A Guide to Safer Hiking in Australia

Helicopter rescue in the bush
Australians, possibly more than anyone, appreciate the value of first aid know-how in remote areas.

"In Australia, everything is out to kill you." Hearing this may come with a hint of pride, and with more than a hint of truth, too.

Certainly from a first aid perspective, Australia can be a dangerous place, and outdoor adventuring in Australia can present some serious safety concerns.

Take for example, a 5-hour period in 2016 that 4 Victorians failed to survive. The fatal hand was dealt by a thunderstorm, which resulted in severe allergic reactions and asthma attacks that prompted almost 2000 ambulance calls.

We refer to this article as a reality check to help ensure that your adventures in the Great Outdoors don’t go pear-shaped in a hurry.

See the Great Outdoors and Live to Tell the Tale

Being mindful is key. When you go to gather around the campfire, be careful where you sit. And when you finally decide to jump into your sleeping bag, make sure that no nasty critters will be cuddling up next to you.

If you fancy a morning surf, check for rips. And fins. Don’t forget the sunscreen and the bug spray. Stay hydrated.

First aid? Knowing it goes without saying. Possibly more than anyone, Australians appreciate the value of first aid know-how in remote areas.

Being mindful is key to staying safe in the Great Outdoors. Take care.

Don’t Panic. Let’s Look at the Figures.

A study in 2017 looked into the coronial data between 2000 and 2013, when almost 42,000 Australians found themselves in hospital after being bitten and/or stung. Spiders (30%) and snakes (15%) accounted for their share of mayhem; however, almost 33% of hospital admissions involved stings from bees, wasps, and hornets.

It turns out that the stings from bees and wasps are just as deadly as bites from snakes. Between 2000 and 2013, snakes killed 27 Australians, with bees and wasps accounting for an equal number. Australian spiders, despite their ominous and well-deserved reputation, were not to blame for a single fatality from 2000 to 2013. That said, during that same period, they did send close to 12,000 people to hospital.

Chart showing Causes of Death from Bites & Stings for the period 2000 to 2013

A bite from a Redback spider caused the last documented death from a spider in Australia in 1999. Crocodiles killed 19 people between 2000 and 2013, and sharks took 26. First past the post in terms of animal-related causes of death, however, was a less likely suspect: the horse. In the study period, 74 Australians were thrown or trampled to death by horses. Man’s best friend, the dog, caused 23 fatalities. During the same study period, nearly 5,000 people drowned. Let that sink in (pardon the pun) — Sharks: 26; Drowning: 5,000.

Heat induced illness First aid chart
Heat-Induced illnesses are coming among hikers, as hikers can become dehydrated while overexerting themselves in hot and humid conditions.

Safety in the Heat

Consider if you will, going for a hike… a walk in the woods. But before setting off, try this quick quiz:

What’s the difference between Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke?

Here's a couple of hints: both fall under the umbrella of hyperthermia, a condition that occurs when a person's body generates more heat than it can release, and both typically present in casualties who are dehydrated or who overexert themselves in hot and humid conditions.

The answer: heat exhaustion is considered a milder form of hyperthermia, while heat stroke is considered the most severe.

Heat exhaustion can be characterised by muscle cramps, as well as headaches, fatigue, nausea, and profuse sweating if associated with exertion. To mitigate the effects of heat exhaustion: rest the casualty in the shade; remove any of their excess clothing; sponge them with water; and, give them sips of water or electrolyte drink once any nausea has passed. More information about how to identity and manage heat exhaustion can be found in our Resource Library. If heat exhaustion is not correctly addressed, it could quickly develop into the more serious of the two heat-related illnesses — Heat Stroke.

Heat Stroke is a potentially fatal condition that occurs when the body's temperature escalates beyond 40° C. When a person is suffering heat stroke, their skin will be dry, their pupils will appear concentrated, and their breathing will be rapid and shallow. They might also experience severe thirst, confusion, nausea, and muscle cramps. To treat a person suffering from heat stroke, apply first aid cooling techniques and call Triple Zero (000) for emergency services, per our article on heat stroke first aid.

If the casualty stops breathing normally at any point, commence DRSABCD and be prepared to perform CPR. Head to our Resource Library for more information about performing CPR.

Important Notes on Heat-Induced Illness

Severe dehydration can have serious consequences for children under 2, elderly people, diabetic people, and those with kidney, heart, or circulation problems. In such cases, it’s best the casualty is taken to hospital immediately.

