timber rattlerI am deathly afraid of snakes.

The good news: During decades of hunting, hiking, camping and random rambling around the woods and mountains from Virginia to North Carolina to Alabama, I saw few snakes of any kind, and never had a close encounter with a timber rattler.

The bad news: Last August, on a remote ridge halfway into a 15-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail in central Virginia, I nearly stepped on a huge yellow-phase rattler.

Last week on another day hike on the AT, I passed a southbounder who said,” Be careful, rattler in the trail about a mile back.” About a mile up the trail, leaves rustled just off the path and I jumped two feet. A big black-phase rattler coiled there, looking dastardly and deadly.

With two venomous snake encounters in less than a year, my luck has run out, and so I have done extensive research on how to avoid a rattlesnake encounter. These tips are from the USDA. They are timely, since most bites occur between April and October when snakes and humans are most active outdoors.

–Wear over-the-ankle hiking boots, thick socks and loose-fitting long pants. Never go barefoot or wear sandals in wild areas. (I wear shorts on summer hikes, but have started wearing high, thick wool outer socks which could help stop fangs, God forbid.)

–Stick to well-used trails if possible. (I was on a major trail during both my encounters, so you never know; and when turkey (spring) or deer hunting in early fall, you are rarely on a trail, so look where you’re walking!) Avoid tall grass, weeds and heavy underbrush where snakes may hide during the day.

–Look at your feet, watch where you step and do not put your foot in or near a crevice where you cannot see. Do not step or put your hands where you cannot see.

–If a fallen tree or large rock is in your path, step up on to it instead of over it, as there might be a snake on the other side. (Learned this in Boy Scouts many moons ago.)

–Be especially careful when climbing rocks; check out stumps or logs before sitting down.

–Shake out sleeping bag before use. (Now there’s a scary thought!)

–Do not turn over rocks or logs. If you must move a rock or log, use gloves and roll it toward you, giving anything beneath it the opportunity to escape in the opposite direction.

–Avoid approaching any snake you cannot positively identify as a safe species. (No problem there, as I hate all snakes!)

–If you hear the warning rattle, move away from the area and do not make any sudden or threatening moves. Remember rattlesnakes do not always rattle before they strike!

–Do not handle a freshly killed snake, it can still inject venom. (Again no problem, I don’t kill any snakes. Not cause I don’t want to, I’m just running too fast away.)

Photo: My friend John Fink ran across this rattler on his morning hike in north Alabama last week.

Coming tomorrow: First-aid for a rattlesnake bite.