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What to Do If You Encounter a Rattlesnake

Tom Lohr lives in New Mexico, where he explores the region with his canine sidekick, Ella the Brown Wonder.


Shake, Rattle, and Roll

Rattlesnakes strike fear into the hearts of humans, mostly due to the over-dramatization of their behavior in Westerns. Make no mistake, rattlers can be dangerous and even deadly, but they are not the reptilian equivalent of being chased through the woods by Sasquatch. Given the room and respect they deserve, rattlesnakes are no reason to end your hike early. Simply assess the situation and take appropriate action.

Rattlesnakes like to eat. Humans are far too large for them to tackle. Rattlesnakes do NOT want to eat you; that is boa constrictor territory. What they do eat are mainly rodents. Snakes are an important part of the ecosystem and help keep the rodent population under control. While most species American rattlesnakes are not endangered, you should not kill a rattlesnake unless you have absolutely no other choice.


How Rattlesnakes Operate

Rattlesnakes cannot hear. But they are super sensitive to ground vibrations. If they can sense a rabbit hopping nearby, they can darn sure detect a human plodding through their territory. Once they feel threatened, they will coil up and try to warn you off by shaking their rattle. That sound means “back off buddy.” You should listen to the snake. At that point the snake already has you targeted, but would prefer to save its venom for something it can actually eat. If you find yourself in this situation, stop; allow the snake to calm down. After that, slowly back off and out of range of the snake. Rattlesnakes can only strike about a third to half the distance of their overall length, but that is very hard to determine while they are coiled up.

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The Best Defense

The best strategy is to avoid contact with rattlesnakes at all. Know when you are in rattlesnake country and take the following precautions:

  1. Always look several yards ahead of your intended walking path. Look for snakes either stretched out on the path or coiled up near it.
  2. Also watch where you step, if you have to step over a log or rocks, check it out first. Prod with your trekking pole if necessary.
  3. Give any snakes you sight a wide berth.
  4. Do not throw rocks or antagonize a snake.
  5. Consider a pair of snake gaiters if the area is known for poisonous snakes.
  6. Rattlesnakes hunt at night. If you are venturing outside of your campsite after dark, take a flashlight and scan the area in front of you as you walk.

If You Are Bitten

Make no mistake, being bitten by a rattlesnake is a medical emergency. Without seeking treatment, you could suffer severe internal injury or possibly die. On the positive side, about 25% of rattlesnake bites are dry, meaning no venom was introduced into your body. And more people die of bee stings than rattlesnake bites.

In the unfortunate event that you meet the business end of one of these serpents, do the following:

  1. Move immediately away. Rattlesnakes can strike more than one.
  2. Try to take a picture of the snake's head using the zoom function on your camera of phone. This will help medical personnel identify the type of rattlesnake (there are about 30 different species) and use the correct anti-venom.
  3. Remove any restrictive clothing or jewelry. Your body will begin to swell and you do not want to cut off any circulation.
  4. Keep the bitten area below the level of your heart.
  5. Do not wash the wound or try to suck out the venom (that only works in western movies). Washing it removes venom the hospital could use to identify the type of snake that bit you.
  6. Call for an ambulance immediately. You need to seek medical treatment ASAP.
  7. Hiking out is not recommended as it helps spread the venom throughout your body. But in some cases, this may be your only choice. That is one reason they say, “do not hike alone.”
  8. You may feel fine or very little effect for the first hour or so, but the symptoms will worsen over time as the venom attacks your organs.

Use Caution, But Don't Get Too Rattled

Rattlesnakes are not to be feared, but respected. Do not let them cancel or change your outdoor plans; just know how to avoid them and what to do if you are bitten. And remember to seek treatment immediately after the strike. Victims have experienced kidney failure, had to have portions of their intestines removed, and even suffered strokes due to shock. Respect the snake.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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