In one of my tall tales, I wrote about a bad encounter with a rattlesnake on the Pacific Crest Trail:
You may be a potential class of 2015 PCT thru-hiker, or are wondering what your chances of encountering a rattlesnake on the trail are. Based on my experience, the odds of running across one of these vipers in southern California are high. The more you hike, the higher the odds. Should that keep you off the trail? No! It is more likely that you will be hit in a crosswalk than being bitten by a rattlesnake on the PCT. I know, not very reassuring is it?
The truth is, by understanding the basic behavior of these snakes, you can reduce your chances of a direct confrontation with them. First of all, they are not the aggressive human-attacking species that people make them out to be. They want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them.
Behaviour: They are a cold natured species and generally are not found slithering about in cooler temps. Rarely seen in winter and colder days. Could you see them in the morning? Not likely, unless you are cowboy camping and one has climbed into your sleeping bag for warmth. But, you are more likely to get a scorpion in your bag in the Mojave than a snake. The most common encounter with a rattler is one laying out in the sun on the trail. The trails are exposed to the sun and relatively close to brush where they can escape. Most of the rattlers that I have come across are getting sun in the mid-late afternoon hours. When sunning, they often stretch out to their full length. Somewhat nocturnal, they have been known to move about at night while hunting but do not usually travel far.
Habitat: In southern California and into the Sierras, mostly found in the dry, arid chaparral which pretty much describes most of the state. In the mountains, usually below 7,500 ft. It doesn’t mean you will not find them above that altitude, just not very common because it gets cold up there. Often found around/under rocks or loose pine needles and leaves.
If you happen to come upon a rattler on the trail, my advice is to give it a wide berth. If you prod it with your hiking pole, it may get into a defensive posture (coiled up) and can strike up to 3/4 of its length. Sometimes, a gentle coaxing with you pole may work, but it depends on the mood that it is in. Be careful when detouring around a snake because they do nest in the brush and chaparral. Bushwhacking increases your chances of being bitten.
Rattlesnake Avoidance: Your best defense is to be aware. This is hard when you’ve been hiking all day and your eyes are focused three feet in front of you. In my opinion, snake gaiters or leggings are not worth it unless you do a lot of bushwhacking. Hiking with pets? Dogs are frequently bitten by rattlers and it is often fatal to smaller breeds. Larger breeds survive, but the bite can cause intense swelling and permanent tissue damage. Use caution when taking your dogs on hikes. While the idea of your dog roaming free sounds like fun, a leash could save them from getting bitten.
If you are bitten: I am not qualified to give medical advice but can tell you that you will probably not die from a rattlesnake bite. The bite is very painful and your limbs may swell extensively. If you carry a GPS locator or beacon, now is a good time to activate it. If you are with someone, have them get help and stay calm. If you can walk, make your way to get help. And no, don’t slice into the snake bite area with a knife and suck out the poison. The Mayo clinic has some good first aid advice here: http://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-snake-bites/basics/art-20056681
My closest encounter: Less than a foot. While hiking with my wife I often provide a safety brief like what to do in thunderstorms or first aid, and today I mentioned that a rattler can sound like bacon frying when it is warning you. Around 7,000 ft near the beginning of our hike, I was walking and unwrapping an energy bar when my wife suddenly sprinted ahead and told me to stop. The sound was unmistakable and very close. To my left, was a large boulder and a Pacific Rattler was coiled underneath. I slowly backed off and gave this critter a wide berth. Afterward, she mentioned that “the sound of bacon frying was very accurate”. Moral of the story, eat bacon and you can avoid rattlesnakes.
A good handbook with lots of info for the backcountry hiker: The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills
Disclaimer: I am not a herpetologist and can barely spell it. My observations of rattlesnakes are based upon my experience hiking in California. Being aware on the trail is your best defense against snakes or any other wildlife that could harm you. Never go out of your way to kill a rattler – they serve a good purpose in the food chain. There are fewer rodents out there because of them.
Dazed and losing consciousness, the shade of a scruffy manzanita tree was just ahead. My calf had doubled in size due to the swelling. Using my hiking poles as crutches, I would take a step and drag my leg. Checking my cell phone for reception, my heart sank – no signal. I tried dialing 911 anyway and the call failed. Reaching the small patch of shade, I crumpled on the dusty trail and took my pack off. I fumbled for my SPOT Messenger, an emergency beacon, flipped the cover over the SOS button and pressed it. After a minute, the light was green indicating that the message for help was transmitting. The throbbing in my leg had ceased, replaced by a numbing sensation – similar to falling asleep on your arm. I remember seeing the jagged peaks of the Ocotillos on the distant horizon and faded into a dream….
Living in Southern California, I became interested in the Pacific Crest Trail or (PCT) soon after becoming an avid day hiker. The 2,600 mile trail begins at the U.S. – Mexican border near Campo, California and ends at E.C. Manning Park in British Columbia, Canada. The southern terminus of the trail is marked with a monument, the border fence on the other side of a dirt road. I’ve hiked sections of the PCT, usually 8-10 miles at a time. At this rate, I would hike the entire PCT in 30 years. The realities of life keep this thru-hike fantasy at bay.
Today, I would park almost 20 miles north of the trailhead near the Lake Morena Campground and have a friend drop me off at the border near Campo. He was on his way to Yuma, so it was only 12 miles out-of-the-way. Dropping me off on the dirt road, I would walk to the border, touch the PCT marker and backtrack north. I waved to my friend as he pulled away on the dirt road and headed north. Dust arose as the car faded in the distance. How strange it must be for the Mexicans who witness the hikers that walk this desolate trail. I’ve read that encounters with illegal immigrants are rare in the daytime down here. At night, the human smugglers known as coyotes herd the immigrants through this area, often abandoning them at the first sign of trouble. Human trafficking is a sad thing and I tried not to think about it. On this fall day, the sun was out early to greet me. The forecast had temps in the mid 80’s – not bad for the desert. I had 4 liters of water and enough food for a couple of days. Water is pretty scarce around here this time of year. This would be my longest single mileage day since my trek on the Appalachian Trail in Maine. I’ve worked up to the longer mileage and was fit enough to give it a go. The sky was clear with a few wispy cirrus clouds. Taking out my little camera, I had to get a shot of the beginning of this famous trail.
