Friday, May 15, 2015

Hiking in Rattlesnake Country

Spring has really been drawn out this year.  It's May 15th, and many of us haven't turned on our home air conditioning yet.  We're not complaining, but the cooler than normal weather means those critters we call rattlesnakes are just beginning to emerge from hibernation.   A week ago, hiking club members encountered a black tail rattler while hiking the lower elevations of Mt. Graham. 

Encountering a rattlesnake while hiking can be scary, (even hearing that distinctive rattling sound makes my heart race.) Rattlesnakes for the most part would rather choose to avoid hikers altogether, and if given an opportunity to escape, they will. With proper precautions, awareness, and knowledge, you will be able to avoid encounters with rattlesnakes, or if you do spot one while hiking, you will only come away with a set of "rattled" nerves.
  • Be aware of where you are hiking.  Popular, well used trails seem to have fewer snakes since rattlers want to avoid humans. Check with other hikers or online reports regarding recent rattlesnake activity.  You will know if extra caution is required, or you can choose a different location to hike. 
  • Watch where you are stepping, placing you hands, and sitting. (Enough said.)
  • Stay on cleared, open sections of trails so you can see a snake.  Thick grass, brush, and fallen leaves makes a perfect hiding spot for a rattlesnake.
  • Trekking poles provide a bit of safety as you can push back grass and brush on the trail or hit rocks and ledges that might serve as a nice sunning spot for a rattlesnake.
  • Wearing long, loose pants and high top boots provide more protection against rattlesnake bites.
  • Keep kids close and keep your dog on a short, non-retractable leash. (Because of a dog's instinctive behavior, they are bitten much more often than humans.)
If you do encounter a rattlesnake on the trail or find a snake right in front of you don't panic--FREEZE, LISTEN, and SLOWLY RETREAT.

Sometimes it is impossible to see a snake hiding under a rock or behind a fallen log.  It is important to locate the sound before you try to move away from the snake.  You want to avoid putting the snake in a position where it feels trapped or more threatened.

Once the snake is found, move away slowly with no sudden movements.  If you have a hiking pole, hold it between you and the snake.  If the snake does attack, it might go for the pole instead of your leg.

 A rattlesnake will coil in defensive posture if it cannot escape.  It will usually continue to rattle. It last defensive move is to strike.

In the rare chance you are bitten, the most important thing to do is say calm, try not to move too much, and seek immediate medical attention. (This applies to dogs, too.)
  • Snake venom travels slowly through the body.  Most deaths from rattlesnake bites are caused by shock rather than venom.  Stay calm and restrict movement--time is on your side in most cases.  Rest at once.  An increased heart rate means increased blood flow and forces the venom throughout your body faster.
  • The only first aid you should attempt is washing the bite area with soap and water or an antiseptic wipe.
  • Apply a clean, moist, loose, dressing.  A moist dressing can sooth the snake bite area.  It is important not to apply pressure.
  • Remove any items that restrict the swelling of the bite area.  This  means rings, watches, bracelets, and possibly shoes.  Swelling is normal and will occur.
  • It is crucial that a snake bite be treated as soon as possible.  Try to call 911 from the trail and get help to you rather than hiking out.  If phone service is not possible, send another hiker to the trailhead to contact help.  If you are alone, layer your clothing to keep you body temperature stable and walk slowly back to the trailhead.  Exert as little energy as possible.  If you dog is bitten, do not allow them to walk out; carry your pet and keep the wound below the heart. 
  • Elevate the wound above the heart,
  • Draw out the venom by cutting,
  • Suck the venom from the wound,
  • Apply pressure with bandages or tourniquets,
  • Apply ice.
  • Give medication like pain killers, or
  • Try to capture or kill the snake.
It's also wise to know that not all rattlers will sound a warning.  (The largest rattler I saw on a trail was just coiled among the leaves watching the trail.)  And snakes do bite sometimes without injecting venom (dry bite).  But it is essential that you seek medical attention even if you do not exhibit symptoms of swelling and pain.

Spotting a rattler can be exciting, but most bites occur when people are intentionally engaging a snake.  If the desire to get the perfect photo of a rattlesnake is just too much, move to a safe distance before you reach for your camera.  Use a telephoto lens or digital zoom on your phone.  Watch for the warning signs of the snake coiling and rattling.  Back away and wait to take the photograph another day.

These tips will lessen your chances of having a painful, expensive, or deadly experience with this critter.


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  2. I remembered one time when we were out camping with my family and we heard a clear rattling sound. It was a snake alright and we were lucky enought not to be in its path but we made sure to surround the camp with snake traps just the same. I think everyone must be appropriately dressed when you go hiking since there are animals, mosquitoes, ticks and other venomous insects such as spiders, snakes and bees that can bite. Wear a hat, longsleeves shirt thick socks and good hiking shoes or boots when trekking. See this site for more information:

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