What are the biggest backcountry hazards? Most of us have safe, fun adventures in the outdoors, but knowing what the risks are can help us plan safer trips and reduce problems once we are out there.
We tend to freak out over some risks that are unlikely, while not taking other common risks as seriously as we should. For example, folks worry about going in to bear country but stumbling is much more likely to kill you on the trail.
What are the relative risks of outdoor adventure? In ascending order (in the United States):
-Bears: According to Wikipedia, 25 people have been killed by bears in the past ten years. Stay safe by making noise as you move through the area; yelling “Hey Bear!” warns the shaggy bruins of your approach.
-Mountain lions: Cougars, pumas, jaguars (they are all the same large cat) kill an average of one person and injure six each year opportunistically pursuing their instinct to stalk moving targets. Don’t hike alone at dawn or dusk when the risk is highest, and if you find one stalking you, stand your ground, yell, wave your arms, and hold your pack over your head to appear larger. They will quickly realize you aren’t prey.
-Snakes: Approximately 10 people are killed each year; most from eastern and western diamondback rattlesnakes. Most snakebites occur when handling snakes, so steer clear of the vipers and keep your hands and feet out of holes and cracks.
-Other people: National parks average 12 murders per year. Stay safe by hiking away from suspicious people, and wear bright orange during hunting season. Give up your wallet if necessary, but fight back if attacked.
-Insects: Around 50 people die each year from allergy to insect stings. If you’ve had a reaction to a sting in the past, carry an epi-pen with you in the backcountry and know how to use it.
-Lightning: According to the National Weather Service, an average of 50 people are killed by a lightning strike. Only 10% of people who are struck are killed, leaving 90% with vairous degrees of disability. July is the deadliest month. Get below treeline before an approaching storm rolls in. If you are stuck in an exposed location, crouch on your pack or sleeping pad and stay at least 20-feet from other people (a bolt can run from one person to another). Administer CPR to anyone struck without a pulse.
-Animal collisions: This can happen on your way to the trailhead. Crashing into a deer or larger elk or moose kills approximately 200 people and injures thousands more each year. Stay safe by slowing down and being alert to animals especially as evening approaches; 75% of collisions occur in the dark.
-Poor judgement/preparation: Approximately 1,100 Search & Rescue missions each year in the national park system are necessitated by errors in judgement and insufficient experience. Know your skills and limits, plan ahead, drink enough water, wear appropriate clothing, and don’t be so set upon a course that you can’t change your plans when conditions change.
-Heart Attack: Altitude, vigorous exercise and stress can trigger cardiac arrest and accounts for almost as many deaths in the backcountry as drowning. Half of all heart attack victims will die before help can be summoned. Your best defense is to stay in shape with a regular routine of aerobic conditioning and have regular checkups with your physician. If you experience pressure in the chest, right arm or jaw, take a baby aspirin.
-Drowning: Playing in a river that is too fast, being swept into a waterfall, swimming in cold water — all are recipes for drowning. Don’t cross fast-moving rivers that are more than knee deep (and unfasten your the waist/chest band on your backpack before attempting your crossing). Don’t enter a slot canyon when rain threatens, stay away from that lovely waterfall, and don’t swim in hypothermia inducing water.
-Falls: Unroped falls are the outdoors’ number-one killer, and most victims are hikers, not climbers. Accidental falls are the biggest killer in the national parks due to trauma from the fall (broken neck, internal injuries, head injury, etc.). Falls can combine with water to add to drowning deaths. Assess the risks of exposure in your pursuits realistically, and don’t be talked into putting yourself in danger.