How to Hike in Rattlesnake Country
Hiking in Eastern Washington during the spring and summer months means blue skies, warm weather, open trails, and, sometimes, hearing the distinctive rattle of a rattlesnake.
Encountering an elusive rattlesnake on trail can be thrilling and a little scary, but with good preparation and awareness, it doesn't have to detract from the wonders of desert hiking.
How to avoid encounters with rattlesnakes on trail
Rattlesnakes are instinctual creatures who'd rather avoid hikers altogether. If given the choice to run away, they will. Here are some tips to help avoid surprising a rattlesnake as you hike.
- Check trip reports. Hikers report rattlesnake activity, so you know to be careful when you visit or choose a different destination.
- Hike with trekking poles. Hiking poles allow you to push back brush that stretches over the trail and hit rocks or ledges that might serve as a nice sunning spot for a rattlesnake.
- Use popular, well-hiked trails. Since rattlesnakes want to avoid humans at all costs, they tend to stay away from trails that get heavy foot traffic.
- Stay on cleared, open sections of trails. A clear section of trail will allow you to see any rattlesnakes well before you come upon them.
- Avoid thick brush. Thick brush or undergrowth serves as a perfect hiding spot for a rattlesnake.
- Wear long loose pants and high top boots. Long pants and high top boots provide more protection against rattlesnake bites.
- Stick together and keep dogs leashed. Keep kids close and keep your dog on a short (non-retractable) leash.
- Hike in hibernation season. Don't let a fear of rattlesnakes keep you at home during the best of the springtime blooming desert. But remember, you can always hike the desert in late fall, winter and early spring when cool temperatures keep snakes in their dens.
If you encounter a rattlesnake on trail: freeze, listen, slowly retreat
Sometimes there is no way to see a snake hiding around a bend or under a rock. If you hear a rattle or stumble across a rattlesnake right in front of you on trail, follow these three steps to avoid escalating the encounter into an emergency.
- Freeze. If a rattlesnake is in a position where it feels threatened, the best way to avoid attack is to stop all movement and assess the situation. If you're hiking in rattlesnake country with kids, practice having them freeze at the trailhead and several times along the trail.
- Locate the source of the sound. If the rattlesnake cannot be seen, it is important to locate the sound before you try to move away from the snake. You want to avoid putting the snake in a position where it feels trapped or more threatened than it already is.
- Slowly move away from the snake. Once the snake is located, move away slowly with no sudden movements. If you have a hiking pole, hold it up between you and the snake. If the snake does attack it might go for the pole instead of your leg.
A note about dogs and rattlesnakes: because of their behavior, dogs are more likely to be bitten than you are. A non-retractable leash and trail-tested training are your best tools to help keep your buddy safe. You can also ask your vet about the vaccine for rattlesnake venom.
What happens if you or your dog are bitten by a rattlesnake
In the rare chance you are bitten, the most important thing to do is stay calm, try not to move too much and seek immediate medical attention. These guidelines apply to your hiking dog, too.
- Remain calm. The most important thing to remember is to stay calm and restrict your movement. Snake venom travels slowly through the body. Most deaths from rattlesnake bites are caused by shock rather than venom.
- Rest. When a snake bite occurs, it is important to rest at once. An increased heart rate means increased blood flow. This causes the venom to flow throughout your body faster.
- Wash the bite area with soap and water, or with an antiseptic wipe from your first-aid kit.
- Get medical help. It is crucial that a snake bite is treated as soon as possible. Attempt to call 911 from the trail and avoid movement. If phone service is unavailable, send another hiker to the trailhead to contact authorities. If you are alone on the trail, layer your clothing to keep your body temperature stable and walk slowly back to the trailhead, trying to exert as little energy as possible. If your dog is bitten, do not allow her to walk out; carry her, keeping the wound below her heart.
- Remove any items that could restrict the swelling of the bite area. These items could include rings, watches, bracelets, etc. Swelling is supposed to occur with snake bites and should not be suppressed.
- Apply a clean, moist, loose, dressing. A moist dressing can soothe the snake bite area and make you more comfortable. It is important not to apply pressure.
- Elevate the bite above heart level
- Draw out the venom by cutting the wound
- Suck the venom from the wound
- Apply pressure to the wound with bandages or tourniquets
- Apply ice
- Give medication like pain killers (unless instructed by a doctor)
- Try to capture or kill the snake
Photograph rattlesnakes only from a distance
Spotting a rattler can be exciting, but most bites occur when people are intentionally engaging them. If the desire to get that perfect photo of a rattlesnake is just too much, use these tips to keep yourself and the snake safe.
- Move to a safe distance before you reach for your camera.
- Use a telephoto lens or digital zoom on your phone. You may lose a little quality with the digital zoom, but these tools allow you to get the perfect shot from a safe distance.
- Watch for the warning signs. Rattlesnakes wear their heart on their sleeve. If a snake exhibits warning signs, back away and wait to take the photograph another day.
- The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife offers many of the above tips and much more on website, plus information about research on rattlesnake populations.
- Learn more about dogs and snake bites from the UC David School of Veterinary Medicine.