I was running a remote section of the Cold Spring trail last summer, deeper into Los Padres National Forest (just outside Santa Barbara, California) than I’d ever ventured, when an unmistakable slither undulated laterally across the singletrack at the very bottom of my peripheral vision.
SNAKE! I did my best Evan Jager impression, hurdling over the reptile before I had time to think. As I beelined to the road, it occurred to me: what if it was poisonous and I had gotten bitten? I needed to brush up on the subject.
The local trail-running group directed me to Howard Cohen, 58, of Hood River, Oregon. In addition to being an avid amateur herpetologist and snake expert for much of his life, Cohen is a two-time finisher of both the Hardrock 100 and Western States 100. Cohen, formerly of Santa Barbara, has certainly had his share of run-ins with poisonous snakes.
“It’s good to familiarize yourself with common poisonous snakes and their patterns in your locale, and it helps to understand some basic body styles,” says Cohen. “For instance, a large, diamond-shaped head usually means it’s a viper.” But, he adds, it can be difficult to be comprehensively ready to identify—and assess the risk of—every snake you might encounter.
In other words, assume the snake is poisonous if there is any doubt. If you and a snake surprise each other around a corner or in the tall grass, there likely won’t be time to examine it too closely before you need to react.
Cohen recommends moving slowly in tall grass and brush, where it can be more difficult to see a snake ahead of time; he recommends the same if you run at dawn or dusk, when the visibility is low. By and large, he does not recommend jumping over snakes if you can avoid it. “There is some truth that it’s safer to jump over a stretched-out snake than a coiled one, because the coiled one can strike farther,” he says. “And if it’s warm out, and the snake is warm, they can be very fast and aggressive no matter their position.”
If you see the snake in time to stop, go backward or ease your way around it if there is room and the snake isn’t acting aggressively (e.g. rattling or coiled).
If you carry your phone on the trail, the app, SnakeBite911, has information on which snakes you might encounter in a given region.
If you’re bitten
First of all, don’t panic. Cohen says many bites are “dry bites” and some of the most venomous snakes can be stymied by a poor venom delivery system. The placement of a bite can also affect its severity—bites closer to an artery or vein are more serious.
Still, assume the worst. “If you’re in a remote area and have a phone, call 911,” Cohen advises. “Do what you can to reduce your heart rate (since an elevated heart rate can spread venom through the body more quickly) and, if you are with someone, send them to get help.”
If you start to experience neurological symptoms—shortness of breath, swelling or edema among them—your situation is more severe. Get to a hospital as quickly as possible. Many snake bite deaths in the U.S. result when the victim refused to seek medical care. The longer you wait to seek treatment, the more severe potential complications can become.
This article originally appeared in the December issue of Trail Runner magazine. For great content delivered straight to your door, subscribe here.