Jonathan W Wiest, MS
For most runners, the notion of going for a cruise on a trail or through the backcountry holds a mystical magnetism that is unrivaled by pavement or treadmills. The sights, sounds and experiences of exploring the world out the backdoor in your running shoes and sunglasses is a unique and worthwhile experience. Yet, many runners (or folks who are contemplating entering the sport) are wary of trail running due to some of the inherent risks; getting lost, inclement weather and lack of access to resources (eeek, like a toilet!). However, the most common fear among outdoor athletes is a fear of snakes. This fear, mostly, arises from a lack of understanding about these animals. And, like any other pursuit, a little knowledge can go a long way.
To help combat your snake jitters and relish a joyride in the wild yonder, remember to SOAR:
Observe and Avoid
Add to Understanding
#1) Increase Your Snake IQ
It is probably a safe guess that most people are not aware of the biodiversity in their area, especially when it comes to snakes. The first step on your journey to running near reptiles is to increase your Snake IQ. Before you start putting up miles on the trail, research what snakes are native to your area. It is also a good idea to learn the habits of snakes, especially venomous animals. Websites like What Snake Is That? are helpful for looking at what snakes are endemic to where you dwell and play. As you poke around on the internet (maybe books), you will learn neat tidbits like some pit vipers are crepuscular (cool word!), meaning they are more active at dawn and dusk…helpful information when planning exercise into your day.
As you peruse the various resources that talk about humans and snakes, you may also discover other helpful snake IQ tools, such as the mnemonic device “if red touches black, friend of Jack (or venom lack)” for identifying the difference between a venomous coral snake and a non-venomous milk snake. It is also always wise to touch base with your regional resources, such as a ranger’s station (if you have one), to seek more specifics about snakes in your area. You can also further investigate the snakes/humans frontier by paying a visit to Save The Snakes.
#2) Observe and Avoid
Guess what? Snakes do not want to take selfies with you. In fact, snakes prefer to be left totally alone. The majority of bites from venomous snakes arise when humans interfere with the snake, whether they are trying to move the snake, kill the snake or take a picture for their Instagram profile. Granted, there is some very important work happening with conservation biologists, herpetologists and other reptile geeks where they handle both venomous and non-venomous reptiles to educate others about the importance our serpentine neighbors play in balancing our ecosystem. However, you are not one of this snake wranglers, so leave the snake alone.
Running outdoors also mandates a change of practice for runners. It is crucial to avoid the “runner’s daze,” where you stare only a few feet from your footfall or daydream while watching the bright digits on a treadmill tick away. I know more than a few runners who have smashed into stop signs, trees, bushes and once a mountain biker relieving himself. When you are running where animals live, you have a responsibility to constantly observe your surroundings. When running outside, shorten your leg turnover and keep an eye on the trail. It may have been a bush the first time, but it could be a black-tailed rattlesnake the second, a meeting neither you nor the snake want. And when you come across a slithery guy (or girl) on the trail, be sure to give them plenty of room and don’t be the stooge poking them with a stick or waving your hand in front of their face.
#3) Add to the Understanding of Others
As mentioned earlier, a fear of snakes comes from a lack of knowledge of snakes. As you beef up your Snake IQ, be sure to share it with your fellow outdoor enthusiasts. Though you may never eliminate your fear of snakes or somebody else’s fear of snakes, you can increase the collective knowledge of snakes, assisting in reducing injuries to both humans and snakes. Also, take a look at conservation efforts in your area. If you are out for a Sunday Funday run in East Texas and happen to meet a Louisiana Pine Snake (an endangered species), there are some folks that would probably really like to hear about it. I am not saying that you have quit your day job and devote yourself to reptile conservation (though that sounds awesome), but by maintaining a conservation-focus, you will help to foster healthy relationships between snakes and humans. To get a handle on some of the efforts where you live, check the US Fish and Wildlife endangered species list, or if you live outside North America take a look at the World Wildlife Fund.
Also, be sure to let people around you know when you spot a snake. Recently, I ran across (almost literally) a western diamondback rattlesnake that was thicker than my forearm and curled under a rock, and she was mad! As I progressed down the trail (and the hair on the back of my neck went down), I came happened upon a couple walking a dog. I stopped my run-timer and took time to share my encounter with them so they knew not to let their pooch go stick his nose under that rock. People are grateful when you add to their understanding of snakes, especially when the need is immediate.
#4) Remember Basic Runner’s Safety
Remember your basic runner’s safety, especially when trail running. If possible, take a phone with you while you run. If you can’t or do not want to take a phone, try to run with a friend. Or, if you are a stoic solo runner (like me) be sure to show somebody where you are running and when you expect to return. I use On The Go Map to show people the trails I am running and will often print a copy of my route and put it up on the fridge. A basic understanding of first aid while trouncing through the great outdoors is strongly recommended. You should know how to manage a broken bone, nose bleed and what to do when a toe nail falls off (especially unappealing during flip-flop season). You should also know what to do if (as a very rare circumstance) you are bitten by a venomous snake. According to Mayo Clinic, you should: vacate the immediate area of the animal, remove any restrictive clothing and position the bite below the level of your heart (if possible). Do not apply pressure, a tourniquet or ice to the wound, and most importantly, seek medical help as quick as possible. And don’t do the cut and suck thing, that’s just for movies and wives’ tales!
Make sure to stick to marked trails while you run. Not only will this make you easier to find should you experience an emergency during your outing, but it will help keep you from directly encroaching on the habitat of snakes. Habitat destruction is a major cause of run-ins between snakes and humans, and if you elect to run off trail, you could be directly contributing to the problem by destroying snakes’ houses and forcing them closer to humans. Just by sticking to the trails, you are actually part of the solution to snakebite.
So, there you have it; the nuts and bolts on how to safely SOAR along trails near snakes! And, when you see a snake (while giving them plenty of room), stop cringing and say hello!
Jonathan Wiest, MS, is an avid trail runner and competitive athlete. Outside of logging miles in the mountains of central New Mexico, he is also a full time PhD student in the Department of Communication at the University of New Mexico where he studies how knowledge of disease (including snakebite) is shared amongst disparate communities globally. Jonathan has fifteen years of experience in healthcare, where he has worked his way up from a paramedic in the back of an ambulance to a hospital director in the front of a board room. Jonathan owns two snakes and one lizard and shares his knowledge of reptile conservation with anyone willing to listen (most frequently at microbreweries and undergrads stuck in college classrooms).