Prevention is the best cure for Heat-Induced Illnesses…

  • Don’t leave the kids (or your pets) in the car.
  • Drink plenty of water, rather than tea, coffee or alcoholic beverages.
  • Wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing made from fabric that "breathes" and allows sweat to evaporate.
  • Protect yourself outside — ‘Slip, Slop. Slap. Seek, Slide’.
  • Where possible, do outdoor chores before 10am and after 4pm. Otherwise, limit the time you spend doing those chores.
  • Keep your energy levels up by eating nutritious foods, including plenty of fruit and vegetables.

Prepare to Hike

Now, let’s get back to the topic we started with — Hiking. It sounds perfectly straightforward. Pack your gear. Drive to your national park of choice. Follow the trail. But even a hike planned by seasoned outdoorsy types is not without its risks. There are often scrapes and always insects. There’s sunburn. There are snakes and spiders. And too often, there’s anaphylactic shock. Hiking is also physically demanding. Your body needs to be prepared for shock, strain, and fatigue on the trail. If you’re underdone, anything from severe cramps to a heart attack could result. In the latter case, first aid had better be handy. Cardiac arrest is a leading cause of death in the Great Outdoors.

If you know you’re at risk, you’d be wise to seek approval from your doctor before you go on a hike. It’s not just your body that needs to be prepared. Being prepared also includes painkillers. In fact your emergency first aid kit should also include bandages, ointments, antihistamines, and maintenance medication. If one of your buddies is asthmatic or is likely to suffer anaphylactic shock from bee stings or other, it’s advisable to be prepared to administer treatment for asthma or anaphylaxis. Hikers also need a good stock of common sense. For instance, they should understand why hiking is not a great decision when the weather is looking less than favourable.

Storms can turn almost any hiking trail into an accident waiting to happen. On the plus side, postponing your hike because of the weather forecast, allows for other, less risky plans. Save your hike for gentler weather. Weather permitting, you and your fellow hikers are bound by a tacit agreement to keep yourselves safe, to respect the environment and its inhabitants, and to leave behind a trail that is none the worse for you having crossed it. With GPS technology, navigating a hike is a doddle. And who doesn’t have a mobile device these days? But who doesn’t also run out of battery, lose signal, or have device malfunctions? Take a physical map and a compass.

Your clothing needs to be unrestrictive but sturdy. You need it to protect you from the weather, the bugs, and the scrapes. A wide-brimmed hat will offer shade for your neck and face. Take a jacket that is capable of keeping you warm and dry, and comfy, durable footwear with good grip. Be smart with the food and water you take. You want to be hydrated and energised throughout the hike, not exhausted, famished and fainting on the trail. Think dried fruits, nuts, power bars, granola, dried meat, sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs. Make sure your water canteen is filled to the brim.

You should never hike alone, no matter how familiar and how confident you are with a trail. When you’re on the trail with your party, don’t strike out ahead. Stay in their line of vision. It’s a matter of respect. Should anything happen to you, the burden of responsibility falls on first responders. But before we all start singing Have a Nice Hike!, consider also that the Great Outdoors is crawling with life — insects, spiders, ticks, and snakes.

Paralysis Ticks

Paralysis ticks usually inflict themselves on unsuspecting animals - native Australian species, mainly. However, they are also a sucker for any livestock, domestic pets, and humans that cross their path. Tick prevention is just as important for humans as it is for animals, as many of us experience allergic reactions from ticks. Reactions range from mild itching and localised swelling to life-threatening anaphylaxis.

Although paralysis ticks can be found all year round, the peak season is Spring and Summer, when warm weather combines with periods of rain. Paralysis ticks are generally prevalent in moist, humid environments, and they are especially common in wet forests and temperate rainforests, where they hide among trees, logs, leafy debris, and uncontrolled vegetation.

Avoiding ticks is the best way to reduce your risk of experiencing an allergic reaction from a tick bite:

  • Walk in the centre of trails and avoid walking through dense vegetation
  • Tuck your pants into your socks and your shirt into your pants so ticks have less direct skin contact
  • Wear light coloured clothing as ticks will be much easier to detect
  • Wear insect repellent containing at least 20%  DEET. It can protect you from ticks for several hours. Apply it to the skin before going into likely tick territory.

More details about preventing and treating tick bites can be found in our Resource Library.

