Survival Saturday Infographic: How to survive a snakebite

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As a backcountry fishing guide, medical emergencies are a constant source of worry for me. I actually know a fly-shop owner who no longer runs guides out of his shop because he could never relax until everyone was accounted for safely at the end of the day. There is no cell service in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. You are on your own until you can make contact with a Ranger, something that may be miles away.

Falls are my number one worry, followed by a heart emergency. Coming in a not so distant third though are a copperhead or rattlesnake bite. It could easily be several hours before a stricken individual could cross the threshold of a medical facility. When I was an EMT we referred to the “golden hour” as critical to survival in a medical emergency. In a backcountry situation you are already starting behind the 8-ball.

This infographic from Sniff Outdoors for North America is well researched, using sources such as the Mayo Clinic webpage for guidance.

According to the Mayo Clinic:

If you are bitten by a venomous snake, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately, especially if the area changes color, begins to swell or is painful. Many hospitals stock antivenom drugs, which may help you.

 If possible, take these steps while waiting for medical help:
  • Remain calm and move beyond the snake’s striking distance.
  • Remove jewelry and tight clothing before you start to swell.
  • Position yourself, if possible, so that the bite is at or below the level of your heart.
  • Clean the wound, but don’t flush it with water. Cover it with a clean, dry dressing.


  • Don’t use a tourniquet or apply ice.
  • Don’t cut the wound or attempt to remove the venom.
  • Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol, which could speed the rate at which your body absorbs venom.
  • Don’t try to capture the snake. Try to remember its color and shape so that you can describe it, which will help in your treatment.


Timber Rattlesnake GSMNP

This isn’t an idle concern on my part. My 5 year old son actually spotted a copperhead this past weekend, not 20 feet away from where we were playing in the river. I have had one swim by me when I have been waist-deep while fishing (that one really freaked me out). I come across timber rattlers in the Elkmont area of the Park frequently.

Depending how far I am from help, if I have a client get bit, or a non-back injury fall, I might not have the luxury of time to reach assistance who would then need to go back up the mountain to reach the victim. Ideally, I have a second client to send ahead as a runner to initiate rescue, though this is not always the case. If it is a leg injury or a snakebite, I want to try to move the client closer to rescue/medics. That is why I carry a plethora of paracord with me and a knife capable of taking down a few saplings to fashion a travois (and splinting material if it is a limb injury).


Using this setup a single person can move an incapacitated one over uneven terrain. I will go into greater detail in a future Survival Saturday post, but the advantage of using a travois in a snakebite emergency is that you can avoid elevating a victim’s heart rate from exertion anymore than it will already be from stress. If anything, moving closer to help is likely to put the victim at greater ease as something positive is being accomplished.

My plan works for the snakes and the settings I most frequently encounter. Coral snakes in the American southwest are a different story as their venom is a neurotoxin (they are a relative of the cobra) rather than the hemotoxic venom of Tennessee’s rattlers and copperheads. Hemotoxic venoms are slower acting and are more likely to cause extensive tissue damage.

Outside of North America the snakes are different and this advice may not be applicable. If you are in Australia, you are pretty well and truly screwed if what I have read is any indication. Between the spiders and snakes, I would be a basket case if I lived down under.

I will leave you with this final cautionary video. I don’t recognize the snake as something poisonous, but still -Don’t be this idiot woman. I admit I have moved a rattlesnake off of a trail with a very long stick on two occasions (the photo above was one of them), but that is because I knew that there was a family with small kids hiking behind us. I would never attempt to actually touch pretty much anything other than a black rat, corn, or garter snake.


  1. Robert Evans says:

    That’s a rat snake, either a Texas Rat Snake or possibly a Gray Rat Snake. Damn her for molesting it like that.

    The advice you give for snakebite will be good for most of the snakebites in the US, which are from pit vipers with hemotoxic venom (i.e., rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths). Coral snake bites are so uncommon that it isn’t US practice to treat them differently than pit viper bites, although they are a different species of snake (elapidae) with neurotoxic venom rather than hemotoxic venom.

    In Australia where most of the snakebites are from elapid snakes with neurotoxic venom, snakebite procedures are slightly different, and include a tight wrapping of the bitten limb (NOT a tourniquet) to restrict blood (and venom) flow to other parts of the body. This is typically done with a blanket or towel wrapped snugly around the limb, followed by transportation.

