Going out to photograph Arizona’s spectacular wildflower display is irresistable! The entire desert is beginning to bloom. As more people travel into the desert to see flowers, more people will have rattlesnake encounters.
The weather is perfect for hiking. It’s also perfect for snakes to move. Wildflower photographers may cross paths with rattlesnakes that are trying to complete their springtime tasks. Is this something to worry about? Not really.
More People + Same Number of Snakes = More Snake Encounters
If you’re seeing an increase in snake photographs on Facebook and Instagram, it doesn’t mean that there are more snakes than usual. It just means that there are more people outside. Snakes don’t want to see people, but they need to use this valuable time before temperatures rise. Rattlesnakes will seem more active because more people are accidentally encountering them during the snakes’ normal springtime behavior.
Rattlesnakes don’t have a passion for photographing flowers, but they do love springtime. It’s the time of the year when they begin taking short trips away from their dens to hunt, mate, thermoregulate, and more. Basically, the more Instagram-addicted people are out there taking yoga pose pics with the flowers, the more snake encounters there will be, even if the number of snakes is exactly the same.
Hikers and photographers may interrupt rattlesnakes travelling across trails. In these situations, the snake might choose to freeze and blend into their surroundings. Snakes don’t realize that their camouflage doesn’t work on open paths.
Snakes see people as predators and don’t want to be eaten, so they might coil or “stand up” in a defensive pose. Rattlesnakes (and several species of nonvenomous snakes) may rattle their tail to scare you away. In most cases, the rattlesnake will retreat when it feels safe enough to do so.
Rattlesnakes may also be encountered while they’re basking. They can use vegetation as partial cover. The combination of shade and sunlight helps them achieve the perfect temperature. They generally bask at the edge of rocks, bushes, dried brush and other plants.
They may be hunting in those areas as well. An increase in flowers can encourage rodents to run around gathering food. Rattlesnakes are hungry after winter brumation and would love a tasty rodent snack.
Does this mean that you should stay inside? Not at all. Go out and enjoy the flowers!
How to stay rattlesnake safe during the flower bloom:
Rattlesnakes do not want to encounter people. We look like giant predators to them. This is why they act defensively towards us. They will not chase you and they cannot jump.
Here are several rattlesnake safety tips for wildflower photographers:
Stay on the trails.
Don’t put your feet anywhere that you can’t clearly see.
Don’t reach where you can’t see.
Wear real shoes, not flip flops.
Don’t let small children run ahead where you can’t see the trail.
Keep your dogs on a leash so you can control them if a rattlesnake is seen.
Look ahead of you when walking.
Do not wear headphones or listen to loud music.
If you encounter a rattlesnake during your adventures:
Move quickly away from the snake. You do not need to move slowly.
Do not attempt to hold, touch or harm the snake.
Let people around you know that the snake is on the trail. As soon as the snake feels safe (usually when there aren’t people in sight), it will generally run away.
That’s it! Keep the same rattlesnake safety habits you would any time of year, and remember to take all those stories and photos of rattlesnakes you’re sure to see with a grain of salt. If you are in one of the Phoenix Mountain Parks, please report your rattlesnake sighting to Rattlesnake Solutions. Your sightings are very important part of our study of rattlesnakes living in urban areas.
Throughout most of the desert areas of Arizona, rattlesnakes are quite busy in late October. They’re finishing up activity for the year–getting a last meal, some are mating, and all of them are on the move to wherever it is they are looking to spend the winter. They tend to move right at dark and just after, and are “camping” in spots that aren’t necessarily long-term or ideal for rattlesnakes. Contrary to popular belief, in Arizona, rattlesnakes are still quite active well into November. Halloween is no exception.
Here’s a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake found hiding in decorations.
This just happens to coincide with an evening when every child in the country is also walking around in the dark, often without full visibility. That means that there is some potential for encounters with rattlesnakes. That doesn’t mean trick-or-treaters should stay home or be overly concerned, of course, just take some precautions and stay aware, just like anything else you do in our urban rattlesnake habitat. That goes not only for the kids, but homeowners who have decorations set up.
Trick-or-treater rattlesnake safety tips:
Everyone have a flashlight! Rattlesnakes are not aggressive, but may defend themselves if stepped on.
Don’t cut through yards, use the path to the front door.
Make sure you can see the ground clearly through any mask that may be worn.
Don’t pick up or play with toys or Halloween decorations that resemble snakes!
Stay on sidewalks and avoid brushy or debris-filled areas.
Be especially cautious in areas within 1/4 mile of new development.
Halloween rattlesnake safety tips for home-owners:
When cleaning up decorations, be aware that rattlesnakes could be using them for cover. Look before you reach.
If you have pumpkins out, place them outside of the entryway overhang, and avoid creating a protected space in corners.
Clean up pumpkin remnants immediately, the next morning, to avoid attracting rodents.
Make sure any debris is cleaned up and landscaping is taken care of several days before Halloween.
