• Chante McCoy

Who's Afraid of Snakes?

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

Nonpoisonous gopher snake

Snakes are cold-blooded creatures. They take on the temperature of their surroundings, and require external heat to move around much. So, in winter—if you’re snowshoeing—you’ll never encounter a snake in the snow. Come summer, all bets are off on Utah trails, especially on sun-exposed, south-facing slopes.

My perspective on snakes evolved over the years. When in my teens, I’d slam a book shut if I came across a picture of a snake. Through educating and forcing myself to face snakes safely ensconced in aquariums, I've slowly learned that snakes just want to be left alone. Even the triangular-headed ones with rattlers that evoke our most primal responses, are simply trying to say "please keep away." They’re equally scared of us and our large feet that will crush their long spines.

Seriously. Don’t worry about them excessively. Three-fourths of snakes are non-poisonous, and most are not aggressive.

Western rattlesnake

In Utah, only seven of the state’s indigenous snakes are poisonous. Poisonous snakes include the sidewinder and six types of rattlers: midget-faded, speckled, Hopi, Mojave, western, and Great Basin. (Tell tale signs are the wide triangular heads, long curved fangs, and elliptical pupils like a cat’s.)

If you come across a snake, just let it finish crossing the path, appreciate its markings, and add another notch on your list of bragging rights. If you leave them alone, they’ll reciprocate in kind. A snake only bites in defense.

Preventative measures include:

  1. Don’t try to kill or catch a snake

  2. Stay on well groomed trails

  3. Watch where you’re walking

  4. Wear boots or high-topped walking shoes

  5. Step onto rocks and logs rather than over them

  6. Don’t place your hands on unseen ledges or into animal holes

Ok, ok, you say, but what if I still get bitten? The good news is that, of the 8000 annual snake bites in the United States, an average of 12—less than 1 percent—result in death. More people die from lightning strikes. More good news: one-third of rattlesnake bites are "dry," and no venom is injected.

If, somehow you’re just a snake magnet and get bit, remain calm and inactive. Use your mouth (not a knife!) to suction and spit out as much venom from the wound as possible. Call 911 with your cell, or have another hiker get to a spot with a cell signal to call for emergency assistance and get to a hospital ASAP. If hiking alone without cell access, walk slowly to get help.

If you hike with dogs, keep them on a leash. Curious dogs have a higher risk of being bitten, and rattlesnake bites are 25 times more fatal in dogs than humans.

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