I generally don’t worry about venomous snakes when I am out hiking, but it sure is a concern of those who I meet. So the question arises, just how much risk is one taking when out hiking barefoot?
One reason I don’t worry too much is that there aren’t all that many venomous snakes where I usually hike. Central Ohio just doesn’t have very many.
I do occasionally come across snakes, just not the venomous kinds. Here’s a garter snake that was on the trail alongside Lake Hope at Zaleski:
And here’s a black rat snake, also near Lake Hope, though this one wasn’t on the trail but off to the side.
I see black rat snakes more than anything.
I’ve also seen mud snakes at Rose Lake in Hocking Hills and Tar Hollow.
There are supposedly (rare) timber rattlesnakes at Zaleski State Forest and and Vinton Furnace Experimental State Forest, but I’ve never seen one.
One time I did see a copperhead swimming in the water just below Cedar Falls in Hocking Hills, so they are around.
But how risky is it for me to be barefooted?
Obviously, I don’t think it’s that bad, or I wouldn’t do it. For one thing, going barefooted can actually be a bit more protective.
You see, when you go barefooted you have to do a better job of noticing what you are stepping on, regardless of whether it is a snake or not. So I think I am less likely to step on one (or get too close) in the first place. And I have anecdotal evidence of that.
About ten years ago my son and I went backpacking in the mountains of Virginia, at Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness Area. We both started off barefoot, but his feet were a bit sensitive, so he ended up putting on sandals. I stayed barefoot.
Heading around the southern tip of Bald Ridge, he walked right by a rattlesnake that was curled up about a foot off the side of the path. I noticed it, however. That’s just the way things are when you are barefoot. Since I’d seen it, I was able to ease around it without disturbing it. Fortunately, it was pretty mellow (actually, most rattlesnakes are, as long as you don’t pester them), so it didn’t go after my son.
As a side note, later that day, on top of the ridge, we stopped to eat and I went to sit down on a rock—surprise! There’s nothing like the sudden sound of rattles to make one jump out of one’s skin.
There was a small (2 foot) rattler just behind the rock I was about to sit on. Boy, there’d be nothing to tell who your true friends are than to be bitten on the butt by a rattlesnake. Anyways, the snake was kind enough to give warning, I jumped, and everything was copacetic. We then spent a bit of time looking at it from a safe distance.
There’s another reason I’m not too concerned about the fact that I am barefoot as opposed to shod: shoes aren’t all that protective.
If you look at the literature, an awful lot of snake bites are what they call illegitimate. They involve the victim goofing around with the snakes, deliberately handling them. Often alcohol is involved. But if you remove that, your odds of being bitten just walking along are pretty rare.
And as I mentioned, shoes are not that protective. If you are wearing sneakers, fangs won’t have much trouble going through the cloth uppers if it tries to bite you on the foot. Even regular hiking boots generally just have somewhat thicker uppers. If you really want protection from snakes, you need to be wearing calf-high leather cowboy boots.
But few hikers do, so I’m really not that much at a disadvantage just by being barefoot.
We can also take a look at where snakes bite. There is a table in the 1966 article, Incidence of treated snakebites in the United States that has data on that from 1958-1959.
- 15: Head, face, and neck.
- 20: Trunk.
- 20: Upper arm.
- 121: Forearm.
- 323: Hand.
- 601: Fingers.
- 61: Upper leg.
- 747: Lower leg and ankle.
- 706: Foot.
- 142: Toes.
Or, here’s a report from 1929, found on page 30 in the book Venomous Reptiles of the United States, Canada and Northern Mexico, by Carl and Evelyn Ernst. (Note, these are specifically called legitimate snakebites.)
- 3: Head.
- 2: Torso.
- 1: Upper arm.
- 19: Forearm.
- 3: Wrist.
- 66: Hand.
- 123: Finger.
- 1: Thigh.
- 88: Shin.
- 66: Ankle.
- 142: Foot.
Obviously, shoes won’t help at all for anything above the ankle (and quite frankly, for most running shoes or sneakers, not even at the ankle). As you can see, for anywhere on the leg, about half the bites are above shoe level, so bare feet don’t make a whit of difference. And as I said before, fangs will make it through most shoes (after all, I doubt that all those documented foot bites were on people walking around barefoot).
Bottom line: probably the most protective thing one can do (short of thick leather to your knees) is exactly what I do: go barefoot. That way I am much more like to see the snake and avoid the snakebite in the first place.
I should mention a caveat to that. When I am off-trail and bushwhacking snakes are not as easy to see. On the other hand, I carry and use a hiking stick which usually gets placed out in front of me. With any luck that can also alert me to the presence of a snake.
Anyways, snake bite just isn’t something that I am too concerned about. It’s a low probability event in the first place, and bare feet do not increase the risk the way a shod person thinks it might.