Interactions with wildlife are a part of camping and in many instances a welcome experience. However, there are a few creatures that campers are not so thrilled to come into contact with. One of them being snakes.
There are a few common species of poisonous snakes in the United States and many sub-species,only Alaska does not have a resident venomous serpent. In this article, we will discuss the various species of poisonous snakes, how to avoid them, what to do if you are bitten, and how to keep them away from your campsite.
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Poisonous Snakes of the United States
Not all snakes release venom into their victim with every bite, some bites are referred to as dry bites because they do not inject any toxins. The bite will be painful but will likely not cause any adverse effects such as blood clotting issues or cardiovascular problems.
Out of the nearly seven to eight thousand reported snakebites each year, only five to ten are fatal. Some snakes inject a hemolytic toxin which is typically non-fatal and causes blood vessels to burst and prevents blood from clotting.
Neurotoxins are fatal without anti-venom. This toxin, attributed to snakes such as the coral snake, destroys the nervous system and essentially shuts down respiratory and heart function leading to death.
Perhaps one of the most easily identifiable snakes due to the rattle on their tail that they use when threatened, rattlesnakes are found in nearly every part of the United States, though they are most common in the southwest. They frequent trails and can be found in forests, grasslands, deserts, and swamps. In addition, they are capable of swimming.
Their triangle-shaped head contains the glands responsible for their poisonous venom. They are typically tan or brown in color and blend in well with their habitat. Rattlesnakes can be up to five feet long.
There are nearly twenty different species of rattlesnakes found in the US, with many more subspecies scattered about North and South America. Diamondbacks are the most dispersed and commonly known throughout the United States.
Diamondbacks are divided into two categories, eastern and western. They both sport the same patterns, large size, aggressive tendencies, and claims to most of the snake bite fatalities each year.
Eastern diamondbacks reside in the wet and swampy climates of the southeast coast from North Carolina to Louisiana. They can regularly be found at five feet in length, though they can grow up to seven. They dominate the marshes, swamps, and forests and are not afraid of confrontations with larger predators including humans.
Anti-venom is available and bites should be treated immediately. They are extremely painful, causing a great deal of swelling and hemorrhaging.
Western diamondbacks are found in the southwestern states from Arkansas to California. They don’t grow as large as Eastern diamondbacks and have lighter coloring. However, they are just as aggressive and their bite is just as potent.
Other rattlesnake subspecies include the:
- Mojave rattlesnake
- Timber rattlesnake
- Prairie rattlesnake
- Ridgenose rattlesnake
- Sidewinder rattlesnake
- Rock rattlesnake
- Massasauga rattlesnake
- Pigmy rattlesnake
This is not an extensive list as the subspecies and sub-subspecies are numerous.
Copperheads are one of the most frequently biting snakes. Their name comes from their copper-colored head. The copper color continues in hour-glass shaped bands along their tan body. They are typically two to three feet long.
Most commonly found in the eastern United States, they have also been spotted as far as West Texas as there are five subspecies of copperhead. Copperheads tend to prefer forest areas and zones where two terrains meet, such as near streams or canyons.
There are actually five subspecies of Copperhead, though they really do not differ other than location.
- Osage copperhead
- Broad-band copperhead
- Northern copperhead
- Trans-Pecos copperhead
- Southern copperhead
These snakes rack up the greatest amount of bites per year but with the least detrimental effects. These could be because they are less shy than other snakes and due to their camouflage they typically don’t bury themselves or hideaway.
Though they are quick to strike with little to no warning, their venom is quite weak and typically not a lot makes it into the victim.
Also known as the water moccasin, these snakes are the only venomous water snakes native to the United States. They are semiaquatic and can be found just as readily in fields and on the water’s edge as they can in ponds, lakes, and streams. They live in the Southeastern part of the country from Virginia to Texas and as far south as Florida.
Cottonmouths are larger snakes, typically growing anywhere from two to four feet in length but occasionally as long as six feet. They have triangular dark heads with cat-eye pupils and pale-colored snouts. Their body is usually darker in color, in glaring contrast to the “cotton-white” inside of their mouth, but can be banded or yellow.
