The most important thing to keep in mind with all wild animal encounters, including snakes, is they’re just as scared as you are. Give a snake space and you won’t get bitten. In North America, the majority of snake bites—around 6,500 a year—are from rattlesnakes, and happen in the Southeast and Southwest. Of those, only five or six are ever fatal. Death is highly preventable. We asked Tony Nester, survivalist and owner of Flagstaff-based Ancient Pathways outdoor survival school, how to prevent rattlesnake bites, and what to do should you be bitten.
Be aware of your surroundings.
“Most of my encounters with rattlesnakes have been stepping on a rock, and there’s one underneath, or stepping over a rock or log, and there’s one on the other side. So pay attention to where you’re putting your hands and feet, which is really the golden rule for desert travel, anyway. It’ll help you avoid a lot of encounters with scorpions, rattlesnakes and other critters.”
Throw away your snake bite kit.
“Snake bite kits don’t work. In fact, they do more damage than if you’d just let it alone, because they concentrate the toxin into one area in your muscle mass, causing further tissue damage.”
Don’t suck on it.
“The problem with the ‘John Wayne cut-and-suck’ method is that you’ve already got a wound. If you weren’t envenomated, and you have somebody sucking on your wound, then they’re adding bacteria and all the nastiness from their mouth into the wound, risking infection. Also, when snakes bite, they do inject venom into the wound. But they also, in extracting their fangs, get venom on the surface of your skin. If you suck the venom into your mouth, it’ll burn up your trachea and your windpipe, and could even damage your stomach. Now you have that to contend with, in addition to the original bite wound.”
Get to a hospital, but calmly.
“If you are bitten, you’ve got about a one- to two-hour window to get to the hospital before you start feeling a large-scale, systemic impact. Fortunately, 30 to 40 percent of rattlesnake bites are dry. The snake either doesn’t want to waste its venom on you, or its venom glands are depleted from making a kill the night before. So, if you’re bit—you may see one or two puncture wounds—the best thing to do is just rinse off the wound, stay calm and slowly walk back to your vehicle or call for help to get to the hospital. Once there, you’ll probably be given some doses of antivenom, they’ll monitor you and take it from there.”
Don’t be that guy.
“According to a toxicologist I talked to from the University of Arizona, there are four characteristics that the majority of rattlesnake bite victims have in common over her 35 years of research: they’re 18 to 24 years old, they’re male, alcohol’s involved, and there’s a woman present. [laughs]”
Tony Nester has taught outdoor survival courses across the desert southwest and Rocky Mountains for 20-plus years through his Ancient Pathways school.