Store Halloween decorations in a plastic box or other container, rather than cardboard or in the garage corner.
Rattlesnake Solutions is offering FREE rattlesnake removal in the Phoenix-Metro area on Halloween night for any snake in a public area.
If you see a rattlesnake on Halloween night:
Keep an eye on the snake from a safe distance.
Prevent anyone from going near it, attempting to capture, or kill it.
It’s October, and rattlesnakes are as active as ever. They’re moving around a lot right now, getting in some last meals, mating, and general rattlesnake “housekeeping” as they get ready for cooler months. This is also the time of year they begin to move back towards where they will spend the winter. Unfortunately for many homeowners in Arizona, that means your house or property. Rattlesnakes can and do overwinter in and around buildings, so how can you prevent your property from being a rattlesnake den?
Before going into the details, I should specify that this information may really only be completely relevant in the Sonoran Desert portions of Arizona, particularly Phoenix and Tucson. It’s also a lot of good general advice, but be aware that the further you are from saguaros, the less accurate it may be for your situation. The rattlesnake species that most-often comes into conflict with people is the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. They’re generalists that make good use of the desert landscaping found at most homes on the outskirts of Phoenix and Tucson, and the species that I’ll be referring to in this article as “rattlesnake”, despite the several other species that also occur in these areas.
How rattlesnakes den for the winter in the Sonoran Desert is a bit different than in other parts of the country, or even other parts of their range within Arizona. In the lower, hot desert, it just doesn’t get cold enough in the winter to create a need for a lot of fuss over finding a perfect den. You may be familiar with photographs online of dozens or hundreds of rattlesnakes pouring out of a hole in the ground, usually with some silly comments. These are actual and accurate photographs, but from cooler climates where rattlesnakes may have fewer preferable areas to select from, during the longer and colder winter.
Here, where we may only get a handful of nights each year with sub-freezing temperatures, sun exposure everywhere, and countless rock piles and tunnels to choose from, snakes have it easy. This means that they tend to den in smaller groups, perhaps only a few individuals, or even alone. While some larger dens do certainly exist in some places, with 20 or more individuals, this is not as common as the smaller sites. Other species, like Speckled Rattlesnakes and Tiger Rattlesnakes, tend to den in a general area rather than a particular crack year-after-year, so avoiding the creation of an accidental den can be challenging. A primary driving force for choosing a den site appears to be the preservation of moisture, rather than sun exposure and access to heat [Hamilton, Nowak, Western North American Naturalist 69(3):319-328. 2009 ]. That means that a rattlesnake den in much of Arizona isn’t just some high rocky hilltop, but can be really anywhere at all. They may use different dens in different years, and are generally less predictable than in cooler climates.
Do rattlesnakes den at homes?
The Rattlesnake Solutions relocation hotline largely stops ringing in mid-November, after the snakes have completed ingress (moving into the den area they’ve selected). After that, we still get calls, but they are of a different nature – they are denning rattlesnakes. The places where we have found them over the past decade and the conditions they appear to be drawn to are consistent enough that we have a good idea of which features at a home are likely to become a rattlesnake den without some consideration.
These are the most common places where we see rattlesnake dens in the winter, and how to keep it from happening to you:
1. Rattlesnake Den in the Garage
To a rattlesnake a garage is just an insulated cave with some golf bags and fishing gear. By far, the most common rattlesnake den situation we find at homes in Arizona are storage areas in the garage. Typically, they are discovered in the early Springtime once the snakes tend to move towards the front of the garage, and are found coiled in the corner near the door. Upon inspection, these are almost always snakes that have apparently spent the entire winter in the garage (the homeowners usually don’t like this news).
They tend to use areas where boxes or other storage comes in close contact with the wall. This description probably fits most garages (including mine), but long-term storage with poorly-sealed boxes seems to be the most common and useful situation for rattlesnakes. Cardboard boxes that contain holiday decorations seem to be commonly used as a dens, as they provide some cover and additional insulation.
What can you do to keep your garage from becoming a rattlesnake den?
Make sure the garage door is in good shape and tightly sealed, especially at the edges and corners.
Fix any cracks in concrete and vents that lead to outside areas.
Keep the garage door closed as much as possible, even during the day, especially during the ingress period of October-November.
Keep the garage clean and move long-term storage to other areas.
Close access to any built-in closets, water heater areas, equipment rooms, etc.
Watch for signs of rodents (droppings, nesting material) and get rid of them if rodents are found.
2. Rattlesnake Den in the Pool Pump Area
A swimming pool is an extremely common feature at most homes in the Phoenix area, and it’s no surprise that rattlesnakes will make use of the often-overlooked pool pump and equipment area. These pump and filter areas are usually closed off and alongside the home, or otherwise separated from the rest of the yard. They’re also less often-visited than other areas of the property, so can get a “pass” on rodent activity and are generally less tidy than other parts of an even manicured yard.