It was so quiet out here because the sand and chaparral absorb most of the sound. The occasional chatter of a Gambel’s Quail would break the silence. Using my map, I would pick my way around fences, up dirt roads and past some ranches. Passing through the little town of Campo, I would see a post office and a small store. Walking across Hwy 94, I saw cars in the distance, the blacktop making them seem like a mirage.
Crossing some railroad tracks and an old jeep road, I was making good time. Finding shade in the cleft of a boulder, I took a break. The screech of a red-tail hawk on the hunt pierced the tranquility. It was catching a morning updraft, conserving energy. The trail was relatively easy to follow and the elevation was around 2,800-3000 ft. Checking my GPS, it indicated my average speed was 2.8 mph. I was on track to make it to my car by sundown. While prepared to hike in the dark, it’s not something that I enjoy doing. Around the 8 mile mark, I made the crest of a ridge and noticed a descent into a canyon, followed by a 300-400 ft climb. I crossed another jeep road with a gate. Time for another snack, but I would keep moving. While unwrapping my snack bar, I remember looking up in time to avoid tripping over a rock. The Pacific Rattler struck without warning. I remember yelling and lunging forward, the adrenaline surging through my body. I must have run another 30-40 feet before stopping. Looking back, the snake was still coiled under the rock near the trail. The pain in my calf jolted me back into reality. I dropped my poles and unfastened the nylon gaiter on my right leg. Two small holes, one with blood on my calf. The serpent had bitten me through the gaiter. My initial reaction was one of panic. Within a few minutes, the area around the bite burned like fire and the skin turned red and was swollen. I got farther away from the snake and retrieved my cell phone to call for help. No signal! I was in a canyon with no reception. At this point, I wasn’t worried about dying. I knew that most rattlesnake bites were not fatal and that it was important to calm down so that I could make good decisions. I had not seen one person since the little hamlet of Campo, so I prayed to my God for calm and asked Him to get me out of here.
Looking at my map, I was 9 miles into my 20 mile hike. The campground was 10 miles to the north with a 1,200 foot climb. Campo was 8 miles to the south. Not knowing how the snake bite would affect me, I decided to head back south and prayed for a phone signal. I made a detour around the wretched snake and began to feel a bit lethargic and dizzy. Sweat was dripping as my body reacted to the situation. I drank more water and tried to stay calm. Up ahead near the ridge, I noticed some scrubby trees and hoped for some shade. My leg was swelling noticeably and I knew to leave my shoes on. I made it to some manzanitas and dropped my pack.
Still no signal. I knew what had to be done. Six months earlier, I had purchased a GPS device that serves as an emergency beacon and allows for me to be tracked by family members on a website. At the start of my hike, I transmitted the “OK” signal to my wife which sends an email and text to her cell phone with my location. Now, I fumbled for the device and knew that I had to signal for help. I flipped off the safety cover and pressed the SOS button. After a minute, it blinked green indicating that it was transmitting. Hopefully, help would be here within the hour. Looking around, I noticed the tranquility and beauty of the land. The Ocotillos mountain range was in the distance. The last thing I remember was a slight buzz in my ears.
I remember having strange dreams. In one of my dreams, I was dressed up in a fat bunny suit and jumping through the neighbor’s yards. I still don’t understand that dream. It was bright when I woke up. In a strange room, the beep, beep of the monitor and I.V. in my arm left no doubt where I was. A nurse came in and told me that it took three vials of antivenom to treat me. My leg would be fine, albeit sore for a long time.
Later, I would be told that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department received the call from the company that monitors the SPOT GPS messenger. The police chopper was on the scene within 55 minutes. Working with the Border Patrol, they would make their way up a jeep road and haul me out on a 4 wheeler with a gurney. A helicopter would land on Hwy 94 and take me to the hospital in El Cajon, 35 miles away.
Friends, fellow bloggers – at this point I must tell you that this story is a work of FICTION. This didn’t really happen to me. Have I seen rattlers on the trail? Yes, many. Normally, the rattlers are not aggressive and actually prefer to stay away from humans. Most rattlesnake bite victims are oblivious to the snake until they step on it or surprise it on the trail. I can only tell you that if you do hike alone, ensure that someone knows where you are and take a cell phone. Unfortunately, if you hike in remote areas, a cellular signal is not guaranteed. For peace of mind, I picked up an emergency beacon and hope to never use it. Be prepared for the chance rattler encounter and have a plan. If you do stumble on one, freeze and allow it to retreat. If it coils, slowly back away and give it a wide berth. The most common rattlers in Southern California are the Pacific and Diamondback. In my experience, the Pacific Rattlers tend to be more defensive and will coil when threatened. They have the ability to strike out at 40% of their length. A coiled 6 foot rattler can lunge over 2.5 ft! Most of my encounters have been in the afternoon. I actually came within two feet of a coiled Pacific Rattler this past summer; but for the grace of God was not bitten. Enjoy your hike and be alert!
Trekking poles are also great because they can put some distance between you and a snake. I highly recommend these made by Kelty: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue
If you insist on walking through rattlesnake infested brush, at least consider these: Rattler Scaletech Snake Protection Gaiters (Green)
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle