What to do if you meet a snake on the trail

Quick tips for separating the myths from the facts — fast.

EMERGENCY SITUATION: You’re hiking on remote national park land when you see a rattlesnake blocking the trail just ahead of you. What do you do?

SOLUTION: You could try negotiation, but that probably won’t work.

Truthfully, it’s best to give any snake a wide berth. Rattlesnakes, of course, are venomous and generally easy to identify (more on this below), but to be safe you should always assume a snake in the wild is venomous. And anyway, the bite of a nonvenomous snake can still be extremely painful and may cause infection.

First, quickly observe the snake’s posture. A coiled rattler that is audibly shaking its tail (rattle) is probably preparing to strike. Or, at the very least, none too pleased.

If this is the case, back away quickly but carefully—you don’t want to trip and fall in your haste to get away.

However, while a snake may strike across a greater distance if coiled, snakes can attack from any posture. Further, don’t assume the lack of an audible rattle indicates the snake is sleeping, ignoring you, blind and deaf, or full. A rattlesnake may rattle only a bit—or not at all—before striking. Also, a young rattlesnake may have an undeveloped rattle.

Do not attempt to poke or prod the snake with a stick or other object in an attempt to get it to move out of your way. This will only annoy the snake and make it more likely to strike. The best solution is to wait until it clears the trail.

Once it starts to leave, visually follow its progress to make sure it’s far from the trail before you continue on your way.

Most snakes can strike a distance of half their body length. This means if you encounter a six-foot snake, it can easily attack any object within a three-foot radius, with zero warning. For this reason, it’s best to wear thick hiking boots, which may prevent fangs from piercing your skin.

Finally, if you are bitten, do not panic. While any snakebite should be considered a medical emergency, you’re not likely to succumb to the snake’s venom unless you’re many hours (or days) from a hospital with antivenin—or unless you’re very young, very old, or have a compromised immune system. Still, try to keep the bitten area immobile and below the level of your heart as you seek help.

Except in rare cases where help is far away, a tourniquet is likely to do more harm than good, resulting in tissue damage. If you must use one, place it just above the bite area and make it loose enough to easily fit a finger under.

And before you go buy a snake-bite kit, listen up. New medical research suggests that these kits, especially the scalpel and suction devices inside them, could hurt more than help. The scalpel can damage the skin, and studies show that the suction devices may remove only a small portion of the venom.

And never—ever—try to “suck” out the venom. John Wayne might have done it . . . but you’re no John Wayne, pardner.

Josh Piven is the co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Handbook series. Visit his Web site atjoshpiven.net.

 

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