When Do Rattlesnakes Come Out (Most Active At What Time of Year?)

Key Points

  • Rattlesnakes’ territory extends through a huge portion of the Americas. As such, local climates and seasons determine their annual cycles.
  • These snakes emerge from brumation in early spring and stay active until the beginning of fall.
  • Rattlesnakes tend to be most active at sunrise and sunset, and they can also be out at night or in the middle of the day in full sunlight.

Rattlesnakes, also called rattlers, are responsible for more snakebites in North America than any other type of snake. There are 36 species of rattlesnake, including the timber rattlesnake, eastern diamondback, western diamondback, Mojave rattlesnake, and prairie rattlesnake. Rattlers come out to eat, sun themselves, and find mates. They are members of the pit viper family of snakes—so named for the pits near their eyes. They rely on the heat of the sun to keep their bodies warm.

Like all pit vipers, rattlesnakes have relatively poor vision that relies mainly on movement. But, they have a secret weapon that allows them ‘see’ no matter what time of day or night it is: heat vision. That’s right! Those little pits on their heads actually allow them to sense heat and strike with deadly accuracy.

With such a formidable array of senses, and deadly, venom-injecting fangs, it’s important to know just when rattlesnakes come out. Here, we’ll learn a little more about recognizing rattlers and where to watch for them. Then, we’ll explore the times of the year to avoid rattlers, as well as whether or not you should watch out for them at night. After, we’ll go over the steps you should take when and if you ever encounter a rattler.

What Do Rattlesnakes Look Like?

eastern diamondback rattlesnake curled up in grass
The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest species of rattlesnakes.

©iStock.com/NajaShots

Rattlesnakes range from under two feet long to over eight feet long, with the eastern diamondback being the largest species. Most species have a distinct diamond pattern of alternating light and dark scales running down their body. Bullsnakes have a similar appearance, but they lack a few of the key features that make rattlesnakes unique. 

Unlike bullsnakes or other species of snakes, rattlesnakes have spade-shaped heads that are very wide at the base of the skull. They also, of course, have rattles. The one exception to this is in baby rattlesnakes. Baby rattlers are born with only one rattle segment and can’t rattle until they grow at least three segments.

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Rattlers have one more distinctive feature: their fangs. Rattlesnakes come out to hunt small mammals, birds, and reptiles. When they strike, their fangs open like switchblade knives—they can grow up to half an inch in length. Bullsnakes and other snakes in North America don’t have such impressive fangs.

Rattlesnakes Distribution

It may seem counterintuitive to those of us who have always pictured rattlesnakes in the desert southwest, but rattlers actually live all over North America, Central America, and South America. They can be found as far north as southern Canada and as far south as Argentina. Like all snakes, rattlesnakes come out to warm their bodies in the sun, no matter where they are.

Rattlesnakes are highly adaptable to different climates and regions; they can be found in deserts, forests, scrublands, and even swamps. So, just because you’re hiking in a lush pine forest doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch out for rattlers.

What Months Do Rattlesnakes Come Out?

Mojave Rattlesnake
Rattlesnakes come out mostly during spring and fall.

©Creeping Things/Shutterstock.com

The yearly cycle of rattlesnakes is extremely dependent on the local climate. But, most spend their winters brumating in dens with tens to hundreds of other snakes. Brumation is similar to hibernation; during brumation, their metabolism slows down, and they do very little other than sleep away the cold months. 

Rattlesnakes come out in early spring and stay active until early fall. This may change depending on the weather—the hottest months of the year may bring about another period of reduced activity for them, called estivation. Rattlers like it warm, but not too warm, so they’re most likely to be active during the spring and fall—the same times of year that humans like to spend outdoors.

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Do Rattlesnakes Come Out at Night?  

Unlike other animals, who only come out in the day or only at night, rattlesnakes come out at all times of the day or night. They are diurnal, nocturnal, and crepuscular, depending on weather, wildfires, temperature, and prey availability.

Rattlesnakes come out both at sunrise and sunset, making them crepuscular. Often, these are their most active times, but they also come out in the full sun and full light. Creatures that are active in the day are known as diurnal, while nighttime animals—like owls—are nocturnal. Rattlesnakes, however, are both. They are extremely adaptable and will stay awake at whatever time suits them best.

The Best Times of the Year to Avoid Rattlesnakes

Largest Rattlesnake
Rattlesnakes generally don’t see humans as threats, and they are also typically not aggressive.

©Mark_Kostich/Shutterstock.com

If you’re looking to avoid rattlers, then you need to know when rattlesnakes come out and when they’re most active. Winter is the least active time of the year for rattlers, though most people don’t hike in the winter months. Rattlesnakes also slow down at the height of summer, when the heat is at its worst. But, again, this is also the time of the year that they’re most active at night, sunrise, and sunset.

Unfortunately for avid outdoors people, the best times of the year for hiking and camping are also the best times of the year for rattlesnakes to come out. So, if you don’t want to camp in the frigid winter months, your best bet is to go ahead with your outdoor activities, but only after learning a little bit about rattlers. And, you should know the dos and don’ts of hiking or camping in rattlesnake country.

How to Avoid Encounters

The first step is obviously to know when you are in potential rattlesnake habitats. When you’re walking, camping, or hiking in these areas, there are a few things you can do.

Keep a clear sight of your path- try to step in open sections of ground that aren’t obstructed by brush. Use a walking stick to occasionally disturb the brush around your path and scare off any unwanted wildlife.

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Wear boots and/or that cover your ankles, and wear gloves when picking up rocks and other objects off the ground. Keep your hands and feet away from crevices, ledges, and other places snakes may hide in/under.

What to Do If You See a Rattler

At heart, rattlesnakes don’t want to hurt us. In fact, they see us as threats, not as dinner. Because of this, rattlesnakes don’t hunt people, and they’re typically not aggressive. They would rather stay hidden, and not risk their lives in a fight with a human. But, sometimes things happen, and humans and rattlesnakes come together.

If this happens to you, the first thing to remember is that rattlers are dangerous wild animals, and should be admired from a distance. Do not approach or make any attempt to handle rattlesnakes, no matter how interesting they may be. Move away slowly from them, take pictures from a safe distance, and leave them to hunt rodents another day.

Up Next…

It’s always smart to stay informed about the behaviors of potentially dangerous animals when you’re spending time in their territory. Read up some more on the infamous rattlesnake.

Rattlesnake Fencing: Does it Actually Work– If you live somewhere with rattlesnakes, you’ll want to know how to keep them away from your territory.

11 Animals that Hunt Rattlesnakes– For the most part people and rattlesnakes prefer to keep their distance from each other… so who are the bold creatures that actually go after rattlesnakes?

5 Animals Immune to Rattlesnake Venom– Must be nice to shake off a rattlesnake bite like nothing!

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