Let’s say that you’re out hiking through the country. Turning a corner, you can see a snake in the path ahead. Like most people, your immediate reaction is either intense fear or curiosity. Either way, it’s vital that you know how far away a snake can strike, so that you stay safe.
A coiled snake can strike between one third and one half of its total length. For example, an average four-foot snake can strike from two feet. A less accurate defensive strike of up to two-thirds of their body length is also possible. Some snakes like coral snakes can’t coil, which limits their range.
That being said, it’s best not to tempt fate by getting this close to any snake. An aggressive snake is unpredictable, and could move closer to you to get you ‘in range.’ So, even though they have a clear maximum strike range, that doesn’t mean that you’re completely safe from getting bitten.
Table of Contents:
- 1 How Far Can a Snake Strike?
- 2 Can Snakes Jump at You?
- 3 Snake Strike Position
- 4 Can a Snake Strike if Not Coiled?
- 5 What Snake Can Strike the Farthest?
How Far Can a Snake Strike?
If you’re out hiking, or if a snake somehow got into your attic, it’s a scary experience. But, if you know how far away you have to be from a snake to stay safe, you’ll be fine.
Most snakes can strike from half or a third of their body length away. So, if they’re nine feet long, they could strike from between 3 feet or 4.5 feet away from you.
However, snakes can also lash out defensively with a less accurate strike. They can do this from two-thirds of their body length away. In the example above, a nine-foot snake could, therefore, strike from six feet away. It’s therefore wise to stay at least six feet away from that snake.
How high can a snake strike? Believe it or not, but the same answer applies. All they have to do is straighten out their body as quickly as they can, which they can either do vertically or horizontally.
That being said, snakes will strike at whatever’s close to them, which is why you need snake proof boots. They’ll lash out at whatever part of you is threatening them the most, so their precise vertical striking range doesn’t particularly matter.
Can Snakes Jump at You?
First things first, snakes can’t jump like humans. To jump like a person, they would need legs, or limb to push them up and away from the ground. It’s like if you were lying on the floor.
You wouldn’t be able to bounce or jump upwards, would you? You need your legs to act as springs, bending, and then straightening upwards, pushing away from the ground.
However, snakes can push themselves up and off the ground a little when they strike at you. When they’re coiled up, their tail will be flat against the ground, even if their coiled neck is a little raised.
When they lash out, straightening out their neck, this might be accompanied by a little jump forward. The striking force they use pulls them forward, and they can use their tail to push themselves even further. An aggressive four-foot cottonmouth can ‘jump’ a foot towards you when they strike, for example.
So how do snakes manage to strike out, as fast as lightning, and at prey that’s even further away than that? It’s all about preparation.
Snake Strike Position
To strike, snakes will get into an S shape. The body is tightly coiled around a central point, while the head is staring straight at you. The point is that this is a warning, where the snake is saying “You better step back, because I’ll bite you if you come any closer!” And it’s true. If you keep threatening the snake, they’ll launch forward at you and bite you in just a fraction of a second.
The point of coiling up is that it increases the snake strike speed. Rather than leaping through the air, the snake straightens its body as fast as they can.
You can see this principle in action now. Try air-boxing, punching the air, and think for a moment—how can you punch forward so fast? It’s the same principle. You keep your fists close to your body, in front of your face or chest, and extend your arm forward as quickly as you can.
Not all snakes get into the same striking position. Others will lift their neck vertically off the ground, like king cobras. Rattlesnakes can do both, lifting the bulk of their body off the ground, and still coiling their neck into an S shape. The more neck and body that they use in the coil, the further away they can strike from.
Can a Snake Strike if Not Coiled?
Snakes can strike if they aren’t coiled, but they can’t reach as far away from themselves. Nothing is stopping a snake from striking, whether they’re coiled or not. The beaked sea snake is an excellent example. It hunts, or more accurately forages for food near the seafloor. When they come across prey—sometimes literally bumping into it—they’ll lash their head quickly to the side to bite it. No coiling required.
Rattlesnakes are another one. There’s a myth that if they aren’t coiled, they won’t strike. It’s just not true. If you walk up to one and disturb it, they’ll happily bite at you, although they won’t be able to get you from as far away.
What Snake Can Strike the Farthest?
Many factors at play, each of which affects how far away the snake can strike. These include the following:
- The overall body length of the snake
- The neck length of the snake
- Typical defensive behavior
This places a safe limit on the distance you should stay away from a snake. A 3-foot snake will never be able to strike more than 3 feet away, because they can’t jump, they can only ‘stretch out’ so to speak. But the snake may also not coil before they strike, meaning that there’s even less chance of being bitten. If you accept the maxim that a snake can strike up to half their body length, it stands to reason that you should stay more than that distance away from them.
