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As the weather heats up, rattlesnake sightings in the Bay Area are becoming more frequent. In fact, this year has been busy with three times the usual number of sightings in our region. So, to ensure we can all safely coexist, we wanted to give some background information and safety tips for avoiding negative encounters with rattlesnakes on the trail.
Rattlesnakes deserve a fair shake. After all, they’re nice enough to give us a warning by shaking their tails when we get too close. And it’s important to remember that they are an integral part of our natural environment. Armed with a little knowledge, safely hiking in rattlesnake country is really no sweat.
How to Identify a Rattlesnake
The easiest way to identify these snakes is the obvious sign of a rattle on their tail and their distinctive triangular-shaped head. They also have a thinner neck compared to non-venomous snake species that have heads as wide as the rest of their body. They camouflage well in dried grasslands, rocky dirt patches and under dried wood and tree stumps — and you typically hear them before you see them.
Species of Rattlesnakes Found in the Bay Area
Crotalus oreganus oreganus, or the northern Pacific rattlesnake (a subspecies of the western rattlesnake), is the species of rattlesnake found in our region. They are generally considered less aggressive than their relatives, the timber and the western diamondback rattlesnake. They average about three feet in size, but the biggest among them reach lengths of five feet. They can be found from sea level to 11,000 feet and their diet mostly consists of small lizards, rodents, amphibians and the occasional small bird.
Where You Might See Rattlesnakes on the Trail
In California, northern Pacific rattlesnakes are usually active in late spring through early fall. They’re most commonly spotted in the morning or evening, especially if the weather is warmer. Because they are ectothermic (cold-blooded), if the weather is warmer, they prefer to remain under rocks, logs and tree stumps. If the weather is colder, they may be spotted sunning themselves atop rocks, logs and ledges or in areas of tall grass and brush. They can also be found under woodpiles and in brushy areas.
How to Avoid Negative Encounters with a Rattlesnake
- Stay on designated paths and trails to ensure your safety and to minimize negative impacts on wildlife.
- Be mindful and watch your step, especially if walking through tall grass or around bushy zones.
- Step on top of logs and rocks and not over them.
- Don’t step or put your hands in areas you can’t see into.
- Check around stumps and logs before sitting on them.
- Wear hiking boots and long pants, if possible, when hiking.
- If hiking with small kids, make sure they stay on trail and near an adult.
- If your dog is especially adventurous and likes to sniff everything, it’s probably best to keep them on a leash to avoid an encounter.
- Do not touch what may appear to be a dead snake.
- Rattlesnakes can swim, so avoid grabbing what might appear to be a branch or a stick in the water.
Steps to Take if a Rattlesnake is Spotted on the Trail
If you do spot a rattlesnake on the trail, no need to worry. As long as you are giving it plenty of space, the rattlesnake will likely retreat. They will either freeze so as not to draw attention to themselves or they will flee. Obviously, you should not attempt to provoke or threaten it. They do not intentionally bite people, and they avoid conflict just like any other wild animal.
Rattlesnakes can strike half to three-quarters of their body length. Because northern Pacific rattlesnakes average around three feet, that means they can strike one to one-and-a-half feet. So, if you spot a rattlesnake just take two giant steps backward and the snake will likely be on its way.
Steps to Take if Bitten by a Rattlesnake
The first thing to do if bitten by a rattlesnake is to call 911. The next step, which may be difficult, is to relax. One fact that may help you relax is that 40% – 60% of rattlesnake bites are “dry bites,” meaning no venom was injected. Of course, medical attention should still be sought after a bite. Another fact that should help you relax is that rattlesnake bites are very rarely deadly. Advances in anti-venom have made poisonings from a rattlesnake bite almost nonexistent, as long as you seek medical attention immediately.
Be sure to remove any watches, rings, etc. which may constrict swelling. Gently wash the bite with soap and water if available.
- Apply a tourniquet.
- Pack the bite area with ice.
- Use your mouth to suck out the venom.
- Cut at the bite area.
- Drink alcohol or pour alcohol on the bite area.
It’s good to have a healthy respect for these animals, but The California Poison Control System notes that the chances of being bitten are small compared to the risk of other environmental injuries. Just remember to stay alert, watch your step, keep your distance and most importantly, don’t approach or harass a rattlesnake. These shy, secretive animals often only pose a threat to small mammals and the occasional bird. The more we learn about rattlesnakes the more we see, just as Benjamin Franklin did, that rattlesnakes embody a uniquely American diplomacy and toughness. He wrote “She never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.”
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 79,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more