From what I’ve noticed working at a camp over the years, there are three kinds of people in this world: Those who love reptiles, those who are indifferent to them, and those who want to be as far away from them as possible. The best way to identify the type of person you are with (or who you are yourself) is to mention the word ‘snake’ and observe a person’s reaction. Fans will light up and some people won’t pay much attention…but the real excitement comes from the person who wants every last creepy cold-blooded scaly thing to die in a fiery explosion.
Although definitely not cool, one of my favorite things to do at camp was catch small, harmless snakes and drape them around my wrist or shoulder without drawing attention and wait for campers to notice. Until my experiences at summer camp, I was halfway between indifferent/terrified. I wasn’t afraid to hold a snake if someone told me it was tame, but despite my willingness to wrestle wild horses and cattle on a regular basis I never had the bravery to go catch one myself. Dogs, cats, horses, they’re all easy: obvious personality and body language similar to our own. Snakes…..nope they’re scary.
The more I learned about them at camp, the more I became fascinated by them and wanted to know more. I started hanging out at the nature centers and handling serpents on a regular basis, and while I still use catch poles and gloves until I’m confident in the specific animal, knowing about them makes me smarter and therefore not afraid of them. Turns out, different breeds have different temperaments and the animals have individual personalities and memories, just like any other animal.
Most hikers will cross paths with snakes dozens of times on the trail, after all you are in THEIR home. There are several things I want to point out to you today that will not only help keep you safe when you come across snakes (who honestly don’t want to be near you any more than you do them) but will also help you identify what type of snake you are dealing with and what to do in the event of an accident.
Part 1: What’sssss In A Name?
Here are the major breeds of snakes you may encounter on your hike.
Black Rat Snake – These guys get really big, and typically darken with age. Slower snakes and members of the king snake family, they eat other snakes and are very intelligent. My personal favorite cabin guard. These guys aren’t too smelly to humans but their scent keeps venomous snakes away (king snakes can eat venomous snakes and aren’t affected by their toxins)
Black Racer – black, pretty fast moving and temperamental. Often poses as a rattle snake by slapping its tail on nearby leaves to scare potential threats away.
Corn Snake – great climbers, a variety of color patterns common. Once tame they are super chill and are happy just to hang in there with you, but out in the wild they’re prefer to be on their tree and left alone.
Ring Neck Snake– WIDDLE CUTIES! These tiny little snakes feed mostly on bugs and worms and typically don’t bite because they’re so small. They’re pretty calm and easy to handle but they release a putrid musk that can make your eyes water!
Garter Snake – These guys also come in a HUGE variety of patterns and colors depending on the state. Shorter snakes, but fast nonetheless, not great at climbing and they do give live births.
Northern Banded Water Snake – These guys are most commonly seen by ponds and mistaken for water moccasins. Short but very fat (this helps them swim and float) these guys are dark brown/black and can be pretty nasty. Luckily, they have many small teeth rather than large fangs so you’re going to end up with more of a shallow series of scratches rather than deep puncture wounds. Their musk makes you want to find a skunk and be its buddy just to forget the snake smell.
Venomous Snakes (aka cat eyes and triangle heads):
Copperhead – Hemotoxic venom, small-medium sized snake. Almost looks like a giraffe print, they have a blotchy pattern that ranges from dark brown or blackish all the way to a dusty sandy color. These guys don’t have a way to warn that you are in their space and therefore can be considered more dangerous than the rattlers.
Timber Rattle Snake aka Canebrake Rattler – Hemotoxic venom. Again here we’ve got a variety of color patterns available. Patterns vary by snake and region but typically shows a wiggly w-shaped band or series of splotches that make up rings along its body. Snake will typically rattle then hiss to warn you before it ever strikes.
Water Moccasin aka Eastern Cottonmouth – Hemotoxic venom. Usually only seen closer to the coasts, these are aquatic based snakes that live near rivers and swamps. They have a more jagged striping pattern than the northern banded water snake (who is most often mistaken as a water moccasin) and the distinctive triangular head, a white line around their lips and a yellow tip to their tail.
