Rattlesnake Bite First Aid

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — December 5, 2012

There are rattlesnakes on the Pacific Crest Trail all the way between Canada and Mexico. And I saw a lot of them, which got me to thinking about rattlesnake bite first aid in the wilderness.

A Rattlesnake - Pacific Crest Trail
A rattlesnake on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo by Brett Fisher.

Wilderness medicine applies when you’re more than an hour away from definitive medical care (i.e. a hospital), which is pretty much most of the trail.

For a rattlesnake bite, my National Outdoor Leadership School-Wilderness Medicine Institute Wilderness First Responder training tells me that the patient should ideally avoid walking and they need to be evacuated. Definitive care for a patient with an envenomed rattlesnake bite is treatment with anti-venom at a medical facility.

So, I’m hours and sometimes days away from definitive medical care on the trail. I got here by walking. The way out is by walking. But if I or another hiker are bitten by a rattlesnake, I shouldn’t walk but I need to get off the trail and out to a hospital. Seems to me a judgment call is in the making.

Adding to the judgment call is whether the bite is from a Southern Pacific Rattlesnake, Northern Pacific Rattlesnake, or Mojave Green Rattlesnake. All three have hemotoxic venom (causes swelling, internal bleeding, and pain). The Mojave Green also has a neurtoxic venom (causes weakness, numbness, paralysis, difficulty breathing, difficulty speaking). A bite from a Mojave Green would add some urgency to the evacuation.

Another Rattlesnake - Pacific Crest Trail
Another rattlesnake on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo by Brett Fisher.
And Another Rattlesnake - Pacific Crest Trail
And another rattlesnake on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo by Brett Fisher.

I came across Treating Rattlesnake Bites in the Field by Paul Auerbach at OutdoorEd.Com’s Wilderness First Aid Blog. The article has a few suggestions that help with the judgment call.

Here’s how I approach rattlesnake bite first aid on the trail.

DO

  • Scene safety. Retreat out of the striking distance of the snake.
  • Keep yourself and the patient calm.
  • Remove constricting clothing and jewelry.
  • As with any bite wound, wash with soap and water.
  • Splint the extremity.
  • Avoid elevating the injury.
  • Avoid any harmful and unproven treatments.
  • Monitor.
  • If you are many hours or days from a hospital and the signs and symptoms are not severe or not yet severe, evacuate the patient by assisting to walk out allowing for frequent rest breaks and adequate hydration.
  • If you are many hours or days from a hospital and the signs and symptoms are severe or get severe, evacuate rapidly by arranging for a litter or helicopter rescue (use a SPOT-type device).

DO NOT

  • Do not try to catch or kill the snake.
  • Do not use a snake bite extractor pump.
  • Do not try to cut the bite and suck the venom out.
  • Do not give “snake bite medicine,” err, whiskey.

Maybe save the whiskey for the rescuers after completing the evacuation …

Brett on the PCT!

Thanks for reading. Ever hear of any of these "Dont's" as the way to treat a rattlesnake bit? Tell us about this or any other thoughts you have on this post in the comments section below.

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Happy trails!

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