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How to Handle a Rattlesnake Bite – and Other Tips

rattlesnake bite

This sidewinder looks just like the one I saw. Photo by Tigerhawkvok/Wikipedia.

WanderingJustin.com thanks the Maricopa County Park staff for providing this great information on how to handle a rattlesnake bite … or even just a regular encounter with a rattlesnake.

Over the weekend, I was out for a nice hike with my wife at Spur Cross Ranch, a conservation area that’s part of Maricopa County’s excellent system of parks. We wound up on a trail that took us outside the boundary and into some forest land.

There were signs posted at the Spur Cross trailhead reminding hikers to watch for rattlesnakes. It is that time of year to be on the lookout – the snakes are quite active throughout the middle of the day.

We finally had our rattlesnake encounter in a gully with a flowing stream on one side of the trail, and a sheer rock wall on the other. I’d actually been distracted by some bright yellow algae in the stream, and failed to notice the dusty brown snake (possibly a sidewinder) lounging at the water’s edge. I was about five feet away when I first spotted it. I told my wife to hang back, and I retreated so we could figure out how to avoid a rattlesnake bite.

rattlesnake bite

A sidewinder is a cool creature … but that doesn’t make this rattlesnake bite any less dangerous. (wikipedia)

I tried tossing a few pebbles its way. It didn’t care. Ditto for a gentle poke from a stick branch. I even banged a large river rock on the ground, hoping the vibrations would urge it to move. Nada. Zip. This was one stubborn snake. We eventually decided to skirt around it close to the rock wall. The snake was long enough to reach us, but he wasn’t cornered. We slipped past without incident.

This got me to thinking – what would an expert do? That led me to contact the Maricopa County Parks staff, who hooked me up with John Gunn, supervisor of Spur Cross. Here’s what he had to say:

1. Realize that every rattlesnake encounter is different.

2. Consider going back the way you came. That’s not always possible with certain loop hikes or point-to-point hikes.

3. Try throwing a handful of pebbles or some sand near the snake. Maybe even consider a gentle poke with a (long!) hiking stick. That’s often enough to encourage a rattler to move. “They have nothing to gain, but everything to lose in an encounter with a human,” Gunn said.

4. Stick to the center of the trail. That keeps you out of tall grass lining the trail, where rattlers can hang out and wait for a tasty rodent meal. Bear in mind: snakes realize “a human leg is not a suitable meal.” Often, you’ll pass them without realizing they’re there – no rattle, no striking. The trouble comes if you don’t see a snake and you step on it. “Then, you get bit like a mouse trap,” Gunn said.

5. Carry a walking stick or trekking pole. Use it to gently fluff any weeds or tall growth alongside the trail. This can also help move a snake and provoke a warning rattle.

6. As the weather gets hotter, snakes will be more nocturnal. So they’ll be less active during daylight, and more active at dusk, night and dawn. Act accordingly.

7. Try not to kill the snake unless there’s no other choice.

8. Keep your brain engaged and realize that not every stick lying in the trail is a stick. Look for the eyes, diamond patterns and, of course, a rattle.

Stomping along the trail doesn’t do much, Gunn said. He’s tried it, and it doesn’t seem to help. He believes humans might not have enough force, where a horse clomping along can generate vibrations that encourage a snake to move on.

If you do get bitten, though, a cell phone is your best friend. Here’s what to do.

1. Determine if it’s actually a rattlesnake bite. If you can’t immediately see a rattle, a “liquid fire sensation” near the wound will tell you that it was a rattler.

2. Dial 9-1-1 and ask for a helicopter to evacuate you by air.

3. Let the responders know that you want a “full-bore” saline solution to be delivered intravenously. This combats a potential shut-down of your kidney functions. I’d never heard about this before, but I found an interesting newspaper story mentioning it. This is a piece of information any desert dweller or visitor should know.

Even with proper, prompt treatment, a rattlesnake strike involving a discharge of venom is what Gunn describes as “a grievous wound.” Bite victims can be out of commission for up to two weeks. The first few days are painful, and might include some serious swelling, edema and skin blisters.

You may have noticed that I qualified this by saying “… strike involving a full discharge of venom.” That’s because some strikes might be “dry” or less than full-strength. My mother was once bitten by a rattler that had just eaten. It had discharged its venom on the prey that was in its belly digesting. She never swelled up to the point that she required anti-venin, and she was discharged from the hospital the same day.

I’d also add that you should stay calm in the event of a rattlesnake bite, hike with a GPS and preferably hike in a group. And you should NOT try sucking venom from the wounds. It might seem obvious to all but those who have watched too many spaghetti westerns. Just don’t do it. And don’t apply anything cold or icy to the wound.

Something else you should consider: If you hike with a dog, keep it leashed. Not only is it the rule in Maricopa County parks, it’s common courtesy – and not just for other trail users: It’s the good thing to do for your furry friend, too. Don’t be responsible for your dog getting a rattlesnake bite. As their human, it’s up to you to protect them. They’re part of your family, so be good to them and keep ’em leashed.

Before I sign off, here are a few more tips.

Be careful out there – keep this all in mind during any rattlesnake encounter. A little foresight and care can turn this into a memorable and positive encounter with a really amazing creature rather than a painful emergency.

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2 thoughts on “How to Handle a Rattlesnake Bite – and Other Tips

  1. Elmer Cruz

    Great tips, mate! I’d probably act the same way you did seeing a rattler. I am not fond of reptiles and would probably freeze on site. The “full-bore” treatment is something to keep in mind rather than sucking the venom, as what we’ve been ridiculously educated by television.

  2. Alexander Smit

    Some good info there, avoidance is definitely the best way. 🙂

    Also worth keeping in mind that the cheap kits you get at Walgreens DON’T WORK. Avoid them and as you mentioned, it’s best not to try and treat the wound yourself.

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