ABSTRACT Lateral undulation is the most widespread mode of terrestrial vertebrate limbless locomotion, in which posteriorly propagating horizontal waves press against environmental asperities (e.g. grass, rocks) and generate propulsive reaction forces. We hypothesized that snakes can generate propulsion using a similar mechanism of posteriorly propagating vertical waves pressing against suitably oriented environmental asperities. Using an array of horizontally oriented cylinders, one of which was equipped with force sensors, and a motion capture system, we found snakes generated substantial propulsive force and propulsive impulse with minimal contribution from lateral undulation. Additional tests showed that snakes could propel themselves via vertical undulations from a single suitable contact point, and this mechanism was replicated in a robotic model. Vertical undulations can provide snakes with a valuable locomotor tool for taking advantage of vertical asperities in a variety of habitats, potentially in combination with lateral undulation, to fully exploit the 3D structure of the habitat.