Snakes on a Trail: What to Do About Snakes While Hiking
When I’m hiking on a trail it’s not uncommon for me to hear something slither away. Its usually in that moment I realize that I just hiked right past a snake and never saw it. Yeah, snakes are hard to see when you’re on hiking trail trail, but they’re there and if you aren’t careful to avoid a bite, they can make your hiking trip a lot less enjoyable.
Snakes generally will avoid humans on hiking trails, since you generally scare them more than they scare you. But, sometimes snakes aren’t avoidable and if they feel threatened by you then they may bite. Most snakes aren’t venomous, but there are 4 types of venomous snakes to watch out for when hiking in the United States.
Although most of your encounters with snakes while hiking will be uneventuful, in the instance a bite occurs you’ll want to be prepared. Let’s look into all the important facets about snakes to be aware of when hiking, and how to stay safe hiking in an area with snakes.
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Which Snakes are Dangerous?
Most snakes aren’t dangerous. Yes, they have teeth and may bite you, but since most snakes are not venomous those bites won’t cause you any harm (outside of a little pain where the bite occurs). So, most snake bites aren’t dangerous at all.
However, there are four types of snakes in the United States that are venomous, and these snakes are dangerous to encounter while hiking. If you’re bitten by one of these snakes then it can cause serious injury, and even death, if the bite is left untreated. So, you’ll want to watch out for these snakes.
Let’s go through each of these four types of snakes so you know where these snakes are and what to look out for while hiking.
When most people think of rattlesnakes, an image of a desert pops in their mind. Now, while rattlesnakes do live in the desert, they also live everywhere else too. Rattlesnakes are found in 48 states in America – all of them except Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Delaware. So, if you’re hiking in the United States then you’ll want to be aware of rattlesnakes.
The defining characteristics of a rattlesnake is its rattle, which it generally won’t use unless it’s threatened. And because of the fact rattlesnakes like to stay hidden just off the trail or under a rock, you probably won’t see the snake until you hear the rattle.
An agitated rattlesnake will likely hold its ground and you aren’t going to scare it away. The best approach will be to get away from it, and we describe a bit more how to do that below.
Rattlesnakes do carry venom that can severely injure you, but very rarely kill you. And not every rattlesnake bite contains venom (sometimes they conserve it for future bites). But, it’s best to avoid a bite altogether if possible.
There are multiple rattlesnake subspecies found in the United States. All look similar, but not identical, so look up pictures of the exact species near you before heading out.
Cottonmouth Snakes or Water Moccasins
Cottonmouth Snakes, also known as water moccasins, are likely the most aggressive snakes you’ll find in the wild. They are found mainly in the Southeastern United States, but can go as far north as southern Illinois or Indiana. As you can infer from their name, they’re typically found near water or aquatic environments.
Even though they are aggressive, they’re not going to attack unless they feel threatened. But, should they feel threatened they will stand their ground and even pursue what made them feel that way.
In addition to their aggression, they have two other defensive mechanisms. One is a musky odor they release, and the second is to vibrate their tails. The vibrations somewhat sounds like a rattle, but not entirely. They just like to make sure you’re aware of their danger through sight, sound, and smell.
Cotton mouth venom can be deadly to humans, so if you are bitten you’ll need to seek treatment immediately.
There are three subspecies of cotton mount snakes to look out for, which all have very different markings and colorings. Each live in varying locations, so look up the ones near you before heading out on a hike.
Copperheads are probably the least aggressive snakes on this list. Instead of fleeing or fighting, they tend to freeze in place when they’re threatened. This makes them incredibly dangerous for hikers because we often don’t see them until after we’ve stepped on them and gotten bit.
But, while dangerous, copperhead venom is the least dangerous out of the four types listed here. Now, don’t get me wrong – you still need to get treated should you be bitten. But it’s rarely, if ever, fatal to humans, although it will cause some local tissue damage if left untreated for too long.
Copperheads are found farther north, and are located in Southern New England through Texas. Although they can live in multiple habitats they generally prefer forested areas over other types of environments.
There are 5 subspecies of copperheads, but all contain similar distinctive markings.
Coral snakes present the biggest dichotomy of all of the snakes here. They have by-far the most dangerous venom (it can kill you), but they’re pretty reclusive snakes and aren’t aggressive at all.
They’re like a dog with a big bite and no bark. Coral snakes typically like to hangout underground or under rotting logs and rarely ever come out in the open. It’s incredibly rare for a hiker to ever spot a coral snake in their entire lifetime of hiking.
Coral snakes are found in the southernmost parts of the United States across Arizona, Texas, and up to North Carolina. You won’t see them farther north than that.
