Snakes on the Trail


Originally published: Trail Runner Australia and New Zealand, Feb/Mar 2019

As the ridgeline fell away before me, I slowed my cadence.  A cool breeze swept up from the valley below bringing a moment’s relief from the humidity.

I looked for where the trail would take me next – across a valley floor carved by a creek and long ago converted to farmland, and then up onto ridges fringed with tall eucalypts.

There on the edge of the forest I spied another runner coming toward me. I started moving again – no runner wants to look slack around another.

When we were within cooee, we shared the coded smiles of trail runners and traded information about our day; her English accent rattled through the bush and her enthusiasm destroyed any rumours that our northern cousins struggle in the Australian heat.

 “Watch out for the red-belly brown snake near the creek”, she said before continuing to conquer the hill ahead. 

Approaching the creek, I giggled. What I would encounter? A black snake, a brown snake, or perhaps a new breed. My mind drifted to a local I call Old George. 

A long-time reptilian resident, Old George is easily recognised with his slim build and brown complexion.

He is a loner and, on the occasions that we meet, he rarely bothers to turn his head to acknowledge my presence. He enjoys the tranquillity of the long grass about 50 metres back from the creek. Perhaps my friend had spied Old George returning from a swim.

The creek was brimming after rain earlier in the week, forcing me higher along the bank than usual. 

Large wombat holes punctured the creek’s bank and I wondered if that was where Old George might have headed after being surprised by his earlier visitor.  I was searching for his tracks when my peripheral vision caught movement below me. I looked down and there, perfectly blended into the dark soil and humus of the steep creek bank, was the tail-end of a black snake.  My foot was about to make contact.

I froze mid-step, teetering like a tight-rope walker. The snake snapped awake and lifted its head, the momentum flopping its entire body down the bank onto my foot.

I launched away from the threat, but I lost my footing, the snake now hooked around my airborne leg.

The icy-cold water swallowed my body and soon spat it back to the surface. Like the worst of slap-stick comedy, I started desperately thrashing, and gasping, and yelling the word “heck” (not actual word used).

I had no idea where the snake was, but figured he would swim low, so I kicked my feet high, frothing a pillar of white water behind me.

I scrambled onto the creek bank, hyperventilating and keeling to vomit.  The breeze hit my wet skin and snapped me back to my senses. My hands and eyes frantically searched for snake bites.  There were none to be found.  With that acknowledgement I could feel my body switch off the adrenalin, my butt collapsed to the dirt.  

I sucked in a few deep breaths for good measure and laughed, thinking of Old George watching the whole calamity from up in his wombat hole condominium. Humans, I imagined him saying, why are they always so jittery?

Sharing the trails

Every spring and summer my social media newsfeeds fill with stories of runners getting up close and personal with snakes.  Judging by the comments, there are clearly two schools of runners; snake lovers and those less charmed.   

If you want to maximise your enjoyment of trail running in countries such as Australia then you will benefit greatly from growing a fascination for these incredible reptiles.

Snakes form a vital link in the health of ecosystems and as trail runners who love being in nature, we thrive when they thrive. They are a middle-order predator and therefore a linchpin in maintaining biodiversity.  If you enjoy seeing lots of different animals when you are out running, make sure you thank a snake next time you see them.

There are 140 species of land snakes in Australia and only 12 can inflict a potentially fatal bite.  According to the Australian Reptile Park, of the 3000 bites each year, 300 receive anti-venom and only one or two prove fatal. 

The preferred defence mechanism of snakes is to hide, biting is a measure of last resort or if the threat escalates quickly.  Most bites occur when people try to kill or capture snakes. 

Safe steps

Given that trail runners have no need to pick up a snake, our biggest threat is standing on one. 

To the best of my knowledge there has never been a trail runner bitten by a snake.  Those “snake bite bandages” you carry in your pack at races are there to satisfy insurance requirements and are most likely to be used for a sprained ankle or injured limb. 

Occasionally I hear stories of runners being chased by snakes. Downhill is often the preferred escape route because, like you, snakes can gain more momentum. They will bravely move toward a human to get to cover. Can you imagine the courage that takes? It would be like you running toward a predator mammal the height of Sydney tower. If you find yourself in this situation where a snake is coming toward you, simply step aside and give it room to move.

I live in a forest area with a healthy snake population, mainly blacks, browns, pythons, tigers and death adders.  I see snakes all year around, but numbers grow significantly in Spring through to early Summer. 

This is the approach I take to ensure my interactions with snakes are enjoyable;

  • During peak periods I prefer to run on wider trails or ‘swept’ single trail where I can get a good line of sight on the trail ahead.

  • I avoid running on leaf litter on the side of dirt roads / trails as sunning snakes can camouflage extremely well.

  • If I see a snake, I always approach it slowly regardless of the species and stay two-to-three metres away.  I give it time to realise I am there and decide what it wants to do.

  • If the snake chooses not to move, then I will walk around it slowly watching carefully for any changes in its disposition. If it decides to move, then I step away and give it room.

  • There are habitats that our local snakes love – sunny, warm, moist areas where they can easily find cover and a buffet of frogs – when running in these habitats, I pay extra attention.

  • Occasionally, I wear compression socks or calf guards if I am running in areas of high snake population or where the snake species are more aggressive. 

  • When I am running in a different location, I pick the brains of locals to understand potential risks.

  • Carrying a compression bandage and mobile phone in your pack is always smart, both have multiple uses.

  • If you do have a close encounter with a snake, remember to them you are just a very large mammal. They don’t have fearful mythology about humans built into their psyche. If you stay calm so will they.

Treating snake bite

Very few snakes are venomous, and snakes don’t always inject venom when they bite but all snake bites should be treated as potentially life-threatening.  Ensure your knowledge of snake bite treatment is always up to date. 

An easy to understand guide is provide by St Johns Ambulance.

Kirrily Dear