Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
Snakes on the trail
There are plenty of snakes on the trails in the United States. Thankfully, they are not a big threat to people. If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone. This is true for both poisonous and non-poisonous snakes.
People are not a food source for snakes so they would prefer not to bite you, instead, saving their venom for mice or other sources of nutrition. They prefer you to avoid them and only bite when they feel they must defend themselves.
Many (most according to documentation I've seen) snakebites are alcohol related - meaning the people who got bit were drunk. I've also heard most people who get bit are bit on the hand. In other words, don't reach for the snake and it won't bite you. Most bites also do not transmit venom - but you can't always immediately tell when they do or don't.
In the east, the most commonly seen snakes along the Appalachian Trail are probably black rat snakes. These large snakes can climb trees and are occasionally found near shelters where the resident mouse population is likely deemed a good source of sustenance. There are also many ribbon and garter snakes along the trail. Less commonly seen are ring-necked snakes and mud or water snakes. None of those are poisonous. I consider myself lucky to see rattlesnakes. I saw one each of a good sized rattlesnake and one copperhead along the trail in 1999.
On the Pacific Crest Trail, I saw more rattlesnakes than I could count. They were never a problem. When we saw them, we gave them wide berth. I'm willing to bet though that there were plenty that we never saw and therefor passed much too close. Obviously, they weren't a problem, either.
Non-poisonous snakes may also bite if they feel threatened. However, like poisonous snakes, even non-poisonous snakes will try to warn you or get away before biting. Some snakes such as black rat snakes or milk snakes may rattle their tails in the leaves to try to sound like a rattlesnake and warn you away. Some may coil up, rear up, and/or hiss to warn you off.
For what it's worth, of all the snakes I've ever come across in the backcountry, the most aggressive was a non-poisonous baby milk snake, about six-inches long and thinner than a pencil. I saw it on the shoulder of Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire. It coiled up and struck at me repeatedly - more so than any other snake I've ever encountered.
I would have left it alone as I do almost all snakes but it was in the middle of the trail and would have been stepped on had I not moved it. I grabbed a small stick (my hiking poles were too unwieldy to move such a tiny snake) and moved it off the trail a couple of feet. It quickly found a hole in which to take cover.
All snake bites whether from poisonous or non-poisonous snakes need prompt medical attention. These deep puncture wounds harbor bacteria which can cause severe infections whether or not poison is injected.
For instances where a poisonous snake is likely, folk remedies such as cutting and/or sucking are likely to introduce infection and are never recommended. Wilderness First Aid classes cover complete snakebite first aid and are highly recommended.
Last updated, June 29, 2013.
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