The bite of a water moccasin, like other pit vipers, can be quite painful. It causes hemorrhaging in the surrounding area as the hemotoxins prevent coagulation, a common characteristic among pit viper bites. The bite could result in permanent or temporary muscle and tissue damage, but there is an antivenom available.
- Coral Snakes
Coral snakes are highly dangerous, possessing the second-strongest venom of any snake. They are small and brightly colored, and it can be difficult to distinguish their tail from their head. Their coloring is composed of red, yellow, and black bands. A helpful adage is “Red next to yellow will kill a fellow; red next to black is a friend of Jack”.
This is true for the “new-world” coral snakes that inhabit the United States, but this does not apply outside of the US with the “old-world” coral snakes. Many snakes attempt to disguise themselves as coral snakes and their markings may appear similar. Coral snakes banding completely encircles their body, they also have black markings on their heads up to behind the eyes.
Coral snakes habitat depends on their location. Those that are found in forest areas live in marshy or wooded zones burrowing underground or hiding in piles of leaves. In the warmer, arid climates they live in the sand, soil, or under rocks. In the United States, coral snakes inhabit the southern states from the east coast to Arizona.
The three subspecies of coral snake found in the US are:
- Arizona coral snake (found in Arizona)
- Eastern coral snake (as far south as Louisiana all the way up to Virginia)
- Texas coral snake (Texas and into Louisiana)
The bite of a coral snake is extremely painful and can eventually cause cardiac arrest as the venom works to cause respiratory failure and paralysis. There is an anti-venom but unfortunately, symptoms do not immediately appear and there is usually no pain or swelling initially. Thankfully, their fangs are quite weak and have difficulty puncturing shoes, clothing, and even human skin.
In most instances, bites occur when humans attempt to pick up or handle coral snakes. They tend to be a shy species and are not overly aggressive.
How to Avoid Snake Encounters While Camping
The majority of snakes are shy and do not enjoy interactions with humans. Therefore, most will only bite if threatened or provoked. It is wise to leave snakes alone and do not attempt to get close to them (keep a distance of at least six feet) or handle them.
When you are hiking or out for a walk, it is a good idea to stay on paths and trails. Snakes are cold-blooded and enjoy sunning themselves on flat patches of ground and rocks. Keep an eye out for snakes and watch where you are walking and putting your hands.
When not warming themselves most snakes take to hiding beneath leaves, logs, or rocks. If you are gathering firewood or other natural specimens be aware that you could be disturbing a snakes hiding place. Tall grasses, leave piles, and rocky crevices are other common snake habitats.
When you are in known snake areas you can wear proper gear to protect against snake bites. Snake boots differ from work boots, winter boots, and cowboy boots in their level of protection. Snake boots commonly extend from your foot to your knee and their materials make your lower legs impervious to snake bites.
Snake gaiters are another form of protection. These come in two forms, one being more of a sleeve for your shin while the second is similar to pants or waders. The most common area for a snake to strike is between your ankle and your knee, the second most common is between your knee and thigh.
Snake gaiters can be wrapped around your legs and over your usual boot or footwear. If you will be walking through snake territory, protection of some for is always a good idea.
How to Keep Snakes Away From Your Campsite
Choose the Correct Location
You should survey your campsite location for any of the typical habitats and preferences of snakes located in your area. You should also check for any holes or snake residences.
It is best to set up your tent on flat terrain with little to no grass. Also steer clear of log piles, felled trees, rock outcroppings, and leave piles as these are common hiding places for snakes.
Seal Up Your Food
Generally, snakes will not be interested in human food. However, if your food attracts mice, squirrels, or other rodents this could lure snakes. Keep all of your food sealed in airtight containers and properly dispose of any trash.
Try a Snake Repellent
Some outdoor stores sell snake repellents in the form of an odorous spray. You can use these sprays to create a smelly barrier around your campsite to deter snakes. Before doing so you should make sure that the spray is environmentally safe and not harmful to other animals.
