Trail Safety for Snake Encounters and Snake Bites

big rattlesnake on a trail

Rattlesnake photo via Paul Sinclair. 

Article written by Jenna Horiuchi. Several years ago I was running down the Glacier Point Trail in Yosemite National Park. I had earned this quick descent after panting my way up the 4.8-mile trail, but I was picking slowly through a rocky section of switchbacks. It was a sunny, warm spring day in early afternoon, and I had my earbuds in. Rounding a corner, looking straight down in front of me to watch for loose rubble, something moved up ahead and caught my eye. A rattlesnake was coiled up next to a small boulder about six feet ahead, and I ground to a halt and backed away.

Friends had warned me that snakes were going to be out on the trails with the change in season, and their advice rang in my ears, “Give it lots of space, don’t antagonize it, wait it out.” On trails, sometimes you can’t turn around and go back the other way, and this was definitely one of those times. I was trying to get to the bottom of this mountain where my car was--not the top!

Snakes: Venomous vs Non-Venomous

Rattlesnakes and other venomous snakes should not be taken lightly if you come across them while enjoying the trails. Venomous snakes, like the rattlesnake, cottonmouth, and copperhead, have a few things in common that make identification easier (aside from the very obvious rattle on the tail of rattlesnakes): they have triangular heads that lead to thin necks and then widen back out to thick bodies.

If you’re close enough to see its eye, which let’s hope you are not, it will have an elliptical pupil instead of a round pupil. And keep in mind that venomous snakes have the fangs we want to avoid! Non-venomous snakes just have sharp teeth we want to avoid.

diamondback rattlesnake

Diamondback Rattlesnake photo via Pexels. 

In most instances, being alert and on the lookout for snakes is the best thing you can do to protect yourself against a snake bite. Many snakes are not aggressive and will leave the area rather than linger and interact with passers-through. By seeing the snake first, you’re halfway there to avoiding a bite. Stop and give it some time and space to slither off, making sure it has actually moved away and not simply curled up under a log or behind a rock, and you’ll be able to pass go and collect your $200 by NOT visiting the emergency room that day. Encroaching in the snake’s space is what often provokes it to coil up and strike out of defensiveness, and that spells bad news for you. Avoid this by keeping a watchful eye for their presence. 

rattle snake on trail

Rattle snake photo by Ben Bartley.

 

Say there’s a full moon shining, though, and the days have been hot but the nights have been cool. The miles are calling to you, so you consider a nice night run. Remember these two things: a flashlight and the fact that snakes often lay out on open, flat surfaces in the early nighttime to soak up residual heat. That could mean the road, and it could mean the trail. Be vigilant for these nighttime heat seekers or you could jog straight into trouble.

Night Hiking: True Snake Bite Story #1

This very thing happened to one lucky/unlucky hiker I know, named Kathy. In the Grand Canyon several years ago, she was hiking back to Phantom Ranch in the middle of the night when she stepped on a snake laying in the trail. It bit the back of her right leg in response, and unfortunately, the snake sustained fatal injuries from being stepped on. However, this meant our hiker was able to identify it as a Grand Canyon Rattlesnakea snake that has a reputation for typically being avoidant and docile.

Recalling the incident, Kathy said, “It hurt. And I felt sick to my stomach! I paced a little and realized that probably wasn’t a smart thing to do, so I just sat and tried to calm down.” Still about four miles from Phantom Ranch, she ended up tying a bandana above the bite but not too tight. She had a chemically-activated cold pack in the first aid kit in her backpack that she activated and held to the bite. An hour passed while she sat and evaluated her options until she reached the conclusion that she had to handle this on her own--a decision many of us hope to never face. After drinking some water, she started on the hike back covering the remaining miles slowly and reaching Phantom Ranch after daybreak.

Some of her symptoms included nausea, irregular breathing, and a funny sensation of her skin. “It wasn’t the most comfortable hike down, but I got there and told the first person I saw what had happened,” she said. Emergency responders came by way of helicopter to evacuate her to the rim where she was treated at the medical clinic. Once there they cleaned the wound and administered shots and an IV. She was given shots of antivenom at the initial treatment, and after being released she continued to return to the clinic every few days for additional shots of antivenom and to get the wound cleaned.

