Many people harbour a deep fear of snakes. A venomous snakebite can be a hiker’s worst nightmare. However, hikers should remember that while all snakebites are dangerous and should be taken seriously, most will not result in instant and inevitable death.
Many venomous snakes, like the copperhead, are not actually fatal to humans, and even potentially fatal bites from cottonmouths and rattlesnakes are significantly less dangerous in this age of rescue helicopters and readily available antivenins.
Moreover, snakebites are easily avoided by responsible hikers, with just a few simple precautions.
Be prepared with equipment and knowledge
Hikers should always do their research before embarking on a trek, and this is especially true in regions where they might encounter venomous snakes.
Knowing what to look for (and where) is critical to avoiding snake encounters in the first place. Should a bite occur, having the proper equipment and knowing what to do can make a huge difference in the nature of the emergency.
In terms of equipment, hikers should wear thick boots that cover their ankles, which might prevent a snakebite from penetrating the skin, and have a means of contacting medical assistance, especially if they will be out of cell phone range. While hikers should always carry a first aid kit, the best thing to do for snakebites is to call for help and keep the victim’s heart rate low.
Companions can help medical professionals by identifying the snake that bit the victim by sight—not by capturing it, which only puts more hikers in danger. The more hikers know about the snakes they might encounter on their hike, the better equipped they will be to provide this crucial information in the event of a bite.
Black Venomous Snake
Watch your step!
Because snakes don’t view humans as food, they almost never attack humans outright, instead only striking when they feel threatened. One of the quickest ways to make a snake feel threatened is to step on or near it.
Snakes don’t have external ears, but they often feel and flee approaching hikers because of the vibrations of their steps. Hikers can increase this effect by intentionally walking heavily or beating the ground with sticks in areas where they are likely to meet a snake. Even then, it’s crucial that hikers keep their eyes open for snakes on and near the trail. It’s jarring for a person to be startled by a snake, but terrifying for the snake and likely to engage their defensive behavior (i.e. biting). Hikers should also be aware for other warning signs, like the famous rattle rattlesnakes make before striking, and be especially careful around tall grass or rocks that might obscure their view.
Snakes are, after all, very good at hiding and camouflaging, so even the most astute hiker might not see one until it’s too late.
Avoid contact whenever possible
If hikers do encounter a snake, they absolutely should not interact with it. Even seemingly “helpful” actions, like capturing or killing a venomous snake or trying to take detailed photos to identify the animal, only put hikers at increased risk.
Most snakes can strike at up to half their body length, so hikers should keep at least twice that much space (i.e. the length of the snake) between themselves and the animal.
Stomping your feet can create enough vibrations to frighten the snake off, but if that doesn’t work and you must pass the snake, edge carefully around it, giving the animal as much space as possible.
Remember that most snakes aren’t interested in attacking hikers, only in feeling safe and being left alone. If hikers can give snakes respect, most snakes will be more than happy to reciprocate.
As frightening as the idea of a snakebite out in the wilderness can be, there’s no reason to hide indoors. Hikers armed with knowledge and a healthy level of caution can easily enjoy treks through the wilderness without ever being at serious risk for a snakebite.