2 Free Issues and 3 Free Gifts!
Full Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
Zip Code:
Email: (required)
If I like it and decide to continue, I'll pay just $12.00, and receive a full one-year subscription (9 issues in all), a 73% savings off the newsstand price! If for any reason I decide not to continue, I'll write "cancel" on the invoice and owe nothing.
Your subscription includes 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Or click here to pay now and get 2 extra issues
Offer valid in US only.

Also on

Enter Zip Code

Backpacker Magazine – February 2001

Avoiding Snakes: Nature's Evil Twins

Some species look alike, but guess wrong and you could have a harmful mistake on your hands.

by: Terry Krautwurst

PAGE 1 2

The snake flashed beneath the weeds and struck me just below the right knee with a whump! that felt like I'd been hit with a rubber hammer. Then just as quickly, it was gone, its patterned body blending into the leaf litter. I stood there, listening to my heart trying to pound its way out of my chest, wondering why I felt no pain. I checked my leg; no bite marks. My pants apparently deflected the fangs, if the snake had any. The reptile I watched glide away resembled a copperhead, but so do several harmless species of snakes that reside in my neck of the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains.

Did I come close to being bitten by a venomous snake? Because I didn't know what to look for back then, I'll never be certain. But I can tell you this: It was a long, careful hike back to the trailhead.

Nature is full of lookalikes, and while there's no great need to be able to distinguish a song sparrow from a chipping sparrow, the smart hiker knows how to tell the dangerous flora and fauna from the similar, safe ones. It can mean the difference between a pleasant trip and one on which your well-being is at risk.


The United States harbors only two groups of venomous snakes: the somewhat rare coral snakes and the more common pit vipers, which include rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. Pit vipers are equipped with venom-injecting fangs and are so named for the tiny, heat-sensing pit located on each side of the head, between the eye and nostril. The pit helps them to locate prey.

Of course, if you see a snake with rattles, you know it's venomous. This simplifies matters in the West, where rattlesnakes are the only pit vipers. But in the eastern half of the country, rattleless cottonmouths and copperheads both bear markings akin to many harmless species.

To determine which variety you've encountered, look (at a comfortable distance, using binoculars) for a triangular head and other safe-or-sorry distinctions (see "Deadly Nuances," next page).

Water snakes in particular are easily mistaken for pit vipers. "Cottonmouths can look a lot like some water snakes," says Jeff Beane, curator of herpetology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Body language is a good clue. "Cottonmouths are poor climbers and are likely to form a tight circular coil on a stump or log just above water level. Water snakes usually hang draped over a branch in a tree or bush."

PAGE 1 2

Subscribe to Backpacker magazine
Sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter
Address 1:
Address 2:
Email (req):
Reader Rating: -


Jul 21, 2011

I come across rattlers way more often than I would like to. The important thing to remember is, these snakes don't want to bite you. They are more scared of you than you are of them. If you see one, first back up slowly (if you are close). You don't want to look like you are attacking. Give the snake it's distance and never corner it. Make sure you watch where you're going. Rattlers like to hide under fallen tree trunks or rocks. When stepping over look and tap your hiking pole before stepping.

Jul 21, 2011

A little confusion here. First it says rattlesnakes are the only dangerous snakes in the West, then it talks about the Arizona coral snake.

illinois hiker
Jul 21, 2011

Pictures would be nice

Jul 21, 2011

Great idea for an article, but in the 2 seconds it takes to get bit, I'm supposed to notice his eyes? What if the lil bugger is wearing sunglasses !?!

Nov 12, 2009

did some one ever got bite besides you


Your rating:
Your Name:


My Profile Join Now

Most recent threads

Trailhead Register
Stop me if you've heard this...
Posted On: Jul 25, 2014
Submitted By: desert dweller
Do you use a PLB?
Posted On: Jul 25, 2014
Submitted By: High_Sierra_Fan

View all Gear
Find a retailer

Special sections - Expert handbooks for key trails, techniques and gear

Check out Montana in Warren Miller's Ticket to Ride
Warren Miller athletes charge hard and reflect on Big Sky country, their love for this space and the immense energy allotted to the people who reside in Montana.

Boost Your Apps
Add powerful tools and exclusive maps to your BACKPACKER apps through our partnership with Trimble Outdoors.

Carry the Best Maps
With BACKPACKER PRO Maps, get life-list destinations and local trips on adventure-ready waterproof myTopo paper.

FREE Rocky Mountain Trip Planner
Sign up for a free Rocky Mountain National Park trip planning kit from our sister site

Follow BackpackerMag on Twitter Follow Backpacker on Facebook
Get 2 FREE Trial Issues and 3 FREE GIFTS
Survival Skills 101 • Eat Better
The Best Trails in America
YES! Please send me my FREE trial issues of Backpacker
and my 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Full Name:
Address 1:
Zip Code:
Address 2:
Email (required):
Free trial offer valid for US subscribers only. Canadian subscriptions | International subscriptions