply a pressure bandage only in the case of a non spitting Cobra or a Mamba bite and splint the affected limb.
  6. Assist the victim to breathe when they experience difficulty breathing. Use a barrier device to give mouth to mouth or preferably use a bag valve mask (BVM) to assist the victim’s breathing.
  7. If the victim stops breathing begin CPR and perform rescue breaths with a BVM.



The DON’Ts

  1. Do not panic. Clear thinking is needed when treating a snakebite.
  2. Do not to try and cut or suck out the snake venom. The venom is spread by the lymphatic system and not through the blood. You will only add infection to the growing list of the victim’s problems.
  3. Do not apply any electric shock therapy. No tasers please! It doesn’t work.
  4. Do not apply a tourniquet. This may lead to the limb being amputated later.
  5. Do not apply a pressure bandage if there is localised swelling – a Puff Adder bite.
  6. Leave the snakebite site alone, except for applying a sterile dressing.
  7. Do not apply ice, warm water, lotions or creams to the snakebite site.
  8. Do not inject antivenom as a first aid measure. It should only be done by a doctor in a hospital.


Final Thoughts

The first general rule with snakebite first aid is: Don’t Get Bitten. If you, or one of your fellow hikers, do get bitten, get to hospital as soon as possible. If you are more than a few hours from a hospital, consider meeting the ambulance halfway or call for a helicopter extraction.

For advice on whether to walk the victim off the trail and to transport to hospital or whether to call for an ambulance or a helicopter extraction, contact one of the following numbers:


Poison Information Helpline (National): 0861 555 777

Tygerberg Poison Center (Cape Town): (021) 931 6129

Red Cross Children’s Hospital Poison Center (Cape Town): 021 689 5227


Other Important Numbers:

ER24 Ambulance (National): 084 124

Netcare 911 Ambulance (National): 082 911

Metro Ambulance (Government): 10177

Metro Rescue Center [Western Cape]: (021) 937 0300.

African Snakebite Institute: 082 494 2039 [Johan Marais]



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