Let's begin with two simple, and indisputably true, observations,

  1. Rattlesnakes really can be dangerous, and
  2. Rattlesnakes really don't want to bite, maim, eat or otherwise hurt you.

If these assertions seem incongruous it's because you're unfamiliar with one of the most pervasive ethological edicts in the animal kingdom - If possible, avoid taking on something bigger than yourself. Animals that break this rule can end up too injured to hunt or even dead, and that makes it tough to pass on your genes.

It's hardly possible to spend a significant amount of time in the out of doors in southern California (and most of the west), without being exposed to rattlesnake awareness information. It's something that is strongly emphasized by parks and publications and even retailers; right up there with how to identify poison oak, what to do when you see a mountain lion, and the fact that leaving a trailhead without water is a great way to lower your chances of returning to the trailhead.

Rattlesnakes are a legitimate consideration for anyone heading out into western wilderness, but the truth is the danger they pose is entirely out of proportion to the concern - verging on paranoia - they engender. This overreaction should probably not be particularly surprising, considering that snakes in general appear to occupy a special place in our consciousness. There's something about the idea of snakes (and spiders, it seems) that focuses human awareness, not to mention the fight or flight response. Some anthropologists theorize that this is more than just idle speculation. Lynne Isbell, an anthropologist out of UC Davis has suggested primates and snakes share a long evolutionary history which has resulted not just in heightened awareness but actual adaptation of functional biological systems (such as primate vision).1 In any event, it may be no accident that we're afraid of snakes. The problem is that tendency prevents many of us from appreciating how cool rattlesnakes are.

Being as much a lackey to my own instincts as the next primate, I won't go so far as to say rattlesnakes are cute and cuddly (though some of them do have quite beautiful patterns). But they are undoubtedly amazing, and an incredibly important component of the wilderness so many of us seek to enjoy. They prey upon small animals like rodents and birds and other reptiles, and are in turn preyed upon by raptors and larger mammals and other snakes - especially when they're young. Without them, we'd likely be up to our ears in rats and squirrels. The 36 species of rattlers are all native to the Americas, ranging from as far north as southwestern Canada all the way down to Argentina. Here in the southwest U.S. we have the largest concentration of species; the ones we see most in Orange County parks being the Southern Pacific, Southwestern Speckled, and Red Diamond (possibly including some harder to identify subspecies). If you head out to the deserts you'll also find Sidewinders.

  Southern Pacific  Red Diamond Southwestern Speckled
  Crotalus oreganus helleri Crotalus ruber Crotalus mitchellii pyrrhus
  (Photo - Laura Camp)  (Photo - Bob Camp) (Photo - Wikimedia Commons ) 

Laura and I have happened upon rattlesnakes many times during our hikes in Orange County and elsewhere. And I use the phrase "happened upon" intentionally, as it helps to make the point with which I began. Nearly every rattlesnake I've seen saw me first - and let me know about it in no uncertain terms. My first time was walking a ridgeline trail near dusk, just when they like to be out and about. We startled a large, testy individual sleeping in the shadow of a bush on the side of the trail, and when he powered up the old rattle it exploded in our heads like a gunshot (those primal evolutionary propensities, I guess).2 We were quite close when he noticed us, though that proximity lasted only as long as it took for us to jump backward (and nearly out of our skins) involuntarily about a yard.

The critical point here is the snake was surprised and terrified, just as we were. I think I was actually within his strike distance (which is far less than most people imagine - only about half the reptile's length) and it's possible that a nosh on my leg was one of his options. Fortunately he demurred. In fact, most of the snakes we've encountered have rattled bloody murder at us and snuck off into the brush as soon as they felt they could get away. One big Red Diamond (pictured above) was crossing a wide fire road when I surprised him. He coiled up as high as he could and made an incessant, noisy spectacle of himself until I finally stepped off the path, circled around him, and continued on my way. He watched me, coiled and wary and rattling the entire time, until I was at least fifty feet away, before he finally hightailed it into the brush. The old adage is true - they're more scared of us than we are of them (or than we should be of them). We're not what they eat, and we're just way too big for them to want to have anything to do with us.

