I live in the Balkans (Eastern Europe) and we’ve got two types of venomous snakes here: the vipera berus (aka Adder snake) and the vipera ammodytes (aka horned viper). I’ve seen each of them once. The first time I was hiking with a friend, and it didn’t bother me. The second time I saw the venomous snake while camping with my 5-year-old daughter. The snake was 3 meters away from our tent. Yes, that time seeing the snake freaked me out! But the truth is that, so long as you are snake smart, there is really no need to worry about snakes while camping or hiking. Whether you are dealing with vipers, rattlesnakes, or plain old garter snakes, here’s what you need to do if you see a snake.
Know What Snakes Are in the Area
Before you go into wild nature, do some research. Find out what types of snakes are in that region, what type of terrain they prefer, and some of their characteristics.
For example, there are about 25 snakes found in the Balkan region where I usually go camping. Only 2 of these are venomous, so I can ignore the rest (I’m not going to memorize 25 different types of snakes!).
I’m not at all worried about the non-venomous snakes. The worst that would happen with those ones is that we’d have to cancel our camping trip and make a quick hike down the mountain to get to the nearest hospital for some stitches. Definitely not my idea of fun, but also not a big concern to me since it isn’t life-threatening. With the venomous snakes though, you’ve got to know what you are up against.
*Quick fact: The terms venomous and poisonous are often used interchangeably, but they are actually different. Poisonous means that the toxin will absorb through the skin, such as if you pick up the snake. Venomous means the toxin has to get into your body through a bite.
I’ll admit that the thought of camping with my daughter near venomous snakes really scared me. So, before our first trip, I did a LOT of research. I found a study about viper snake bites in Croatia (PDF). Based on its results, I concluded that there was basically no risk of death or amputation if we got antivenin within 4 hours. I made a point to be 4 hours within the nearest clinic with antivenin. I also learned how to say “snake” in various languages. When traveling abroad, it is also helpful to know the number for the local version of 911.
Act Snake Smart
There are some basic rules to follow while in snake country to prevent yourself from getting bitten. Again, I camp and hike with my young daughter. On our first trip to the mountains of Albania, she was just 3 years old and loved playing with rocks. When we got there, I explained very clearly that the rules in the mountains are different than at home. She was NOT allowed to lift up any big rocks here!
Here is what you need to know to avoid getting bit by a snake in the first place:
- Be aware of your surroundings. Look ahead of you on the trail.
- Stay on the trail when possible.
- Don’t pick up any big rocks. Snakes like to hide under these.
- When walking over areas made up of many medium-sized rocks, go ahead and give the rocks a tap with a long stick first.
- Don’t walk through tall grass; if you have to, then watch your step!
- Be cautious when gathering firewood. Snakes like to hang out in piles of sticks.
- Wear high-topped hiking boots. With luck, a snake might bite your boot instead of your ankles. Or get yourself a pair of snake boots.
- 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. 😉
- Always keep your tent door closed.
If you follow these rules, then you’ll probably see the snake before you do something like step on the snake or mistake it for a stick and grab it.
If You Do Spot a Snake while Hiking
So, you’ve followed all of the safety rules and spotted a snake. Here’s what to do:
Step 1) Stay calm!
Step 2) Take a picture from a safe distance 😉
Step 3) Remain calm. The snake will probably slither away. If it doesn’t, then just walk around it and continue on your way.
Seriously, a snake isn’t going to leap out and attack you. Snakes are more afraid of us than we are of them. They only bite people when they feel threatened (I’m not talking about giant anacondas here). But, in case you are still worried, here are some facts to appease your worries.
Snake Striking Distance
Snakes can only strike half of their length. So, if the snake is 1 meter long, then you’ll be safe walking around it so long as you give it a ½ meter birth. Do remember that snakes can seem much shorter when they are coiled, so give the snake plenty of extra room when walking around it.
Snakes Give Warning Before Striking
Most venomous snakes will give you a warning before striking. They will lift up their heads and stick their tongue out. It is actually pretty cool what they are doing. Snakes have really bad eyesight so they use their tongues to “see.” Their tongues can detect odors in the air and use them to figure out where you are. The reason their tongues are forked is because the tongue sends signals to both sides of their brain. Rattlesnakes will coil before they strike. Some snakes (both venomous and non-venomous) will also make hissing noises or shake their tails before striking.
Don’t Run from a Snake!
If you spot a snake and it is about to strike, do NOT run! Remember, the snakes are giving you a warning before striking. As Magic Valley talks about here, if you run away or jump back from a snake which feels threatened, you’ll just scare the snake more and it may strike out at you. Instead, you should remain still. Don’t make any sudden movements and slowly back away from the snake.
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 won’t even know you are there. It might slither right over your feet. So long as you remain motionless, it won’t strike you!
If You Are Worried about Other People on the Trail
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 until the snake gets off the trail.
If You Spot a Snake in Your Yard
In the previous scenarios, we talk about what to do if you see a snake in the wild. But what if you see a snake in your yard? First off, any snake in your yard is probably harmless. Just leave it alone. Or, if you must, spray it with some water from a hose (from a safe distance) to make it go away.
If the Snake is in Your Home
Again, the snake is probably harmless but you still probably don’t want it in your home (though it might be a good alternative to a cat for rodent control 😉 ). Here’s what you need to do:
Call your local animal control to remove the snake. Make sure to keep a close watch on the snake while calling and until animal control comes. Otherwise, the snake could slither off and animal control might not be able to find it.
If you can’t keep an eye on the snake while animal control comes, then shut the snake into one room. Stuff some towels under the door so it can’t escape.
Are you afraid of snakes? Have you encountered any while camping or hiking?