Top DFW Poisonous Plants and Venomous Snakes on the Trail: How to Avoid Them and What to Do if You Can’t: Part 2
Written By: Casey Washington
Poisonous plants are avoidable but what about the dangers that move? One of the top reasons why some people don’t venture outdoors is because of the possibility of running into a “nope rope”. They imagine that every root or log will have a nest of rattlers just waiting to strike, like the killer plants popping out of the pipes on Super Mario. There is a plethora of folklore and misinformation out there about the wiggle-sticks of their nightmares, but with some actual facts and a plan, you can respect a snake for what they do for the ecosystem without being in love with them and without harming them.
The first thing everyone wants to know when they see a snake is if it’s venomous, as if all the venomous ones are coiled up jerks out hunting people. Truth is, a snake is a snake. They’re just out there, doing their own thing. If you know where they will most likely be and the things you can do to avoid being in those places, you will most likely never see one on the trail; which seems to make it so social media worthy when someone does. Even if you do see a snake, they are usually moving away from the trail and don’t want anything to do with you. Keep in mind that it still pretty much takes an expert to truly identify them. A good resource I have been using to learn more is the Facebook Group: What kind of snake is this North Texas Education Group (WKSNTEG). Still, fears being what they are, here is pic of how to identify some of the venomous snakes in the DFW area created by WKSNTEG admin, reptile expert (Herpetologist) and President of the DFW Herpetological Society, Mark Pyle.
Detailed picture right? Proper snake identification is complicated, especially for the layman, and most of the folk sayings don’t ring true or are hard to remember properly . Not all copperheads are coppery in color. Some venomous snakes have triangular, but not all (Texas Coral Snake) and some non-venomous snakes flatten out their heads to fool you. Is it yellow and black kills or is it a friend to Jack? (It can kill.) The best way to respect snakes is to actually respect all snakes. No laying on the ground selfie pictures with the sunny slitherer you see on the trail, no matter what kind of snake it might be and for the love of trail safety, don’t chase them or try to move them with a stick.
The best course of action to prevent a bite is to know where they like to hang out, wear things that protect you and pay attention to your surroundings. They are cold-blooded, which means that they have to use the environment to regulate their body temperature in their preferred 80°-90° degrees Fahrenheit range. So if you are hiking on a cool morning, they might be sunning on or between rocks. If it’s 100 degrees out, they might be under logs or leaves. Some even chill between the bark grooves of trees to snack on cicadas! In fact, just assume that there is at least one around rocks, logs and underbrush wherever you go. This doesn’t mean that you have to dart back into the nightmare that they will be everywhere. If there were snakes truthly everywhere, then thousands of people wouldn’t be recreationally enjoying the outdoors and no one would ever come to mow your yard. If you stay on the trail, especially a popular one, it’s unlikely they will be hanging around a place with that much movement and noise. When the Texas weather is more likely to swing into their favorable degrees, such as spring to fall, they are more likely to be active. If you really want to avoid them, winter might be your hiking season.
If you listen to music, it’s a good idea to put in only one earbud on low volume so you can still hear a sudden rustle of leaves or the tell-tail (pun intended) rattle of one of the rattlesnake varieties. Plus, it's a great idea not to be totally lost in music so you can hear if someone is trying to pass you on the trail or if other wildlife is in the area. If you walk with someone, you can keep a conversation just be mindful to stop talking and listen if you have to cross an area you think snakes might be regulating their temperatures or where there is a hole in the ground and one might be in its den. If you stop to rest and want to sit down, use the trek pole to poke around rocks or logs first. You could also do what I do and sit down on your backpack after doing a visual sweep of the trail.
It’s also snake-wise to wear denim or other thick jeans, but let’s be honest, most people don’t want to be that hot and stiff when hiking. Unless you are working to clear a trail or going deep backcountry, the casual hiker can wear shorts and still be safe. I do recommend over the ankle hiking boots no matter the season. Although most aren’t guaranteed to stop a long fang from penetrating into the skin, it is much more unlikely that a higher-on-the-leg shoe will help prevent a heavy envenomation.
Trekking poles are always a good idea. It might seem annoying to have to carry them in hand if you think their only use is to help you ascend and descend elevations but they are really are a great tool for swiping lose leaves out in front of you and tapping on roots and rocks just to see if anything responds to your noise and vibrations before you get too close. You may still be in striking range with a trek pole, so keep your eye on the ground and watch for movement. Don’t stick your hand on a tree that you haven’t stopped to watch for movement (remember those snakes that like to hang out between bark groves) and don’t stick your hand into wood piles or under leaves.
Even if you take precautions, a snakebite might happen and it’s wise to have your own snakebite plan and share it with your group BEFORE your hike, especially if kids are with you. I had a lot of frustration putting mine together since every online source I visited had something different or conflicting to say. I finally had to just listen to the people directly in the field of study and take their advice over the advice of generic medical websites. The Facebook Group: National Snakebite Support (NSS) whose “sole purpose is to get snakebite victims connected with experts who practice the proper management of Snake Envenomings.” is a must have for anyone on a hike with cell service. They will give almost immediate response and expert advice on what to do, which is invaluable in the adrenaline rush that comes post-bite. There are many trails, however, that do not have cell service and so, printing out a plan and keeping it in your hiking backpack or keeping an easily accessible plan on your phone’s list maker is a pretty good idea. The following is my personal snakebite plan, which I created from observing the threads in NSS and research from the resources of both NSS and WKSNTEG. This snakebite plan has also been reviewed by Dr. Spencer Greene, whose many accomplishments includes founding the Bayou City Medical Toxicology and Emergency Medicine Consultants LLC. Notable contribution by paramedic and outdoor enthusiast Chris Harper, whose knowledge about the body’s reactions to specific snake venoms helps keep backcountry hikers safe.
