Of the estimated 6,000 to 8,000 poisonous snake bites that occur in the United States each year, there are only five to eight fatalities. The reason: Snakes don't want to waste their precious venom. They prefer to save it for something useful, like killing rodents they can then eat. Most human strikes are merely defensive in nature and leave behind just enough venom-the process is known as envenomization-to make you sick. Keep in mind that any amount of snake venom is life threatening to young children. Parents who take children hiking should be especially cautious in snake country.
If you or someone in your party is struck by a poisonous snake, better safe than sorry: Get to a medical facility. Administering antivenin is the only successful treatment. Longtime folk remedies like giving the person whiskey or the old "cut-and-suck" method (slicing the bite with a knife and sucking out the poison with your mouth) only make the victim's condition worse.
For the hike out to the car, immobilize the bitten extremity with a splint, and if possible, carry the victim to the trailhead. If you can't carry the person, he'll have to hike out on his own. It takes at least 2 hours for the symptoms of envenomization to take effect. Watch for signs of shock (heavy sweating, clammy skin, shallow breathing), since the fear of having been bitten is often more dangerous than the bite.
When the victim is more than a day's hike from
the trailhead, the only field treatment recommended by wilderness
medicine experts is the Sawyer Extractor. Dave Hardy advises using
two of the suction cup extractors simultaneously to remove venom
from both fang punctures. If applied within 5 minutes of the incident,
the extractor may help reduce envenomization, but it is no substitute
for professional medical care.
A few facts-no myths included-on snakebite prevention and treatment
It's a beautiful night, so you spread out your bag at your desert campsite to sleep under the stars. You awake a few hours later to find a rattlesnake coiled, and clearly agitated, next to your head.
I have two acquaintances who experienced this same snake horror story on separate occasions. Although scared out of their wits, both men were able to slip their bagged bodies out of the snakes' way and emerge unscathed. "Looking back, I was stupid to put my bag right next to a pile of rocks," says one. "That was probably the snake's den or hunting area and I was blocking the entrance. At least he was a gentleman about telling me to get out of the way."
The moral to the story: When camped in prime poisonous snake habitat, use your head and don't sleep next to rocks or debris. Here are a few other pointers:
* Never handle or harass snakes. Sounds obvious,
but the majority of snakebite cases reported in the United States
are men who were bitten on the hand or arm while trying to pick
up a snake.
* When scrambling up rock ledges, be extremely cautious about where you place your hands and feet. Don't grab an overhead ledge if you can't see what might be lying there. Nor should you stick your head up and over to inspect the ledge; you may catch one between the eyes. I know a guy who pulled himself chin-up style to a ledge so he could see what was waiting. He was greeted by a flicking tongue no more than a few inches from his face. Luckily, the snake was nonpoisonous.
* Don't turn over logs or rocks; snakes are often found where rodents hide. Nor should you place your foot directly on the unseen side of logs or rocks when stepping over. On hot days, snakes like to hide in the shade found up close to logs and big rocks. Step up and onto the log or rock, then jump away when coming down on the other side.
* Note the ambient temperature. If it's above 70¡F, snakes are likely to be moving around and edgy. If it's below 50¡F, snakes are usually inactive.
* Be familiar with the poisonous species that inhabit the area where you're hiking. Although rattlesnakes can be found in just about any wilderness in the United States, their concentrations are much higher in the Southwest, Southeast, and California. Especially lethal species are the eastern diamondback, western diamondback, and Mojave rattlesnake.
* Know where the nearest hospital is if you're hiking in rattler country. The best way to deal with a bite is timely administration of antivenin.
* Wear over-the-ankle leather boots when hiking. The more your lower legs are protected, the better.
Return to Home Page