Snakes can be an easy to find and easy to catch food source (and even considered a tasty meal by some) — or a snake can be a lethal enemy if you come across a poisonous one unexpectedly (or one comes into your camp or on to your property).
Do You Know Which Poisonous Snakes Inhabit Your Region?
Every year in North America, there are around 7000-8000 reported venomous snake bites and you will find at least one species of venomous snake in nearly every state. Fortunately, there are very few deaths thanks to antivenin treatments and the ability to be treated quickly and efficiently by medical professionals. Furthermore, snake identification and awareness play a key part in knowing which areas to look out for and which snakes to avoid.
However, in a survival situation, you could well be left to fend for yourself when it comes to being bitten by one of these creatures. This is why it is crucial that you learn the essentials of how to identify venomous snakes, how to prevent and also how to treat a snake bite. If you’re unfortunate enough to be given a nasty nip, you need to act quickly and you need to know exactly what you’re doing.
It’s not all doom and gloom with venomous snakes, though. They also double up as an essential survival food. Not only could they potentially kill you, they could be a life-saver when you need food in a survival emergency (and also as an ongoing food source in long term survival). We’re going to cover this topic later in the article, but first you need to learn which snakes pose a lethal threat.
How to Identify Venomous Snakes
In the mainland of North America, there a four species of venomous snake you need to watch out for: the coral snake, copperhead, rattlesnake and the cottonmouth. Each one has its own distinctive markings, identifiable behavior and typical habitat.
One of the most common myths with snake identification is their eye shape. It is commonly thought that all venomous snakes have slit-shaped eyes. The truth is that not all venomous snakes have slit-shaped eyes BUT all snakes with slit-shaped eyes are venomous. This means that if you spot a snake with round eyes, you’ll need to look out for other key features in order to determine if it is capable of delivering a deadly bite. Fortunately, in the US, three out of the four venomous snakes do have slit-shaped eyes.
The Coral Snake
The single easiest way to learn how to identify a coral snake is to remember the rhyme “red and yellow, kill a fellow; red and black, friend of Jack”. A coral snake’s colorings are red on yellow on red on yellow on black i.e. the red and yellow bands must be touching each other in order for it to be venomous.
There are some non-venomous snakes which attempt to mimic the coral snake’s banding, however it will not be in the same order. Be warned, in some areas of South America and other parts of the world, this rule will not work. Research the coral snake fully if you plan on venturing further afield.
This snake is most often found in Florida and the Southern Coastal Plain, from North Carolina to Louisiana. It’s the only venomous snake in North America with round pupils, but luckily it’s distinctive coloring is enough to set it apart from the non-venomous. That’s if you remember the order!
Like most snakes, the coral snake will show reclusive behavior unless provoked. Therefore, it’s best to leave it alone to decrease your chances of being bitten. Although they have the second strongest venom of all snakes, their fangs are much smaller than other snakes which means that they sometimes don’t fully penetrate the skin. We wouldn’t recommend relying on this happening though.
The most distinguishing feature of a rattlesnake is, of course, the rattle at the end of its tail. It has a very distinctive sound and will normally rattle if disturbed, as a warning signal for any threat to stay well back. Watch out; very young rattlesnakes haven’t always developed their rattle yet, but can be equally as lethal as an adult.
Their blocky, diamond-shaped heady and heavy body is a big giveaway and these features are common to it’s many sub-species. The subspecies you are most likely to come across are the timber rattlesnake, eastern diamondback, western diamondback and the prairie rattlesnake, although there are others.
This snake, along with its subspecies, can be found in a variety of areas including swamps, bush, desert and forests. They are known to try to flee if they feel a threat coming on, however they can be vicious if trapped or cornered. The venom of a rattlesnake can be lethal if left untreated, destroying blood cells and tissue and even causing paralysis in some cases.
The clue of its color is in the title of this snake. As with a rattlesnake, it is a member of the pit viper family, which means that it has two heat sensing pits, allowing it to detect its prey through thermal radiation.
In fact, the copperhead is one of the most wrongly identified snakes in North America due to its similarities with other non-venomous snakes. Being a member of the pit-viper family, it also has a blocky head and stout body. The copperhead is typically a light brown color, with slightly darker bandings which are narrow on the top and thicker down the sides of its body. Some non-venomous snakes are similar, although often have dark borders around its bands and a patterned head, which the copperhead does not.
The copperhead is found in most states of the US and causes around half of all venomous snake bites, but fortunately very few deaths. Known as an ‘ambush predator’ they wait until their prey passes, at which point the go in for the kill. However, they prefer to avoid humans where possible.
The cottonmouth is the only semi-aquatic venomous snake of North America, preferring to spend most of its time near lakes, swamp areas and rivers. Also knows as a water moccasin, it is also a member of the pit viper family meaning that it has a blocky head with a stout body.
The cottonmouth is a dark brown color and has darker bands which are thick on the top of its body, narrowing down its sides. This is a good way to differentiate it from non-venomous water snakes as they tend to have thin bands at the top, thickening at the bottom. The younger the cottonmouth is, the more visible its patterning. As the cottonmouth grows older, the banding becomes less visible and some snakes even look like they have no pattern. The lower part of its head is usually a lighter shade and will remain as it grows old.
