Tips for Bike Ride Safety in Rattlesnake Habitat: It’s Snakesgiving in the Desert


Tips for Bike Ride Safety in Rattlesnake Habitat: It’s Snakesgiving in the Desert

If you live in a rattlesnake habitat, you’ve probably noticed an uptick in the number of rattlesnakes present over the past few weeks. On a ride in Arizona yesterday, Josh and John had a close call with a Western rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus. As a lifelong herp fanatic, John penned a few notes on how to stay snake-safe on bike rides in rattlesnake habitat…

A stunning Western, Mesa, AZ, 2024

Snake Lover for Life

I’ve been fascinated with venomous snakes since I was a teenager. Growing up in coastal North Carolina, I’d spend my summer months flipping over sheet metal from fallen tobacco barns to see what was underneath. More often than not, there would be a corn snake, king snake, or bull snake (out west, we call these gopher snakes.)

But there were plenty of occasions where a timber or eastern rattlesnake would be coiled up in a defensive position immediately. The first few times this happened, it scared me, but after some time spent with a local herpetologist, capturing snakes for anti-venom, I formed a lifelong bond with these misunderstood reptiles.

Now, as an adult who’s spent the latter half of his life in the American West, namely dry and arid landscapes–rattlesnake domain–I’ve encountered many rattlesnakes on bike rides, hikes, and backpacking trips. But yesterday’s encounter in Mesa, Arizona was my closest call yet.

Mojave Glory; Josh riding in Mesa, AZ


One of my favorite podcasts is Desert Oracle. Ken Layne lives in Joshua Tree, California, and shares a mix of personal anecdotes, political critique, local events, desert lore, and the like in his weekly transmission from the Mojave Desert. His raspy voice often talks about spring in the desert as “Snakesgiving,” or the time of year when the rattlesnakes emerge from their dens and are more prevalent in the desert.  Ken warns locals and tourists alike to be alert while recreating in his beloved backyard of Joshua Tree National Park.

Volcanic Tablelands, Mojave Desert, 2015

A Quick Note on Rattlesnakes

During the shoulder seasons, rattlesnakes will exit their burrows and look for their first meal, which usually consists of rodents or birds. Upon feeding, they will find a sunny patch of rock or exposed dirt to sun on. Since they are ectothermic animals, this “basking” helps aid in digestion. Snakes regulate their body temperature by moving from hot, exposed places, to cool, shady places.

There is no better zone for temperature regulation than roads—and yeah, singletrack! Often lined with plants and rocky outcroppings, rattlesnakes love singletrack and dirt roads. They spend the hottest part of the day in the shade and then move out to the trail to bask in the cool mornings and afternoons. Unfortunately, humans also recreate during this cycle.

Colin in Sedona, 2018

Be Snake Aware: Brake for Snakes!

A good rule of thumb during this time of year is to not wear headphones. Rattlesnakes use a hollow, segmented rattle at the end of their call to alert predators of their presence. This is made from keratin, just like your fingernails. These tails grow over the length of the snake’s life, and the segments can help give you a rough idea (strictly an estimate) of the snake’s age since they grow with skin sheds.

If you’re wearing headphones, you might miss this warning.



Another principle I use when riding is to use those gifts of human evolution: your eyes! I’ve grown accustomed to always looking for anything lying across the trail and using those milliseconds of approach to assess what it could be. In general, there aren’t a lot of exposed roots on trails in rattlesnake habitat in the west. I’ll always err on the side of caution when approaching a questionable snake-sized object.

When taking a break or waiting for people at the top of a climb, look where you step. Rattlesnakes like to curl up under or next to vegetation to thermal regulate. Often using this location for ambush hunting. If a rabbit or other rodent is using the same trail, the rattlesnake can strike like a harpoon and draw the animal back to its private nook. Snakes don’t want to eat in the open. It makes them vulnerable.  So, examine the periphery when you stop to take a break, especially in the shade.

