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A Trail Runner’s Guide to Snakes

Get a better idea of what kind of snakes lurk on the trails.

Adapted with permission of VeloPress from Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running by Lisa Jhung with illustrations by Charlie Layton. For more, visit

Roughly 100 types of snakes slither around the United States, most of them nonvenomous and essentially harmless. However, there are 20 species of venomous snakes in the U.S.: 16 types of rattlesnakes, 2 types of coral snakes, and the cottonmouth (also known as “water moccasin”). Coral snakes have the most potent venom.

These cold-blooded creatures like to warm themselves in sunny places on sunny days. When it’s hot, they cool themselves in the shade. Their most active period is spring through early fall. They are nocturnal hunters, spending the day resting and sunning themselves. Depending on the type of snake, they eat small rodents, birds, fish, frogs and insects.

If you come across a snake, knowing what type it is can be a potential lifesaver should you get bitten. Informing medical professionals about the snake that struck you helps them quickly administer the proper treatment.


Rattlesnakes are common all over the continental United States, especially in the Southwest. They’re between 1 and 8 feet long, with bulky bodies and catlike pupils with no eyelids. Their heads are triangular, wide at the neck, and they have a pit between their eyes and nostrils (a distinguishing feature of a pit viper). They can be brown, gray, rust, yellow, cream, beige and of various patterns.

The most distinguishing rattlesnake feature is the rattle at the end of their tails, but know that rattles sometimes fall off.

Cottonmouth Snakes

Also known as water moccasins, these reptiles live in the southeastern United States, including eastern Texas. They can be up to 4 feet long and have large, triangular heads with pits between their eyes and nostrils (they are a type of pit viper, like rattlensnakes). Their bulky bodies taper to a narrow tail and are dark brown or dull black with lighter banding. When a cottonmouth opens its mouth in aggression, the sticky “spit” looks as if it just woke up after a bender and needs a Big Gulp.

Coral Snakes

These are the most lethal snakes in the U.S. but look an awful lot like the less dangerous scarlet king snake. Keep this rhyme in mind:

Red touch yellow—kill a fellow
Red touch black—venom lack

What to Do?

Regardless of the type of snake you encounter on the trail, your actions should be the same.


  • Leave the snake alone
  • Give it a wide berth.
  • Back away calmly as quickly and quietly as you can.


  • Stick your hands in crevices
  • Sit on logs or craggy rocks without looking around them and inside.
  • Step over a long into a shady, possible snake-napping spot.
  • Provoke the snake in any way.

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