Rattlesnake Bite Risk



“Come to me! Come to me! Come to me!”

Delivered in a calm but assertive voice, my words obtained the intended result. My backpacking companion, in the process of taking the next step with eyes lowered to negotiate a tree trunk and branches obstructing the path, immediately turned and stepped back toward me. It was only when I followed with a whispered “Now, look!” that she turned and saw a moving, sinuous, spotted, diamond-patterned form just ahead on the trail. What I’d seen, and what she immediately realized, was that she had been approaching the striking distance of a Great Basin rattlesnake.

It was about four feet long. My companion swore it was at least 10 feet in length, but that was adrenalin talking. It weaved its head back and forth 6 to 8 inches off the ground, like a cobra. As we watched, it retreated moving backward in active, serpentine waves to the security of nearby rocks, where it took refuge and settled in to monitor us with flicking tongue and unblinking eyes.

This dramatic event took place during a backpack trip while we were on a side-hill, cross-country route through Mississippi Canyon, in Nevada’s Stillwater Mountains. But it could have happened anywhere that Desert Survivors typically visit. Rattlesnake encounters are not uncommon in the arid southwest.

Our snake’s behavior was typical. As soon as it was threatened it gave a warning and retreated to safety. Rattlesnakes do not always retreat and do not always warn by rattling. Since this snake was holding its head up and traveling backwards its ability to rattle was limited. Snakes are born in late summer, already venomous and capable of inflicting serious bites, but possessing a pre-button that does not yet rattle.

On the other hand, a snake that rattles in the bushes doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of a venomous pit viper. Certain harmless snakes beat the ground with their tails when they are threatened. If they are in dry grass or leaves, this can mimic a rattler’s warning and fool potential predators.

A rattlesnake produces its characteristic, raspy buzz by turning its tail up off the ground and shaking it from 20 to 100 times per second. Sound is produced when segments of the rattle knock against one another. Years ago, while working in a hospital, I opened a drawer looking for bandages and leaped back when a drawer full of steel intravenous needles that were stored in glass vials, all rattled in unison. The sound approximated that made by the big diamondback rattlesnakes I’d heard many times during my youth in Texas. Once learned, a rattlesnake’s buzz is not forgotten.

When a rattlesnake sheds its skin every few months, the discarded skin gets caught on the rattle and forms a new button. As the snake gets older and the number of buttons on its tail increases, its buzz becomes louder. Older snakes buzz quite loudly but neither the number of buttons in the rattle nor the volume of its buzz can predict a single snake’s age because end segments fall off.

Rattlers cannot leap into the air, though they do strike so quickly that they may seem to fly. When threatened and unable to retreat to safety they will usually coil and buzz a warning. A snake’s strike range is equal to about half of its body length. If the threat moves within range it will strike as a last resort. Even though we knew about this snakes limitations we were very cautious when we returned through the same location later that day.

The next day in Ramparts Canyon, several miles to the south, I was in the lead and looking ahead as we came to an opening between low bushes. I stopped, put my arms out on both side and said, “Whoa!” There was another adult Great Basin rattlesnake. This one was crossing our path about halfway across the opening about ten feet ahead. It started rattling and turned around and went to the base of a bush into a pile of rocks. With flicking tongue and tail rattling steadily it watched our passage from a safe distance.

“Look, Bob” Pov exclaimed excitedly from behind me on a trail in the Stillwater Mountains. I turned around to see a rattlesnake coming from under a bush onto the trail between us. I had been looking for a cache where we had left our packs. Pov had stopped when she saw a thin black tongue flicking at the edge of the trail and was was a few steps away from the snake when it started across the trail then suddenly struck in her direction. The strike was far short and about 45° off the mark. That was more of a warning strike than a serious attempt to envenomate. Then it turned back across the trail and briskly moved into the brush while rattling vigorously with its raised tail.

This was a Mojave rattlesnake. When full-grown Mojaves reach three and a third feet. Nevertheless, when I saw the strike it was so fast that it appeared that the snake flew through the air its full length. It had demonstrated typical rattlesnake behavior in that it gave warning when alarmed then retreated rapidly. The Mojaves are famous for some of them have neurotoxin in their venom.  Envenomation with this neurotoxin can have a deceptively delayed onset of symptoms compared to typical rattlesnake cellular toxin. Progressive muscular paralysis can develop and lead to respiratory failure.

