Oregon’s warm, summer weather brings lots of things for Pacific Crest Trail hikers: long, sunny days, refreshing mountain streams, sprawling wildflower meadows, gobs of tasty berries and, in some regions, rattlesnakes. Yes, there are rattlesnakes in Oregon.
This spring, we were seeing lots of posts and photos from PCT thru-hikers on their encounters with rattlesnakes. These generally occurred as they were making their way through California’s hot, dry deserts. Some of these encounters were a little too close for comfort. A few graphically illustrated the results of a rare meeting of hiker and rattlesnake. And while they’re not especially prolific here in Oregon, this was a vivid reminder that we should be watchful for these stealthy creatures as we cruise along the Crest this summer.
Rattlesnakes in Oregon
The PCT runs through landscapes that are home to several varieties of snakes, most of which are non-threatening. This includes garter snakes, striped whipsnakes and racers. However, Oregon is also home to the Western rattlesnake and the Northern Pacific rattlesnake. They have a hard time eking out a living in the mild, damp Northwest, but can occasionally be seen sunning themselves on or near the trail in the warm summer months. This occurs mostly in the southern and eastern parts of the state. Like most creatures, they’re rarely aggressive unless they feel threatened—and are courteous enough to give you a warning tail shake to let you know they’re nearby.
You can identify rattlesnakes by a few very telltale characteristics. First and foremost, the rattle at the ends of their tail. This is their defensive device used to warn away threats. Rattlesnakes have distinctively triangular heads, where they store their poisonous venom in two large sacs. They also have large scales, giving them an armor-plated appearance; the color of their scales can range from olive green to brown to gray, depending on their environment. Their patterning usually looks blotchy or square-shaped, and they may have alternating black and white stripes on their tails. Finally, rattlesnakes have evil, slit-shaped pupils, giving them an even more menacing appearance.
Hiking With Rattlesnakes
It’s extremely rare to see a rattlesnake along the PCT in Oregon, but it does happen. This usually occurs in the oak savannas and dry forests of the Rogue–Siskiyou National Forest and Soda Mountain Wilderness. This is where summer days are typically hot and dry. Rattlesnakes are not usually (usually, but not impossible) found above 6,000 feet in elevation, so the farther north you head into Oregon’s high Cascades, the rarer they become. But don’t let your guard down. There are some areas in the central and northern parts of the state where the trail dips below 6,000 feet, or wanders over to the warmer, drier east side of the Crest, which could be suitable for them to dwell. When hiking thru rattlesnake country:
- Watch your footing. Be extra vigilant in dry areas with brush and tall grass, in sandy areas and scree fields, and on rocky outcrops. Peer over large rocks and logs before stepping over them—and look underneath before sitting on them!
- Wear boots and pants. The most common rattlesnake bites inflicted on hikers occur on feet and ankles. By wearing sturdy leather boots and long pants, you reduce the chances of a surprise snakebite penetrating your flesh.
- Use trekking poles. Snakes are sensitive to vibration and might feel you before they hear you. Tap your poles in front of you and to the sides of the trail in brushy areas where they may be hiding or cooling off in the shade.
- Close encounters. If you do happen across one, back away slowly, and don’t make any sudden movements. A coiled snake is one in defensive mode and not to be trifled with. Keep your distance and allow the snake to vacate the area first.
- Leash Your Pup. If you’re hiking with your pup, keep them on a short leash, and hold them in check if you happen across a rattlesnake. Don’t let your pup try to chase away or kill the snake, as this risks Fido’s life as much as the snake’s.
The Worst Happens
If you do encounter a rattlesnake and it bites you, stay calm—or at least try to. A large percentage of rattlesnake bites are “dry” bites where they do not release venom. This is especially true of larger, mature snakes, as they don’t want to waste their precious venom on something that’s not a meal. Move away from the area where the snake is, sit down and wash the wound with soap and water. Even if the bite is non-venomous, you should evacuate the trail and seek medical attention immediately.
If venom was released into the bite, you will know it. The bite location will immediately swell, become discolored and feel as though you’ve been lit on fire. Try to stay calm. Let the wound bleed for 30 seconds, then wash it with soap and water. DO NOT cut the wound or try to suck out the venom. Remove any constricting items from the bite area (e.g., rings, socks, boots, etc.), then wrap in a loose bandage. Seek medical attention immediately.
If you’re bitten on your finger, hand or arm, and can still walk, try to evacuate the trail by hiking out deliberately, but without raising your heart rate. For a bite on your foot, ankle or leg and you cannot walk, send your partner or someone in your group for help. If you’re flying solo and carry an emergency device (SPOT, PLB), push that button! Or, if you have a cell phone, try to call 911. You can also blow on your emergency whistle to signal for help (three quick blasts). While waiting for help, keep the wound below your heart and remain calm.
Easy Does It
You don’t need to be paranoid about rattlesnake encounters on the PCT in Oregon. You’re more likely to trip over rattlesnakes in the hot, high deserts of central and eastern Oregon—around the John Day Fossil Beds they’re everywhere! As with most wildlife, they’re likely going to be aware of you before you’re aware of them, and eager to clear the area to avoid an encounter. Just by being conscious that you’re hiking thru their home, and knowing how to properly respond in case of an encounter, you can stay safe and continue to enjoy your hike incident-free.
Resources & More Info
- Living with Wildlife: Snakes – Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife
- Rattlesnakes in Oregon – The Oregon Encyclopedia
- Treating a Snake Bite – Wild Backpacker
Main photo: A coiled up Northern Pacific rattlesnake is not messing around. Photo by Alan Schmierer.