Check for Snakes
You should ensure that your tent is always zipped up and closed before you leave. However, it can be a good idea to shake out your sleeping bag and boots before use to ensure a snake does not assume them for an excellent hiding place.
Snakes also like cool, dry areas therefore when you return to your campsite you should check that a snake has not taken up residence underneath your tent.
What To Do If Bitten By A Snake While Camping
Signs of a Snake Bite
In most cases, you will realize pretty quickly that you have been bitten by a snake. You will likely see or hear the snake and feel its bite. Some snakes are quick to strike and vacate the area, while more aggressive species may strike repeatedly or hang on with their fangs and jaw.
There will likely be a pair of puncture marks at the source of the bite, this is a good indicator of a snake bite. Depending on the type of snake, you may experience redness and swelling immediately or within a few minutes to hours.
Pain usually accompanies the redness and swelling, the severity depends on the type of snake and whether or not the bite was dry or venom was injected. Envenomation, or the releasing of venom, can cause the following symptoms.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Labored breathing or eventually cardiac arrest
- Numbness or tingling around your face and/or limbs
- Increased salivation and sweating
- Disturbed vision
The victim also may be experiencing symptoms of shock which include:
- Restlessness or agitation
- Chest pain.
- Dizziness or feeling faint
- Cool and clammy skin
- Bluish lips and fingernails
- Profuse sweating, moist skin
You should try to get the victim a safe distance away from the angry snake as soon as possible, in most cases as soon as the snake sees a route of escape it will do so. As you are moving the victim to safety you should try to take in any details regarding the snake’s appearance and characteristics as they could help in identifying it.
Once you and the victim are out of immediate danger call 911 and seek medical treatment immediately. Make the victim comfortable but try to keep them still and minimize any movement to prevent the spread of venom more rapidly throughout their body. Keeping the wound location (arm, leg, foot, etc) still and slightly below heart level will aid in this.
While you are waiting for help try to calm the victim and keep them warm as they may be in shock. You should not give them anything to eat or drink.
As swelling is a common side effect, try to gently remove any clothing or jewelry that may become tight and restrictive. You can apply a clean bandage to prevent dirt from entering the wound but you don’t want it to be restrictive either.
Medical personnel will hopefully be able to pick you up or extract you from the location and transport the victim to the hospital.
Treatment at a Medical Facility
At the medical facility, physicians will probably ask you if you can identify the snake. It is important to provide them with any information you can regarding the habitat, snake appearance, and snake characteristics.
Identifying the snake correctly will allow them to administer antivenom if necessary. In some cases, if they believe the bite was dry they may wait and monitor the patient to see if any symptoms appear.
Antivenom is most effective when given within the first four hours following the snake bite. Once administered, it may be effective for as long as two weeks after the bite. Unfortunately, antivenom can come with a few nasty side effects:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Body aches
- Serum sickness (should be treated by a doctor. Symptoms include fever, joint aches rash, chills muscle aches, itching, and blood in the urine)
Snake Bite Treatments to Avoid (Myths)
There are some circulated treatments which have been disproven and are unsafe. You should never try to apply a tourniquet to halt the venom. This can seriously harm the victim and could even prove fatal.
You should not try to make any incisions or suck the poison out. This will often do more harm than good as you could injure the victim further and yourself.
Do not wait for symptoms to appear, ignore the snake bite, or try to walk it off. Even if you believe the bite was dry you should receive medical attention immediately.
Do not apply an ice pack or immerse the wound in water, especially cold water. The ice could limit blood circulation. This means that the venom will not spread as far but could do very serious damage locally where it is contained.
Treat Snakes with Respect
If you are camping almost anywhere in the United States, then you may be in snake territory. You should take the proper precautions and familiarize yourself with the possible snake species and their characteristics that you may come in contact with.
You should also review the proper treatment of a snake bite and take steps to ensure that you and your fellow campers are prepared for any snake related emergency.
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