Rattlesnake bites will leave two fang marks in addition to multiple small teeth marks in a shallow arcs behind the fang marks. Rattlesnake envenomation results in almost immediate swelling, darkening of tissue to a dark blue-black color, a tingling sensation, and nausea. Rattlesnake venom causes tissue death, destroying the cell walls of capillaries and lymphatic vessels resulting in internal bleeding and swelling. When there is a death due to rattlesnake bite the cause of death is usually shock due to loss of blood volume which takes over several hours or even days.

Although rattlesnake strikes are potentially deadly, very few result in fatality. A strike may miss its target entirely, the fangs may not fully pierce the skin, or the snake may not inject venom.  Venom is injected in only about 25% of bites overall. Fatal cases are more likely when an individual is bitten several times, is very young or very old, or is already in poor health. Many serious bites occur in young children. Young adult males are the most at risk, especially those who have consumed alcohol to excess. Surprisingly, as it seems, they try to handle these snakes and, not so surprising, are bitten as a result.

Only about 1,000 people are bitten while 12 or fewer people die from rattlesnake bites in the U.S. each year. That is a small percentage of the 20,000 total deaths resulting from all natural hazards. Death rates by natural causes are: heat and drought 20%; severe summer weather 19%; winter weather 18%; flooding 14%; tornadoes 12%; lightning 11%; geophysical events such as earthquakes, wildfires and hurricanes 5%; coastal events including storms, rip currents and erosion 2%; dog bite 0.1%; and snakebite 0.1%.

At the scene of a snakebite first protect everyone present by giving the snake room to retreat. Then identify the snake. This is best done by taking photographs. The snakebite victim should remain as calm as possible and avoid physical exertion. If in the field, the treatment is to wash the site, immobilize the limb, and transport the patient to a health care facility that has antivenin. Walking the victim out is preferred to long delay in antivenin treatment.

Cutting and sucking the wound has been discredited. There is no sound evidence that the suction devices on the market change the outcome. In fact, there is some evidence they may cause harm by injury at the treatment site due to blood flow obstruction or by sequestering venom. Tourniquets are not recommended. Compression dressings of a whole limb are being evaluated but are not yet generally recommended. Since most rattlesnake venom is a tissue toxin not a neurotoxin, it is better to let it gradually dilute than to maintain a high concentration in a confined area.

The risk of death or limb loss from snakebite in the desert is almost small enough to forget about. Still, prevention far outweighs field treatment, so it’s wise to take a few precautions. Do not place any part of yourself in a place you have not checked for hazards. In the same way that you’d avoid poison oak in the California Coast Ranges or cholla cactus in the Mojave, don’t step, reach or sit before you have scanned the area. Check the ground directly in front of you to avoid a fall, but maintain awareness of the immediate few feet on either side of your path as well. When climbing, avoid placing your hand on a ledge or in a crevice you have not seen.

None of our encounters with these snakes were out of the ordinary. Between the two of us, my hiking partners and I have backpacked for decades and have come across dozens of rattlesnakes in Utah, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. We’ve identified Great Basin rattlesnakes, sidewinders, Mohave rattlesnake, western diamondbacks and speckled rattlesnakes. We are confident that a poll of Desert Survivors would come up with hundreds of individual rattlesnake sightings. Not one of these has resulted in a bite.

Learn the sound of the rattle. If you hear one, stop, locate, avoid, then observe. These are beautiful animals that have evolved amazing survival skills. With a little caution we can enjoy them on our infrequent encounters.


Adult Great Basin Rattlesnake  The Great Basin rattlesnake displays many different color variations. It is commonly found in rocky sagebrush desert and rangeland areas. The species often hibernates in south facing rocky den sites, where large numbers often congregate in the deep crevices of these rocky slopes. The Great Basin rattlesnake feeds mainly on small rodents and will also eat lizards and the occasional bird. During the heat of the summer these reptiles are most active at night. They have eyes forward on the head giving them binocular vision and have heat-sensing pit organs on the front of the face that can accurately locate small warm bodies in complete darkness.
Great Basin Rattlesnake 

The Great Basin rattlesnake displays many different color variations. It is commonly found in rocky sagebrush desert and rangeland areas. The species often hibernates in south facing rocky den sites, where large numbers often congregate in the deep crevices of these rocky slopes. The Great Basin rattlesnake feeds mainly on small rodents and will also eat lizards and the occasional bird. During the heat of the summer these reptiles are most active at night. They have eyes forward on the head giving them binocular vision and have heat-sensing pit organs on the front of the face that can accurately locate small warm bodies in complete darkness.


Great Basin Rattlesnake video and audio


Return to top