Staying safe in Colorado’s rattlesnake country

This is a timely yet unfortunately necessary post.  Over the weekend, a Colorado triathlete was bitten and later succumbed to the venomous bite of a Prairie rattlesnake on a trail in the popular Mt. Galbraith Park.  A favorite hike for us locals but also known for its abundant bull and rattlesnake populations.
With cooler weather here and winter approaching, many rattlesnakes will be on the move to start heading towards their hibernation dens. This means that as the temperature drops at night, more and more snakes will become active during the day.
Due to this sad news, it would be easy to become fearful and avoid heading back out on the trails.  However, rattlesnake bites in Colorado are fairly rare.
I grew up in the foothills right in the heart of rattlesnake country and in my 30+ years (my parents started me young) of hiking, trail running and mountain biking these trails I’ve encountered on average 1 rattler a year and have been struck at just twice (one time in my teens I was wearing headphones and didn’t hear the warning sound of the rattler just to the side of the trail).
With my firsthand experience and work with Jefferson county rangers and open space experts, I’ve compiled a list of all you need to know about how to avoid rattlesnake encounters and what to do if you do see one of our slithering friends.
Our 14er training group hiking Mount Morrison in July. We saw a 6 foot long Bullsnake on the trail that day….

Plan ahead to stay safe!

  • Don’t hike or run alone in rattlesnake prone areas:
    If something does happen, whether it is a snake bite or a sprained ankle, having a buddy around that can go for help or carry you down highly increases your chance of a positive outcome.
  • Where are rattlesnake prone areas?
    Pretty much all front range trails (along the c-470 corridor) and the prairies that extend east are rattlesnake territory.  There are places with higher known den concentrations.  Around Red Rocks amphitheatre and Mount Morrison is one of those areas.  Also North Table Mountain and Hayden/Green Mountain Parks.  Rattlesnakes are cold blooded and thus must receive the warmth of the sun for energy and survival.  They prefer temperatures between 50-80 degrees (although the sweet spot is around 70 degrees), on warmer days they will frequently be found cooling themselves underneath rocks and logs.  If you are looking to completely avoid a snake encounter then try to plan your run or hike outside of this temperature range.
  • Don’t wear headphones!
    For many safety reasons I NEVER condone wearing headphones while on the trail.  Save music and podcasts for your boring road runs and take in the sights and sounds of nature around you.
  • Be aware of your surroundings:
    Take notice and be weary on areas of the trail that are especially narrow and rocky.  Listen to the sounds around you and keep an eye on the trail and the peripheral.
  • Stay on the trail!!
    Rattlers can commonly be found in areas alongside the trail and hiding out under rocks and logs to cool off on hot days.  Don’t be tempted to climb or take a rest on large rocks near the trail.
  • Keep your dog on a leash and your kids close:
    There are a myriad of reasons that Jefferson county trails require that your dogs are leashed and one of these is for their own safety.  Our little 4 legged friends LOVE to range off trail and explore the world with their nose.  Unfortunately, when a bite occurs so close to the main arteries in the neck it can be devastating for a small animal.
    I have 2 young children and when hiking with my husband we keep the kids between us and make sure they stay on the trail.  Being boys, they are always looking for cool rocks and bugs in the grasses alongside the trail but in areas I know rattlers reside I forbid this.
  • Take a trail map and know where you are!
    If you are bitten, you will need to be able to tell rescuers where you are and in some cases how to get to your location.
    – Download both of these apps:  Trail run project and Mountain Bike project.  Open the apps and pull up the trail system you plan on using BEFORE you head out.  These apps will not open if you do not have good service.  You can use this map to direct rescuers to your location as the apps use satellites to pinpoint your live location on the trail as you move.
    – Bring a fully charged cell phone
    – Take a photo of the trail map before you leave
    – Tell someone where you are going and when you plan on returning
    – Consider purchasing a CORSAR card (Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search And Rescue) to help remimburse teams for costs incurred in search and rescues across the State of Colorado.

What to do if you see a snake on the trail: 

30:30 rule:  Back up 30 feet and wait 30 seconds.  In most cases the snake will sense your presence and move along.
If the snake is sunning itself and doesn’t move you can choose to wait it out or simply turn back the way you came.
DO NOT:
 – Try to identify the snake and decide for yourself it is just a bullsnake (which are harmless). Unless you are an expert, it can be challenging to determine what type of snake you are facing.  Bullsnakes are notorious for mimicking a rattler by vibrating its tail to produce a rattle like sound and there have been reports that rattlers are evolving and either not using their rattle at all or in some cases losing their tails altogether to survive. 
–  Try to go off the trail and around the snake.  If you are anywhere near a den there could be more rattlers lurking in the area
– Attempt to move the snake, this is how most human bites occur
– Try to jump over the snake
–  Harass or try to kill the snake. We are treading into their habitat.  We need to be respectful of all wildlife; even rattlesnakes play an important role in the local ecosystem.

If you are bitten:

  • Remain as calm as possible and move away from the snake so it cannot strike again.  Call 911 immediately.  If you don’t have service, still try the call.  All network provides must allow for emergency 911 calls so even if your phone shows no service another provide may be able to pickup and transmit your call.   Read this great article with more tips for using your cell phone during emergencies, one of these may save your life!
  • If you are alone, yell for help to see if someone is close by and slowly hike down continuing to check for service/calling 911.
  • If you are with a friend, have them call 911 and if they are able start to carry you towards the closest parking area (use your map as you may be closer to a different lot than you started).  When you reach someone and they have confirmed your location stay put and try to keep the affected area below the heart.
  • DO NOT try to suck the venom out or use a tourniquet
  • Remove all jewelry and follow these safety tips here from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/snakebite.html
L2S Fitness organizes informative and educational clinics for Colorado women who are interested in hiking and trail running.  Check out this video clip from one of our wildlife and safety on the trails talks with a park ranger and herpetologist all about rattlesnakes!

 ~ Lauren Jones, BS. ACSM is a Colorado native and outdoors fitness expert.
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