Just saying the word “snake” out loud is almost guaranteed to get a reaction – and it’s very rarely a good one. Snakes have had a lousy reputation since time began, but is it warranted? I mean, they are pretty creepy looking, with those scales and that tongue thing – not to mention those fangs that are probably dripping with venom. I’ll admit, that paints a scary picture. Unfortunately, snakes get a bad rap. They are completely misunderstood. Would it surprise you to learn that they are a very important part of our ecosystem? That they help prevent and control diseases like Hantavirus and the Plague? That we need them? Well, we do!
Okay, fine. So we can’t get rid of all of the snakes. How do we enjoy nature, knowing that they’re there? The truth is, they don’t want to see you any more than you want to see them. Here’s a few pointers to help make your excursions into nature enjoyable for everyone – even the snakes.
1. Snakes do NOT want to bite you. They know that they can’t eat you. They just want you to go away and leave them alone. They only bite in self defense.
2. Despite rumors to the contrary, no snakes in the U.S. will “track you down”. They just want to be left alone to do snake things and live their snake lives.
3. When hiking, stay on the trail and hike loud – meaning hard foot falls, tapping trekking poles etc. to warn snakes (and other wild things) that you’re coming. Give them time to realize that you’re there and either get away or warn you of their presence.
4. Be aware of your surroundings. I’ve zoned out while hiking and almost stepped on a rattlesnake – more than once. If you need to listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks, use one earbud only. If you’re stepping over a log, stretching out in the grass, or putting your hand up on a rock ledge, look first to make sure it’s safe.
5. Leave snakes alone. Every snake bite that I treated in the ER save one was because someone was catching, grabbing, or playing catch with (yep – really happened) a snake. The other one was a lady who stuck her hand in a hole to pull out the long grass and grabbed a snake instead. If you see a snake on the trail, stop moving. Then, very very slowly, back up. Once you’re out of danger, either go far around – giving the snake a wide berth – or wait for it to move on. Be sure to keep your pets and children close when in snake country.
6. If you’re bitten, don’t panic. Remember when I said that snakes don’t want to bite you? They really don’t want to waste their venom on you. They can’t eat you and once expelled, it takes the venom a while replenish. The statistics vary on this, but it’s anywhere from 60-80% of bites from venomous snakes are dry bites – meaning they don’t expel any venom. This does not mean that you should wait and find out. All snake bites need immediate medical attention – dry or not.
7. Do get help right away. If you are bitten, the best things to have in your hand are your car keys and your cell phone. Call for help immediately. You want to keep calm and keep your heart rate low, but if you’re in the back country, you may have to walk to help. If possible, try to keep the bite location elevated. If you can, circle the bite location (that’s why a sharpie should always be in your first aid kit), write the time of the bite on your hand, and if it’s safe to do so, get a pic of the snake. Only do this if it can be done safely, quickly, and easily. If not, try to remember what the snake looked like – color, size, rattle or no rattle…
8. Do NOT try to suck out the poison, cut the bite location, use a snake bite kit, or use a tourniquet. You’ll only increase the chance of infection and cause further damage. Some first aid training companies recommend loosely wrapping the affected limb. This has not been proven to help at all and it wastes time. If you’re with a group and you’re waiting for your transport, then go ahead and wrap it if you want, but keep it loose. Other first aid training companies recommend taking a Benadryl after a bite. This could help if you have a reaction to the venom, but ask the rescue company on the phone first. Some doctors are very much against this.
9. Relax. Snake bites on the trails are actually very, very rare. Please don’t let fear keep you from all that the outdoors has to offer. Just like with any other wild creature – pay attention to your surroundings, let them know that you’re there, give them some respect, and leave them alone and you’ll be just fine!