Imagine that you’ve acquired a remote piece of land perfect for the backcountry home (or second home) you’ve always wanted. The trees are old and tall, and the hills around your site show the splendors of their name—the Blue Ridge Mountains. Wildlife abounds amid peaceful solitude.

It was winter when you found and bought the place and started planning to build. Suddenly, one day in springtime, you are shocked to come across a rattlesnake. It’s a timber rattlesnake, you notice, supposedly an endangered species in several states. But there it is, coiled with rattles buzzing. You feel lucky it didn’t bite you, and relieved when it crawls away into a brushy tangle among the rocks. Then, heart pounding and on your way back to your car, you come across two more timber rattlers sliding across your path. The reality is that near where you’re standing is a den of dozens of timber rattlers just under a big rock slab protruding from the hillside.

Similarly, imagine that you’re a farmer in South Carolina cruising the pine forest adjacent to your fields and looking for tall and straight trees you want to harvest. Your eyes are locked on the overhead branches when the back of your right leg explodes under a powerful blow. You’ve been hit by a diamondback rattlesnake, now rattling furiously, coiled as if to strike again. He never rattled, your mind screams as your heart rate soars. The reality is that rattlesnakes don’t always rattle.

In other scenarios, you’re a fisherman approaching a boat you’ve left turned over beside a pond. When you pull the edge up, a cottonmouth moccasin slides away. Or you’re hiking a popular trail, but turn off the path to pick some berries. When you spot a copperhead coiled and waiting in the bushes, you nearly jump out of your skin. Or you’re looking over an old farm building that’s going to be torn down. Movement on one of the rafters catches your attention, and you look up to see a beautiful and deadly coral snake stretched along a wooden beam.

America’s poisonous snakes can be encountered in a variety of situations where you have invaded their turf. People react to snakes in various ways. There are some who know snakes so well that they are not startled by them, and can even pick them up and handle them. For most, however, the mere glimpse of even a small garter snake causes a severe jolt of fear and panic.

If you go anywhere out where the pavement ends, you’re going to come across a snake sooner or later. They may scare the hell out of you, but they probably won’t hurt you. In fact, most of the time you’ll be scaring the hell out of the snake. There are exceptions, however, and the encounter can leave you needing medical attention.

TImber Rattlesnake and Copperhead are two snakes that grouped under pit vipers
TImber Rattlesnake and Copperhead are two snakes that grouped under pit vipers

Get Snake Savvy

You’ve been bitten by a snake! No, it’s not likely you’ll die, although it could happen. But it’s going to be an incredibly frightening and inconvenient experience. Avoiding such a calamity will be easier if you know more about snakes, particularly the snakes that live in the backcountry spots you like to visit.

Of the 50-some species of snakes that make their homes in the U.S., only four are poisonous: rattlesnakes, cottonmouth moccasins, copperheads and coral snakes. These pit vipers, as they are called, and their subspecies bite about 8,000 people every year. About five percent of these people will die per year on average. For some of the survivors, the event is a minor setback after medical treatment and anti-venom serum. For others—with swollen, blackening limbs, nausea and vomiting, and breathing problems—it is a hellish descent, with the serum and hospital care saving their lives.

You’re not going to shy away from an active outdoor life because of snakes, and you have no intention of becoming a snakebite victim, poisonous or non-poisonous. You can do that with some simple precautions, beginning with being aware of what kinds of snakes you’ll come across in the terrain you’re hiking, camping, boating or hunting. Undoubtedly, snakes will be nearby, whether you see them or not.

RELATED: 5 Must-Knows To Avoid Deadly Rattlesnakes

Snakes live where they can ambush their favorite prey. From swamplands to mountain ridges, from lush farm-country pastures and fence rows to scraggly cactus and brushy prairies, as the terrain varies, so varies the types of snakes that make their homes there. Cottonmouth moccasins and all water snakes will be after frogs, fish, minnows and the like. For copperheads, field mice top the menu. Rattlesnakes, with subspecies like the small pigmy rattler and the largest U.S. pit viper of them all, the eastern diamondback, prey on a wide list of critters, including rabbits, squirrels, rats and mice, birds, large insects and even other snakes.

The coral snake, being very rare and only found in the deep southeastern corner of the U.S., is the fourth dangerous snake. Their venom is among the deadliest of all snakes, but the amount they deliver is small, like the snake itself, and they are seldom encountered. The coral snake resembles the friendly king snake, with an important color exception: the red and yellow rings of coloring. The old rhyme goes: “Red touch black, good for Jack. Red touch yellow, kill a fellow.”

Common varieties of non-poisonous snakes you’re likely to encounter are the black snake, usually found in places like woods edges and overgrown fence rows; garter snakes, in gardens everywhere; the rat snake, big and menacing looking in abandoned buildings and barns; the water snake, beside ponds and sloughs, creeks, rivers and lakes; the king snake, which will actually attack rattlesnakes; and the often-encountered green snake.

deadly Rattlesnakes
Endangered or not, timber rattlesnakes are poisonous.

