Venomous Snake Encounters: How to avoid and deal with snakebites

southern pacific rattlesnake camp pendelton

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake

Catch a glimpse of that telltale slither out of the corner of your eye, and the primal animal brain at the base of your skull lights ups and makes you go girly for a beat. It’s OK; your man card is still valid. That piece of programming passed down from your ancestors helped keep them alive long enough to pass their genes along to you.

Here’s what you need to know about venomous snakes in the wild, and how to avoid and deal with dangerous encounters.

What you need to know about venomous snakes

There are four different types (about 20 species) of venomous snakes that call North America home: cottonmouths, rattlesnakes, copperheads and coral snakes. In the United States, about 7000-8000 venomous people are bitten annually, and five or six die, mostly from eastern and western diamondback rattlesnakes. You are about nine times more likely to be killed by lightning.

Rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads are pit vipers. If you care to get close enough, you may notice a small depression between the eye and the nostril. This is the ‘pit’ in pit viper, which is used by the snake to sense heat in their prey. As a general rule, they will have a thick, blocky head with an obvious neck, and their body will be thick for their length.  Rattlesnakes often, but not always, rattle their tail when on defensive. Duh.

coral snake 2

Coral Snake

Coral snakes average 1.5-2.5 feet long, are slender, and are ringed with bright bands of red, yellow and black. There are also harmless mimics. Remember the rhyme, “Red touches yellow, kill a fellow. Red touches black, good for Jack.” Or just steer clear of them all.

How to avoid dangerous encounters

Generally, snakes don’t want a piece of you, and will hide or retreat if possible. However, their main defense is biting, so they may strike if startled or cornered. They do not need to be coiled to strike. Here’s a few key tips for snake territory:

  • Dress appropriately: long loose pants, and closed-toe shoes or boots. Gaiters or snake chaps or boots are options.
  • Keep to the trail or open areas when possible.
  • When off-trail or in brush, make a little noise as you go, preferable with a walking stick.
  • Don’t stick your hands where you can’t see.
  • Step on logs, not over, just in case there’s a snake resting behind.
  • Watch your step. Being cold-blooded, snakes sometimes sun out in the open, and may not notice you until you step on, or next to them.
  • When camping, keep the tent zipped up, shake out your sleeping bag and boots, and take care when digging into the woodpile.
  • If you encounter a snake, give it room and move away quickly and quietly. “Poke it with a stick” is not a good life choice.

What to do in the event of a snakebite

DO:

  • Get the victim away from the snake.
  • Assume the snake was venomous unless you are 100% sure of the snake’s identity.
  • Call 911 – get immediate medical help for any snakebite.
  • Keep the victim warm, as comfortable as possible, and minimize movement.
  • Take note of  the time of the bite, symptoms, first aid administered, and allergies.
  • Remove bracelets, rings, and constrictive clothing, as swelling is likely.
  • Keep the bitten extremity (hand, arm, foot, leg) lower than the victim’s heart.
snakebite kit 2

Snakebite Kits

Snakebite_kit

DON’T:

  • Most importantly, DO NOT wait to seek medical attention; call 911! Your cell phone is your best snakebite kit.
  • Do not wait for symptoms to develop – get help immediately!
  • Do not apply “traditional” remedies- they can cause more damage!
    – Do not apply ice, heat, a tourniquet or electric shock
    – Do not attempt to make an “X” incision and suck out the venom.
    – Do not allow the victim to take any stimulants (such as caffeine) or drink alcohol — these substances will speed up the effects of the venom
    – Venom extractors, such as the Sawyer Extractor ® may help slightly if applied within 5 minutes of the bite and used for 30 minutes. This is NOT a substitute for proper medical care!
  • Do not attempt to catch or kill the snake- this will probably result in another bite and isn’t necessary to ensure proper treatment.
  • Do not handle “dead” venomous snakes – even decapitated snakes, as they can inject venom by reflex biting up to an hour after death

Bottom Line

It is unlikely you’ll ever be bitten by a venomous snake, especially if you take a few common-sense precautions. A cool head can go a long way in dealing with a snakebite should it occur. Knowledge and respect will take you far; don’t end up a dead end on your family tree like your distant caveman cousin Eddy – “Hold my club and watch this.”

Article by:

Brad Manley

Dagger Defense contributor

*This article is for entertainment purposes only and should not substitute expert medical advice, treatment and diagnosis.  Always dial 911 in the case of an emergency and seek expert advice in the case of a snakebite.

Comments 1

  1. Claudia

    If you make enough noise in the woods you’ll never see any critters. Not good if you’re a hunter, but great if you don’t like snakes. And remember – Snakes and spiders are Venomous, but Poison is something you swallow like arsenic or ricin. Bottom line – if you don’t know what species the snake is, don’t pick it up!

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