Growing up in Southern California, seeing snakes (even rattlesnakes) was a regular occurrence during the spring and summer months, both on the trail and in my backyard.
Although snakes can be scary, there is no reason it should stop you from getting outdoors. Remember, we share the wilderness with all sorts of wildlife, it’s their home after all.
I know this is a major fear, but realistically, the chances of dying from a snake bite are basically zero (1 in 50 million), you have a higher chance of being struck by lightning. So release the fear and know what to do if you see a snake.
With the right preparation and awareness, snakes don’t have to stop you from experiencing all the amazing backpacking trips and destinations the great outdoors has to offer. In this blog, we’re going to talk about snake safety.
What To Do If You See a Snake? Keep Your Distance
No matter how menacing they look, most snakes mean no harm. The key is respecting the wildlife you encounter. Just how you want to be left alone in peace at your own home, snakes don’t want to be bothered either.
The tricky part with snakes, is they blend into the ground usually, so make sure you’re keeping an eye out on the ground too. So what do you do if you see a snake on the trail?
Stop and give it space. Some snakes can strike nearly half their body length. So if you see one, back away slowly (so you’re not a threat) and give it at least 6 feet of space. Snakes attack when they feel threatened (as most wildlife does), so don’t be a threat, just give it some space to get away.
Wait for it to leave, or if you have space, give it a wide berth and walk around it.
Most snake bites occur when people get too close and/or try to kill the snake. Remember, you’re in their home. So leave it alone.
Which Snakes Are Venomous? How to Tell.
There are four types of venomous snakes in the U.S. Before you head out, research what kind of snakes you can expect in your area. Find out if they’re venomous or non-venomous. Most snakes out there are non-venomous.
You can find these snakes in wooded, sandy, or marshy areas in the South. These guys are usually confused with nonvenomous king snakes (they sport the same red, black, and yellow colors on their bodies), which is why there’s a coral snake rhyme to help differentiate them:
The key is to identify these venomous coral snakes by the color order of their banding. Coral snakes usually have a black head as well. However, sometimes individual snakes don’t fit the color scheme of the rhyme, so it’s more of a guideline.
Water moccasins can be found in the southeastern states. And you guessed it—they’re mostly found in or near water like wetland areas, rivers, and lakes. How can you tell they’re water moccasins?
- They are 50-55 inches or roughly four to four and a half feet long.
- Adults have skin that’s dark tan, brown, or black with dark brown/black cross-bands.
- Babies have a cross-band pattern of brown or orange and sport a yellow tail.
In the eastern states, copperheads are often found in forests, rocky areas, swamps, or near water. They’ll freeze when they’re scared and will strike in defense when they feel threatened. Here are a few characteristics that can help you be on the lookout on the trails if you’re hiking out East:
- They’re normally reddish or golden tan in color.
- They have colored bands on their bodies that resemble an hourglass shape.
- They are 18 to 36 inches in length or about one and a half to three feet.
Rattlesnakes are the largest of these four venomous snakes. You can find them all across the U.S. in various habitats like mountains, prairies, deserts, and beaches. Keep in mind that rattlesnakes can strike “one-third or more of their body length from any position.” A few other features to look out for while navigating rattlesnake safety are:
- A triangular head.
- A heavy/thick body in appearance.
- Skin that carries a banded, diamond-shaped, or blotched pattern.
How to Avoid Rattlesnakes
Rattlesnakes are instinctual creatures who’d rather avoid hikers than harm them. They give off warnings like their distinctive rattle if you’re too close or coil into a defensive posture if they can’t escape/crawl away.
Here are some tips on how to avoid rattlesnakes during your outdoor adventures:
- Check Trip Reports: There are apps like AllTrails and more local resources such as Washington Trails Association where hikers share recent rattlesnake activity they’ve encountered. Keeping up-to-date with these reports can keep you more vigilant and help decide if you should hike a different trail.
- Watch Your Step: Pay attention to the trail ahead of you. Keep your eyes wide open for any snakes. If you encounter any logs or large rocks, step on them rather than over them. A snake might be taking shelter right on the other side or beneath these materials.
