Our state is home to 12 species of snakes. The majority of these species are harmless, however one species has a potentially dangerous bite: the western rattlesnake. While western rattlesnakes prefer not to bite and their bite is rarely lethal, it’s important to know what to do in the case of an emergency.
These 5 tips will help you stay safe and enjoy your hike in areas where snakes might be present in Washington.
Do your research
Most incidents occur when hikers run into snakes unprepared. Having a basic understanding of the ecology of snakes and how to behave around them can help keep you safe. And the snake will appreciate it, too. Understanding which species are in your local area and how to identify them may also be beneficial.
In Washington, there are 12 species of indigenous snake. Of these 12 species, only two are venomous: the night snake and western rattlesnake. The night snake’s venom is not toxic to humans, as the venom is mild and used to subdue its prey. The only snake that can pose a threat is the western rattlesnake. They are easily identifiable as they are the only rattlesnake species native to Washington state.
Consider bringing a small field guide with you when you hike. This will allow you to identify species as you encounter them as opposed to trying to remember the different species.
Follow designated trails
Snakes, both venomous and non-venomous, prefer quieter, more secluded areas that are far away from populated hiking trails. If you’re trying to avoid encountering a snake, stick to designated hiking trails. If, however, you do go off track, move carefully. If you are moving through long grass, use a large stick or walking pole to push the long grass aside and check for safety. Try to avoid hot sandy or rocky areas, as these will be favorite basking spots for reptiles.
Western rattlesnakes are unusual in their activity patterns — during the cooler months they are active during the day, but during the heat of the summer they are active at night. If you are planning on straying from the trails, be sure to dress for the occasion! Wearing long trousers and sturdy hiking boots can help to cover up and protect your skin in the event you do encounter a snake. Never wear open-toed shoes in areas where you might encounter rattlesnakes.
What to do if you see a snake
Snakes want to live their life peacefully. Everything Reptiles says “a snake bite is a last line of defense” and will only be used when a snake sees no alternative. If you give the snake space and choice, they will likely ignore you.
If you encounter a snake while hiking, the best thing you can do is avoid it. Experts recommend staying at least 3 feet away. The reason for this is that snakes cannot strike more than half the length of their body. While western rattlesnakes are usually only around 3 feet, there are reports of them growing up to five-and-a-half feet long. Consequently, it is best just to give them distance.
After spotting the snake, your best bet is to move away slowly. Take pictures from a distance using the zoom feature on your phone or camera.
What to do in an emergency
One important safety precaution is to always have an emergency plan. Before setting out, you should know where the nearest hospital is. If a bite occurs, it is important to stay calm. Keeping your heart rate low will slow the spread of the venom through your body.
It is vital that you do not attempt to suck out the poison. Doing this does not work and will simply transfer the poison to another person or not another part of your body. Do not attempt to make a tourniquet and this can cause irreversible nerve damage and could result in the limb having to be removed.
Do not cut or attempt to widen the wound in any way. There is historic advice that this increases blood flow to the area and helps to heal the wound. In reality, this simply causes the person to have a large wound and increases their chances of losing too much blood.
Instead, follow these steps if bitten:
Attempt to get a positive identification on the snake. This may be difficult as the snake will likely retreat after the bite but getting a good description of the snake will help medical staff administer the correct anti-venom.
Note the time of the bite to help paramedics understand the progression of symptoms.
You can press a light compression bandage on the wound to stem the bleeding. Remove all watches or jewelry, anything that may constrict blood flow or cause damage due to swelling.
Return to your car as quickly as possible and move the injured limb as little as possible. Movement will encourage blood flow to the area and cause the venom to spread faster. If it is not possible to return to your car, call emergency services and explain what has happened and where you are.
On the drive to the emergency room, call the hospital and explain what has happened. They will be able to direct you to a hospital that has the correct anti-venom and prepare doctors who will be waiting for your arrival.
If you do encounter a snake, it is important to remember that all snakes in Washington state are protected by state law. It is therefore illegal to trap, remove or kill any snake that you capture — intentionally or otherwise.
What to do if you are caught unaware
Depending on where you are hiking it's possible, although extremely unlikely, that you could be bitten and not know it. If hiking through long grass, you may pass too close to a snake without realizing.
It is important to know symptoms of a snake bite to know if you should seek medical help.
Generally, symptoms will include swelling and pain around the puncture site. If you are unaware of the puncture, you may experience difficulty breathing, vomiting, blurred vision and a numbness in your face and limbs.
Symptoms specific to rattlesnakes include drooping eyelids, thirst and extreme tiredness/fatigue.
It is unlikely that a bite would catch you unaware. Rattlesnakes usually warn before biting and so you will likely hear one before you see it. Rattlesnake bite symptoms also set in relatively quickly, and so you are unlikely to miss them.
Though the prospect of encountering a snake can be alarming, being prepared is one of the easiest ways to avoid an incident. Understanding the ecology of the species you encounter can be a vital step towards preparing, as well as knowing what species are local to your area. Having an emergency plan in place can be life saving in the unlikely event of a bite. It’s better to be prepared and not need to use your plan, than the other way around.