  2. samuraichatter says:

    It sounds like a SAT phone might not be a bad idea if you can swing the price. Rangers should have defib machines at the station (if they don’t already) but if one of your clients was hours down trail and had a heart attack or stroke then he/she would be screwed.

    I spotted a copperhead while running on a trail near my house. I take a little comfort in the fact that their venom is fairly mild; however, if bitten while mid-run I would be screwed as my heart rate would already be jacked up and my blood would be coursing through my veins. We don’t have eastern diamondbacks here and that is a relief.

    If traveling overseas, you (in a lot of countries ) have got to bring your own anti-venom meds with you or you are indeed screwed. So for the most part it is as the Saracens say: Inshallah.

    As a (former) medic please elaborate on what you believe is the difference between flushing and cleaning. I realize that it could flush more venom into the body but it could flush it out. Plus, septic bite?!

    * And it aint just spiders and snakes while down under. The blue ringed octopus hangs out in tide pools at the beaches there and it is highly venomous. OZ even has one of the few venomous mammals. So yeah, pretty much any outing is an exercise in faith.

  3. stuartb says:

    I used to live in Hong Kong, and while out in the hills running I passed a few hooded Cobras, sure put a spring in your step!

    Here in CA we get desert and mountain Rattlers which usually give fair warning. Like you, the trip back to medical care would be very long and, if on your own, very painful

  4. Paul says:

    I’m of the Ellen Ripley point of view… that is. If it’s poisonous, “nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. ”

    Sure I won’t dent in the poisonous snake population, but that one won’t get near me again.

  5. jeff says:

    You didn’t kill the snake? What is wrong with you, jackhole?

    1. As a general rule I refrain from activities that would cause me to lose my Commercial Use Permit for the GSMNP.It is necessary for my work as a fishing guide.

      Killing a snake would certainly qualify.

      1. Suburbanbanshee says:

        Rattlesnakes are endangered or protected in most parts of the US. If they aren’t, they are under wildlife and game laws. So you can’t just kill them, unless there is immediate danger to human life.

        US snakes are not interested in tangling with humans, unless humans come at them and won’t let them get away.

  6. Edgelady says:

    I was bit by a baby copperhead five years ago. I didn’t even know what bit “stung” me, but when my hand started to swell we started looking and there it was – we called 911. We killed it, and we’ve killed many before and since. I am not one bit concerned about their population, they are quite alive and well here in Texas.

    When I got to the hospital they kept asking me if I was sure it was a copperhead, because it made a difference when it came to the antivenom I was given. I was told that copperheads were hemotoxic and rattlesnakes neurotoxic (counter to what I read in the article). Oddly, in spite of all the copperheads I killed and the many benedryl pills I gave to dogs that got bit by them (if only it was so easy for us humans), I’d never googled copperheads. So this was all very interesting to me as I was signing papers to be part of a study that was being done at the hospital: double-blind, I’d be given either horse serum or sheep serum, and by taking part the serum would be free (it’s normally about $50,000) — I went with it.

    I’m lucky, I came away with very few after effects – especially surprising since it was a young snake and they don’t know how to control their venom. But after reading this I did some more research, since it said rattlesnakes were hemotoxin (not neurotoxin as I was told in the hospital). Now I had come across a fellow who told me there was one kind of rattlesnake out in the desert that was both hemo and neurotoxin, so that I was aware of.

    So I found an article saying that more and more often when people get bit by rattlesnakes they are showing signs of neurotoxin venom. Scientists are not sure why, perhaps they are interbreeding, or they are evolving into a more perilous bite.

    But hospitals want to be darned sure you know what type of snake bit you before administering any kind of anti-venom. And about the snake? Don’t work up yourself and get your heart pumping to kill it, but if you can stomp the heck out of it with something and spare another person (or an animal) from spending at the very least two nights in a hospital and lots of money. You don’t have to answer to any kind of wildlife law enforcement if they come into your room and ask what happened to the snake — just say “I just don’t know.”

    I was pulling weeds in my garden on April 1 (yes, April Fool’s Day) when it got me. I’m just now beginning to enjoy and not feel anxious when I garden now — although I wear knee-high rubber boots, always have my four foot walking stick, a shovel and a rake (I rake all areas before I pull weeds and look for snakes now). Getting bit by a poisonous snake is life altering. The least one can do for oneself is kill that doggone snake.

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Survival Saturday Infographic: How to survive a snakebite

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