Snakes on the Run

Illuminated parchment, Spain, circa AD 950-955...
Illuminated parchment, Spain, circa AD 950-955, depicting the Fall of Man, cause of original sin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As if it’s not enough to worry about human predators while we’re running, there’s a whole other species to watch out for in summer:  snakes.

Runner’s World says it’s rare to encounter snakes on a run, but the editors must be spending too much time in the city.  I’ve leapt over three on the trail in the past month alone.  In New England, where I live, we’ve had a lot of rain, and rain flushes snakes out of hiding. So does the sun.  Snakes like to sunbathe, just like humans.

At summer’s peak, they’re more active at night, but as fall approaches, they’ll move around more during the day; they’re most active in spring and fall, so trail runners need to keep an eye out for the narrow fellows lurking in the grass.  I’m pretty sure they’ve got it out for runners in particular, since we have such magnificent legs and they’ve got none.

The snakes I leapt over seemed harmless enough, but then it occurred to me that I know nothing about snakes except that one offered an apple to Adam and Eve, and that didn’t turn out so great.

If you, like me and venture off the beaten path, even if only a couple of days each month, it’s a good idea to learn about the snakes native to your region.  Only a few pose a real danger, the rest are all shivers, no venom.    Where I live, only two kinds of snakes are poisonous:  the northern copperhead and the timber rattlesnake.  But a glimpse of either of these guys on a trail would be enough to keep me running on city streets for life.

If you run into this guy, you might swear off trail running for good. (Photo by Jeremiah Easter, used with permission of photographer.)
If you run into this guy, you might swear off trail running for good. (Photo by Jeremiah Easter, used with permission of photographer.)

Until that happens, I guess I’ll take my chances, armed with knowledge about what to do next time I see a snake on the trail.  Here’s what the experts say:

First of all, when you spot a snake in your path, stop running!

My leaping over the snakes, accompanied by an unsuspecting dog, was the worst thing I could have done, save stuck out my leg and said, “Here, have a bite.”

Instead, stop and stand still. Wait for the snake to move away, as he likely will.  If he doesn’t, go wide, and go slowly around him.

And don’t  think that if a snake is small, you have nothing to fear.  The northern copperhead, which lives in most eastern states, can and will bite from the moment of birth. (Which may explain why northern copperheads don’t breastfeed.)

If you are bitten, again, “do not run” is the operative phrase. Movement causes venom to spread. The process is called envenomation, and you don’t want it to happening to you, like it did to this unfortunate guy.

Also, do not try to suck the venom out, and/or fashion a tourniquet.  Neither will do any good.  You need to get to civilization as quickly as possible.  Call 911, your best friend, Dr. Who, anybody, quickly, and tell them where you are and what happened.  If you have no cell phone or cell reception, walk to your car, or anywhere people are, keeping your leg as still as possible. Then, get to a hospital, where you can be treated with antivenom, and start embellishing your story. (You did just outrun a 12-foot python, after all.)

Seven to eight thousand people get bitten by snakes each year, but only five of them will die, according to the Centers for Disease Control.   So statistically speaking, we’re probably safe unless we run regularly through the Arizona desert or the Everglades. Of course, statistics don’t matter to the five who die.

All of this is a good reminder of how important it is to take a buddy and/or a cell phone on our runs.   And, depending on how much you hate snakes, it might be good reason to stay off the trails. (If you do fear snakes, you’ve got lots of company; it’s usually No. 1 on lists of the top fears of human beings.)

After my third encounter, I decided to stay off the trails for a while, and so, on the next sunny morning, I headed off down a country road for a 7-miler.  Halfway done, I turned around on bridge, where something shimmery caught my eye.  It was a snake, curled up on the wooden railing, sunning himself. Like Dickinson,  I went “zero at the bone.”

But I think I heard him hiss, “Damned runners,” as he slipped off the bridge into the water.


I'm a single mother of four who has been running injury-free for 27 years, astonishingly without ever losing any weight. I'm a writer and editor near Boston, and author of "Honey, Do You Need a Ride? Confessions of a Fat Runner."

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  1. I tend to encounter snakes on the asphalt path I run on with the stroller. In fact, I once ran one over! It was a complete accident, but I think I killed it. With the stroller. I still feel bad. Most of the ones I’ve encountered are very small, but I did see a huge one on the road by my house one morning as I ran by. It was squished, but it got me thinking about what lurks in the brush. Shudder.

  2. Yikes, I didn’t even think about watching out for snakes when I went on my first trail run yesterday. I’ve never encountered one on my run, though I’ve seen quite a few rattlesnakes while hiking in Shenandoah.

  3. We’ve seen a snake hiking but not running. It kind of freaked me out. I’m not scared of snakes per se, but I would prefer never to see one again outside a zoo! Ugh. I’m also scared of mountain lions – are you doing a post on mountain lions please? 🙂

  4. It was exactly 1 year ago that I encountered a ‘milk’ snake at dusk while running along the Santa Ana River trail. The first mistake I made was running with my head down which left me little advance notice of my ‘friend’. My quick jerk and jump (looked like a very bad dance move) caused me to strain my hip flexor. I was a running wreck for the next 4 weeks, recovering from injury and over sensitive to any trail visitors. I’ve discovered this is common for the region I live as since I’ve also lept over or run around tarantulas and scorpions.
    I’m not sure if this was the same snake but on my long Saturday run I did notice a critter in the middle of the road who lost a battle with a truck. Needless to say I am no fan of any snake and I hate, hate being surprised by them.
    Heads up runners!