Snakes are truly glorious animals that are vital to ecosystems. But that doesn’t mean it’s not scary to see a snake while hiking — research shows that fear of snakes might even be part of our DNA. The key to getting over this fear is knowing how to stay safe in snake country. Whether you are dealing with vipers, rattlesnakes, or plain old garter snakes, here’s what you need to do if you see a snake while on a hike.
Step 1: Avoid Startling Snakes
Other than situations where idiots try to kill a snake they encountered, most snake bites occur because the snake got scared. For example, many bites occur when people accidentally step on a snake or if they accidentally grabbed a snake while gathering firewood.
If you simply avoid startling the snakes while hiking, you should:
- Be aware of your surroundings. Look where you are stepping as you hike.
- Stay on the trail. If you must go off-trail, consider wearing boots and snake gaters.
- Don’t lift big rocks. Snakes like to hide under these.
- Be careful where you sit. There may be snakes underneath large rocks or logs. Have a look around the edges before sitting down. Then tap the rock or log with a hiking pole to see if any snakes slither out.
- Be cautious when gathering firewood. Snakes like to hang out in piles of sticks.
- Check inside your boots before putting them on. The chances of a snake being in your boot are slim, but there’s a good chance that some squishy spiders are in there. 😉
Step 2: Don’t Run
So you’ve spotted a snake a few feet ahead of you on the trail. Your first instinct might be to run away. DO NOT RUN. Instead, STOP and STAY STILL.
The reason for this is because snakes have very poor eyesight. The get clues about their environment from tasting chemicals in the air (which is why their tongues flicker) and from vibrations in the ground.
If you run, the snake may interpret the sudden movement as a threat and attack. Thus, the smartest thing to do is to stop moving and stay still. This will help calm the snake down. It will likely slither away on its own.
Step 3: Slowly Back Away
Now you can slowly start backing away from the snake. Try not to make any sudden or jerky movements.
If you step on a snake while hiking:
Obviously, if you’ve just literally stepped on a snake or right next to it, you aren’t going to stand still right on top of it. Move away quickly. If you have trekking poles, keep them in between you and the snake — the snake might strike at the poles instead of you.
Step 4: Stay Out of Striking Range
Snakes typically curl into an S shape before they strike. The S shape allows them to extend their body when striking. Most snakes can only strike half their length, but some snakes can strike 2-3x further than their length.
Wait for the snake to slither away. If it doesn’t slither away and you need to pass, then go around the snake — making sure to stay out of striking range as you do.
*Remember that snakes can seem much shorter when they are coiled, so give the snake plenty of extra room when walking around it.
Read: How to tell a snake is about to strike
Step 5: If the Snake Is Coming Towards You
If the snake is coming towards you, it probably means that it hasn’t detected you. If you stomp the ground, then snake will detect the vibrations (remember, snakes have crappy vision) and change direction.
Or, as Trefka says here, you could just stay completely still. The snake might not even realize you are there. It might slither right over your feet. So long as you remain motionless, it won’t strike you!
Step 6: Warn Other Hikers
Let’s say that you encounter a venomous snake in the middle of a highly-traversed trail. You’ve been diligent and saw the snake before stepping on it, but what if other hikers or runners don’t see the snake? What if they step on the snake and get bit?
Runner’ World talks about this here. They recommend using something really long to shoo the snake off the trail. I personally think that is a stupid idea. Leave the snake in peace! If you are really worried about other runners or hikers, then hang around to warn people until the snake gets off the trail.
Step 7: Keeping Kids Safe
I have two young daughters who like to do things like run through grassy fields and investigate what’s under rocks — both of which could result in an encounter.
To keep my kids safe when hiking and camping, I make sure to have a talk with them about snake safety. Don’t freak them out — just explain that snakes are scared of us and might bite to defend themselves, so we’ve got to be careful not to scare them.
If your kids are too young to follow basic snake safety rules, then don’t let them go off-trail (something they shouldn’t be doing anyway) and have them hike behind or next to you so you can keep a lookout for snakes.
Step 8: Be Prepared for Snake Bites
Even though snake bites are incredibly unlikely (you are more likely to be killed by a cow than a snake), you should be prepared.
Please read this post on What to do if you are bitten by a snake and carry a first aid kit (here’s my kit) for treating bites until you can get to help.