How to deal with a snakebite while out on the trail

Editor’s note: This article was originally written by our friends at OFFGRID. Check out their website for more survival-related tips.

Venomous snakes are found throughout the United States, and the Centers for Disease Control estimates that between 7,000 and 8,000 individuals are bitten by venomous snakes each year.

Most snakes will bite humans only if they feel threatened, but hikers, backpackers and those who spend considerable time outdoors may unknowingly enter a snake’s path.

If this interaction results in a bite, it’s important to know what to do immediately. Otherwise, the venom of several common American snakes (such as rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads) can cause serious injury, limb loss or even death.

RELATED: How to survive in the wilderness — alone

Unfortunately, many misconceptions about snakebites still exist. Possibly the most pervasive is that the venom should be sucked out of the wound immediately by mouth to prevent it from entering the bloodstream.

Other myths state that applying a tourniquet will slow the spread of venom, or even that cutting away the affected tissue will save the victim. None of these claims are true; in fact, they’ll generally make things worse.

The infographic below summarizes the basics of snakebite first aid:

Graphic: Courtesy of IndianSnakes.org

Graphic: Courtesy of IndianSnakes.org

Seems simple enough, right? That’s because it is. If you can conceivably get the victim of a snakebite to a hospital, immobilizing the affected limb and doing so should be the first priority.

Again, go immediately to a hospital. This is the only effective option for venomous snakebites.

Now, you may be thinking: What if there isn’t a hospital nearby?

RELATED: What you should put in your wilderness first-aid kit

When professional medical care is absolutely not a possibility, the situation gets grim. There really isn’t much you can do to fix a snakebite without anti-venom, but you can at least slow the spread of the toxin.

They can very difficult to spot while hiking. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID

They can be very difficult to spot while hiking. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID

Here’s what you can do if hospital care is not available:

• Immobilize the wound and wash with soap and water as seen above.
• Keep the victim calm and stationary. Minimize heart rate and stop all physical activity.
• If possible, call the National Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222. It is open 24/7 and an adviser can provide help over the phone.
• Do not apply ice or a tourniquet. Do not give the victim alcohol, caffeine or painkillers.
Do not elevate the wound. In fact, do the opposite: Have the victim sit or lie down with the bite site below the level of the heart.
• Apply a clean bandage to the wound and hope for the best. Some snakebites are “dry bites” with no venom injection, so they may be survivable without professional treatment.
• If neurotoxic venom has been injected, and you are certain no medical care or anti-venom is available, there is very little that can be done. Get comfortable and try to signal for rescue.