Casey Washington’s Snakebite Plan
Step 1: Get Away from Harm
You don’t wanna keep getting bit. If you saw the snake and can describe it, great, however, do not follow or try to kill the snake. Most venomous snakes in the DFW area are pit vipers (rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads) and pit viper antivenom works across the different types. Texas coral snakes are so distinguishable from the other common venomous snakes in DFW that you should be able to identify them to medical personnel easily. It is wise for all hikers, regardless of the length or location of the hike, to be familiar with the various venomous snake types.
Step 2: Calm Down, Decide to Stay or Go
Breathe. You might not have been bitten by a venomous snake and it might have been a dry bite, meaning no venom was wasted on you. It takes calories to produce venom and you obviously aren’t the meal plan the snake was saving it for. If you have bright clothing or a cloth, put it on now to help rescuers visually spot you easier.
However, you do need to get to care as soon as possible. If that means staying where you are to be rescued or trying to meet up with paramedics depends on several factors, including the location of the bite, how far into a trail system you are, the trail conditions, the weather and what kind of snake you were bitten by. The timber rattlesnake, for example, can immobilize a bitten person within 10 to 30 minutes of injection while some cases of copperheads are able to self-rescue. Use the steps below for advice on what to do if you decide it’s wisest to stay or self-rescue.
Step 3: Staying: Contact 911 and Bite Care
You want to decrease the swelling of fluids in the bite’s region. This is mainly done by elevating the bitten limb at a 45 to 60 degree angle without bending the joints. Remove any clothing or jewelry that will constrict the area.If you have anything brightly colored, put it where it is visible on your body. Lay in an area on the trail where you will be easily seen. Be mindful of bends in the trail that could be a blind spot of fast moving mountain bikers.
Do NOT use a tourniquet or bandage. This can increase the buildup of fluids in the restricted part of the limb and if done incorrectly, can actually increase your body’s absorption of the venom.
Don’t try to suck out the venom with anything. Those snake bite kits you can buy at outdoorsy stores are just junk to take your money and weight down your hiking backpack. They can do more harm than good.
Benadryl and other allergy meds will do nothing for a bite. Benadryl works by blocking histamines and might work on pollen and bee stings, but will do nothing for a snakebite.
Never give aspirin. Aspirin inhibits platelets and can cause complications in the body’s healing.
There are other medicines that could make treating a snakebite more complicated. Don’t take any medications post-bite unless directed to do so by a doctor.
If at any time you feel like you are being overwhelmed from the venom, lie down in the recovery position so that you do not choke on any vomit, if you pass out. See the below image:
Photo: Health Navigator
Contact 911. This is the most important step. It is wise for any hiker to invest in a SPOT GPS device or similar and learn how to use it. Short of that wise investment, know how to find your grid coordinates on your cell phone and send a text message to notify your emergency contacts of your situation. IE: HELP Rattlesnake Bite- Lone Dove Trail- SEND HELP N32 8429122, -95.9952082. A text is much more likely to “get out” of remote areas than a phone call. Text 911 direction as well as some of your contacts, who you should have already told about your hiking plans. Watch these YouTube Videos on How to Use GPS in Android (Google Maps) which is also useful for iPhones. From personal experience, I know trying to get the GPS off of Google Maps to be really frustrating when I am calm, much less when I am stressed. That’s why getting an actual GPS device is recommended, as well as the fact that some areas do not have any kind of radio signal that a cell phone is powerful enough to use.
Step 4: Self-rescue: Contact 911 and Bite Care
For whatever reason, you decided that it’s best to try to meet up with paramedics. Contact 911 (see Step 3) before you start to move. If you text your GPS coordinates to 911, you will want to add that you are moving and give what cardinal direction you are headed. Drop another coordinate as you trail so they know where you are should you become overwhelmed and have to get into the recovery position.
If you have something bright to make you more visual, wear it before you start to move.
If you were bitten on the hand or arm, try to keep it elevated without locking the elbow or wrist.
Unfortunately you won’t have the option to keep your leg above heart level unless you have amazing hikers who can safely carry you out. Move as safely as you can, as quickly as you can to your preselected, trail exit. STAY ON THE TRAIL. Stop and elevate the limb should the swelling go past the closest major joint towards the heart. If a bite on the hand swells past the elbow etc. If you feel like you are being overwhelmed by the venom and are alone, lay in the recovery position. If you are with a group, elevate the limb. If you pass out, someone in the group can move you to the recovery position.
Step 5: Just go to the Hospital Tough Guy
I know it sucks to stop your recreation time to go lay up in a hospital room, likely in a town you aren’t from, when you have a deadline on Monday, you drove everyone and you don’t know how much all this is gonna cost you. Even if you feel like you must be part opossum (some scientists believe they have natural immunities to snakebites!) ‘cause you’re feeling fine post-bite, it could take hours for an adverse (and very quick) reaction to occur. Go to the hospital to be monitored. Think of it like an expensive and kinda boring hotel stay if you have to. Just go. Live to hike another day.
There are things to be aware of when enjoying the outdoors. If it's the dangers of the wild that keeps you from (or brings you to) enjoying nature, I hope that knowing more about the most common dangers, and what to do if you encounter them, makes you feel more inclined to get out there and Explore More in the DFW area.
Freelance Writer for Explore More DFW
President of the DFW Herpetological Society
MD, MS, FACEP, FACMT, FAACT, FAAEM
Director of Toxicology
Department of Emergency Medicine
HCA Houston Healthcare-Kingwood
University of Houston College of Medicine