In the winter, a common place for rattlesnakes to den is under the concrete base of the filter unit or other pump equipment. Rodents and erosion, along with the generally-higher humidity near the pump equipment and vibration, create caves and spaces that rattlesnakes apparently love. Each year, we receive numerous calls to relocate multiple rattlesnakes from situation.
What can you do to keep your pool pump and filter area from becoming a rattlesnake den?
Control the rodent population and make sure that any tunnels or digging is addressed immediately.
Keep the area clean and do not store anything there that isn’t necessary. Any clutter, buckets, bricks, and other things that tend to be stored in these areas can increase your chances of seeing a rattlesnake here.
Fix any cracks in the concrete pad and eliminate any spaces possible in the surrounding walls.
3. Rattlesnake den in decorative rocks
The third most common situation where we find rattlesnakes denning are rock piles and rip rap placed as decoration on the property. In many of these situations, the rock piles are placed in areas where they also come into contact with the surrounding landscaping. If this is done in a particular way, it can create a perfect situation for rattlesnakes looking to hide for the winter. More specifically, rosemary bushes or other large, low cover that tends to create deep leaf-litter that is allowed to grow over the top of rock piles, where the rocks are the size of a cantaloupe or larger, and are piled to a depth of more than 20″. If there is water nearby (drip system, pool, etc), this is even better for the snakes. If this all exists on a slope or at the edge of a wash, you should be surprised if rattlesnakes are not using it already. Each year we capture rattlesnakes in these situations, and more often than not, there is evidence to show that the snakes have been using these areas for a long time.
What can you do to keep your landscaping and decorative frock from becoming a rattlesnake den?
Keep plants and bushes trimmed back from the edge of the rock, and never let it grow over the top of or through the rock pile itself.
Make sure that decorative rock piles do not have deep spaces and are as shallow as possible.
Watch larger boulders for rodent activity and tunnels that may create spaces under them. If tunnels are found, use a garden hose to flood them and destroy them from the inside-out.
Seal spaces and crevices between larger rocks with concrete (or similar) so that access to the interior, protected area is eliminated.
Consider removing any plants or rocks in the property that you do not feel adds to the appeal to the property, or that you’re “on the fence” about keeping. Generally and unfortunately, a boring yard is a safe yard. Be sure not to add superfluous features.
4. Rattlesnake den under the home
The fourth, and most common in many areas, place where rattlesnake dens are frequently found are underneath homes themselves. This is typically most common in areas where manufactured homes are numerous, where the aluminum or wood skirting that lines the space under the home is easily breached by rodents and general wear and tear. In larger homes with a solid foundation, the situation can be even more difficult to solve, since the crawl spaces leading to where the snakes den can be difficult for a tall snake relocator (ahem) to fit into. We are often alerted to these dens by Air Conditioning repair technicians, who see a shed skin and refuse to crawl any further until it gets checked out. Fortunately, even though this can be relatively common and difficult to handle, it is relatively easy to prevent.
How can I keep my house from becoming a rattlesnake den?
Seal all cracks in the foundation, no matter how small or minor they appear to be. Even cracks that are too small for a rattlesnake to fit through may widen over time, and it is best to fix them as they are found.
Watch for any signs of erosion or digging by rodents at the edge of the home. If these holes go under the foundation, you’ve created an insulated and safe cave for rattlesnakes to use. Have a zero tolerance policy for any rodent activity at the base of the foundation.
Be aware of spaces in the flashing or spaces at the corners, pillars, and other joints where the stucco frame meets the foundation. Modern home construction seems to be less-than-concerned that the house is sealed properly. We commonly see gaps in corners, even completely open overhangs that can lead up and over the foundation itself or into the walls of the home. Do whatever needs to be done to fix this.
5. Rattlesnake den under the shed
A place where we regularly find rattlesnakes denning on a property is under a backyard shed. These structures are almost always less-maintained than the home itself, and have a variety of foundation types, even just plopped onto the dirt on a few cinderblocks. Unfortunately for us, these are perfect conditions for rodents, and the predators that eat them. Rattlesnakes can move into the spaces under the shed and be relatively undisturbed. Of all of the den conditions described here, backyard sheds seem to offer the most long-term refuge from winter cold, according to the number of shed skins and even dead snakes that we find there. Sometimes rodents even dig up into the shed itself and find additional cover opportunity in the stuff stored in there, which usually gets even less attention than boxes stored in the garage.
How do I keep rattlesnake from making a den under my shed?
Watch for any rodent activity and do what you can to eliminate it.
Put the shed on a foundation or support structure of some sort that does not allow gaps and easy access.
Use heavy materials and avoid things like particle-board, cheap plywood, and things that a rodent can easily get through.
Schedule a yearly cleanout of the shed itself to keep things clean and review items to possibly cut down on the amount of clutter stored inside.
Keep anything that can be eaten out of there – birdseed, dogfood, grass seed, and other edibles are often kept in these sheds, and can attract rodents (and rattlesnakes as a result).