Part 2: Crosssssssing Pathssss.
While this is something that seems like common sense, I am still going to cover it because there will always be the ding dongs who see a snake and for some unknown reason get the uncontrollable urge to either catch, poke, or kill it. I know this because I have taught many of these ding dongs. DON’T MESS WITH THE SNAKE.
If you went to Africa and were walking around in the safari and all of a sudden a pride of lions passes by, would you run up to Simba to scratch his belly? If someone ran up to you and started poking you wouldn’t you want to bite their head off and leave? Let me say it again, LEAVE THE DAMN SNAKE ALONE!
After you’ve spent a night in a shelter and had mice eat through your bag, or scurry across your feet you will grow to appreciate these legless hunters. Whenever we removed snakes from kid infested areas, we typically released non-venomous ones under our staff cabins to hunt mice. Mice eat your things and carry diseases. Mice are bad. Snakes not so bad. (The presence of so many snakes near staff camp kept kids out of our area too!).
So let’s get back to you and your hike. Whether you’re day hiking or thru-hiking you’re bound to come across a snake at some point. Say you’re stopping for a break and you notice you’re sitting right next to one, or your walking down a trail and ones lying right in the middle of the path. Here are 3 pointers for this situation.
- Don’t Run.
- Leave It Alone.
- Don’t Run.
The majority of the snake related injuries, hilariously enough, aren’t from the snake at all, but from humans turning and blindly running in fear and tripping or running into things. Find a way around the snake and give it the space it needs; it’s a lot easier for you to take the long way around than to find a doctor when you’re 25 miles from the nearest town.
While it’s nice to give your fellow hikers a heads up and let them know there is a serpent sunning itself ahead, you do not need to take it upon yourself to move it away from the trail. Remember, they are cold blooded animals that need to sun themselves or seek shelter to survive and they don’t want to bother with humans. Take note, if you notice the snake has a bulge from a recent meal or if it appears to be shedding, the snake is in a very vulnerable state (shedding snakes temporarily lose some of their vision as the outer scale detaches) and will be more temperamental.
Despite popular belief, a North American snake will not look at a human as a potential food source: they swallow their prey whole, how on Earth could a snake even get over a human’s enormous head? Jk, but seriously, snake bites, like dog bites, occur when the animal is fearful or stressed. Their food focus is much smaller, think rodents, smaller reptiles and amphibians, and yes…other snakes. In 90% of the ‘non provoked’ cases (without screwballing with a snake to get a reaction), a snake bite occurs when a person is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Usually in these situations a person steps on or startles a snake they didn’t even know was there in the first place. You’ve seen video clips of human pranksters getting punched by their prankees; it’s just a natural reaction!
Part 3: When Accidentssss Happen.
While I’ve yet to have the misfortune of really getting whacked by a snake, I’ve had close calls – Including the time I stepped into a nest of baby rattlers wearing flip flops and the time I picked up an albino corn snake that turned out to be an albino adult copperhead. If the odds just aren’t in your favor and a snake bite does occur, here are 5 myths we need to clear up ahead of time.
Myth 1: If its not venomous, I don’t have to treat it.
I mentioned that snakes eat mice right? And that mice carry all sorts of cooties? While the snake itself isn’t going to give you rabies by brushing up against your leg, their mouth is a festering pool of bacteria from the prey it eats and even a small prick therefore has the potential to become infected. Clean out the wound thoroughly and keep a close eye on it – If it becomes swollen, overly sore or hot get it checked out!
Myth 2: Baby snakes are more deadly than adults because they can’t control their venom output.
Eh, I heard this one a lot. Yes, it’s true that young snakes haven’t quite gotten the hang of how much venom to release to kill their prey and often dump it all in. It is also true that adult snakes understand that venom is a precious limited resource and that if they feel threatened and just want to issue a warning, they can issues what is called a ‘dry bite’. So there is some basis behind the myth.
