Rattlesnake Safety on the Trails

I have been hiking for many years and in that time have seen only a few rattlesnakes, but that doesn’t mean I don’t keep an eye and an ear out for them at all times. Your chances of dying from a rattlesnake bite are quite low-there are 7,000-8,000 venomous snake bites in the US every year and only about five of them are fatal. But it is definitely better to avoid that altogether, as treatment requires immediate medical attention and great expense. So here are some safety tips for snake encounters.

Nevada is home to five species of venomous snakes. Four of them live in southern Nevada-the Sidewinder, the Mohave, Speckled and Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes. The one that is found in our area of Northern Nevada is a subspecies of the Western Rattlesnake called the Great Basin Rattlesnake, seen in the photo below.

Great Basin Rattlesnake. Note the triangular head, a characteristic of venomous snakes.

They can be found on most if not all of our trails, as their habitat is rocky hillsides, barren flats, sagebrush, grassy plains, and agricultural areas. They eat small mammals, including ground squirrels, mice, rats, rabbits and hares, birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, and insects.

Adults of this species range from 15 – 65 inches long but typically the adults seen are 3  to 4 feet long. Their newborns are around 10 inches long. Their markings are quite distinctive, but they do look similar to the nonvenomous Gopher Snake, seen here below.

A nonvenomous Gopher Snake, also common in our area. Note the slender head.

There are several ways to tell them apart-Gopher snakes are much longer and more slender than rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes have slit-like pupils, spade-shaped heads and heat-sensing “pits” near their nostrils. Gopher snakes have round pupils, narrow heads, and no pits. They do not have rattles on the ends of their tails but when they feel threatened, they will vibrate the end of their tails to imitate a rattlesnake.

Luckily for us, rattlesnakes that are found in the US are generally not aggressive. They will try to avoid encounters by remaining motionless and hope they will be camouflaged and not seen. If that doesn’t work, they will slither away as quickly as possible. That is why it is important to never corner a rattlesnake.

If they feel threatened, they will rattle their tails and make their famous sound. If you’ve never heard it, you can hear one here.

As a last resort, a rattlesnake will strike, usually at your hands, feet or ankles. Most bites occur when people accidentally touch one while walking or climbing. Even if they do bite however, 25-50% of their bites are “dry”, meaning they won’t use their venom. They would much rather save it for killing and digesting their prey.

So it’s important to be vigilant as you hike.  They are typically active at twilight (crepuscular) or nocturnal, so during the day they will be resting often in the shade beside a trail. They like to sun themselves near cover.

It is safest to wear hiking boots rather than sandals, and loose-fitting long pants. Stay on the trail, as you will have better visibility, and avoid heavy brush or tall grass, where they may be hiding during the day.

Do not put your hands or feet where you cannot see. Be extremely careful while scrambling up rocks or ledges, and inspect stumps, crevices and logs before sitting down.

If you are bitten, here is what the Nevada Department of Wildlife says to do:

  • The primary goal is to seek emergency medical treatment immediately. If you believe you have been bitten by a venomous reptile do not wait for symptoms to show.
  • Immobilize the victim and keep the wound below heart level. Gravity can quicken the spread of the venom if the wound is above the heart.
  • Do not use tourniquet, cut and suction, electro-shock, or put ice on the wound.
  • Calm the victim. A rapid pulse from panic or anxiety circulates venom more quickly.
  • Watch the victim for any unusual reactions. Remove all jewelry in anticipation of swelling.
  • Identify the snake if possible. This helps the caregiver give the correct medical treatment.
  • Transport the victim to a medical facility immediately. If it is necessary to walk, do so slowly and rest frequently.
  • Remember that a venomous bite does not mean certain death: annually only 1/10 of 1 percent of venomous bites result in death nationwide. Timely medical treatment simplifies recovery.

This also applies to pets but for more information on rattlesnake bites in dogs, check out this article.


Photos courtesy of Gary Nafis at the A Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of California website, which is a great source of info on reptiles and amphibians.