Attack Avoidance

There are so many of these non-poisonous types out there that it would take an encyclopedia to describe them. Two of them, however, deserve more than a passing interest. They will bite you! They are the black snake and the water moccasin, especially the brown water moccasin. These two have somewhat of a surly disposition. They may flee, as most snakes will, when you come across them. They may defend their turf by trying to make you flee—and bite you if you don’t get out of the way quickly enough. No, you won’t die. But it’s going to scare you half to death and medical attention will be required.

Southern U.S. boaters need to be aware that moccasins like to pitch camp on tree limbs. When you’re working your boat or canoe through a tight place and a spooked moccasin plops right into your boat instead of the water, keep your cool and use an oar to try and flip it out of the vessel.

A lot of folks seem to think that all water moccasins are poisonous cottonmouth moccasins. Water moccasin’s colors can vary greatly, and sometimes do match the dusky cottonmouth look. But the cottonmouth moccasin is heavier, its head blunter with the protruding side sacs where the poison is stored, and sport a tail that is not long and thin in diameter like the water snake’s. I grew up in Georgia and have seen many cottonmouths in the wild, but nothing to match the one a Mossy Oak camera crew has posted on YouTube. Go to and type in “World’s Largest Cottonmouth Snake—Mossy Oak,” and you’ll get a chilling look at a cottonmouth you don’t want to come anywhere near you on some riverbank.

Because of its size (and perhaps the dread it causes) the diamondback rattlesnake gets the most attention. However, it is the smaller copperhead that creates the most mischief. Copperheads bite more people than any other poisonous snake.

RELATED: Train Your Dog To Avoid Deadly Snakes

The copperhead’s notoriety can be attributed to the snake’s wide distribution, 26 states in the Northeast, Midwest, mid-South and Southeast. While it likes hilly, rocky terrain with lots of shadowy nooks where small prey like mice thrive, copperheads also frequent lowland brush piles, decaying fencerows, firewood stacks and even gardens. Its victims end up at the hospital for a variety of errors, including stupid ones like going barefoot or wearing flip-flops in the woods, handling the snake in some way, and trying to kill them needlessly and carelessly. The copperhead does not pack the venomous punch of the diamondback rattler, but they average 2 to 4 feet in length and their bite will ruin your day and your trip.

For the record, you’re more likely to be bitten by a copperhead in North Carolina than any other state. In fact, North Carolina ranks number-one in snakebite incidents involving all types of snakes. If this doesn’t get you thinking about copperheads and timber rattlers on your next trip hiking the Great Smoky Mountains, it should.

The timber rattler, which we mentioned earlier, is one of 32 subspecies of rattlesnakes, ranging from the big and dangerous eastern diamondback rattler to the aptly-named pigmy rattler. The lineup includes interesting individuals like the canebrake rattler, with a reputation for aggressiveness, and the Mojave rattler, thought to have the deadliest venom of all rattlers.

The most rattlesnake press ink, internet attention and personal concerns go to the eastern diamondback, which is frequently found at 6 feet in length and weights of 10 pounds or more. One look at the swollen poison sacs on each side of its head can send shudders down your spine, especially when you see you just missed stepping on the coiled bundle. Their prey ranges from rabbits to mice and any small creatures that wander into their strike zones. Their strikes are lightning-fast and measure about a third of the length of their bodies.

This museum display shows just how frightening a rattlesnake strike can be.
This museum display shows just how frightening a rattlesnake strike can be.

Trail Hazards

If today’s diamondback rattlers don’t get your attention, consider some from recorded history. The noted South Carolina writer and poet laureate Archibald Rutledge writes in his memoir, The Woods and Wild Things I Remember, of encountering diamondbacks 8 feet in length in his plantation days in the 1890s. Such creatures today are thought to be extinct, but occasionally unconfirmed reports and phony photographs make their way onto the internet purporting to be such monster diamondbacks. Leave it to be said that if such a rattlesnake did exist in the South Carolina low country, and your path took you to where it was coiled, you would be in serious trouble.

Diamondback rattlers have the habit of crawling outside their holes in the dead of winter to soak up southern sunshine. I have encountered rattlers—coiled and basket-looking, ready to strike—three times while quail hunting in Georgia. All southern hunters are aware of the dangers to themselves and their dogs in rattlesnake country. In Texas, these dangers are multiplied to a point where hunters wear snake-proof boots or chaps and carry serum to administer to their dogs. These hunters go onto full alert when they reach down to pick up a bird or anything.

Being alert is good advice for anytime you’re in snake country. It’s not like a war zone, but you have to watch where you’re putting your hands or feet. And if you encounter a snake, follow the advice of my dear, departed southern mother: “Don’t fool with it!” 

This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  Issue #191. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here.          

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