Snakes and snakebites are a pretty popular device in American books and TV shows (westerns, especially), and knowing how to treat a snakebite properly is often portrayed as a sign of rugged, self-reliant masculinity.
But pretty much 100% of the snakebite treatments we see in adventure stories are wrong, and often laughably so. There is absolutely no reason to ever suck a snake’s venom out from a wound, for example, or to slice a bite victim open with a knife. Instead, proper snakebite treatment pretty much follows three steps:
- Don’t get bit by a snake.
- Don’t do anything stupid.
- Clean it, wrap it, and get help.
That’s it. Seriously.
In this piece, I’ll delve a bit deeper into each of those three topics and will provide a simple, actionable guide to treating a snakebite in the backcountry.
1. Don’t get bit by a snake
Every year, about 8,000 people in the U.S. are bitten by venomous snakes (about a quarter of those people live in Texas or Florida, so be extra careful in those states). And while bites happen to all sorts of people, they overwhelmingly happen to folks who fall into two groups:
- People who work in areas with brush or tall grass
- People who are messing around with snakes
If you fall into the former category, or if you hike often in these areas, you can drastically reduce your odds of being bit just by dressing properly. When working or walking through brushy areas, always wear high-top boots and long pants. These pants should be canvas or denim—something thick enough to catch a snake’s fangs if it does strike. They should also be loose-fitting, so that any fang that does penetrate will be caught far from your skin.
If you fall into the latter category… just stop it. Venomous snakes have no reason or desire to bite humans, and will only do so if they are startled or feel threatened. So if you hear a rattle or see a snake coiled into a defensive posture, take the hint and walk away.
Both of these tips apply to anyone hiking through tall grass, in thick brush, or over rock formations (where snakes often find crannies to hide in). Unfortunately for lovers of hiking shorts, these precautions are most necessary during the hottest months of the year, when snakes are the most active.
1(a). Know your snakes
In the United States, there are really only four types of venomous snakes. So you don’t have to be a herpetologist to know what to look out for. If you work or play outside, learn to recognize:
- Rattlesnakes: These snakes are found all over the country, and easily recognized by their rattle. Most U.S. snakebites are rattlesnake bites.
- Copperhead: These tan, patterned snakes are found pretty much everywhere east of Dallas. Though there are exceptions, they’re generally characterized by an hourglass pattern on their backs.
- Cottonmouth: Usually found in or around water in the southeastern U.S., these snakes will open their mouth and gape at you if threatened. That’s your cue to leave.
- Coral snakes: Coral snakes can be found along the Gulf Coast and along the U.S. / Mexico border in Arizona. Their patterns differ, but they can always be identified by adjacent red and yellow stripes. Hence the old adage, “Red on yellow, kill a fellow”.