There are a few mimic coral snakes that look VERY similar, but aren’t dangerous at all. The key to remembering it is Red on Yellow, Kill a Fellow and Red on Black, a friend of Jack. But, if you prefer you can follow my method of just never touching a wild snake no matter what it looks like. Up to you!
There are many subtypes of coral snakes that can be dangerous. Be sure to look up the ones near you before heading out on a hike.
How Can I Avoid Snakes While Hiking?
Avoiding snakes isn’t always possible while hiking, but if you are aware of where they like to hang out you can reduce your chances of encountering one.
So, how can you avoid snakes while hiking?
- Stay on the trails and avoid hiking in brush or in other vegetation
- If it’s colder weather, snakes will likely be out in the middle of the day sunbathing. Considering hiking early mornings or later evenings to avoid them
- If it’s hotter weather, snakes will likely be out in the cool mornings or evenings. Hike in the middle of the day to avoid them.
- Be extra careful near bodies of water as some snakes prefer to hide around these areas
Outside of choosing the right trail conditions, making noise while hiking is always a great to prevent a snake encounter. The noise from your steps is a way to alert a snake to your presence before you surprise it. Don’t be afraid to stomp a little while hiking so snakes know you’re there and can avoid you.
What Do I Do if I See a Snake While Hiking?
By the time you see a snake while hiking, you’re probably already a little to close for comfort. Snakes are elusive creatures and so you don’t typically see them until you’re right up on them.
So, if you do see a snake while hiking and you’re a bit closer than you (or the snake) would like – follow these steps:
- Stay calm (yes, take a breath first)
- Back away slowly while stomping (the vibrations from the stomping let the snake know you’re getting farther away)
- Continue backing away until you and the snake feel and look more calm
- Wait until the snake leaves the trail. If you can turn around and go a different way, do so, but if that’s not possible hangout until it leaves
- After it leaves the trail, wait some more. Sometimes they do not go deep off the trail and are just off to the side where they can’t be seen but can still bite.
- When you feel ready to approach do so slowly by stomping loudly, so the snake knows where you are.
Following these steps will hopefully keep you bite free by making the snake feel safer and more aware of your location as you retreat and try to leave the area.
What You Can Wear to Stop a Snake from Biting You
If you’ll be hiking in an area with a lot of snakes, and are worried about a bite, you may wonder if there’s anything you can wear to prevent a snake biting you.
Questions like can hiking boots prevent snake bites are very common among hikers wanting to find better ways of protecting themselves while hiking.
Hiking boots generally won’t protect you from a snake bite, as many snakes can bite through them and penetrate your skin. Some snakes with weaker bites may not be able to penetrate a particularly thick hiking boot, but hiking boots cannot be considered snake-bite proof under most circumstances.
Only snake boots can prevent snakes bites as they are made specifically for that purpose. Most people don’t find these boots particularly comfortable to hike in, so they’re not great choices to prevent a snake bite while hiking.
But, it’s generally a good practice to wear long pants and thick boots while hiking, which can help reduce the impact of a bite, even if it won’t completely prevent it altogether.
What to Do if You are Bitten by a Snake While Hiking
The steps of what to do if you’ve been bitten by a snake depend on what type of snake and if it’s venomous. If you’re bitten by a non-venomous snake then the best thing to do is to step away from the snake and wash the wound with soap/water. You can keep an eye on the bite and seek medical attention if you start to develop concerning symptoms.
If you were bitten by a venomous snake (or you aren’t sure what type of snake bit you), then you’ll need to react a lot more seriously and quickly. If you’ve been bitten by a venomous snake, follow these steps:
- Get away from the snake quickly
- Remove any tight clothing near the bite. Swelling may occur and tight clothing will only make this worse.
- Stay calm. An elevated heart rate will only spread venom faster.
- Keep the bite area below chest-level to prevent venom from spreading faster.
- Make your way to a medical facility immediately. Call ahead to make sure they have anti-venom available for you.
- If it’ll take more than 1 hour to get to a facility, you can tie a constricting band above the bite to slow down venom movement.
Never try to suck out the venom (that only makes it worse). You’ll also want to avoid any over-the-counter medication that can cause the blood to thin (and make the venom spread faster). Just to be safe, avoid medicaid all together until you’ve been seen by a professional.
If you are able to receive anti-venom in a 2-hour period, then you will likely survive the bite. So, do your best to receive prompt medical attention and stay as calm as possible while getting there, in order to give yourself the best shot of surviving the bite unscathed.
Hopefully you’ve found all the information you need about what to do if you encounter a snake while hiking. Overall, most snakes aren’t a cause for concern, but if you do happen to encounter one that is more dangerous, then you’ll want to be extra cautious to avoid a bite, and be prepared for what to do should a bite occur.
If you want more hiking recommendations please check out our hiking tips page, or check out any of the articles below.
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