SAN DIEGO — Sunny spring days draw San Diego residents outdoors, but they’re not the only ones basking in the sun.
Next time you walk down a local hiking trail, make sure to watch your step: It’s officially rattlesnake season. Officials say sightings are most common in the region from April to September after the reptiles wake from winter hibernation.
Hikers spot snakes this time each year in open space areas like Torrey Pines State Reserve and Mission Trails Regional Park, two of San Diego’s most popular outdoor attractions. Occasionally, visitors get bitten.
But fear of snakes — which is called ophidiophobia, by the way — shouldn’t keep you from enjoying a hike or even spending a lazy afternoon in the backyard, officials say. Here are some simple precautions to keep you safe.
Avoiding rattlesnakes in San Diego
Out in nature
“Rattlesnakes rarely strike unless startled or attacked, so it’s important to be aware of your surroundings – eyes and ears – to prevent unfortunate situations,” San Diego County Parks and Recreation spokesperson Jessica Geiszler told FOX 5 by email.
First and foremost, stay on the trail when you’re walking on paths through local nature areas. This is good trail etiquette and important for preserving habitat in general, but you are also much more likely to trample on a rattler if you’re walking through long brush.
If there’s no choice but to pass through brush, the county recommends long pants and boots as a barrier for the worst-case scenario. If you have to hike at night, bring a flashlight and keep it trained on the trail ahead of you.
Consider using a walking stick when you hike. If you come across a snake, it may strike the stick instead of you, the county says.
Beyond keeping your eyes peeled, it might be wise to leave your earbuds in your pocket and free up another sense for detecting the reptiles. Listen for a telltale rattle — caused by a snake vibrating its tail and shaking a section of hard, dry skin to warn intruders.
Finally, please protect your pets: keeping your dog on a leash and with you on the main trail can keep them from stumbling into trouble. “Some dogs are bitten just a couple feet from the trail,” the San Diego Humane Society warned.
A variety of snakes are native to Southern California — they may call your backyard home, especially in parts of the county that have more open space.
If you live in an area where rattlesnakes have been found and you have pets or small children, check the backyard for snakes before they play outdoors. To regulate their temperature, snakes alternate between basking in the sun and sheltering in the shade. Check under rocks or in any burrows that appear in your yard.
What to do if you spot a rattlesnake
Out in nature
Rattlesnakes are fully protected animals in county parks, because they are native to the area and play an important ecological role with their diet of mice and rats. Officials won’t disturb a snake if you simply spot it near a trail in the wilderness.
“If you encounter a rattlesnake while hiking, consider yourself lucky to have seen one of nature’s most interesting animals,” a county brochure reads.
If the snake is at a campsite or a picnic area near people, though, the county says you should notify park rangers and they will do their best to relocate the snake.
“This info is posted on our kiosk signs at park entrances, so it’s a good idea to snap a pic of that before hitting the trails,” Geiszler said. “Kiosk signs contain contact info, trail maps and other helpful information.”
If the snake is in nature, experts say simply keeping your distance should be more than sufficient.
“To prevent being bitten, the best advice is to leave snakes alone,” the county says. “Most bites occur when someone is trying to pick up a snake, tease it, or kill it. If snakes are provided an escape route, they’ll escape rather than strike.”
If you spot a snake in your yard, you can call the San Diego Humane Society and they will send someone to safely relocate it. SDHS’ jurisdiction comprises most of San Diego County, but if you call and provide your location, a representative can confirm that you are within their range.
You can also call County Animal Services at 619-236-2341, or the animal control agency for your city, if it’s different.
What to do if you get bitten by a snake
When rattlesnakes bite, they inject venom into their victim.
The county provides the following steps for the rare occasions when rattlesnakes strike a person:
- Do your best to remain calm — a racing heart will only serve to speed up the spread of venom
- Call for help — call 911 or get a park ranger who can help you receive medical attention as soon as possible
- Immobilize the bitten extremity — do not apply a tourniquet or otherwise constrict the wound. Do not ice it or attempt to cut the wound and suck out the venom.
- Wash the skin — use an antiseptic wipe or soap and water, if available
- Remove jewelry and other tight-fitting clothing
The Mayo Clinic adds that you should position yourself, if possible, so that the bite is at or below the level of your heart.
Curious about how to identify local rattlesnakes? Check out this county brochure with photos and descriptions for more.