As summer approaches and the weather gets warmer on the Central Coast, snakes are slithering into the sunshine with us. To protect hikers and lovers of the outdoors, I have created a rattlesnake safety guide so you will know what to look out for and how to respond on the trails.
Some of the most common snake species on the California Central Coast include: the Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer), the Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans), the Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus), the California kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae), the Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), the Coast Mountain King Snake (Lampropeltis multifasciata), and the two-striped garter snake (Thamnophis hammondii).
Of those, the Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus) is the only native venomous snake. Though rattlesnake bites are uncommon, they do occur and it is always good to be prepared because it can lead to severe injury and sometimes death.
Rattlesnakes are more active at dawn, dusk, or night to prevent overheating during hot days. After a cold or cool night, they typically will attempt to raise their body temperature by basking in the sun midmorning. When hiking through bushy, wild areas, it is important to wear enclosed shoes (preferably sturdy boots and loose-fitting pants), and stick to well-used trails – this is also good practice for avoiding ticks. Snakes often hide in tall grass, weeds, and heavy underbrush. A freshly killed snake can still inject venom, so do not handle one if encountered.
When rattlesnakes feel threatened, they often will make a loud rattle sound, but not always. In the event of a bite, stay calm but act quickly. Remove any form of jewelry or clothing that may constrict swelling (i.e. watches, rings, etc.) and transport the victim to the nearest medical facility. The California Poison Control System can be reached at (800) 222-1222 for more information.
What NOT TO DO if bitten:
- Do not apply a tourniquet: Restricting superficial blood flow will keep the venom from spreading, which is actually not what you want. A tourniquet will constrain the venom near the bite and rapidly destroy cells. It is important to allow the venom to spread in order to dilute the toxin and reduce tissue damage.
- Do not pack the bite area in ice: A long-term application of cold worsens the injury by reducing circulation in the area and short-term ice exposure will not neutralize the venom. In fact, some experts believe snake venom increases vulnerability to frostbite.
- Do not cut the wound with a knife or razor/ Do not use your mouth to suck out the venom: This has never been proven effective. A snake’s fangs are curved, meaning the pocket of venom is probably in a different spot than you would think. The venom spreads quickly, so trying to suck it out probably would not allow you to extract much. Also, about 20% of snakebites are “dry” and do not contain venom so the cut could create an infected wound.
- Do get the victim to medical attention quickly.
- Clean the wound with soap and water or antiseptic wipes from your first-aid kit and remove any restricted clothing or jewelry to not constrain swelling.
- Carry the victim out if possible or have them hike slowly.
- Mark the edge of any swollen areas every 15 minutes with a pen to help medical works judge the extent of envenomation.
But remember, rattlesnakes are not trying to mess with humankind unless they are under threat. If you do not mess with them, they will not mess with you. Keep wildlife wild and happy trails!