(Photo - Dave Favorite)

None of this means it's okay to take rattlesnakes for granted. Every time I've surprised one - and received an unexpected adrenalin spike for my inattention - I counted myself lucky I didn't inadvertently step on him. Most rattlesnake bites result from this kind of accident (not including the untrained goofballs who try to handle them). Sometimes they don't hear you coming, or more accurately - feel your vibrations. And you won't always hear them, since wet rattlesnakes can't rattle (yes, rattlers can swim) and young ones don't always do so. Several times we've actually stepped over babies - one (left) was curled up in a horseshoe impression - only to realize after looking back what had happened. (By the way, it's very likely a myth that baby rattlesnakes are more dangerous than adults.)

The following are some good tips to remember for improving your chances of avoiding accidental encounters:

  • develop the habit of examining the trail several yards ahead, especially shadows off to the side
  • step on an obstacle (log, rock) not over it - some snakes wait in ambush for small prey and may strike if they haven't been warned by your vibration
  • if you go off-trail, use a stick or a trekking pole to beat the brush and ground in front of you - they feel you coming and skeedaddle
  • know where and when they hang out - they're cold blooded so they regulate their body temperature by basking in (or getting out of) the sun, they like to hunt at dawn and dusk, and they hide under rocks and bushes and in holes in the ground
  • don't inadvertently place your hand on, between or behind rocks without checking the area out first

Of course, it's not possible to eliminate all encounters, but the facts about actual bite events are encouraging. It isn't uncommon for an attempted strike by a rattlesnake to just leave an abrasion and not even break the skin. Additionally, about a quarter of all adult bites are what is know as a "dry bite," one that injects no venom. (This makes a lot of sense from the snake's perspective, as it could be a fatal mistake to waste venom on a defensive attack.) And even in the case that an envenomation has occurred, odds of survival are quite good. Out of about 8,000 venomous bites every year fewer than 0.2 percent result in victim death.

To be sure, part of that high survival rate is due to getting the proper care after a bite has occurred. A full discussion of the range of treatment is beyond the scope of this article, but there are some basics everyone who may encounter a rattler should know,

  1. get away from the snake, they can strike multiple times
  2. call 911 immediately, if possible, or try to get to emergency treatment
  3. remain immobile, if possible (obviously, if help isn't coming this one is moot)
  4. remove anything that might impede swelling around the bite area
  5. keep the bite area below the heart (slows the movement of venom)
  6. don't use a tourniquet, don't try to cut the wound open and suck out the venom
  7. clean the wound and dress it if you can, but don't flush it with water

There are more actions to consider, but the most important thing is to stay calm and get help as soon as possible. If that means hiking out of a no-signal region or elevating the bite area above the heart, then that's what you've got to do. In researching treatment you'll find there can be disagreement on some recommendations - like whether to use a suction pump or not, but if you stick to the basics and get care the odds are in your favor. [See below for more information on treatment.]

The bottom line here is: don't emulate my distracted experience, which consists essentially of finding out I'm in the presence of a rattlesnake only when they decide to scream at me to get the hell away. But do take heart from it. They didn't want to hurt me and they don't want to hurt you. They will if you're not careful and get really unlucky, but being careful is something we always strive for in the wilderness (or should). Just add awareness of snakes to your already existing inventory of things to prepare for, and you'll be fine. You may even learn to appreciate them. 

[Here are a few links to medical discussions of treatment for those who want to know more,


1. Isbell, Lynne. "Snakes as agents of evolutionary change in primate brains." Journal of Human Evolution 51 (2006) p1-35. Elsevier 28, December, 2005. http://tinyurl.com/ng8n3sx

2. I recently encountered a woman on the trail who asked if I knew what a rattlesnake sounded like. She had heard something in the brush and wasn't sure. After protracted attempts to describe the sound and her assurances that I was wrong, I ended up simply suggesting that if she wasn't sure it was a rattler - it very likely wasn't. My experience has been that, unlike similar sounds (cicadas, other bugs, things moving in the leaf litter, etc.) the sound of a rattlesnake in full pique sets off alarms in the brain. I maintain that one knows when one is hearing a rattlesnake. I could be wrong, but it fits with the evolutionary data. For a fairly representative sound file, click here.

[All photos and video by Laura or Bob Camp unless otherwise indicated. Use without permission is not cool.]