Poisonous Rattlesnake
Poisonous Rattlesnake

Snakes are a fact of life for off-roaders. Here is a brief guide of the kinds of poisonous snakes you are likely to encounter and what to do when they cross your path.

In the United States there are over 100 species of snake with over 33 varieties in California alone. Of all those different species of slithery little fellows (well, some are not so little), only two general categories are poisonous--coral snake and pit viper.

Every species comes in numerous shapes, colors and sizes. Here is a brief breakdown of where they are found, what they look like and how dangerous they can be.

Any of these snakes may be found anywhere in the US. They may have been transported in wheel wells or with other cargo. Or they may have been pets that were released.

As a result, it’s possible to find any species unusual to that area wherever you go in the southern U.S.

Coral Snake family

This type of snake can be found almost everywhere in the south with varieties showing their beautiful alternating red, yellow and black bands. They are generally found along from the East Coast to a well as a large population in southern Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico.

California does not have a species of this genus. A variety of Coral Snake lives on the California coast but are rarely seen.

Coral snakes range in length from 12 to 20 inches, but don’t let its size fool you--the venom is a powerful neurotoxin that can shut down your nervous system and stop your heart.

Poisonous Coral Snake
Poisonous Coral Snake

Get immediate medical care if you get bitten by a coral snake.

Like most snakes, if you don’t disturb it, they are very shy and will never attack unless they feel threatened. They mostly hide under rocks and other shady places.

The Coral Snake looks a lot like the harmless King Snake but this snake has alternating bands of white, red and black, not yellow, red and black.

Here’s a simple way to remember the difference:

“Red touch yellow, kill a fellow” (Deadly Coral Snake)

“Red touch black, friend of jack.” (Harmless King snake)

Pit viper family including cottonmouths, copperheads and rattlesnakes

Cottonmouth snakes: Also called “water moccasins,”  they are found from Virginia to Florida to Texas and up to Missouri.

They are aggressive, fast and nasty with large venomous glands. They have thick, heavy, brown, olive or grayish black bodies that can grow to more than six feet.

When pressed, cottonmouth snakes stand their ground and expose their light “cotton” lining in the mouth. Their bite packs a lot of venom, so get medical attention immediately.

Copperhead snakes: They are widespread through most of America but live mostly along the East Coast from Massachusetts to Florida and through to parts of Texas. Most of Texas, not parts)

Considered the most venomous snake bites in the U.S., bites from copperhead snakes are painful yet rarely fatal.  

Their heads are copper and triangular like a rattlesnake. Body color can vary by region although they usually display tan to copper colors.  Look for They may have an hourglass design on their backs.

Rattlesnakes:  The only venomous snake indigenous to California.

There are six types you may encounter while enjoying your off-road adventure:

  • Sidewinder rattlesnakes deliver venom with moderate toxicity, but they are capable of administering a large amount of venom at one time. So you can receive a fatal dose with one bite. The motion of this species as, in their name appears sideways.
  • Speckled rattlesnakes display brown coloration with black speckles on its back. Its venom is extremely potent but usually does not deliver a lethal dosage to humans in a single bite.
  • Red diamond rattlesnakes may be identified by their reddish in color and speckled diamond shapes decorating its body. While the venom has low toxicity, this large snake has long fangs and can deliver a big dosage.
  • Southern pacific rattlesnake,also known as the western rattlesnake, looks brownish black with white dots forming diamond shapes on its back. It’s venom is hemorrhagic (affecting the blood stream) but some subspecies contain neurotoxic qualities. The venom is very toxic and can cause a breakdown of the circulatory system and some paralysis in as little as 18 minutes if it delivers a large enough dose. Death can occur in as little as 18 hours.
  • Western diamondback rattlesnake is considered the most deadly snake in the United States. It has brownish body with yellow dots forming diamond shapes on its back. This snake has potent venom and can cause hemorrhaging, which may begin in as little as six minutes. This genus is responsible for more deaths than any other snake in the US.
  • Mojave rattlesnake is light brown with blotches of black on its back. It has neurotoxic venom 10 times more toxic than any other snake in the U.S. A single bite is sufficient to kill a human. Death will occur in a high frequency of untreated cases.

What to do if bitten

Snake bites usually require immediate attention, especially for victims of pit viper attacks. Here are some suggestions for handling your snake bite emergency:

  1. When going to a desert take a snake bite kit and water along.
  2. Make sure it is a rattlesnake and identify the species if you can.
  3. Move victim away from the snake. It is a defensive creature and the snake will not follow you.
  4. Make sure victim stays still, calm and down.
  5. Remove anything constrictive, like clothes, jewelry and gear.
  6. Use water to wash the wound.
  7. Immobilize the bite area with a sling or with some sort of non-constrictive object.
  8. Keep wounded area lower than heart level but if it is an appendage, do not let it hang down.
  9.  Carry the victim if possible. This will slow down the movement of the venom through the body.

Things not to do or use:

  1. Do not suction wound with your mouth. Suction the wound only if you have a snake bite kit.
  2. Do not apply a tourniquet or tight band around the wound.
  3. The movement of the venom will not slow by using ice or an ice pack.
  4. Do not use your mouth to suck out the venom.
  5. The victim should not eat or drink anything until he receives medical care.
  6. Do not panic or run, an increased heart rate will only speed venom through the body.
  7. Do not attempt to catch the snake so it can be identified.
  8. Avoid reaching under things like rocks or bushes. Walk away from snakes, they will not attack unless they feel threatened.
  9. Do not pick up rattlers even if they are dead. Their fangs still can inject venom.

Check clothing and backpacks closely before putting them on--snakes love dark and cozy places. Shake out your sleeping bag before crawling in. Sleep in zipped up tents.

Information condensed from a variety of snake-related sources including www.desertusa.commodernsurvivalblog.com,www.reptilesmagazine.comhttp://animals.mom.me, :http://www.sdfirefoundation.org and sbsc.wr.usgs.gov/products/htms/snake.aspx.,