If the shed is build near a wall, make sure to clean out the space between the wall and prevent landscaping debris from piling up there.
6. Rattlesnake den in the grill island
This will be the last potential rattlesnake den situation that is covered here. It’s a little bit less common than the others, but its nature and tendency to put sandal-wearing or bare feet in close proximity to rattlesnake fangs makes it worth noting. At many homes in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas, a stand-alone grill island is a standard feature. The trouble is, all those burger drippings and hot dogs that slip through the cracks can attract rodents, and once again, rattlesnakes who are looking for them. These islands usually have an access door on one side, and at least one vent on the rear side. Some also have inlets for propane stored elsewhere, or even extend into other features like a bench. The construction of these islands is usually flimpsy and tends to fall apart at the corners relatively quickly, leaving easy access for hungry rodents and one-stop-shopping for rattlesnakes in search of a place to hide away for the winter.
How do I keep a rattlesnake den from forming under my grill?
Keep the access door closed at all times and make sure that it latches tightly.
Cover vents with 1/4″ steel hardware cloth mesh.
Completely seal all cracks that may appear in the stucco, and make sure that any interior openings for access to propane and other pipes is sealed entirely.
Keep it clean! If you see any rodent droppings under there (like a squishy brown tictac), you have rodents running around the area where you make your hamburgers. That’s not only gross, but a potential attractant for rattlesnakes.
Have your entire yard sealed properly by having rattlesnake fence professionally installed.
Don’t let your guard down just because it’s cold outside. Rattlesnakes in Arizona are active all year.
A term that people throw around and the local news loves is rattlesnake “season”. This implies that rattlesnakes show up at some point, stay awhile, and disappear – and nobody has to worry about it until rattlesnake “season” starts up again! This may be true in some places where ice-scrapers are sold, but here in Arizona, rattlesnakes are active to some degree every month of the year. They may not be traveling or hunting, but if they definitely will come out on a sunny day or after a rain even on cool winter days. No matter if you have one of the above feature or not, the greatest rattlesnake den advice I have to give is to continue to follow the rattlesnake safety rules as you normally would. Don’t reach where you can’t see, clean up messes as you make them, get rid of rodents and clutter, and so on. Just because it’s cold out doesn’t mean you can’t meet a rattlesnake, and if you’re sharing a garage with one, that could be any time at all.
If you have any rattlesnake den stories or have found one at your home, or you have questions about any of these features and want more information about what you can do to help keep a rattlesnake den from showing up at your place, contact us.
Every monsoon season, a handful of big storms that sweep through the valley and rearrange our yards and shingles. The next day, an chainsaws and leafblowers join the sound of cicadas as the aftermath is handled.
Along with the downed trees and trash-scattered streets are rattlesnakes that have been displaced by the water and wind. After a massive storm, places where rattlesnakes may have been hiding from the heat can be flooded or destroyed. That means that these snakes have just a few hours to find new places to hide before the daytime heat kills them. That often puts them into conflict with people.
One of the places where rattlesnakes frequently live during the hottest times of year are in small caves along the edges of normally-dry washes. When these washes fill with water, rattlesnakes need to move. For home owners at the edges of these washes, that means that the rattlesnakes could be moving to the nearest dry area – your patio. Covered patios and entryways make up the majority of rattlesnake relocation situations after rainouts. They’ll also be hiding in the debris caused by the wind and flooding. Fallen trees and collections of yard debris are going to provide cool cover for these displaced snakes, and should be treated with caution when they are cleaned up.
The extra humidity also causes rattlesnakes to be more active, so they are already more likely to be hiding in temporary hiding spots, and may be more easily displaced by the big rain. Rattlesnakes are shedding their skin and heading out to hunt and drink after a long period of inactivity during the hottest and driest time of year, and that makes post-storm movement even more of a factor for home owners bordering desert areas.
What should you do to keep safe from displaced rattlesnakes?
Be alert around covered entryways and patios, especially in the corners. Rattlesnakes often use these covered areas to hide after extra-wet weather forces them to leave more preferable areas. If you have any decorations in the corners, like pots or plants, it may be good to move them out or at least create extra space between the corner and these features. Especially in the early morning, be mindful of the spots right around the front door.
If you have downed trees or yard debris that has collected after the heavy wind and rain, give it a day before cleaning it up. Be mindful while you do so of the potential for rattlesnakes to be using it as temporary shelter. Rattlesnakes may be “stuck” in situations where they need to quickly choose places to hide from the daytime heat that are not preferable, and may end up hiding in piles of branches and fallen leaves. By waiting 24 hours, you give the snakes a chance to leave if they are there during the next suitable time to do so (at night).
If you live near a wash or drainage, be especially cautious. Rattlesnakes are very common in drainages and the rain can force them to move erratically, often taking cover at the nearest available shade – your house.
Accompany dogs outside during their bathroom breaks and give the yard a quick check before allowing children to play in unprotected yards. If possible to let them out earlier in the day while it’s still hot, that may further decrease the chance of an unwanted rattlesnake encounter.