Bad-to-Worse: True Snake Bite Story #2

While most rattlesnake bites aren't fatal, things turned out pretty lucky for our Grand Canyon hiker considering she was traveling solo in the backcountry at night. On the other end of the snake bite spectrum is Brooke H., a woman who was out for a day of tubing on the Poudre River near Fort Collins, Colorado, with her boyfriend and friends.

It was early June, and she and another person decided to get off the river and walk around some of the rapids, never suspecting what would happen next. Below, Brooke recalls what happened:

We started walking down river on the side of the road. We were about 25-30 yards from our car when I felt what I thought was a small pebble bouncing up from a car hit the inside of my ankle. I took about three more steps and started to feel pain and swelling in my ankle. I stopped and looked down to see donut-shaped swelling and two puncture wounds. Just a second after I stopped I heard the rattle.” 

Things transpired quickly from there. Her boyfriend got his car and drove to where she was, put her in the car, and headed down the canyon to get cell reception. About twenty minutes after the bite, they were able to reach 911 and were given a location to meet the ambulance.

Thirty minutes after the bite, they reached the ambulance, and the EMTs treated her for shock and nausea, the latter of which was uncontrollable. Around 45 minutes after the bite, she was admitted to the emergency room where things continued to worsen. Brooke spent three days intubated and in a medically-induced coma during which the doctors performed a fasciotomy to relieve the swelling and save her foot.

WARNING - If you would like to see the graphic photos of Brooke's legs, here and here are 4 photos. These are heavy photos. We share these to show how extremely dangerous some snake bites can be. 

After a 10-day hospital stay, Brooke was released to continue recovering at home. It took over a month before she could get a shoe onto her still-swollen foot and walk somewhat normally. Her surgeon said that in 25 years of dealing with rattlesnake bite patients, she was the sickest patient he had ever seen and that if 15 more minutes had passed she probably would not have survived the bite. This event happened well over ten years ago, and Brooke says, “The inside of my ankle is still very sensitive. The leg swells often if I am on it for long periods of time.”

rattlesnake bite victim 6 weeks post bite

1.5 months post-bite. Photos provided by Brooke H. 

While these two stories have drastically different timelines of the venom taking effect, the moral of any snake bite story is to do what you can and have to, to reach professional medical attention. It’s nearly impossible to determine how much venom a snake has released into its bite victim, so snake bites should always be taken seriously.

How to Respond to a Snake Bite

Here are some things to do and not do if you ever find yourself or someone else bitten by a snake, as instructed by the Mayo Clinic.

DO 

  • Seek immediate medical attention--call 911 and head toward urgent care. Remember, the only real cure to a snake bite is antivenom.
  • Remove any jewelry and tight clothing to prevent discomfort from swelling.
  • Carry the victim out if possible, and otherwise move at a slow-to-moderate pace.
  • Use a permanent marker to keep track of the timeline beginning with the time of bite. Circle the bite area with the marker and write the time next to it. Every 15 minutes, draw another circle to indicate the rate of swelling or discoloration.
  • Try to take a picture or identify the markings on the snake to provide information to medical professionals but without putting yourself at risk.
  • Remain as calm as possible.

DON’T

**Because snakes don’t always inject venom when they bite, also known as a ‘dry bite’, these are strongly discouraged first aid responses. According to the University of Florida Department of Wildlife and Ecology & Conservation, approximately 20-25% of pit bull viper bites (the family including rattlesnakes) are dry bites.**

  • Don’t make an incision or cut the skin where the bite occurred. This is puts the wound site at a greater risk of infection.
  • Don’t use your mouth or anything else to attempt suctioning the venom out of the wound. One study shows that this is ineffective due to the nearly instantaneous rate that the venom will be pumped away from the wound site. It is strongly recommended that only medical professional use the suctioning devices found in snake kits.
  • Don’t apply a tourniquet to the body in an attempt to restrict blood flow. This varies depending on the type of venom, but the hemotoxic venom of rattlesnakes destroys localized tissue. Medical professionals discourage restricting blood flow to avoid concentrating its effects at the bite. It’s better to let it dilute throughout the entire body.
  • Don’t apply ice to the bite. While it is tempting to try and reduce the inflammation, the same mechanism as above (reducing the blood flow) allows for more damage to occur.

snake on the side of a trail

Rattlesnake photo via Paul Sinclair. 