How Far Can Copperheads Strike?
Copperheads, like other snakes in our list, can strike at between 1/3 and ½ of their body length away. But since copperheads are only between 2 and 3 feet, that limits how far they can strike.
They don’t raise their body off the ground, just their head, but they’ll be in the classic coiled position. They’ll be staring straight at you, not moving, except to follow you with their eyes. If you don’t leave them alone, they can strike at a distance of a foot or so.
How Far Can Rattlesnakes Strike?
Rattlesnakes are famous for their coiled display. They’ll sit in an S shape, with their tail vertical, shaking it as fast as they can. This is their combination of a defensive posture, plus a threat.
They’re saying that if you don’t leave them alone, they’re ready to bite. And according to Scientific Reports, even scientists have difficulty measuring how fast they can strike.
Since they’re coiled, rattlesnakes can bite you from up to half their body length away. The tricky part is that not all rattlesnakes are the same size. The species that gets the longest are the eastern and western diamondbacks, which can reach eight feet as mature adults.
The shortest is the pygmy rattlesnake, which can only reach two feet. So while a western diamondback could strike from four feet, a pygmy could probably only strike from one foot away.
Because rattlesnakes have genuinely deadly venom, you should avoid provocation. Stay six feet away from any rattlesnake you see. Better yet, if you see a rattlesnake on the path ahead, take another path where possible.
How Far Can Cottonmouths Strike?
The largest cottonmouths reach six feet in length, but are more commonly four feet long. They’ll coil up, not quite as much as a rattlesnake, but still with plenty of striking potential.
An aggressive cottonmouth will show off the inside of its mouth, which is a bright white. They’ll also start to musk, and even shake their tail a little like a rattlesnake.
Since they’re coiled up, a cottonmouth can strike quite a distance. A six-foot snake could lash out at somebody four feet away, or hit somebody more accurately from three feet away.
How Far Can Coral Snakes Strike?
Coral snakes are quite short. They only usually reach 20 inches in length, or three feet at most. This already limits the distance over which they can strike. However, they don’t coil up to strike anyway.
They strike by moving their head from side to side. So, you have to be quite close to a coral snake—or pick one up—for it to be able to strike you.
This is easier said than done, since coral snakes will try and get away from you rather than defend themselves. If they feel threatened but can’t get away, they have many other defense mechanisms instead:
- They’ll curl their tail, like a ringneck snake.
- They’ll make popping sounds from their cloaca.
- They’ll crook their neck, but not as much as, say, a rattlesnake
You have to be within a few inches of a coral snake for them to bite you. The majority of coral snake bites occur on fingers. Stand three feet clear of them at least to prevent any chance of bites.
How Far Can Cobras Strike?
The king cobra is the longest venomous snake in the world. They reach an incredible 18 feet in length. Their striking distance is roughly equal to the 1/3 to ½ body length rule—about seven feet. Everybody knows the king cobra’s incredible defensive stance. When threatened, they’ll ‘stand up,’ with their neck raised vertically off the ground.
They’ll then puff out their neck, trying to make themselves look as big and intimidating as possible. All the while, they’ll keep their eyes pointed straight at you. This is just like coiling. If you keep threatening them, they’ll leap straight for you. Seven feet is a maximum, though. Most adult king cobras reach 10 to 13 feet, so their striking distance would be about four or five feet.
How Far Can Black Mambas Strike?
Black mambas can grow to fourteen feet in length—not as long as a king cobra, but still mightily impressive. The average black mamba is eight feet long, and since just a couple of drops can kill you, it’s understandably important to keep your distance from them.
There’s a myth that they can stand completely straight, balancing on the tip of their tail, to strike you from as far as possible. That’s not true. They also hardly ever coil to strike.
When they hunt, they like to get inside animal burrows, sneaking up on animals rather than striking out as far as they can. And when they encounter a person, rather than approach them, they’ll try and get away. If you won’t leave them alone, they’ll raise their neck off the ground, and can strike from four feet on average.
Fortunately, you’re not likely to encounter a black mamba. But can all snakes strike? Yes, they can, even non-venomous ones (constrictors).
According to the Smithsonian, a group of scientists found that the non-venomous Texas rat snake can strike just as far and just as fast as a viper. They will coil up in the same way, too. While their bite won’t kill you, it can hurt, and could even get infected.