More than the monsoon – rattlesnakes may be surface active in any temperatures, any time of year.
Something that surprises many home owners each year are sightings of rattlesnakes after Winter rainfall. While it is true that rattlesnakes are largely inactive during the cooler months of the year (roughly November through February in the Phoenix area), some conditions will make them show up at any time. Heavy rain can cause similar displacement issues for rattlesnakes if it gets into places they’ve selected to spend the winter … especially if these are temporary, artificial, or new sites.
Other than displacement, rattlesnakes still need to drink in the winter time. Even in relative low temperatures for rattlesnake activity, they may come to the surface to collect rain in their coils or drink it directly from the rocks.
Here’s a video I took years ago at a small Timber Rattlesnake den, showing one of the several present rattlesnakes coming out to drink from the rocks.
If you have a rattlesnake denning on your property, you have a decent chance of seeing it sitting on the surface as the rain starts, or just after if the storm breaks to sun. What most people don’t like to learn about these situations is that the rattlesnake has almost certainly been in the area since about October, just hidden until having a reason to come out.
All in all, rain is just one of the many factors that make rattlesnakes move and be visible to people.
Rattlesnake peak-activity is just around the corner, and we’re all about to see a lot of reports of snake sightings on Arizona trails. Almost as common are declarations like “that’s it for hiking for me this year!”. That’s unfortunate, since seeing rattlesnakes in Arizona’s natural areas is one of the most amazing things about this state. I can imagine that not everyone feels this way, but not to worry … even for people who are deathly afraid of snakes, there’s really not much to worry about. Having had about every type of rattlesnake encounter a person can over years of working professionally with rattlesnakes in wild settings, here’s what you need to know to stay safe, fang-free, and enjoy Arizona’s amazing trails. Stay safe and keep hiking!
If I miss anything or you have a specific question that should be answered, post it in comments and I’ll edit/answer in the blog.
1. Understand what “aggressive” means.
This is a perspective shift that can help hikers stay safe by just having reasonable expectations about what actually happens when you run into a rattlesnake out there. A common question we are asked is “which rattlesnake is most aggressive?”, and the answer, is no rattlesnake is aggressive!When they’re threatened, however, they can quickly become defensive. That might sound like word games, but they mean completely different things when describing how a snake behaves. An aggressive animal is the instigator, it attacks without provocation and seeks interaction. A defensive animal avoids confrontation, but will defend itself and try its best to prevent its early demise.
The latter more accurately describes rattlesnakes, and how they respond to hikers. When a hiker sees a rattlesnake on a trail (or hears it!) buzzing away and standing tall, this is not a sign that it’s about to attack. A rattle is not a battle cry! It’s just a warning, saying “hey, just letting you know I’m here, so let’s not meet!” It’s actually quite considerate if you think about it.
Rattlesnakes can’t eat us, have no reason to attack us, and really, they have no idea what we are. If rattlesnakes were actually aggressive, not one of us would survive a hike in any natural area in Arizona, and I’d certainly be dead several times over. Fortunately, they’re not, and you can breathe a sigh of relief that personal stories about rattlesnakes attacking unprovoked are very overblown.
Here’s a video I took in early 2018 at a rattlesnake den in Cave Creek, Arizona, that shows their behavior when they’re being scared. Even though I was pretty close to them, I was never in any danger. This is the side of rattlesnakes most people never hear about, and doesn’t make for dramatic stories at the watercooler.
How does this keep a hiker safe from rattlesnakes? This is the perspective that makes all other steps for rattlesnake safety possible. Having reasonable, realistic context for what is actually happening when you see a rattlesnake can completely change how you perceive and remember it. It will also help you make decisions based on logic, rather than fear, and the adrenaline that may be blasting through you veins.
And … I know what you may be thinking. You may have had an experience with a rattlesnake that seemed aggressive. A strike out of nowhere, no rattling, or even a memory of one coming after you. This is a complicated topic, but to make it as short as possible: our brains do strange things, especially when confronted with something we fear. I’ll address some aspects of this in other parts of this article … but this is another topic altogether.
2. Get to know the snakes in your area.
This could be a painful truth for the most snake-phobic of us, but learning and exposure can help ease even the greatest fears. As stated in the previous item, the context that exists in our minds can greatly influence how we handle a situation, and how we remember it. If you just roll with the cultural bias and loads of misinformation out there about rattlesnakes, you may have a much worse mental perspective and lesser ability to do the right thing when a snake appears.
This doesn’t mean you have to become a snake handler to conquer your fear. Rather, a bit of online exposure can do wonders. From our experience working with many thousands of people who really would rather not have met a snake in their garage, knowing the difference between a Gophersnake and a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is what makes the difference between getting any sleep that night. There are many online resources for identification and some basic learning. This list of commonly seen snakes in Arizona covers most of the ones people run into. There are also area-specific resources, like this website we put together that shows which snakes can be found in Cave Creek, Arizona, and information about them. Don’t forget, too, that you can always send us a photograph of any snake and we’ll identify it and answer any questions you have (this doesn’t cost anything of course).