Max and Tom in the Mojave, 2017

Dog Safety

The number one complaint I hear from dog owners is that “rattlesnakes are dangerous.” This is true, but it’s also important to note that we are in their domain. As such, if you value your dog’s life, you ought to get a few rattlesnake training classes. Vets stock antivenom, but it can be too late once you hike out of the trails and get back to your car.

Rattlesnake training helps dogs lose their curiosity and learn to leave them be. It is also worth noting that this is the exact reason why all USFS trails and many city parks require that dogs be kept on leash at all times. Being a responsible dog owner means knowing that when you go to a rattlesnake habitat, it is on you to protect your dog. It is not the dog’s or the snake’s fault if your dog is bitten—it is your own.

Last year, the Snake Bite Foundation released a study, claiming rattlesnake vaccines, or a pre-shot for snake bites, aren’t effective and can put your dog at risk…

Black-Tailed rattlesnake, Crotalus molossus, Sedona, 2018

What To Do if One Is on the Trail

Snakes play essential roles in their habitats and are best left alone if possible. A rattlesnake can strike almost its body length, and when coiled, it can be hard to deduce its length. The snake in the photos above was approximately a meter in length, but from looking at these photos, it’d be easy to misjudge that. I maintained a safe distance with my 200 mm zoom lens in this encounter.

If you do come across a basking snake across a trail, it is best to leave it be. Particularly if it is sunning across the trail, laid out tail to nose across the trail’s width. It will sense your presence and move. If it does not, examine a safe route around the snake, being mindful of the aforementioned circumstances–don’t go traipsing across more snake domains! Snakes will often den with other snakes during the winter months, so if there is one around, there could be more during Snakesgiving.

Southern Pacific rattlesnake, Crotalus helleri, Los Angeles National Forest, 2018

If the snake won’t move, can you double back or take another route? If so, do that. Do not throw rocks at rattlesnakes, as their rib cages are very fragile and can break, causing a mortal wound. When you encounter a snake such as the Western in the top images of this story, where it is coiled in a defensive position, it will often hold its ground. If it lunges at you, you are either too close to it, or it is simply looking for an exit. Snakes do not “chase” you; they just want to get away to safety. And please, never kill a rattlesnake or provoke it.

The best method is to give them space and leave the area for a few minutes to see if they leave on their own.

I moved the Western rattlesnake from yesterday’s ride by taking a dead palo verde branch twice the snake’s length and sliding it under its body, slightly lifting and guiding the snake to the downhill side of the trail. It quickly slithered away. I have a lot of experience with snake handling and was trained by a herpetologist on how to do this correctly. It is not recommended that you try this for various reasons…



What to Do if You’re Bitten?

UC Davis has a great video on what to do in case you’re bitten by a rattlesnake:

“A rattlesnake bite can cause severe or even life-threatening symptoms. Dr. James Chenoweth, an emergency department physician at UC Davis Medical Center, explains what to do if someone is bitten by a rattlesnake, how parents should care for a child that has been bitten and what hikers can do to stay safe on the trails.”


  • Stay calm
  • Keep your heart rate low
  • Do not apply a tourniquet for they can cause tissue damage, even leading to amputation!
  • Take yourself out of the situation safely
  • Get to a car
  • Go to a hospital or emergency department
  • If you are in a remote area, try to call 911 or use a GPS device like an InReach SOS call

A stunning Western, Mesa, AZ, 2024

What About this Encounter?

Josh and I were on a photoshoot with our buddy Ronnie Romance. We were heading back to the trailhead on a bench-cut climb when I pedaled past this Western, sunning itself on a rock ledge coiled up. I didn’t even see it and it didn’t rattle. I must have surprised it. As I pedaled past, it sprung forth, striking at my leg as it came down in the pedal stroke. The harpoon-like projectile head missed my leg but its body ended up tangled in my bike frame.

Thankfully, I was able to jump off the back of the bike, and the snake detangled itself from my frame, establishing a defensive pose on the trail. I swapped my wide-angle lens for a telephoto, documented it, and then safely removed the snake from the trail.

I have a rattlesnake tattoo on my right leg, right where the snake would have likely hit me. I like to think that my adoration and appreciation for rattlesnakes saved me from an uncomfortable afternoon…