Hey Hikers! Do you hike in an area that has “Beware of Rattlesnakes” signs at the trailheads of your favorite hikes? I do and so I had a lot of questions about them and the safety precautions needed when using the rattlesnakes’ home for my personal hiking fun. I received some great answers from Hugh Quinn; Retired zoo Curator of Herpetology, lecturer to various groups in the Black Hills about herpetology, Ph.D. in biology with research on rattlesnakes.
What season are you most likely to encounter rattlesnakes on the trail?
Rattlesnakes usually start moving away from their hibernation dens around April or May (usually May), then back again in September and October (usually September). They are most likely to be encountered on the trail during this time frame.
What time of day are you most likely to encounter rattlesnakes on the trail?
They are active during daylight hours most of their active season, but when it gets really hot, they may switch a bit and become active at night.
Where do rattlesnakes like to hang out during the day?
They may sit patiently waiting for a tasty mouse to run by, which could be most anywhere, or they may be crawling, searching for a mouse trail (or a mate) by scent. So, you could really find them anywhere. Often they may be found in association with logs or rocks where mice may be more likely to live, and also where they can beat a hasty retreat if threatened.
Where do rattlesnakes sleep?
They may seek protection under a rock, log, or in a crevice, but they may also coil near these objects or a tree, or even in the open to snooze. It’s tough to know when rattlesnakes are sleeping, as they have no eyelids, so their eyes are always open! This is true of all snakes.
If you come upon a rattlesnake sunning itself along the trail what should you do? Are they scared away by loud noises or having things thrown at them? What SHOULDN’T you do?
Just leave the snake alone. Don’t harass or engage it in any way.
What if you come across a very angry rattlesnake? Coiled, hissing and the telltale rattle.
Stay away from it and move on.
How far can a rattlesnake “jump” to strike?
A rule of thumb for all snakes is that they can strike about 1/3 their body length. There are many exceptions to this rule (both between and within species), but it can give you a general idea about striking distance. The best advise is to just give the snake a wide birth, and be on your way. I’m guessing the snake will do the same when you leave.
Will a rattlesnake chase you?
No. Also, you can walk much faster than a rattlesnake can crawl, so if the two of you happen to be going the same direction for some strange reason, you will win the race!
If the worst happens and a rattlesnake bite occurs, what should you do to treat the wound until you can make it to the closest healthcare facility?
Get the person bitten to a health care facility as quickly as possible while minimizing exertion (of the victim). Also, keep the victim calm (good luck with that one!).
I have heard this: If you come upon a snake, back away 30 feet and wait 30 seconds. They will have slithered away and you can pass. Is this good advice? (personally, I’ve had to wait 90 seconds for a particularly angry snake to calm down enough and slither away).
I’m guessing the snakes will not have read that rule. My advice is to just give the snake wide birth, and continue on your way.
I have also heard that the snake does not want to waste their venom, they need it for food! How much venom do they have in their fangs and how long does it take to replenish?
Rattlesnakes are capable of injecting a little, a lot, or no venom when they bite. Years ago a study in California (as I recall) estimated that about half of the southern Pacific rattlesnake bites to humans were “dry bites” (no venom injected). I have no reason to doubt this, but don’t let it make you less concerned about being bitten by a rattlesnake.
What would you like hikers with children to know about rattlesnakes on the trail?
Keep your eyes and ears open, and if you see or hear a rattlesnake, stay away from it.
If you could describe a rattlesnake in 3 words what would they be?
Absolutely wonderful creatures. They are so incredibly amazing, with their rattle, their heat sensing pits, their venom, and the entire way they make a living.
What are some cool facts that kids would find interesting about rattlesnakes?
In the northern US, prairie rattlesnakes probably go back to the same place (den) to hibernate every year. Mom rattlesnakes give birth (they don’t lay eggs) during the late summer (probably August), and the babies probably follow their moms back to the hibernation den to spend the winter. Otherwise they wouldn’t know where to go, and may not survive the cold winter.
How can we teach people to respect snakes? We should be respectfully cautious but not irrationally afraid of them, correct?
Unfortunately, snakes are not liked by most people. The best way to remedy that is to introduce a live, harmless (tame, captive) snake to them in a controlled situation that they can see and touch. They will soon see there really is nothing to fear, and that snakes are animals to be admired. Always stress to kids to not pick-up or get near a snake in the wild unless mom or dad says it is okay.
What is a rattlesnake’s worst enemy?
Many thanks to Hugh and to our local Ranger at Custer State Park, Julie Brazell, for helping us with our Ask the Expert series! Are there any animals that you are afraid of encountering on the trails? Have questions for our experts? Ask them at: email@example.com and we may make a blog piece about it. Happy Hiking!!
Christel Peters is a Branch Lead for Hike it Baby Spearfish and the Mama to Sebastian. When she isn’t chasing her adventurous toddler on the trails she is one of the Blog Editors for Hike it Baby. Do you have a story that should appear on our blog? Let us know!!