If you spend enough time outdoors on the trail, it won’t take long to come across a snake. The good news is, even though many people are terrified of snakes, chances are pretty low (less than 0.2%) you will ever be killed by one.
Although snakes can be found when out exploring almost any month of the year, warm weather seasons tend to be the most common for snake encounters. In fact, I encountered one of the largest copperhead snakes I have ever seen in the Uwharrie’s just recently (on a mild, rainy evening in early April).
So if you are going to be outdoors, we believe there are three important topics to be familiar with. Encountering snakes; avoiding the bite; and how to react if you are, unfortuantly, bitten.
Let’s get started.
There are around 37 different species of snakes found in North Carolina. Only 6 of those species are venomous. Snakes can be found about anywhere, but be especially careful wondering in tall grass (stick to the trail if possible), when climbing rocks, reaching into places you can’t see, picking up firewood, and paddling/swimming around low hanging limbs around the banks of a body of water.
Snakes will sometimes come out on rocks, sidewalks, and roadways to sun, but usually you will have more time to see them than out in the woods, so avoiding them is easier.
Learning to identify snakes and their species will also help you to predict where snakes my be found, and how they may respond to your presence. North Carolina Cooperative Extension has a very informative website dedicated to identifying snakes found in North Carolina.
Avoiding the Bite
Obviously the best way to avoid the bite is to leave the snake alone. It is estimated that 70-80% of all snake bites occur to the person trying to capture or kill the snake.
Snakes are going to be frightened when they know they have been spotted. Some will immediately try to retreat, some will enter a defensive mode by rattling (rattlesnake) or coiling up in a striking pose.
Snakes can strike up to 1/2 of their body length on solid ground, so its best to give them plenty of space. Most of the time, giving the snake a good 6-8 feet minimum will keep you safe. Just walk around the snake and continue on your way. Do NOT try to knock the snake out of the way, capture, or kill it. Remember, this is how most bites occur.
Snakes swimming in the water can’t effectively strike, as they have nothing to push off against. If you are in a canoe or boat, don’t panic. The snake will not be able to “jump” in your boat.
What to do if Bitten
If you have been bitten, the main thing to do is remain calm. Panicking will only increase your heart rate and the spread of venom in your bloodstream. Move away from the snake, and try to identify it from a distance is possible. If you can take a picture from a cell phone, do it. Do not try to capture the snake, as it may result in a secondary bite.
If the snake was non-venomous, the bite may have a horseshoe like appearance of small scratches. Clean the wound with soap and water, and cover with a clean loose bandage. It’s unlikely a non-venomous snake can bite through clothing.
If the snake is venomous, the bite may look like a puncture wound. You will need to seek medical attention. If you begin experiencing difficulty breathing or signs of an allergic reaction, seek medical attention immediately.
In the mean time, remove any rings, watches, and tight fitting clothing in the event swelling occurs. Try to keep movement to a minimum. If you in an area hard to access, you will have to make a choice to hike out, or wait for a carry-out. This will depend on the area and the difficulty get to you, response time of a rescue team, and much more. It may be better to slowly and calmly walk out of a trail in 30 minutes if possible, than to wait 90-120 minutes for a carry-out rescue. This will all depend on the situation and each incident must be weighed and considered individually.
There is controversy on how to position the bite location. Many sources will instruct you to keep the bite low, below the level of the heart. This is to prevent the venom from spreading throughout the body as quickly. However, North Carolina EMS protocols instruct first responders to elevate the bite location, possibly arguing that keeping the venom localized can do more damage to tissue around the bite area.
Either way, DO NOT attempt to cut the bite, suck the venom from the bite, or apply a tourniquet.