What To Do If You Run Into a Rattlesnake

Last week, I was out for a short run, which I didn’t really want to do anyway, and about halfway up the first trail by my house I ran into a rattlesnake. It was big and stretched out all the way across the trail. There was space on the far side to try and get around it, but those things can move fast, so I decided it was just a sign I shouldn’t be running and turned around and went home.

The week before someone in Fairfax (one town over) was bitten by a rattlesnake. And, I’ve seen rattlesnakes out before. Once, before I even realized what it was, I jumped over the back of a snake sticking out of a bush when I was running in China Camp. And, one time, when Nate and I were mountain biking up Mt. Tam we came across a baby rattlesnake, which are often more dangerous because they often can’t control their venom as easily and bite without as much discretion as adult snakes, who don’t really want to bite you anyway.

Rattlesnake getting ready to bite. YOU.
Rattlesnake getting ready to bite. YOU.

I’ve spent, then, a significant amount of time worrying about what to do if I get bitten by a rattlesnake. You’re supposed to remain calm, but also get to a hospital as quickly as possible. This is very conflicting advice if you’re up on a trail somewhere by yourself. Should I run down? Should I wait there? I’ve even devised plans for flagging down passersby and getting them to drive me to the ER.

(I’ve also let my imagination run wild recently and am pretty much on the edge of full-blown panic attacks every second of my runs.)

Here’s what I’ve concluded:

1. The rattlesnakes in California aren’t that bad. Actually, rattlesnakes in general are not that bad, since they typically warn of their arrival and don’t go out of their way to bite people and anti-venom ensures that nearly everyone who is bitten these days survives. I mean, this is no Black Mamba or Russell Viper. (Maggie used to make us watch The Most Dangerous Snakes on Animal Planet. Southeast Asia is not really the place to be if you’re scared of snakes.)

2. Avoid the rattlesnakes. This is why I hate running or riding through tall grasses, because I’m worried I won’t see something. The snakes like warm areas, which is why they’re always on the sunny trails, and they like unpopulated areas. Usually you can see them on a wide-open trail. But, if you jump over a rock or log, you should look before you land. And, once it’s rattling, back away. However, to complicate matters, they don’t always rattle before they bite. So, you’re supposed to know what a rattlesnake looks like without seeing the rattle. This is harder than it sounds. See:

Such a cute little North Pacific rattlesnake. Taken by the Marin IJ.
Such a cute little North Pacific rattlesnake. Taken by the Marin IJ.

I just err on the side of avoiding all snakes of similar shape and coloring.

3. If you get bit by a rattlesnake, stay calm (hah!). Rattlesnake venom doesn’t kill instantly — often, it doesn’t kill at all, just causes nasty swelling and bleeding and tissue damage. The worst thing you can do, evidently, is spread the venom throughout your body by running or freaking out. You’re supposed to keep your heart rate down (this does not bode well if you have been running…) and calmly call an ambulance or calmly walk to your car and drive to the hospital. If you’re in a remote area, they even suggest waiting to calm down briefly to let the venom stay contained and then walking to your car — or sitting and waiting for the ambulance if it’s bad and you can’t get yourself to the ER.

4. Get the anti-venom quickly — but calmly. Anti-venom works. It can work up to 24 hours after a bite, but usually you want it as soon as possible, within four hours. Bigger snakes equal more venom. Smaller people equal venom spreading faster. Sometimes, so I’ve been told, once you get to the hospital they might even decide not to administer anti-venom because the bite is shallow or doesn’t have much venom in it. Since you can build up a tolerance to anti-venom, you only have so many chances to get bit.

5. Don’t do all that shit you see in movies. Don’t try and suck the venom out; you’ll just get it in your mouth and get bacteria in the wound. Don’t cut an X over the bite. Don’t tie off the blood flow or put ice on it. All that does is get the venom moving faster through your body and makes it more likely that you’ll have more permanent problems. Don’t try to catch or kill the snake to identify it for the doctor — evidently people need to be told this is a bad idea and usually goes poorly.

All of this doesn’t really make me feel much better. I’m pretty sure I’ve been working myself into a fit and now am worried every time I head out. And, when you’re running, everything looks like a snake, causing even more panic. “Ah, it’s a snake. Oh no, just a stick. Ah, that’s a snake. Oh, nope, also just a stick.”

At least it’s stopped me from worrying about Lyme disease for a little while.