Another thing you can do is to visit your local County park or zoo and see a rattlesnake in person. Of course this feels different when it’s behind glass, but getting an up-close look can really change how your brain handles these situations. Better yet, attend a rattlesnake safety or rattlesnake education class near you.
3. Keep your hands and feet where you can see them.
This one can be a little bit tough, depending on where you are hiking. Rattlesnakes spend a lot of their time hiding, and most of the other time they have is spent sitting in ambush, waiting for a rodent, lizard, or bird to come along. That means that you can avoid many of the situations where rattlesnakes could come into contact with your feet and hands by simply making sure that you see where you are putting them. A rattlesnake sleeping away the day behind a log has no idea what a trail is, and when your foot and full weight come crashing down suddenly, what’s a snake to do but defend itself?
When setting up camp, or even grabbing your pack after a break in the shade, be sure to look where you put your hands. I’ve had a rattlesnake crawl onto my camera bag while it was on the ground (while I was photographing another rattlesnake a short distance away), and may have been bitten if I hadn’t had it so built-in at this point to look where I put my hands.
On most trails, this is pretty easy. But what about scrambling up flatiron, or wading through grass and rock around Paria canyon? That can be more difficult, but in general, do what you can to avoid these situations. There are trails for a reason, which leads to our next section:
4. Stay on designated trails
There are many reasons why you should stay on the trail. Aside from the more often-discussed reasoning of keeping the area pristine and avoiding degradation of the natural habitat we’re out there to enjoy, staying on-trail is the easiest and surest way to avoid rattlesnakes.
Just like most of us, rattlesnakes avoid stressful situations. In places where there is heavy human activity, they’ll modify their behavior to stay hidden and avoid potentially dangerous situations. From what many of us who have been watching rattlesnakes hunt right alongside trails for years know very well, they’re pretty good at it. While there are some often great hunting opportunities near trails, sitting right in the middle of a trail that has feet, bikes, and dogs on it every day isn’t a great success strategy, so they don’t do it. When a rattlesnake is seen on a trail, it’s most often just crawling across it, or just off-trail buzzing away because it’s scared of the sudden appearance of a backpack-wearing primate. Rattlesnake bites to the legs of people who are hiking on trails are very rare.
This brings up another common question: what do you do if you see a rattlesnake on a trail and it won’t leave? This one is easier than you’d think … you go around it. There really are very few situations where a person can’t just go around a rattlesnake on a trail. Yes, this seems to contradict what I’d just said by asking you to perhaps go a few feet off-trail for a very short distance, but it’s not a big deal and very different than the over-land trail blazing that produces rattlesnake encounters.
If you can’t go around, then back off and get out of sight for a few minutes. When a rattlesnake is standing up in a defensive posture, it’s doing it because it is scared of you and does not want to give up a defensive position that seems to be working. When the “predator” (aka: YOU) gets out of sight, the snake will quickly take the opportunity to get out of there! In fact, a lot of the snakes that I see pictures of that are “sunning” on a trail actually look to be snakes that were just crawling across the trail, and stop when they see you coming, hoping their camouflage will do the trick. Drop out of view for a little bit and it will continue on its way … or just walk around the thing and continue on. If it’s really in a place that you can’t get around and it just won’t go away … maybe it’s time to try another trail.
Here’s a video of a rattlesnake we saw eating what it thought was a bird right alongside a trail in a popular hiking area.
5. Don’t wear headphones when you hike.
Rattlesnakes have a really great feature that does a great job keeping us from stepping on them – the rattle. When you get too close to a wary rattlesnake, it sounds off to let you know that you’re getting too close. As scary as it might seem when this happens, the result of you going one way and the snake going the other is how that’s supposed to work; that’s the system working.
How do you ruin a good thing? Replace the sounds of birds and wind winding through desert canyons with the same sounds you listen to while stuck in traffic. When you have headphones on, you’re opting out of the built-in safety features generously maintained by rattlesnakes. Even worse, if you’re blasting music for all to hear, you’re not only facing the danger of “silent” rattlesnakes, but from me throwing rocks at you.
6. Don’t touch, catch, pick up, or kill rattlesnakes.
You’d think this is an easy one, but hundreds of men each year must have skipped that day of Obvious 101. Though it is not correct to say that most bites happen because of intentional interaction, these actions are the single greatest cause of rattlesnake bites. There is no better way to be bitten by a rattlesnake than to purposefully touch the thing, so don’t do it.
There’s something about rattlesnakes that makes men want to pick them up. That might mean behind the head like they saw someone do on TV, or by the tail, or after they’ve crushed it with a rock. There is absolutely no reason to do this, and trust me, your Instagram post isn’t worth a potential multi-hundred thousand dollar helicopter ride to the hospital. While you might be confirming to your circle of friends that you’re the dumb one of the group, there are probably better ways to do it. Parkour? Cinnamon challenge? Paperclip eating contest? Who knows, but picking up rattlesnakes isn’t bright.