- Avoid Listening to Music/Podcasts: Looking forward to listening to that new album or podcast on the trail? You might want to save that for another time (sorry!). As much as you have to keep your eyes sharp, you’ve got to keep your ears peeled as well to listen for any possible snakes that might be out of your eyesight.
- Choose Wide Trails: Selecting a wide trail where you can easily spot a snake will give you peace of mind and an extra layer of safety during your hike. This is a good idea especially if you’re hiking with kids.
- Avoid Rocky Areas: See some rocky areas with no clear cut paths/trails? You might want to rewind and find another trail. You’re treading into dangerous territory by stepping into an area where you can’t easily see what’s right in front of you.
- Wear the Right Clothes: The majority of snake bites occur in the ankle or lower leg area and the hands. If you’re hiking on an overgrown path, wear long, loose-fitting pants or gaiters. It’s not 100 percent guaranteed that these will shield you from snake bites, but they can minimize the amount of venom that goes into your body.
- Hike with Trekking Poles: Hiking poles let you push back brush to help you see your path better and have a better eye on any rattlesnakes that are hanging out nearby. And you’ll provide some much-needed support for your knees and joints while you’re at it!
- Hike during Fall and Winter: Though it depends on the species and region, snakes are generally less active during these seasons. These are times when they undergo hibernation or brumation (when their metabolic system slows down).
Note About Dogs and Snakes
Due to their behavior, dogs are more likely to get bitten than you are. So if your furry friend is a regular on your hikes, use a non-retractable leash and consider enlisting them in snake-avoidance training. There are also snake vaccines available for dogs, so speak to your veterinarian to know if your dog would benefit from them.
What to Do If You Are Bitten on the Trail
Sometimes things happen and you’re bitten. If you’re bitten, DO NOT try to suck out the venom.
In case you do get bitten by a snake, it’s important to get yourself the help and support you need right away by following these five steps:
1. Stay Calm & Walk Away From The Snake
The first thing you probably want to do is to scream and run, but staying calm is important! You don’t want to agitate the snake any further, and many people injure themselves even more by tripping over something due to being in a state of panic. So stay calm, and walk as far away from the snake as possible. Don’t try to do anything to the snake, if someone is there, they might be able to take a picture to snow first responders.
2. Contact Emergency Personnel
Your snake bite should be treated ASAP, so contact emergency personnel. Depending on your situation and whether you’re with a hiking group or by yourself, here are your options:
- If you have a cell phone with cell reception, contact 911.
- If you commonly hike in areas without cell reception, I recommend getting a satellite communication device like the Garmin In-Reach Explorer +. It allows you to contact SOS and get help. I never hike without mine.
- If you don’t have any service, send someone from your group out to find help.
- If you’re hiking solo and the odds of someone passing by is slim, walk slowly to find help. Keep yourself hydrated with water.
3. Find a Safe Place to Sit
If you’ve been able to reach emergency personnel or have a friend who is going out to get help, it’s important to find a safe spot to sit and rest. An increased heart rate causes the venom to flow through your body faster. Make sure that the bitten part of your body is always lower than your heart, so don’t elevate.
4. Remove Any Tight Clothing/Accessories
Swelling happens with snake bites, so you want to make sure to remove any rings, watches, bracelets, or tight clothing that’s restricting the swelling. Wrap and elastic bandage around the entire bitten arm or leg, starting furthest from the heart. Use overlapping turns to wrap snugly, but still allow a finger to slide under the bandage. Careful not to cut off the circulation. DO NOT apply a tourniquet.
5. Leave the Area Alone
Use soap and water or an antiseptic solution/wipe to clean your wound. DON’T take aspirin, ibuprofen, or other painkillers that thin your blood; these can further exacerbate your injury. DO NOT apply ice or heat. After you clean it so it doesn’t get infected, leave it alone.
Reading all this info on snake safety while hiking might have you feeling paranoid or even more scared. But rest assured, very few people are actually at risk of even encountering snakes with venom powerful enough to kill. I hope that all the information provided above will help you become more aware and prepared, as you take on the trails during these warm months. Not to mention, grow into a more confident and limitless hiker!