Spiders

We have some 2900 species of spiders in Australia… a reasonable excuse for arachnophobia. Among the more frightening of them is the Huntsman. They don’t often bite and their venom isn’t considered dangerous to humans. But they sure do scare the heck out of people. It’s all the ensuing flight response accidents that are the worry. The only spiders responsible for fatalities, in fact, are Funnel-webs and Redbacks. But not any more. Records show we’ve had no deaths from spider bites in Australia since 1981. Since anti-venoms were introduced for both these species, deaths have been curtailed. Six others species are also considered dangerous but rarely cause serious harm: Mouse Spider Trapdoor Spider White-tailed Spider Australian Tarantula Spider Recluse Spider Golden Orb Spider Humans are not a food staple for spiders. Nor are we thrill kills for them. It’s because they are being disturbed — attacked themselves — that spiders become understandably aggressive. A man who spends his time researching these 8-legged creatures is Dr. Aaron Harmer. As Macquarie University’s arachnid researcher, Dr Harmer admits that many spiders can "give you a nip" and he says, reassuringly, "in most cases it is less troublesome than a bee sting." That’s all well and good. On behalf of hundreds of attending medical officers, we say you still need to know first aid. Knowing what to do in the event of a spider bite is more than simply good advice. The dangers, especially when medical help is not so readily available, cannot be ignored. Toxicity of the venom aside, spider bites can also trigger severe allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock, which can also be fatal. Anaphylaxis causes swelling and obstruction of a person’s airways, depriving the body of life-giving oxygen. Symptoms of Anaphylaxis include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Rashes or hives
  • Stomach cramps
  • Itchiness
  • Swelling of the mouth, throat, and face

Symptoms of spider bites include pain and swelling where the bite was inflicted, profuse sweating, abdominal or generalised pain, involuntary muscle contractions, headache, chills or fever, weakness, and unconsciousness. If the culprit was a Funnel-web, you need to move immediately to the Pressure Immobilisation Technique. The purpose of this technique is to arrest the venom before it is carried further throughout the body by the victim’s lymphatic system. It will "buy time" until proper medical care becomes available. Call Emergency on 000 or 112. Tightly bandage over the bitten area — as tightly as you would for a sprained ankle. Extend the bandage the full length of the limb and immobilise it. No tourniquets. And do not cut, suck, or wash the bite site. The victim should be kept at rest, reassured, and under observation. Follow the basic life support guidelines (DRSABCD). While the pressure immobilisation technique is vital for Funnel Web bites, it is not recommended for Redbacks and other spider bites. Nor is it recommended for stings from scorpions, centipedes or beetles. The pressure immobilisation technique is effective also for snake bites. More on snake bites, shortly.

The Sydney Funnel-Web

Without doubt, the Sydney Funnel-web is one of the world’s most venomous spiders. Its fangs, or chelicerae, are big enough to deliver a deep injection of atracotoxin. The venom is extremely dangerous to primates, including humans. You don’t need to live in Sydney to share your space with the Sydney Funnel-web. They can be found in many locations in New South Wales, mostly in forests but also in urban areas in backyards and around swimming pools. And they can be quite aggressive when threatened. Identification:

  • 5-3.5 cm in size
  • Black to blue-black colour
  • Shiny appearance
  • Hairless, shiny head
  • Large, powerful fangs

In NSW or South-East Queensland, any bite from a large (greater than 2 cm) dark-coloured spider, should be considered a possible bite from a Funnel-web spider and immediately treated as an emergency.

Symptoms of Funnel-web spider bite:

  • Pain at the bite site
  • Tingling around the mouth
  • Profuse sweating
  • Copious secretions of saliva
  • Abdominal pain
  • Muscular twitching
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Confusion leading to unconsciousness

Treatment for a Funnel-web spider bite:

  • Keep the casualty at rest, reassured, and under observation
  • Call 000/112
  • Follow basic life support guidelines (DRSABCD)
  • Apply Pressure Immobilisation Technique
  • Do not use a tourniquet and do not cut, suck, or wash the bite site.

Redback Spiders

In the case of a Redback spider bite, the pressure immobilisation technique is not required. Instead, apply an ice-pack or a cold compress to lessen the severity of the pain and keep the victim under constant observation. If the casualty is a young child, if collapse occurs, or pain is severe, follow the basic life support flow chart. Call 000/112 or transport the victim to medical care as soon as possible. Redbacks are found in many habitats throughout Australia, including urban areas. They are nocturnal and like dry, sheltered places such as garden sheds, mailboxes, and under toilet seats. Only the female Redback spider is dangerous. Identification:

  • The distinctive red stripe on the body indicates a female. She grows to approximately 1 cm
  • The less dangerous male is approximately 3–4 mm
  • Males are light brown with white markings on the upper side of the abdomen and a pale hourglass marking underneath

