When you’re hiking, camping, or galavanting in nature, keep these precautions about rattlesnakes in mind.
There are a lot of misconceptions around how to treat a rattlesnake bite. If you’ve seen True Grit (either version) you know the X-shaped-incision-and-poison-sucking. This is an instructive example of how not to treat a rattlesnake bite.
Here are some less cinematic but more effective guidelines about how to avoid rattlesnakes and what to do if bitten, so you can trek more confidently in nature.
Rattlesnakes are one of four types of snakes in America whose venomous bite can kill you. They can be found in pretty much every state in America but flourish in hot, arid environments, so they are the most prevalent in the southwest. There are 32 known species of rattlesnakes and 83 subspecies and they have varying colors (tan, green, brown, gray, yellow, olive) and scale patterns (banded, diamond shaped, blotched), but they share the common identifying characteristics of triangular heads, forked tongues, and jointed rattles on their tales.
You’re most likely to encounter rattlesnakes from April to October when the weather is hotter. During the winter they’ll hibernate in snake dens, but when they migrate to and from these dens is when they’ll be more out in the open. During daylight, they’ll usually be hiding from their predators or sneaking up on prey, so they’ll conceal themselves in rock crevices, logs, tall grass, bushes, shrubs, stacks of firewood, really any nook they can find. At night they can often be found lying on asphalt or concrete roads to absorb heat.
You shouldn’t refrain from hiking and visiting picturesque places because for fear of encountering rattlesnakes. But there are definitely precautions to keep in mind—most of which are pretty intuitive. Pay attention to word of rattlesnake sightings in the area. Carry a charged cell phone with you and hike with a buddy or two, so if worse comes to worst, at least you won’t be alone.
While adventuring, stick to the trail. Try to remember: Humans are a predator to rattlesnakes and not vice versa. Rattlesnakes will try to avoid interaction with humans and when they sense humans are coming, they’ll camouflage and hide in the brush or between rocks. So don’t stick your hands in between rocks or down holes without looking first (or at all) and don’t carelessly pick at the vegetation. If there is overgrowth on the trail, whack the bushes or grass with a walking stick, so that if there’s a rattlesnake hiding, it will have a chance to slither away.
The rattling sound is a good natural warning telling humans to back away, but it isn’t foolproof. Sometimes rattlesnakes won’t rattle—when they’ve been swimming and are wet, when they are mating, shedding, or giving birth, or if they live in a habitat populated by humans and they’ve learned not to reveal themselves to hunters. Baby rattlesnakes’ rattlers aren’t fully formed so they won’t sound either. The point is—don’t just rely on your hearing. Be aware of your surroundings.
Wear appropriate attire—this means over-the-ankle hiking boots or gaiters and thick high socks in case you accidentally step on a rattler. Most bites occur on the feet and ankles and hands.
Be vigilant when camping. Unfortunately for humans, rattlesnakes are most active nocturnally, when our vision suffers, so try to arrive and set up camp during the daylight. Always remember to close tent flaps when entering and leaving your tent and wear boots when exiting the tent in the dark. Rattlesnakes are attracted to warm areas where they can hide and sneak into crevices, so your tent and sleeping bag are at risk. Shake out your sleeping bag before settling in for the night or you could find an unexpected bedfellow.
If you’re bit, first call 911 and the national poison control (1-800-222-1222). While it may be difficult in the heat of the moment, try to remember what the snake looked like so you can let medical professionals know and they can locate the correct antivenin to treat you with. It’s very important to try to stay calm. The faster your heart rate is, the faster the venom will spread throughout your bloodstream.
You need to get out of the snake’s striking range so you won’t get bit a second time, but move away slowly; don’t run. You should try to reach a flat boulder or an open clearing where there won’t likely be snakes lurking around. As soon as you can, take off any jewelry or tight clothing since swelling can be swift and severe. Once you’re situated in a safe area, try to sit still, moving as little as possible. Do not elevate the bite wound. You should keep it lower than your heart to slow down the spread of venom. Rather than immediately covering your wound, you can let the wound bleed which may allow some of the venom to ooze out. After a couple of minutes, loosely wrap the wound in a clean bandage, if it’s available, to prevent infection. Try to relax while waiting for medics or an ambulance to arrive.
Once you make it to the hospital and are in the care of medical professionals, they’ll know how to assist you. Besides swelling around the punctured wounds, typical symptoms are nausea, numbness in the face and limbs, vomiting, and shortness of breath. If the medical professionals determine your bite contained venom, they will give you the appropriate antivenin.
Antivenin is conceptually a bit like a vaccine. It is made by milking snakes for venom and injecting a small amount of it into a domestic animal like a sheep or a horse over several weeks which allows the animal to build antibodies which are filtered and concentrated to become antivenin.
Once it’s stored in vials in medical centers, medics inject snakebite victims intravenously with the antivenin to bind to and neutralize the venom which will stop any further damage. If the antivenin is administered within two hours of the snakebite, the victim has a 99% chance of survival.
Do Not Try to Attack the Snake: If you provoke the snake, he will be more inclined to keep striking you. If you accidentally step on or touch the snake, he may not inject its venom when biting you, but if you poke or slice and anger him, you’ll feel his wrath.
Do Not Make An Incision on the Snake Bite Wound: This can cause infection and won’t have any positive effects.
Do Not Let Someone Suck out the Poison: Sorry John Wayne and Jeff Bridges…I know you both looked cool doing this in True Grit. Venom bonds with blood pretty instantaneously; it begins to spread through the bloodstream and sucking won’t extract it sufficiently. Plus, the person sucking out the venom can swallow some and end up poisoning themselves.
Be Wary of Snakebite Kits: Snakebite kits can cause more harm than they do good. As with sucking out the poison, suction cups which come in the kits won’t extract the poison before it’s started to spread. Furthermore the suction cups can cause circular legions on the skin, resulting in tissue loss which will prolong the time it’ll take to heal.
No Tourniquets: These can cut off your circulation and result in amputation.
No Alcohol or Caffeine: Although you may be tempted to imbibe if you have some alcohol on hand to calm your nerves, or to drink coffee to stay alert, refrain from both since alcohol and caffeine can increase your heart rate. Stick to water.
Do Not Touch a Dead Snake: Rattlesnakes can reflexively bite you and inject their venom even after they’re dead.