How To Avoid (And Manage) Creepy Crawlies In The Wild
By Bella Westaway and the Wild Women Team
The stereotype about dangerous Aussie wildlife exists for a reason – we’ve got lots of creepy crawlies - and some of them are lethal. My expat friends are often shocked by the nonchalant attitude Australians take to our terrifying animals – spiders, snakes, sharks, jellyfish, crocodiles, stonefish, stingrays, octopi. You name it, we’ve got one sneakier or more dangerous…
And for many people, me included, a fear of snakes, and spiders and leeches (oh my!) is enough to keep them out of the wilderness. But it shouldn’t be that way, because very few hikers even see, let alone die from, animal bites.
And with the right information, you can avoid or manage most creepy crawlies – and the Wild Women team are here to show you the way.
There are several venomous snakes throughout the world, and quite a few of them live in Australia, so it’s a good idea to be familiar with basic first aid for snake bites and to carry a snake bandage in your backpack. However, bites aren't always venomous, and even venemous doesn’t necessarily mean dangerous! Snakes are shy, and bites are – for the most part – defensive.
But if you spend enough time in the bush, you will probably see one. If you see a snake on the track, stop. Don’t touch it. Move backwards away from it. Make a lot of noise and tap on the ground – well away from it. If it doesn’t move (which it probably will), take a large detour around it. The only time I’ve ever had a snake not move was when it was halfway though eating an entire lizard. Seriously. It was so full it was stuck… and that little snakey wasn’t biting anything.
Here’s a few more snake tips:
- Wear gaiters, even in summer
- Be alert and focused on the ground when walking in known snake areas, particularly in mating season, which is usually summer.
- Stay on known hiking trails
- Use a torch at night
- Check bedding, clothes and boots
- Wear long trousers and boots
- Don’t reach into holes, avoid climbing on vegetated rock
- Beware when moving rocks or collecting fire wood
While Australia has some of the most venomous spiders in the world, we have only once - in our 10 years of taking thousands of women into the bush – has a Wild Women bitten by a spider. And it wasn't in the bush, it was at a backyard barbecue! Sensibly, she went straight to hospital and was fine. Like snakes, venomous does not necessarily mean dangerous – they’re far more scared of us than we are of them! But that doesn’t mean we don’t see them.
Ironically, one of our Wild Women, Merren, who's arachnophobic, found a tarantula in her tent at high camp, 4,200m, in the Andes Mountains. Fortunately her tent partner was not fazed. She heard Merren hyperventilating and she quickly unzipped the tent and flicked the tarantula out.
If you’re worried about spiders and their creepy webs when hiking, here’s my tip: walk behind someone with trekking poles. It’s the person at the front who walks into the webs, so just walk second or third in line and you’ll be absolutely fine.
Leeches are probably the most feared and the least problematic crawly you’ll meet when you’re hiking. For me, they’re no big deal, but some of our Wild Women positively HATE them and have vivid memories of their first leech bite. They do make you bleed a lot because the little critters have an anti-coagulant in their saliva which means the wound won't clot. But they are fussy and don’t like everybody.
The good news is, leeches aren’t dangerous at all. The worst thing they do is leave an itchy bite, like a mosquito but a bit worse. But if you scratch it with grubby hands, it can get infected, so use Tea Tree Oil or an antiseptic swab and don’t scratch. The bad news is leeches are a fact of life in the wilderness. If you go hiking in a rainforest or after rain, you’re probably going to encounter some. Once upon a time, in our early days of trekking, we’d have the repellent, the salt, the matches and even the scissors out to manage them as a high impact, high profile project. Now we just flick them off and dab with tea tree oil or Zam-Buk without skipping a beat. And so will you.
Most of our clients prefer to sprinkle the leech with salt because you don’t have to touch it and it pops off perfectly. If you don’t have salt, one recommended method of removal is using a fingernail to break the seal of the oral sucker (I know!) then flicking the leech away.
Common but medically inadvisable techniques to remove a leech include: applying a flame, a lit cigarette, soap; or a caustic chemical such as alcohol, vinegar, lemon juice, insect repellent, heat rub, or certain carbonated drinks.
After removal or detachment, the wound (lol, not really) should be disinfected with tea tree oil or antiseptic wipes. Bleeding may continue for some time, due to the leech's anti-clotting enzyme, but it will stop within an hour or so. The wound sometimes itches as it heals, but should not be scratched as this may complicate healing and introduce other infections. For some lucky people, there are no after effects whatsoever.
There is no guaranteed method of preventing leech bites in leech-infested areas. The effect of insect repellents is disputed, but it is generally accepted that strong (maximum strength or tropical, such as Bushman's) insect repellents do help prevent bites. Some of our members have also has some success with soaking socks in salt water which acts as a repellant, but this won’t stop the leeches that drop out of the trees and can make socks feel uncomfortable.
Many people worry about ticks because of Lyme disease, but in reality this is extremely rare and in most cases ticks are not cause for concern, as long as you get them out promptly and appropriately.
Di – our fearless leader and Chief Adventure Tick, I mean Chick – is a tick expert, and loves nothing more than to chat about various methods of tick removal.
Tick larvae - often known as grass ticks because that's where they hang out - can be very numerous in late summer to mid autumn. Larval ticks often bite en masse. If you’ve been walking in tick territory, you might notice itchy lumps like mosquito bites mysteriously appearing 12 - 24 hours after a bush walk – this could be grass ticks. They are often so tiny you can’t see them, but you’ll feel them! Removal of individual larvae is recommended.
The two later stages are the nymph, sometimes called bush tick, and the adult, sometimes called the paralysis tick. In these cases you’ll be able to see the sucker which is about as big as a match head.
To treat tick bites, dab the bites immediately with a pea-sized blob of Lyclear cream (available at the chemist and traditionally used for scabies) and leave for 15 minutes. The immediacy is important to prevent you scratching, which aggravates the tick and makes it spit its saliva into you. For the small ticks, use a razor to gently remove the tiny dead tick from your skin. With the large ticks, remove with tweezers (preferably tick tweezers). Then dab all bites with tea tree oil, betadine or an antiseptic swab.
My top tip (which applies to mozzie bites as well) is to put a band aid on the bites if they get itchy. This stops you from scratching (especially in your sleep!) and it also stops them getting ‘triggered’ into itching again when they get brushed by movement.
Have you got any top tips for dealing with creepy crawlies in the wild? Jump onto our Facebook page and let us know your tips!