White-tailed spiders are accorded legendary infamy in Australia. Stories abound, complete with gory details about flesh rotting and so on. Recent studies show that white-tailed spider venom is not especially dangerous to humans. The most likely outcome is mild local pain. The usual caveats apply, however, when it comes to allergic reactions and the possibility of anaphylactic shock. White-tailed spiders can be found in natural and urban areas all around Australia, especially coastal areas. With a whitish tip at end of its abdomen, this species is typically dark red to grey in colour, with orange-brown banded legs. They are 1.8cm – 2cm in length with a leg-span up to 2.8cm. White-tailed spiders wander about at night, hunting other spiders. Garden Orb Weaver spiders are common throughout Australia. They are highly aggressive and the spider species most likely to bite. Active at night, they take shelter during the day, hiding under leaves or in clothes on washing lines. A student completing her first aid course with Australia Wide First Aid offers the following tale which shows the unpredictable nature of allergic reactions to bites. "A couple nights ago, my partner and I were in bed, and he shot up and said he’d seen a spider. Safe to say we didn’t sleep in our own bed for nights. "He then developed bronchitis within what appears to be 28 – 36 hours. He didn’t know what type of spider it was, and he didn’t alert the GP when he saw her. "Today, however, when I was getting ready for work, I found the 8-legged rascal in my clothes! It was the brown big-butted garden orb weaver spider. "The symptoms were nausea and dizziness, which he’s had since the bite he found the morning after, but the doctor — I think — has misdiagnosed the severity because of the unknown spider bite, and she instead prescribed heavy duty antibiotics, puffers, and even steroids to my partner. "Two days after the spider bit my partner, the spider bite now looks like a purple smudge, a bit like a bruise. The morning after the spider bite occurred, it looked like a purple nipple due to swelling and because my partner scratched it." Another species with a bad rap is the Australian tarantula. They can be found in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia, and as far south as Victoria. Identification:

  • 6 cm hairy body, with a leg-span up to 16 cm
  • Large fangs (1 cm long)
  • Dark or light brown, often with a silvery sheen

Australian tarantulas usually prey on insects, lizards and frogs, occasionally on bird hatchlings. Some members of the species are also known as whistling or barking spiders because of their ability to make sounds by rubbing their front legs against their jaws. Their large fangs can inflict a painful bite but the venom is non-fatal to humans. Effects from the bite, such as vomiting and fever are rare. It’s worth noting that the bite of an Australian tarantula can be fatal to dogs. Trap-door spiders are also feared. They are found throughout Australia, in natural and urban environments, and are certainly aggressive when threatened. Not unlike a Funnel-web spider bite, the bite from a Trap-door spider is treated with similar caution. The venom can cause nausea, lethargy, and malaise. More generally, the only symptom is localised pain. Identification:

  • 5 to 3 cm long
  • Females are significant larger than males
  • Males are more aggressive when threatened than females
  • Live in tunnels, often with circular shaped doors
  • Lifespan between 5-20 years

The Mouse spider is found all around Australia, in burrows, near rivers and waterways, and occasionally in suburban areas. Active during the day, these spiders are typically lethargic and rarely aggressive. Only one case of severe envenomation from a Mouse spider has been reported in Australia. With a bite that is similar, the Funnel-web anti-venom has been found to be effective on Mouse spider bites. Identification:

  • Bulbous head and jaw
  • Smooth and shiny head and legs
  • Males sometimes have colour markings on the head

If identifying spiders appeals to you, try this in-depth article on Spider Bites in Australia.

The Pressure Immobilisation Technique

If the victim is bitten on a limb, apply a broad pressure bandage over the bite site as soon as possible. Elasticated bandages (10-15cm wide) will be a little easier to work with than crepe bandages. If neither are available, use clothing or other material. This type of bandage needs to be tight — tight enough that sliding a finger between the bandage and skin should meet with some resistance, but not so tight as to choke off blood supply completely. Apply additional pressure bandage, starting at the fingers or toes of the affected limb. This additional bandage can be applied over existing clothing and it should extend the length of the limb, covering as much of it as possible. This will further restrict lymphatic flow and help immobilise the limb. The aim is to make it difficult for the venom to be spread throughout the body via the lymphatic system. Call for medical help. If help is going to be a long time coming, apply local pressure at the bite site to block vessels that flow toward the body.

