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What You Need to Know to Stay Safe

By Amber Erickson Gabbey

Snakes get a bad rap, dating all the way back to the Bible. Although many cultures have respected serpents as symbols of fertility, transformation, guardianship and vengeance, they’re still often lumped together as scary or gross. But Cameron Young, executive director of the Louisville-based Center for Snake Conservation, sees a different side: Snakes are important to their ecosystems and worthy of protection.

The prairie rattlesnake, the only venomous snake in Boulder County, grows up to 3 feet long, with a rattle on its tail, a triangular head, and fangs. Rattlesnakes have toxic venom, but they can control the amount released. “More people die every year from golf balls than rattlesnake bites,” Young says.

Where Rattlesnakes Live

Rattlesnakes live near rocks and prairie-dog towns, Young says. They live throughout Boulder County, especially in the foothills up to approximately 8,500 feet. Common places to see rattlesnakes include the Wonderland Lake Trail, Hall Ranch, the Foothills and Coalton trailheads, and Rabbit Mountain—formerly called Rattlesnake Mountain.

If You See a Rattlesnake

A rattler off-trail is not a threat, and you probably won’t notice it. Encountering one on the trail can be a different story. The biggest risk is accidentally stepping on a rattlesnake or visibly reaching for something and getting bitten. Snakebites are considered “legitimate” when the snake strikes without provocation—perhaps, for example, because of mistaken identity while it is foraging. Most bites are not legitimate, but are defensive bites caused by people picking up, threatening or otherwise annoying the snake.

If you encounter a rattlesnake, the first thing it will do is freeze. If it’s stretched out, stay back, and it will eventually move on. If you’re within three feet, the snake is more likely to defend itself, or to coil into an S-posture and rattle. “The good thing about coiled snakes is you can just walk around them,” Young says. Always stay at least three feet away, however. If provoked, a rattlesnake can strike from any position and in any direction.

  • Tips for hikers: A slower pace, along with taking cautious steps, lowers your risk.
  • For runners: You are more likely to accidentally step on a snake because of your brisk pace and not watching where you step.
  • For bikers: The speed and height of a bike will protect you. Watch for snakes on the trail and avoid hitting them.
  • For children: Be extra-watchful lest kids touch or step on rocks where rattlesnakes sun themselves, or crevices where they hide.
  • For dogs: Keep them leashed. A dog will want to poke its nose at the snake, inviting a bite.

If You’re Bitten

Even though rattlesnakes are venomous, no one has died from a rattlesnake bite in Colorado since the 1950s, Young says. “The best snakebite first aid is your cellphone. Get back to the parking lot, call ahead and get to the hospital immediately,” he advises. Rattlesnake venom is hemotoxic, meaning it destroys red blood cells and kills tissues. “You will have tissue damage,” says Young, “and if you’re bit on the hand, you may lose part of your finger.” The longer you wait, the greater the risk of permanent damage.

If you’ve heard of home remedies for snakebite, ignore them all, Young says. Don’t use a tourniquet—it isolates the venom in one spot and increases damage. Don’t cut an X over the bite to bleed out the venom. Pouring whiskey over the bite, applying an electric shock and sucking the venom do not work. Go to the hospital. If your dog gets bitten, call your vet immediately.

To keep yourself safe, watch where you step, stay back and use common sense. 

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Amber Erickson Gabbey, M.A., is a freelance writer, natural health enthusiast and yoga teacher. She lives with her husband and pup in Nederland, where the altitude is too high for rattlers.