Below, I will attempt to document everything that I talked about on Reptile Radio concerning cold weather, and shipping in general. This is not the only way to do it, and this is compiled from my experience with shipping snakes over the last 4 years, and knowledge and tidbits I have picked up from friends that have been doing it longer than me.
Step 1. Box selection. This is definitely the first thing that is done when preparing to ship a snake. This is however usually done before the sale ever occurs, as most people order boxes in bulk, and have the boxes waiting to go. We like to keep three sizes of box on hand for shipping. We keep 12” x 9” x 6” boxes in larger quantities because that is predominantly what we use. We will typically ship up to 3 hatchling Ball Pythons in these boxes without a problem. We do order the 3/4” insulation versus the 1/2”. We used to use 1/2”, but we have found that we could widen our temperature range by adding the extra insulation, and it was the minimum cost to do so. Extra insurance never hurts. We shipped with 1/2” insulation for 2 years, so it can be done, but I don’t see a reason to.
Step 2. Deli cup or bag. We use bags for all of our Ball Python shipments, as it breathes better than a deli cup, and doesn’t trap heat like a cup does. Also, it is easier to arrange bags in the box, especially if you are shipping more than 1 snake. I will say that we do use deli cups for our Corn Snake or Kenyan Sand Boa shipments, as they are smaller animals, and have a much better chance at finding a small hole in a bag, or even the top of the bag to escape. We do make sure that the deli cup is as far from the heat pack as possible, as a heat pack can heat up the cup, trap the heat, and cook a snake (it has never happened to me, but a friend had a corn snake that got so hot, it actually started to swell up. More discussion on this later.)
Step 3. Heat pack selection. We use 40 hr. heat packs for everything we ship. If it is really cold, we will use 2, but normally 1 will get the job done. Careful attention must be paid when ordering heat packs to the peak temperature, and the time at which the heat pack will peak. More information about your heat packs can be obtained from your distributor, but I have included some info on the most popular heat packs used by the industry, and I acquired the data from Superior Enterprise Website. See below for info:
20hr. packs activate in 5-10 minutes, and peak at about 7hrs. at 120 + degrees F.
30hr. packs activate in 20-30 minutes, and peak at about 12-14hrs. at 115 degrees F.
40hr. packs activate in 40-50 minutes, and peak at about 17-19hrs. at 110 degrees F.
60hr. packs activate in no time given (but expect 60-80 minutes) minutes, and peak at about 25-28hrs. at 110 degrees F.
Info on 72 hour heat packs could not be found (however these as well as 60hr. packs are typically used for international shipping)
This last tidbit I have to share, is although I have never tried this, I have heard of people opening a heat pack early in the morning before going to work, so that you can get closer to peak heat time and temp, without affecting the shipment, if that is what your shipment calls for (an example of this may be the following: temps at home are 38, the hub is 45 and the destination is 62). The point here is to look at the peak time as shown above and think about how long the box will be in the air, at the hub, and on a truck.
Step 4. Checking weather. Once you have finalized your order with the customer, it is time to check weather. We use Weather.com, and look at the 10-day forecast. The first location to look at is obviously where you are shipping. Secondly, we look at our shipper’s hub location (Memphis, TN For FedEx or Louisville, KY for UPS). This is mostly important for planning how the box will keep if it gets held at the hub for an extended stay (we had this happen recently, and while the snake made it to the customer on the correct day, it spent more time in transit, and should be planned for). Lastly we look at the weather in our home town. Sometimes this is not important for some shippers, but make sure you know any potential problems that could exist between your local shipping drop point and the local airport. For us in southern Louisiana, there is a 24 mile long bridge between us and the airport. In bad weather, they will close this bridge, and your shipment will get turned around and held at the local shipping store. We try to head this off at the pass, if we think it is likely. We also don’t like to ship if there is snow forecasted in the hub location or final destination, as it may impede planes from landing. I know some airports have heated runways, but as the shipper your policy dictates how you will handle a shipping catastrophe (more on this later).