Australian Snakes

Australia has around 100 venomous snakes, 12 of them with bites that can kill. Snake bite is more than a little challenging because it’s often difficult to distinguish the snake species and determine whether the bite is going to be life threatening. Symptoms of venomous snake bite include:

  • Paralysis
  • Nausea
  • Convulsions
  • Pain & swelling

Even the bite of a snake deemed harmless can cause infection or severe allergic reaction, including anaphylaxis. This is why first aiders treat all snake bites as potentially life-threatening. It’s also why it’s best, when someone is bitten by a snake, to call emergency. In Australia, venomous snakes continue to kill a couple of people every year, while many others recover. Access to anti-venom keeps fatalities to a minimum. Our most dangerous snakes include:

  • Brown Snakes
  • Copperhead Snakes
  • Death Adders
  • Taipans
  • Tiger Snakes
  • Some Sea Snakes

After a snake bite, the venom present on the victim’s skin or clothes will be very useful for venom detection kits which are used to determine the type of snake involved. This is why it’s not a good idea to wash the wound or discard any of the victim’s clothes worn at the time of the snake bite. Snake bites can be ‘dry’ or ‘venomous’. It’s important to know the difference. Both types have corresponding symptoms and a non-venomous bite could still cause a life-threatening reaction if treated incorrectly.

Dry Snake Bites

This is where the snake strikes the victim without releasing venom. The skin may still be punctured and there’s often pain, swelling and redness at the point of attack. But it may not be clear if there’s venom present. This type of snake bite would not require anti-venom. However, even with a dry bite, call 000. You would treat it as a medical emergency because of the potential for complications, such as an infection or anaphylaxis.

Venomous Snake Bites

Aptly named, this obviously involves poison being released in the snake strike. The venom can numb, stun, even kill the target. Venomous Snake Bite Symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Bite marks present on the skin, ranging from small scratches to deeper puncture wounds
  • Bleeding
  • Blood at the wound site, possibly on the victim’s gums
  • Blurred vision & dizziness
  • Coma or death
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Glands in the armpit or groin becoming swollen or tender
  • Headache
  • Heartbeat irregular
  • Nausea & vomiting
  • Paralysis
  • Severe pain, either immediate or gradual
  • Skin is either tingling, burning or stinging
  • Stomach pain
  • Swelling & bruising

First Aid for Snake Bite

All snake bites constitute a medical emergency and first aid treatment is vital. Always call 000 for an ambulance and be ready to provide CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) if needed. Snake bites to limbs should be treated with pressure immobilisation bandaging. For areas where a pressure bandage cannot be applied, you would need to maintain firm local pressure to help stop the spread of venom. It’s a good idea to mark the bite site on the bandage with a pen or felt-tip marker. As before with pressure immobilisation bandaging, apply tightly and wrap the entire limb, starting at the extremities and continuing for the length of the limb. Calm the victim. Movement would stimulate circulation. So make sure they remain still. There’s a danger the snake bite victim could experience a severe allergic reaction and go into anaphylactic shock. This can be fatal. Call emergency on 000 if you’re seeing any of the symptoms of anaphylaxis:

  •  Coughing or wheezing
  • Difficulty talking or breathing
  • Pale or clammy skin
  • Swelling of the tongue
  • Throat swelling or tightness
  • Vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain

People with an existing history of anaphylaxis may have an action plan. This would generally include administering epinephrine with an auto injector. Take action. If the symptoms suggest anaphylaxis, you shouldn’t hesitate to use the auto-injector immediately before following the other steps of the Anaphylaxis Action Plan.

How to Avoid Snake Bites

Believe it or not, a great many snake bites in Australia involve people who have been trying to either capture or kill the snake. A snake will generally leave you alone and go on its way if you leave it alone and back away. Clearly you are not on its diet plan. It would justifiably go on the attack as an act of instinctive self defence. On the trail, be careful traipsing through long grass. Be aware that the underside of fallen timber is a no-go zone, often a vipers’ nest and a place best left alone. Aside from that, it’s a good idea to take caution with your camping equipment, particularly when returning to base after leaving it unattended for some time. Tents, sleeping bags, clothing and boots need to be checked.

To Conclude

The Australia Bush is beautiful and wild. It needs to be treated with respect. If you plan to enjoy it fully, you simply need to go with your wits about you. This article has gone into detail about some of the most serious concerns, major catastrophes aside. And it shows that, with a little preparation, a decent first aid kit and some fair dinkum training in first aid, you can set off with the bush skills to more confidently see the Great Outdoors and live to talk about it. There’s no time like right now if you want to do something about first aid training for yourself or your fellow adventurers. Head on over to our FAQ page now to learn more about our streamlined first aid courses.

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