Rattlesnake Safety & Awareness
by Amanda Bartell, Girls Who Hike San Francisco/NorCal Ambassador
On a hot afternoon in June, I was lounging on the edge of the Yuba River in Northern California with not a care in the world. We’d just set up camp across the road, and I’d been attempting to gold pan while my dad was scouting for a good fishing spot. I was sifting through the dirt adjacent to two large rocks when I heard the water sloshing beside me. I turned my head to where I had just scooped up a mound of dirt a few seconds prior. This is what greeted me:
I panicked. I screamed, flung the pan, and ran about 10 yards up the riverbank. After regaining my composure (and muttering a few curse words) I realized how ignorant I was when it comes to snakes. From the hillside, I was able to capture the very zoomed in picture above, knowing I’d want to know what kind of snake it was later. Dozens of thoughts rushed through my head. Was it a rattlesnake? Had I honestly come within 3 precarious feet of a venomous rattlesnake? How could I be so unaware? I go outside to hike and camp nearly every weekend. Why do I not know more about snakes? After thinking about it, I was actually quite surprised I hadn’t run into any snakes prior to this.
Reflecting on the past 6 years of drought here in California, I hypothesized about how this may have been my first encounter. Maybe a dry landscape has left these critters well hidden in their environment, or they’ve been better at hiding among rocks. Our most recent wet winter has now left us more snowmelt and raging river water than we know what to do with. Drainage from the mountains may be washing snakes from their dens. Or the increased vegetation has them feeling safer outside of the rocks. Whatever the reason, with this wealth of water comes the need for increased awareness from us outdoor enthusiasts, particularly regarding rattlesnakes. It has always been important to be aware of these critters when opting outside, but this year is especially important, as encounters have increased.
Rattlesnake Identification: After doing some research and posting the picture in a Sierra Nevada Facebook group that I’m a part of, I learned that this was not a rattlesnake encounter, but most likely a large gopher snake. Here’s how you can tell. The most easily identifiable feature of a rattlesnake is, of course, the rattle. The snake that I saw did not have one. Although it’s possible for an adult rattlesnake to lose its rattle due to injury, it’s pretty unlikely. Rattlesnakes also have a triangular head shape and vertical pupils. My opinion is that if you’re close enough to identify a snake based on these smaller features, you are TOO CLOSE.
If you encounter a snake: I found that I had acted completely inappropriately upon seeing the snake. If you happen to find yourself in an uncomfortably close encounter, stop where you are. Rattlesnakes will exhibit warning signs such as coiling up, hissing, and shaking their rattle when threatened. They are more likely to strike in response to quick movements, and you should remain as calm as possible. Once you determine it’s safe enough, back away slowly.
In the event you’ve been bitten: attempt to remain still. Call emergency services if you have reception, and send companions for help. If possible, disinfect the bite area, and keep it below the heart. Know that you must get medical attention, even if you must walk there yourself. If this is the case, do so slowly and safely, checking for cell service along the way. Exert as little energy as possible. These bites often result in short fainting spells, and running for help puts you at risk for other injuries. DO NOT attempt to suck venom out of the bite. This will only cause ingestion of the venom, and will not solve your problem. DO NOT take Advil or Aspirin for relief as these are blood thinners and will cause the venom to circulate throughout your body faster. Tylenol and other acetaminophens are acceptable to take, but be sure to tell medical personnel if you have taken any medication. NOTE: There are products on the market to pump venom out of snake bites. These have been determined ineffective by snake experts, and have other unintended risks. Rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal when treated by professionals, so make that you’re main focus.
Now that you’ve learned the basics, here are some common misconceptions about these snakes. Have you ever heard yourself say any of these?
“It’s just a baby snake. I have nothing to worry about.” — WRONG! Not only are baby rattlesnakes silent, because their rattles haven’t developed yet, but babies tend to have LESS control over their venom that they DO already have. This makes them MORE dangerous than adult rattlers that will try to warn you first.
“I’m safe in the water. Rattlesnakes don’t swim.” — MYTH! Rattlesnakes CAN swim! This was particularly interesting to me. Prior to this season, I’d never heard of rattlesnakes in water, but recently there have been reports of them in Folsom Lake.
“I’m too high in elevation to need to worry about snakes.” (Most likely) FALSE! Here is another one I’ve heard tossed around pretty regularly when I’m anywhere above 8,000 ft. You might be surprised to find that unless you are climbing a mountain above 11,000 ft. in elevation, you do need to worry about rattlesnakes.
Despite the need for awareness of rattlesnakes when heading outside in the future, fear of these creatures should not prevent you from hitting the trails. Armed with this knowledge, you now have ability to navigate any snaky situations.