How to Avoid a Snake Bite while Running and Hiking

While snake bites are a rare occurrence, seeing a snake on the trail is very likely to happen if you’re spending any amount of time exploring and enjoying nature. Practice these habits to avoid being featured in next year’s article about snake bite survivors:

  • Be alert. Snakes come out of hibernation in the spring to enjoy the warm weather (similar to us!). Look where you are going and remember to be extra vigilant during the spring, summer, and fall. Seeing the snake first can often mean altogether avoiding a bad encounter.
  • Leave at least one earbud out while on the trail. Listening for the warning sound of a rattler can alert you to the snake’s presence and save you from a trip to the ER.
  • Don’t approach, pick up, or harass a snake if you do see one.
  • Wear high-top running shoes or hiking boots for extra ankle protection.
  • Use a stick or hiking pole to clear the trail in front of you, especially in tall grassy areas.
  • Don’t step into brushy areas that you can’t see where your feet are going. For example, don’t jump over rocks or logs that you can’t what is on the other side.
  • Remember that snakes like to lay on open, flat surfaces at night to soak up residual heat from the day. Always travel with a flashlight or headlamp on to shine some light on the trail.

Most snake bites occur when people stumble upon a snake accidentally, and it strikes defensively out of fear. The best possible way to avoid a bite is to spot the snake while there is still space between you and it.

rattle snake on side of trail

Rattlesnake photo via Shana Taylor

First Aid for Snake Bites to Carry With You

As precaution for the unfortunate instance of getting bit, it’s wise to carry some first aid items on you:

  • A cell phone to call for help.
  • A permanent marker to track the timeline and swelling.

We share the trails with the creatures that live outside, so it’s always worthwhile to stay educated on how to (and how not to!) interact with them. 

In my case when I was coming down from Glacier Point, I waited from a safe distance watchful of the rattlesnake. It was a narrow portion of trail with no option of skirting around, and while it took several minutes, the rattlesnake eventually uncoiled and slithered downhill into a steep, rocky area. A few switchbacks later, I came upon some hikers heading toward the top, and I relayed my snake sighting to them.

 On high alert for the rest of the run, I took out my earbuds and swept my eyes back and forth across the trail, listening for rattling sounds. It was a satisfying afternoon on the trail only made sweeter by the relief of reaching my car without incident!

 When it comes to snake encounters, prevention and avoidance is key. Spread the awareness and stay alert this season. Give snakes the wide berth they want and deserve, and enjoy their beauty from a distance.

A safe run is a happy run!

*Thanks to the people who shared their snake bite stories with us for this article!*

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An avid lover of nature, Jenna worked twelve seasons in Yosemite National Park traversing the Valley and High Country trails. She currently resides in Appalachian Ohio and is planning her next outdoor adventure. Jenna’s writing career peaked when she won the 6th-grade writing contest for her story about Sid the Germ. Check out her amateur doughnut blog at www.spikethatbloodsugar.tumblr.com.

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For more snake stories, check out this article "What to do when a snake bites you on a remote trail?" by Floris Gierman from PATH projects. 

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2 comments

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  • Great article. I hike a lot in the Four Corners/National Parks in the summer. Never seen one there yet. Day hiking only. I also use hiking poles.
    My one ’rattler encounter was ironically at Glacier Point , actually on the Panorama Trail. Going uphill, we were about six feet from a very large snake
    that was going across the trail. After 10 minutes or so, I was in the bushes. For safety, I have considered wearing shin guards that baseball players use while batting. . It would keep the front portion of your leg protected.

    Roger Price

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