Now, consider this: Who has bigger fangs? Who’s venom sack is larger? The adult snake. Meaning that while a baby might issue venom more often, the mamma will bury it deeper into your body making it more effective and causing more damage faster. If mamma decides to give you some juice, she’s got a lot more of it in store and even if you get a ‘dry bite’, those fangs probably have minimal bits of venom left over on them so even dry bites can be dangerous.
Myth 3: Venom sucking
Okay so luckily these days most people have learned that the old cowboy trick of cutting an ‘x’ and sucking out the venom doesn’t do jack to help a situation. Think about it, you’re not gonna get all of the venom (which is already doing its job), now the victim is bleeding out from the ‘x’, and YOU feel like your mouth is on fire because you’re literally spitting venom. Gotcha, don’t suck the venom. Moving on.
Myth 4: Tying a tourniquet
The next myth is that if you are bit by a venomous snake that you need to immediately tie a tourniquet. Okay, let’s cover this guy in a little more detail. What happens when you tie a tourniquet? You cut off blood supply to whatever is below the tie. While you may trap the venom in that limb, odds are the victim is going to lose everything below the tie because you’ve already cut off blood flow to the area. Because of this, tying a tourniquet is not recommended in most cases. Now, if you are dealing with a small child, elderly person, or otherwise compromised individual who poses a higher risk, this is a different story. A person can adapt to losing an arm a lot more easily than they can losing their life.
Myth 5: Anti-venom
If you get to a hospital the doctor will immediately administer anti-venom right? Well, once upon a time maybe, but studies are showing that with many types of snakes, anti-venom can cause more harm than good. In particular, lets look at hemo-toxic snakes like rattlers and copperheads. ‘Hemo’ (meaning blood) gives a clear indication of what the venom does – it attacks the blood cells of the victim, preventing clotting and actually eating away at the tissues. Not pretty. Despite how nasty and scarring this venom can be (not to mention painful), unless dealing with a small, older or immune compromised person doctors these days will typically leave you in a hospital bed pumped full of fluids and continue to monitor swelling at the bite area. This isn’t always the case however, as there are other types of venom (neurotoxins, etc) that can be deadly without immediate action. Rule of thumb, if you have the misfortune of being bitten, get it treated.
Okay, got that down, now what am I SUPPOSED to do?
Okay, snake bites you. Boom. Ouch. Now what?
- Stay calm. If you scare yourself and start hyperventilating you can pass out. You need all the oxygen you can get. If a victim is losing it and freaking out, talk to them in a calm and collected voice, and instruct them to take slow, deep breaths. When my kids have asthma problems and start taking scared, short and shallow breaths, I tell them to pretend they are breathing through a straw. Oddly enough this analogy helps calm them down.
- Call for help. Don’t scream and run around and scare yourself/your patient even more, but use a phone, etc to call for assistance. Try to not leave the victim alone and keep them awake.
- Have the victim sit upright, possibly against a tree or something, and immobilize the limb while keeping the bite wound lower than their heart and head. Don’t apply ice or a tourniquet. The goal is to make it as hard as possible for the venom to spread while still allowing blood flow to occur. Be sure to remove any jewelry or clothing around the area in case swelling does occur.
- If bleeding out, put pressure over the wound but not enough to fully restrict blood flow to the area. Without going after the snake, try to remember what it looked like so you can describe it to doctors when you seek medical attention.
So maybe you were indifferent and now you’re terrified. My bad, my intention is definitely not to scare you out of snakes. They are super intelligent creatures who continue to amaze me with their personalities and habits and the fact that they have adapted the way they have is nothing short of miraculous. My intentions in writing this were merely to make you aware of what can happen when you cross paths with a snake, to teach you a little more about identifying them and their habits, and to prepare you for the worst in the event that you ever find yourself needing it.
Keep in mind that snake bites are rare and that snakes don’t want to be near you anymore than you do them. They are peaceful creatures just trying to find their way and make a living in the wilderness, much like yourself. Be respectful of them, appreciate them from a distance, and everyone can continue along their merry way without ever having any tragic endings. =)