Step 5. Building the box. Everything has gone great so far, and it is time to assemble everything for the trip. We use clear packing tape for all of our boxes. I use the cheap stuff from Office Depot, mostly because it is easier to cut with the tape gun, but it also seems to be stickier than the heavy duty stuff (we tried the heavy duty stuff once, and I should have thrown it away, it was so hard to cut). We then fold the bottom of the box, and run one piece down the seam. I put the tape about 3-4 inches up the side of the box past the seam (this comes from a habit I got into shipping hazardous chemicals years ago, and is part of IATA standards, but not necessary for snake shipping). Then I put another piece of tape across the bottom (90 degrees offset from the other piece), to form a T. This is just to give the box a bit more strength, as we all hear the horror stories of poorly thrown, I mean handled boxes. I then place the insulation in the box. We use shredded paper for packing, but others use crumples newspaper, and I have even seen nothing used in the box. I believe that something needs to be in the box with the snake to try to secure it as best as possible from banging around in the box, and possibly sustaining an injury. I place about a 2-3 inch layer of shredded paper in the box and then figure out the placement of the snake bag or bags. I then decide on the heat pack placement, and install the heat pack. Fill the remainder of the box with shredded paper, put on the top insulation piece, and close the box. I then place one piece of tape along the seam on the top. We use FedEx, and I print my shipping labels, so I tape them on once the box is sealed. NOTE: I described my taping method, as I do not put tape on all of the seams, so that the box does have some ventilation. I don’t want the box air tight, because I rarely put holes in the box. There may still be some questions on packing the box, and hopefully I can answer them in the tips that I have detailed below:
We try not to use holes in any of our boxes, as I don not want to compromise the insulation that I paid so much for. However, occasionally, it may be necessary to poke 1 or 2 holes in a box, but I normally put a small hole in the box if any at all. Some instances when I put air holes, are when 2 heat packs are necessary, as they do utilize oxygen in the chemical process of heating. I also may put a hole in the box if I need heat partly through the trip, but the destination is a bit warmer. In that case, I may want some air exchange when it gets to the customer.
I generally place the heat pack on the lid of the box. I feel this has a better chance of distributing the heat equally. Care must be taken to attach the heat pack well, as you do not want it to fall. (Especially on a deli cup. This is what happened to friend I spoke of earlier, when a heat pack broke free of the tape and landed on a deli cup with a Corn inside. It pretty much cooked the snake). We attaché the heat pack with a piece of tape on all four sides. On occasion when the temp is on the cold side, and we are shipping one snake, we may put the pack on one side. This allows you to lay the snake bag in the box long ways, with one end close to the pack, and the other end far from the pack. This will allow the snake to thermo regulate to some degree. This is the best method when there is a large variance in temps from start to finish, as you can put a hole on the “cool” side. Care must be taken when putting a pack on the side, as I have had shredded paper pack against the heat pack, from the package vibrating during travel, and the heat pack was so insulated from the packed paper, that the heat pack could not sufficiently heat the box.
As far as snake placement goes, we try to place the snake or snakes as near to the center of the box as possible, to minimize contact with the walls of the box. This will hopefully cut down on transfer of temperature to the snake (be it hot in the summer or cool in the winter). At all cost, pay particular attention to the distance from the bottom of the box, as the box “should” spend most of it’s travel time on some sort of surface (from a airplane cargo compartment floor, to the metal shelf in the delivery truck).
Cool packs. We do use cool packs in the dead heat of summer, and ship boxes as high as 95 degrees. When a cool pack is necessary, we first wrap it in a plastic bag of some sort, and then we wrap it in newspaper. This process seems to work well for controlling water that may collect from condensation, and the newspaper acts like an insulate to keep the pack cooler longer. We always slide these in the box on the side, and never attach them to the lid, as we don’t want cold water dripping or soaking the snake and the bag that it is in.
Snakes in snake bags. We always place a paper towel in the bag, then the snake, and then another paper towel on top on the snake in the bag. We do this, to try and prevent moisture problems that we discussed above in the cool pack tip. If a snake releases waste during travel, it is likely to wet the entire bag, and prevent a cooling issue. Hopefully the paper towels will absorb most of the urine, and keep the snake a bit warmer.
