What to do if You Meet a Rattlesnake

Sign at Cottonwood Campground, Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: Florian Boyd/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It's getting warmer out in the world, and that's the kind of weather reptiles like. The vast majority of them are pleasant company on the trail or in the campground, but one kind of reptile you'll see out there may raise your hackles rather than your admiration: any of California's several species of rattlesnakes.

As I mention in some detail here, most encounters between people and rattlesnakes end with no ill effects for either party. In fact, most such encounters happen with the person not knowing the snake is there. They're reclusive, shy creatures most of the time.

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For instance, most hikers, runners, and dog-walkers in crowded Runyon Canyon would likely be surprised -- despite obvious warning signs -- to find that that glamorous wild park is pretty much rattlesnake heaven. Hike from the bottom of the canyon up to Mulholland Drive and you will likely come within a hundred yards of half a dozen rattlers.


Given any option at all, a rattlesnake would much rather leave you alone. To make that option available to them, keep your distance. You need not run away or fall down a cliff to do so: most rattlesnakes only insist on a few feet of personal space, and if you give them an escape route they'll generally take it.

Experts agree that the majority of rattlesnake snakebites happen to people who are, in one commonly cut-and-pasted phrase found on a whole lot of snake-related websites, "intentionally interacting with the snake." Don't do that and you cut your risk of snakebite to near zero.

Though the vast majority of unpleasant interactions with rattlesnakes are avoidable, sometimes accidents do happen. Or perhaps you suddenly find yourself trying to help someone who wasn't as careful as they should be. There are a few actions you can take that might save the victim's life, and even more than will make things worse. Here's a list.

DON'Ts:

  • DON'T attempt to capture or kill the snake. The snake is already highly agitated and you're risking another bite.
  • DON'T apply a tourniquet or icepack to the bite area. For most snakebites the major threat is tissue damage, and applying ice or tying a tourniquet will likely make the damage worse.
  • DON'T "cut and suck." The old-style snakebite kits are worthless at removing venom, and they can increase the risk of infection or tissue damage.
  • DON'T act recklessly in an attempt to reach medical assistance. Stick to the trail, get to your car, drive carefully to the hospital. Or better yet, get to the road and call for an ambulance.

DOs:

  • DO wash the bite area gently with soap and water, if you have them available.
  • DO identify the type of snake, if you can. If you have a camera with you, snap a photo from a safe distance.
  • DO remove watches, bracelets, rings, and any other worn objects that could constrict a swelling extremity. In fact, given that your fingers likely swell after a few minutes of hard hiking, it's probably a good idea to leave your rings at home when you're hiking in snake country.
  • DO remain calm. The faster the victim's heart rate is, the more quickly the venom will spread. The vast majority of rattlesnake bite victims survive. The calmer they remain, the better their chances.
  • DO get to help as soon as possible. The single best first aid tool for snakebite is a set of car keys.

A tip for dog-owners: given how many dogs react to the presence of any snake, your furry pal faces a much higher risk of snakebite than you do. Ask your vet about vaccinations against rattlesnake venom, which seem to reduce the risk of most snakebites considerably. Many trainers offer rattlesnake aversion training, which is likely to be an even better bet for most pooches.

Related: How to Identify a Marijuana Cultivation Site, and What to Do

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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