This can be extended to throwing pebbles, poking with sticks, and any of the actions that are seemingly irresistible to certain personalities. Really, take a breath, take a photograph, and keep hiking.
7. Killing a rattlesnake isn’t helping anyone. Don’t do it.
While we certainly don’t agree with people killing snakes found at home, due to the many alternatives and general ineffectiveness of it all, this is not that situation. There is absolutely no reason to kill a wild animal while out in a natural setting. You are not saving the life of the next hiker on the trail. You are not eliminating a threat and saving the day. If you can’t be outside without taking your rightful place as a respectful visitor, it’s probably time to hike somewhere more your style, like a treadmill.
In many places, it’s also illegal or against park rules. In many of the popular areas like city and county parks around Phoenix and Tucson, visitors are not allowed to destroy native wildlife and natural resources. Killing wildlife in these areas is right up there on the d-bag-o-meter with spray painting rocks and chiseling your name into petroglyph sites.
8. Keep your dog on a leash.
Based on a survey we’ve been sending to veterinarians and sharing with dog-owners to discover why and where dogs are bitten by rattlesnakes, we’ve learned that off-leash dogs are often bitten by rattlesnakes. In fact, an off-leash dog is the second most common way for dogs to be bitten (first is while going out to use the bathroom). We’ve always suspected this, but we were surprised to learn that dogs that are kept on-leash, as the law requires anyway, are almost never bitten by rattlesnakes! How can this be?
Most bites to dogs happen on the nose. That means that the dog didn’t just step on or surprise the snake, but is itself the aggressor. Dog’s don’t know what rattlesnakes are, and rattlesnakes certainly don’t know what a labradoodle is, so when a snake starts its warning buzz, dogs go to investigate. If your dog is on a leash, this isn’t a problem at all, because you have control of the situation. Off-leash dogs, on the other hand, walk up and are bitten right in front of their helpless owners. Yes, your dog may be very obedient and the best boy in the world, but don’t gamble his life to avoid a simple leash.
While on the subject of dogs:
9. Pick up your dog poop.
If you’re reading this while eating a sandwich, it might be good to put it down for a minute while we have real-talk about your dog’s poop.
On trails where dogs allowed (and common) how to maintain their poops is surprisingly controversial. The best and most simple answer is to just pick it up as you go. There are many products available to quickly pick up their little treasures and take them with you. Easy!
You’d think so, but that’s a lot of work for some of us. Some people just leave it where it falls. Others go as far as to put it in one of those little blue poop baggies, then leave it there to pick up on the way back. Aside from being illegal and inconsiderate to other hikes, what could go wrong? A lot. These bags often don’t actually make their way out off the trail. They are picked up by coyotes and other animals, blow off trails, are forgotten or left, or whatever other reason would cause someone to leave a plastic bag of dog crap in alongside a trail.
One group of animals that loves these little wrapped up treats are rodents. Rodents get into these bags like its the morning after halloween and munch away. Woodrats carry them off and stick the bags in their middens, and even rabbits will graze on trail tootsies when they find them.
What does this have to do with rattlesnakes? Simple: your dogs poop is attracting rattlesnakes to the edges of trails. Though rattlesnakes near trails aren’t really a threat to people (as you’ve been reading so far), it’s not necessarily a great thing to encourage them to set up ambush right along the path. Anything that attracts rodents will attract snakes, too. This goes for apple cores and orange peels, too. Just pick it up.
10. Have a plan.
Despite all of this, accidental rattlesnake bites do happen in Arizona. On trails and while hiking, it’s not something that happens often enough to say things like “done hiking for the year!” at the first snake sighting, but it’s something to be aware of. The best thing you can do is just make sure that you have a plan.
While it doesn’t really sit well with most of us, there isn’t much that you can do first-aid-wise if you are bitten by a rattlesnake. As is posted by now on countless hiking safety blog posts, here are the basic do’s and don’ts:
DO call 911 immediately and do what they say.
DO remain calm, remember that you’ll survive, and try and rest until help arrives.
DO remove any jewelry, tight clothing, or anything that could be a problem with swelling.
Don’t kill or capture the snake – it’s irrelevant.
Don’t use a suction device, snake bite kit, or whatever grandma potion you think works.
Don’t drive yourself to the hospital. Call 911. Seriously.
Don’t wait around to see if it’s a dry bite. Treat all rattlesnake bites as an emergency until a doctor tells you otherwise.
I’m often asked about what to do if you’re bitten by a rattlesnake when you’re really far off trail, out of cell range for days, and nobody knows where you are or when to expect you. The answer is to plan ahead! In that situation, if you’ve really put yourself in a place where you have no chance of emergency assistance if something goes wrong, then a rattlesnake bite isn’t any more deadly to you than a broken leg. If you do this sort of hiking, get a satellite phone and think it through.
