It’s snake season (March through October), which means many of you have concerns about snakes on the trails – some are legit and some are overhyped. Like anytime you go hiking, you should be cautious and prepared, but you should not let the fear of snakes keep you from enjoying your hike, or worse, not be prepared for injuries that are much more common in the desert (i.e. heat illness, dehydration, blisters, and sprains). A little bit of knowledge about these villianized critters can go a long way to feeling safer on the trails.
What Kinds of Snakes Will I See on My Hike?
First, let’s introduce you to a couple here in Arizona, because the more you educate yourself about snakes (or anything for the matter) the fear you have will turn more into respect and cautious confidence to what is around you. Arizona is home to 13 species of Rattlesnake – more than any other state, as well as other snakes that are both venomous and non-venomous. These reptiles are the most misunderstood of all desert creatures and really are just here to survive – like the rest of us.
The most common snake you may encounter when hiking in the Phoenix area is the Western Diamondback. It is Arizona’s largest rattlesnake with a length of up to 5 ft and is known to hold its ground when antagonized – so don’t piss her off. It is also responsible for the majority of snakebites and deaths in Arizona. I have encountered dozens of this specie over my life in AZ and have never had one even strike. That doesn’t mean they don’t and never would, it just means I perform my due diligence to avoid a hazardous encounter.
My personal favorite is the Grand Canyon Rattlesnake or the Grand Canyon Pink. I would run across this specie more often than any other snake in the canyon, so got to know it quite well. Since Grand Canyon is one of the few places you will ever run across one of these, it is a great sight. They are rather docile with merely a rattle as they slither across or along the trail. In fact, for several seasons there was one that would hang out at the same place as we along the trail to Indian Garden campground as if to greet visitors.
How Safe Is It to Hike During “Snake Season”?
One word – Yes. But, let’s break this down in some stats. How many snakebites occur per year in Arizona? According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) In the United States as a whole, there are 7,000 to 8,000 snakes bites annually with North Carolina having the most. Of those, there are only 5-6 fatalities per year. According to National Geographic, you have a 1 in 5,000 chance of being struck by lightning in the US. Compare that to a 1 in 37,500 chance of being bitten by a venomous snake. In fact, your chance of being killed in a car accident is 1 in 112, so I will take my chances on a hiking trail any day. Depending on the source, Arizona sees anywhere from 150 to 350 snake bites per year with a statistically zero percent chance of dying. In fact, 25% of all snakebites are “dry bites” which means the snake did not release venom with its bite. The take away for this situation is you were such an ass that the snake felt compelled to bite you, yet you were not even worth a drop of venom.
Why are people so afraid of snakes and snakebites? Overhyped attention by media channels and lack of general knowledge is the over-arching reason. When we were guiding hiking and backpacking trips, the number of people that had concerns about encountering rattlesnakes on the trails here in Arizona was mind blowing. Especially when those concerns came from people in places like Florida that have their own “scary” critters. Florida, for example, has alligators and water moccasins!! I am pretty sure that one person is devoured by an alligator per day in Florida! OK, alligators bit only 12 people in 2017, but since I am not familiar with alligators, that is the impression I might get since when it does happen, the incident makes national news and circluates all over social media.
Decrease Your Risk of a Snakebite
However, if you think you will be that 1 person of 150 that will be bitten by a snake, here are some tips to avoid it.
- Keep your eyes and ears open. Rattlesnakes will usually rattle as a warning when you are getting too close. When you hear that, give the snake room and keep moving. Do not stop in your tracks and attempt to find it. This also means to keep your voice volume at a minimum, do not play music and keep your earbuds out of your ears.
I did mention that they don’t always rattle, which is true. And the most common time you would encounter a snake on a trail that is NOT rattling is when it is stretched out enjoying the morning sun. Thus, keep your eyes on the trail – not on your phone or someplace else.
- Don’t reach your hands into bushes, tall brush, piles of rocks or wood or anywhere else you cannot see where you’re reaching. Eighty-five percent of snakebites occur on the fingers and hands. This is just one more reason to not stick your fingers and hands where they do not belong. Oh, and those of you wanting to show off your snake handling skills? Fifty-seven percent of you will get bit! Hmm, not bad odds actually.
- Watch where you put your feet as well. If you are stepping off the trail to let people by, avoid standing in low brush or tall grass.
- Be female or a sober male under 17 and over 27 years of age. That’s right , 55% of snakebites happen to men that are intoxicated and between the ages of 17 and 27.
- Wear long, denim pants, boots or gaiters. You will not see many people wearing these items when hiking in the Phoenix area, but it is an option. With the slim chance you will get bit, only 13% occur on the feet and legs and rarely above the ankle. Additionally, it is hot to wear denim, boots and/or gaiters in Phoenix. But, if it makes you feel safer and more secure on your hike, then go for it. Just watch for other issues like chafing and heat rash.
- Taking the pooch? Make sure you keep him on a leash. It doesn’t matter if you think you have the most obedient dog ever. Snakes peak a dog’s curiosity and dogs don’t understand the universal snake warning signal. To them, it’s a toy.
The bottom line: when you are visiting the local hiking trails, you have to share with the animals that call these areas home.
ASUNow: “How to Avoid Getting Bitten By a Rattlesnake”
Center for Disease Control
Arizona Central – numerous articles
NationalGeographic.com: “Man Bitten By Shark, Bear and Snake Had Odds of 893 Quadrillion to One.”