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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

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The Six Most Dangerous National Parks

National parks are pretty safe, but some carry more risk than others. Text by Shey Kiester. Research by Mackenzie Murphy

photo: AlaskanDude / Flickr
photo: AlaskanDude / Flickr

You're typically pretty safe in America's national park system, what with 283 million annual visits against just 143 deaths in 2012. But some parks undoubtedly carry greater risks than others.  Read on to learn about who gets in to trouble most often, then check out the slideshow to see which parks have the most fatalities and/or search and rescue missions each year.

Who
54% of victims were male and stats show that rambunctious twenty-somethings, perhaps operating with a general air of invincibility, are slightly more likely to become involved in a SAR operation. Of all 2012 victims, 19% were between the ages of 20 and 29.

What
Day hiking accounts for 43% of all SAR missions, making it far and away the activity with the highest likelihood for distress. Though it's true that there are more day hikers in general, the reason they get into trouble is often because they're not carrying the right survival gear like a headlamp, extra food, and emergency shelter.

When
Not all weekend warriors are as safe as they'd like to be. Saturdays and Sundays account for 18% and 16%, respectively, of all SAR operations. Park visitation generally increases on the weekends, so that's not terribly surprising, but what’s the safest day to visit a park? That would be Tuesday, with just 10%.

Where
To paraphrase John Muir, the mountains are calling and you must go. But be careful—24% of all SAR operations occur in mountains with elevations between 5,000 and 15,000 feet. Not that you're all that much safer at lower elevations: mountains below 5,000 feet still accounted for 18% of incidents.

Why
Your most important gizmo in the backcountry isn’t your smartphone—it’s your brain. Sadly, 19% of SAR operations were caused by what the Park Service called "errors in judgment," which means that far too many of us are getting confused on that point. Some hikers may also be overestimating their own fitness level, given that 23% of victims suffered from "fatigue and/or physical conditions."

How
Thanks to skilled rescue personnel, 71% of victims are found and 50% of those are located within a mile of their PLS (point last seen). 63% of victims were found on foot while 11% required helicopter evacuation. And how many SAR missions were left unresolved in 2012? Just 1%. Now that's impressive.

Check out the slideshow to see the six most dangerous parks.

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