If you have one of those useless snake bite kit in your backpack, here’s a short instructional video I made about its proper use:
The short version:
How do you stay safe from rattlesnakes while hiking?
Understand that they are defensive, not aggressive.
Know what you’re looking at: educate yourself.
Keep your hands and feet where you can see them.
Stay on designated trails at all times
Don’t wear headphones. The warning doesn’t work if you can’t hear it.
Don’t touch them, pick them up, kill them, etc.
Killing a rattlesnake on a trail isn’t helping anyone, and may be illegal.
Immediately after a heavy rain, like the one that swept through the valley last night, we often receive an increased number of snake removal calls.
Rattlesnakes often use holes in dry washes and drainage systems to hide from the intense, dry heat of the early Summer. When the rain suddenly appears, those that have not yet left their hiding spots are sometimes caught in the rising waters and end up in odd places. Sometimes, the rain is just enough to make their chosen hiding spot undesirable, and they’re forced to move on. That means they sometimes head for the nearest available cover as the day heats up: alongside homes and buildings with suitable overhangs to protect from the sun.
Be extra aware if you live next to a wash, drainage area, or other places that are dramatically affected by the rain. If you live on the edge of the desert and have sections of your property that have flooded, especially areas with full cover like sheds and decorative rock features, you should also be cautious.
This is all normal, and temporary, and just one more thing to keep in mind as we all go out to pick up fallen palm fronds and survey any damage to our homes from the storm.
Does the rain mean that there are more rattlesnakes than normal?
Nope. Rattlesnakes don’t spontaneously appear from the dirt when touched by rain. While higher average rainfall can, over a period of years, lead to a higher survival rate of young rattlesnakes, and help keep the adults already here well-fed and alive, more rain doesn’t mean more snakes. It may bring cooler temperatures and more suitable conditions for snake activity … and human activity, so there may be an increase of encounters. The idea that a season of heavy rain means more large rattlesnakes will be out there is false.
Each year, when temperatures are highest and humidity is lowest, rattlesnakes mysteriously disappear from hiking trails. Our snake removal hotline is quiet, and people are more worried about keeping the air conditioning running than rattlesnakes.
But rattlesnakes are cold blooded, don’t they like the heat? A comment I often see on Facebook threads is that snakes love heat, the hotter the better, and when temperatures soar over 100F is when they are happiest. Really, this is completely wrong, and reptiles have just as much trouble in this excessive heat as other animals. It’s even deadly in many cases, and so they do what you’re probably doing right now while reading this: hiding someplace cool and waiting for it to end.
Estivation … kind of like the Arizona version of hibernation
If a rattlesnake doesn’t have a good place to hide when it is this hot, it’s in big trouble. A rattlesnake will die when its body temperature gets too far above 110F (Klauber, pg 418-420). If you try and get the mail barefoot at 9am, you know how tough it is for them. This also means that at temperatures reaching 119F like it did yesterday, just being outside in the shade is lethal to most snakes.
They have no choice but to find deep cover and wait it out. This is a method of estivation; reptiles hide in cool, safe places until conditions are more favorable. You’re probably familiar with hibernation, where animals hide from extreme cold until Spring … this is similar in concept, but in this case, an escape from hot, dry conditions. While it’s this hot, rattlesnakes hide and wait for the rain to come cool things down.
Where do rattlesnakes hide when it’s hot?
Rattlesnakes choose anywhere that offers stable, cooler temperatures as estivation sites. This could be underground in rodent burrows, natural caves in drainages and mountains, or riparian areas with higher humidity than surrounding areas.
They can also choose man-made spots to hide, like under homes or in abandoned buildings. A common place that we find them this time of year is in the garage, which is nothing but a cave if left open at night or not properly sealed. They may also use cool, wet areas in the backyard to beat the heat, like shaded pool filter areas and decorative landscaping. Generally, however, this time of year is low-activity for rattlesnakes, and you’re not as likely to see them out and about.
Some rattlesnakes do make an appearance at night outside of their chosen estivation sites, hoping for the one source of water that may be available to them: rodents. Some native rodents can actually produce water from seeds that they eat, meaning that to a rattlesnake, eating is the best way to get a drink. If you know where to look, these brutal conditions can have a restrictive effect that makes finding rattlesnakes incredibly predictable.
When do rattlesnakes go back to their normal activity?
When the monsoonal rain comes to the desert, the higher level of humidity brings stabilization to temperatures. That’s the signal to leave estivation sites and get out there. What happens next is the busiest rattlesnakes will be all year, from about mid-July until October, when they eat, give birth, and are generally quite active. Much of this activity is still at night when temperatures are more reasonable, but they are often seen in the early mornings on trails, and in the case of at least a few people each morning, on the front patio.
But for the next few weeks, rattlesnakes have much in common with the people of Arizona, and are indoors complaining about the heat and texting their friends in cooler climates with photos of their car thermometer freakout. Well, in spirit anyway.