Feeding before shipping. I usually like to have a snake that has been fed no sooner than 4 days prior to shipping. This allows ample time for digestion, and leaves you less likely to have a regurged meal when your customer opens the box. Cold temps can impede digestion, and if the snake feels it cannot digest the meal, it will get rid of it. I know this tip is short, but I think it is pretty straight forward.
Last tip for defeating the cold weather during shipping. We often times will give a customer the option of Holding the package for Pick Up at the destination branch. This typically works well, as the box is exposed to the elements for the least amount of time. It usually will be taken off the truck at the store and brought inside in anticipation of customer pick up. This allows the box to stay in a relatively mild climate (usually around 72 degrees), instead of riding in a cold truck. This does need to be worked out with the customer beforehand though.
Step 6. Documenting your shipments. Believe it or not, this may be the most important part of obtaining shipping experience, as it will allow you to look at how you did it successfully, or haven for bid, poorly, in the past. We keep a record of the origination, hub and destination temps, how many heat/cool packs used, how many holes punched if any, and the placement of the heat pack. This has become invaluable information to go back to, especially when I have one of those questionable shipments (like 76 home, 80 hub and 68 destination. Do you heat pack or not). The next phase of this documentation is to ask your customer for feedback after they receive the package. Notify them that you would like this, before you ship, as they may wait an hour or two after enjoying their new addition before contacting you. If at all possible, ask them to heat gun the inside of the box when they first open it, heat gun the heat pack or cool pack, and heat gun the snake. All of this data will help you determine what to change in the future. Another tip, is to buy a cheap min/max thermometer with a probe if you can locate one, and place it in the box, to take reading during shipment. Ask your customer to give you those reading when they get the box (a nice gift for your customer is getting to keep the thermometer.)
Another bit of advise for building experience, is to pack a box like you want to ship, and set it on your porch over night, and maybe even throw it in the trunk of the car or the bed of your truck and drive to work with it. Put a min/max thermometer in the box, with the probe between the box and the Styrofoam, to see what different box configurations will provide you with temperature wise. This is a great way to gain experience, because no animals are in harms way, and no upset customers will open your failure (if that is what happens). Lastly, take notes on what time your boxes generally get to your airport, the hub, when they depart the hub, and what time they generally arrive at the destination sorting facility. All of these times will help you plan out your packing, what type of heat pack and the placement, and whether or not holes are necessary to get the job done.
I hope this write-up is helpful to someone when they are shipping snakes. If anyone sees anything that needs attention, or has a question, please let me know (especially since I plan on putting this on my website now that I have spent the time to write it all up, and any revisions would be helpful to many in the future). In conclusion, the last bit of advice I can hand out is to think about everything you are doing in the box, and ask yourself what the reason is you are doing it this way instead of that way. As long as you can justify every decision, your snakes will travel the better for it. I also included below some pictures of us packing boxes for a shipment.
Here is a heat pack attached to the top of the box. We do this when there is more than one snake in the box. It provides the most heat to all of the snakes in the box.
In this box, we put the heat pack on the side, as this will allow the snake to move to or away from the heat if it so desires. We do this when there is only one snake in the box. Make sure to place it towards the top of the side panel, as packing material can pack around the heat pack and block the heat. At the top, it allows some of the heat to go over the packing material if it packs down during shipping.
After the heat pack is in place, we place a layer of shredded paper on the bottom of the box, and then place the animals on top of the packing material. Then, more packing material will be placed on top of the bag, as well as filling in any gaps that may exist.
Once the snake is secure in the box, the foam insulation top is installed, and we place our paperwork on top of the insulation.
Next, we place holes in the box, if they are required for the specific shipment. In this case, we put 2 holes on one side of the box, due to the weather on the receiving end being warmer than the shipping end. We place them in the arrows on the bos, and typically use a very small screwdriver to make the holes.
The last step is to attach the shipping label, and bring it to the shipper. Here are 2 boxes ready to go out.