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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

Natural Born Killers: Top Backcountry Dangers

Which is the bigger backcountry threat, grizzlies or flash floods? Find out what should scare you–and how to survive it–with BACKPACKER's Terror Index.

by: Jason Stevenson

(Photo by Michael Francis)
(Photo by Michael Francis)
(Photo by Mark Carroll)
(Photo by Mark Carroll)

The wilderness is a safe and peaceful place to spend a weekend, right? Almost always, yes. But hikers who venture into the woods without a healthy respect for natural hazards–bears, storms, rivers, snakes, and more–are asking for trouble. Of course, not all threats are equally dangerous–or deserve the nightmares we have about them. Hikers freak out about a few mountain lion attacks, but hypothermia kills a lot more people on the trail. To put the risks in perspective, we ranked the top 22 dangers with our exclusive Terror Index, a formula that measures prevalence, geographic distribution, average body count, and–most importantly–the level of suffering involved. To improve your odds, we also boiled the advice of numerous experts down to a few easy-to-recall tips for every threat.

190     WATER
Danger Drowning; getting pummeled against rocks, rag-dolled through flash floods, washed over waterfalls
Body count Water mishaps rank second among outdoor deaths, but slightly edge out falls on our index because of the prolonged panic of not breathing. Drowning involves excruciating pressure in your lungs as carbon dioxide builds to unbearable levels–but worst of all, you'll be fully aware that you're dying for the four to five long minutes it can take before you mercifully pass out.
Best defense Don't cross fast-moving rivers that are more than knee deep. Stay out of slot canyons when flood-producing heavy rains threaten. Never cross a frozen lake or river unless you're certain the ice is continous and at least four inches thick.

186     GRAVITY
Danger Broken neck; brain and internal injuries
Body count Unroped falls are the outdoors' number-one killer, and the majority of victims are hikers, not climbers. A dayhiker falls almost every week in the backcountry; in national parks in Washington and California, accidental falls make up the biggest chunk of fatalities each year.
Best defense Stay in your comfort zone, and always ask yourself: What are the consequences if I fall here? Never climb something you can't get down, or let anyone push you beyond your limits.

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Mike Outdoors
Nov 21, 2013

I liked your page on Facebook and was thinking about subscribing to your magazine. Articles like this scare people away from outdoor activities, especially people thinking about starting outdoor activities. Considering people have a much higher chance of being killed in a car driving to the trail head, 40,000 fatal car crashes per year in the USA. And physical inactivity kills an estimated 5.3 million people a year. I don't understand why an outdoor magazine would promote how many ways someone can be killed by outdoor activity. Why not promote the physical and psychological benefits of outdoor activities instead of scaring people? I honestly don't think the person that is writing these articles has actually been an outdoors man.

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Clint McPhee
Oct 12, 2010

Gary, this is one of those guys that came from Waco on that rescue operation to McKittrick Ridge. Shoot me and email or look for me on Facebook. email (at) clintmcphee (dot) com

Jan 27, 2009

Here another 'backcountry killer' -- The lack of going there. Many people die from just sitting still and dying a slow cubicle-to-car-to-couch existence. Get up, put on your shoes and get outside. You may find something worth living for in God's big green earth!

Jan 23, 2009

Let's face it. If you are not struck by lightning, or attacked by an animal, you probably killed yourself. Most people die because they are trying to do something they shouldn't be doing or they are doing something stupid. If you try to cross a rain swollen river and die, the river didn't kill you. You killed yourself in a river. THINK BEFORE ACTING. We have two or three deaths per year in the Red River Gorge Geological Area from people falling off 100-300 ft. high cliffs. Most come down to Ky to visit this unbelievably beautiful area from Southern Ohio. They are usually walking or hiking at night in an EXTREMELY dangerous area.

Roleigh Martin
Jan 01, 2009

Please provide a statistic on how many people suffer heart attacks while backpacking, is such information known? Approximated? Guessed? Any supporting URLs? Thanks!

Justin Reading
Dec 26, 2008

This was very informative, a few stats were wrong but otherwise entertaining... Water cools at quicker paces than 5 times, pretty sure anyway it's closer to 25

Gary Carver NPS Ranger
Dec 03, 2008

I would question your stats on one person a year killed by pumas. My research indicates about twenty killed in the last 110 years in the U.S. and Canada. Let me know if I am wrong.
I would also question 12 murders a year in National Parks, I have worked homicides in BIBE and SHEN and think that number is high unless you count bodies dumped in places like Joshua Tree and Mojave. Again let me know so I can pass the information on to hikers, backpackers and visitors.

Shaggy Moose
Nov 28, 2008

AMOEBAS! That freaked me out the most of them all.


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