Although many campers and hikers have fears about big carnivores such as bears or mountain lions when they go into the woods, in reality, these animals are much less of a threat than many smaller creatures, such as poisonous snakes. Poisonous snakes of one variety or the other are found in many desirable locations for camping and back-country exploring, so if you plan to spend time outdoors in areas where they are present, you need to take some time to consider the danger.
In almost all cases, poisonous snakes are quite shy and will avoid human contact if at all possible. Even though a particular species might be present in a given area, there may be only a small number of individual snakes to be found there, and in most cases, even if you are looking for one, you will be hard pressed to find one. Some species, such as rattlesnakes, are mostly nocturnal in their hunting habits, and spend the day holed up out of sight under rocks or in hollow stumps. Most snakes are fairly sedentary, spending much of their time sunning on warm days, so still that they can be mistaken for dead.
Despite the lack of great numbers of snakes in most areas, each year a few people are bitten by poisonous snakes. Most of these bites occur because the snake was stepped on or otherwise approached too closely before the victim even saw it. Snakes are wonderfully adept at concealment, and catch their prey by means of their natural camouflage markings and capacity to remain absolutely motionless. The key to avoiding a snake bite in the wilds is to be ever mindful of their presence and to always keep a sharp lookout for them.
Snakes are most difficult to see in overgrown areas with lots of dense ground cover or undergrowth. Proceed cautiously when walking through such areas. In some cases, if the growth is so thick you cannot see the ground, it is wise to carry a long stick or staff and poke and probe vegetation in front of you before walking into it. This is especially true along riverbanks, where cottonmouth moccasins are abundant. In such thickets, be aware also that not all poisonous snakes spend all their time on the ground. Cottonmouths and others climb bushes and trees, so the danger might be at a higher level than your feet and legs or even above your head. I have had many encounters with snakes in bushes, including a near miss by a striking copperhead at face level.
Snakes are warm blooded and are more active on hot days. Be especially cautious on such days for snakes on the prowl. But don’t dismiss the possibility of encountering a snake on a cool day as well. One distinct danger for campers is the possibility of getting bitten by a snake while gathering firewood. When it’s cool out, snakes like to hide in such places as brush piles and among fallen limbs and trees. Always look before you reach into such a pile or before you pick up any piece of fallen wood. If you are not careful, you could put your hand in a place where a concealed snake could bite it out of reflexive, instinctive action.
Campers in the woods should also take precautions around camp. Don’t set up your tent in areas of dense undergrowth if at all possible. Keep your tent doors tightly zipped up while away from camp. Snakes have been known to crawl inside tents or even sleeping bags left unattended. Don’t subject yourself to such a nasty surprise. Be careful in the morning as well. Look around before you step out of the tent, and check under piles of gear or equipment you might have left outside. Check your boots as well. Small snakes have also been known to seek shelter inside boots.
Avoiding snakebite, as you can see, is mostly all about awareness. You won’t get bitten or even have a frightening close encounter with a poisonous snake if you simply stay aware while in the wilds. Always think before you set your foot down on the ground, or before you reach into a bush or pile of firewood. Above all, if you do see a poisonous snake, don’t entertain illusions that you are the Crocodile Hunter and attempt to catch it. More people are bitten this way than any other. Leave the snake catching to the experts or fools.
After a period of time spent outdoors, awareness of your surroundings will become second nature and your chances of getting bit by a snake will be slim to none.