Due to the fact they are cold-blooded, they will often be found basking on rocks next to water during the day as a way to maintain a good body temperature. The most common places to spot a cottonmouth is in south-eastern North America e.g. Florida, Texas and Virginia.
How to Prevent a Snake Bite
So you’ve now got a good understanding of each type of venomous snake and what their typical behavior is like. This knowledge can go a long way to preventing a bite because you will be warier when you see them, know how to act around them and have a good idea of where they are likely to be found.
However, there still some key things you can do in order to best prevent yourself from being bitten. After all, preventing a bite is far better than having to deal with being bitten. Especially if you are possibly not going to receive quick, medical attention. Here is a handy bullet point checklist to keep with you so that you have the best chance of avoiding a bite. Don’t touch: as your mother always used to tell you, if you leave it alone, it’ll leave you alone. Snakes will normally only attack you if you threaten them. Also, don’t prod them with a stick either because if you’re close enough to do that, you’re close enough to be bitten.
Check your campsite: if you’re camping try to stay near a path, as snakes tend not to cross them. Keep your survival tent zipped up while you’re out so that you don’t come back to any surprises and also keep shoes inside your tent. Snakes love to hide inside things.
Don’t turn over logs: careful if you’re turning over logs or stepping next to rocks as snakes tend to stay underneath them out of harms way. Also watch out for snakes on hanging branches.
Dress appropriately: it is worth investing in a pair of snake gaiters (chaps) and thick boots which are resistant to bites, especially if you know you’re likely to come across one.
Watch your step: remember to look where you’re stepping and try to walk on paths; snakes hide in long grass, under leaves and rocks.
Treating a Snake Bite
If the worst comes to the worst and you do end up in the deadly situation of being bitten by a venomous snake, then you will need to make sure you know how to treat a snake bite. Like we said, most snake bites occur when you aren’t aware the snake was there in the first place, so even the most prepared can suffer a nasty nip. Here are the dos and don’t of treating a snake bite:
Seek professional help: this an absolute must and you need to react quickly. Snake venom will quickly start to destroy your blood cells and skin tissue. Medical professionals will be able to treat you with the correct antivenin.
Identify the snake: try to remember what the snake looked like so that you can describe it to the emergency services. What was the shape of its head? How big was it? Are there any distinctive markings?
Stay calm: you need to try to keep your heart rate down to prevent the venom from quickly spreading. Remember to keep your wound lower than you heart, for this reason. Equipment: it is recommended by medical professionals that you don’t use suction devices to remove venom. These are ineffective can actually do more harm than good. Loosen clothing: this will help because you will start to swell after the bite.
Eating Snakes as Survival Food
Yes, we have just rambled on about the dangers of snakes and how to avoid them. The truth is that snakes can be the ultimate survival food. As well as potentially killing you, they could ultimately save your life if you are left with no other option. In fact, in some countries like India and China, snake is a delicacy. Be warned though, many snakes will not have a nice taste but in a survival situation, that will be the least of your worries.
Which Snake Can You Eat?
When it comes to deciding which snake to eat, it’s really up to you. You can eat any snake without harm to yourself, although there are some things to consider. Eating venomous snakes is not necessarily harmful, however catching them can be potentially lethal.
The other thing to keep in mind when eating venomous snakes is that if you have open cuts in your mouth/throat, then the venom can get into your bloodstream. It is advisable to avoid eating their head, where the venom is stored. You also need to be aware of endangered species, like the eastern indigo snake. However, if it’s life or death, who’s judging you?
Finally, you should also watch out for a reflex bite. Yes, that’s right. Even if snakes are dead, some of them have a natural reflex which means they can still bite you and inject venom. Try to stay away from the head as best you can.
How to Catch, Prepare and Cook a Snake
When preparing a snake, there are certain parts you will want to get rid of and parts you want to eat. Knowing what to do in the preparation stages will make your meal much more enjoyable. Follow the next few steps to best prepare your snake for eating:
Firstly, catch the snake safely. There is no point in being careless and risking being bitten by a venomous snake.
You can catch the snake with a net or by pinning the head down with a stick so that it cannot strike you.
Be careful picking up snakes which are already dead; watch for the reflex bite and some snakes die from eating poisoned mice and rats.
Chop the head off and stay away from it; best to avoid the venom and did we mention the reflex bite already?
Cut the snake open from its anal vent which can be found a couple of inches from the bottom of its tail. Cut all the way up the middle of its stomach.
Trim off all the connective tissue i.e. the tissue which attaches its skin to its body. Then peel the skin off.
Pull all the guts out; they should come out as one and easily. Use them as fertilizer or bait!
Rinse the meat out and then chop into suitable portion sizes for cooking.
Now you’re ready to cook the meat however you like! Here’s an article on survival cooking for inspiration. Do make sure you cook it thoroughly so that you don’t pick up any nasty infections.
Bonus tip: why not keep the snake skin to try and re-use it?
This article was submitted for publication by Connor Mollison of Sniff Outdoors. Check out Connor’s Ultimate Deadly Snake Guide, an infographic on how to identify the venomous snakes of North America and what to do if you come across one.
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“The truth is that not all venomous snakes have slit-shaped eyes BUT all snakes with slit-shaped eyes are venomous.”
This is inaccurate information, for example, the Emerald Tree Boa has slit shaped eyes and is not venomous and even can be bought as a pet.