As rewarding as hiking may be—giving you the chance to connect with nature, while surrounded by beautiful scenery—it is not without its downsides. One of them being the possibility of a snake encounter, especially if you’re hiking in snake country.
While there are some precautions that you need to take to ensure your safety on the trail, it’s good to remember that snakes are just afraid of you as you are of them. Snake encounters are uncommon, and snake bites even more so, but it’s always important to read up on snake safety on the trail, just in case you come across one of these slithery creatures.
Do your research
Being aware of what wildlife you may encounter during your hike is an essential step towards preparedness, just like making sure you’ve packed enough food and water and checking the weather conditions.
If your hike is going to take you through a known snake habitat, you may encounter non-venomous as well as venomous snakes. The venomous snakes found in the United States include coral, water moccasins, copperheads, and rattlesnakes.
You may have heard that a reliable indicator of whether a snake is venomous is their head shape and color, but this myth needs to be debunked, as there are too many variables to take into consideration to determine the venomousness of a snake.
Before heading out, check out local guidebooks and field guides, or contact a national park ranger to find out which species you may encounter.
Read more: North America’s 10 Deadliest Snakes
Learn about snake ecology
The research you do before a hiking trip should also include areas where you’re most likely to encounter snakes, and the times of day they are most active.
Snakes are cold-blooded animals, meaning their heat sources are external. Therefore, you’re more likely to encounter a snake in the middle of a trail during the evening or early morning as they are soaking up the rays of the sun. During midday, they are more likely to be found under limbs and rocks, seeking shelter from the harsh midday heat.
Other typical places to find snakes are in tree canopies, the edge of creeks and streams, debris, leaves, or rocky crevices. If you spot a snake, remember that they are also scared of you, and lots of species of snakes will flee when faced with a predator. Nonetheless, they may start rattling, hissing, huffing, writhe around or coil in an S shape, and that is a warning for you to stay away.
Read more: Guide to Snakes in Texas
Along with prevention, there are some safety tips you can follow to minimize the likelihood of getting bitten by a snake.
1. Give snakes a wide berth.
As we previously mentioned, most snake species will leave the area when they feel the presence of a predator. If you happen to spot a snake in the middle of the trail, stop walking and give the snake time to move on.
If the snake hasn’t moved after a few minutes, resume your walking slowly, and go around the snake. Never disturb it by trying to pick it up, prodding it with a stick, or throwing rocks at it get it to move, as you will only be agitating the snake and could end up getting bitten.
On narrow trails where there’s no chance to go around the snake, stay at a safe distance and stomp your feet. The normal range most snakes can strike is half of their body length, so a safe distance for you should be at least double that. Remember that you’re aiming for the snake to leave on their own terms while minimizing your chance of being perceived as a predator or threat.
2. Watch where you step.
While on the trail, your best bet is to be mindful of where you place your feet and hands, as the snake may not make any warning sounds. Take your time when stepping into tall brush or while climbing rocks, as you may inadvertently disturb a sleeping snake.
3. Use protective clothing.
Most snake bites will happen on the feet, ankles, and lower legs, so it’s important to wear long trousers along with protective footwear such as boots or shoes rather than sandals. In the backcountry, it’s recommended that you also wear gaiters. These items aren’t foolproof against snake bites, but they are able to reduce the amount of venom that reaches your bloodstream.
4. Use your trekking poles.
If the trail is overgrown, you can use your trekking pole to move vegetation and push it back while walking. Doing this will help you spot any hidden snakes, or alert them to your presence, so that they have a chance to slither away.
Spotting a snake on the trail
Even after taking all necessary precautions, there’s still a chance you may bump into a snake during your hike.
If this happens, the first thing you need to do is stop and give them space. The next step is determining their species using your field guide or your knowledge. Regardless of whether you determine the snake is non-venomous or venomous, you should still leave them alone, as you are risking a snake bite if you try to kill it or even move it.
Luckily, it’s very rare that the venomous snake species found in America pose a fatal threat to you, so there is no need for you to kill or harm a snake you encounter on the trail, even if it’s venomous.
What to do in case of a snake bite
Even though you are far more likely to get bitten by a non-venomous snake, as their numbers are greater, the rules are the same if you get bitten so pay attention.
First off, and this may be extremely difficult under the circumstances, don’t panic. Remain as calm as possible, try to identify the species, and then plan what to do next.
Generally, there’s no danger from a non-venomous snake bite, as the most that could happen is the bite could get infected. If this happens, use soap and water to wash the area thoroughly. Otherwise, you can also clean the bite using Neosporin or alcohol wipes from your first aid kit.
If you identify the snake as venomous, don’t make a tourniquet, as the reduction of blood flow could cause nerve damage. Forget about what you’ve seen in the movies, and don’t try to suck out the venom, as you are just transferring it to another part of your body.
Instead, back away from the snake, avoiding the chances of another bite. Try and relax as much as possible, as this will slow down your heart rate and slow the spread of venom. Take note of any markings, as the medical care you receive can be dependent on snake species. Write down or try to remember the time you were bitten, and if possible, get yourself transported to the nearest medical facility.
Spotting snakes in their natural habitat can be a rewarding experience, so take it as it comes. If you have a good (long range!) camera, you could get some incredible pictures, as snakes really are beautiful creatures.
Remember, it’s as crucial for the snakes as it is for you to follow snake safety while out on the trail, so just be prepared, do your research and enjoy your hike.
If you are bitten by a venomous snake, or if you are unsure in any way about species or nature of snakebite, you should call 911 and seek immediate emergency medical care.