I just got back from a trip to Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree is beautiful, vast, and despite being a desert, full of life. The park lends itself to be explored on your own whim, to pick and choose between meandering paths in the desert. Many of the paths aren’t paved by people, they’re animal tracks. They could’ve been paved by lizards, mice, squirrels, birds, foxes, coyotes, mountain goats, or even mountain lions.
Of all the wildlife out there, the animal I worry about the most is the rattlesnake. Encounters with rattlesnakes while hiking have become a familiar occurrence for me, with a couple of close calls. Joshua Tree has 7 types of rattlesnakes that call the park home. Getting bitten without provocation is a rare occurrence, but I still think that it’s the most likely scenario for an animal attacking you. They sunbathe in the open and hide under rocks for shade. They can be well camouflaged, and you never know if you might step on or near one.
If you get bitten, you must make it to a hospital.
That’s the thing that fundamentally changes this type of injury. A lot of the common injuries you could have while hiking will be just fine with the help of a first aid kit and some rest. A rattlesnake bite requires that you make it to a hospital no matter how bad the encounter was. If untreated, your bodily functions will start to shut down. The clock is ticking, anti-venom will stop further damage from the venom but won’t magically heal the damage it had already done to you up to that point.
As I hiked through the desert, observing all of the holes in the ground that are surely home to a feast of rodents, there was one question I couldn’t get out of my head.
What would I do if I got bitten by a rattlesnake?
I found no cell reception in the park. There are 3 emergency phones in the park — I don’t know where they are. I climbed over big boulders to get to where I am on a pave your own way path. As I ran through scenarios in my head, I eventually concluded that being the good boyfriend that I am, it’d be better if my girlfriend got bit than me. For the simple reason that I could carry my girlfriend back to the car but I’m pretty sure she couldn’t carry me and that seems like one of the only options we would have. You need to get to a hospital and the time it would take for one of us to get back to the car, find help, wait for help to get back to you, and then take you to the hospital feels like it would take an unwise amount of time.
I’ve always felt somewhat ill-prepared for this event. I have a little first aid training, enough to know that your body could swell so it’s a good idea to take off jewelry, and you may go into shock. They say you should treat shock by lying down and raising your feet slightly. The thing that gets me, is that the most likely place I would get bitten is on my ankle or lower leg, and they tell you not to raise the bite above your heart because it will bring the venom to your heart faster. So hopefully you don’t go into shock or maybe just raise the opposite leg. I should note that most people get bit in the hand to shoulder region but in an unprovoked encounter, I’d expect myself to get bitten on the leg.
After coming home from our trip, I decided I needed to put my fear-setting to rest and educate myself. After a little research, I have a better understanding and somewhat of a plan. The best case for this desert scenario is that you’re not too far away from the car and are well enough to just walk out of there. Put some type of bandage on the wound but otherwise leave it alone. Have somebody else drive you and when you make it to cell reception, call 911, ask them to tell you where the nearest hospital with anti-venom is. All rattlesnakes are part of the pit viper family so the anti-venom is the same for each one, no need to ID which type of rattlesnake got you. There’s also no need to try to suck venom out use a snake bite kit or any of the other methods you may have heard about. Once the venom is in, it’s in. There’s also a chance the snake didn’t even inject any venom, so look on the bright side!
At the end of the day, it’s very rare to get bitten and rarely lethal. You will, however, need to find your way to a hospital if you were bitten. It’s healthy to think through these scenarios and have a plan while you’re out exploring. Hopefully, the next time I go out into rattlesnake country, I’ll feel a little more at ease now that I’ve educated myself on what to do.
I feel better now saying I would prefer myself getting bitten over my girlfriend.
Originally published at https://joeczubiak.com on December 7, 2020.