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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)

Danger Uncomfortable squeezing in the chest that gradually becomes more intense as the heart is starved of oxygen.
Body count Cardiac arrest ranks nearly as high as drowning for deaths in the backcountry. Altitude, vigorous exercise, and reduced oxygen levels can exacerbate existing medical problems and trigger an attack. Even scarier: Half of all heart attacks kill before help arrives.
Best defense If you're over 40 and unaccustomed to strenuous activity, ask your doctor about taking a stress test before attempting any serious hiking, especially at higher altitudes.

Danger A 50,000°F bolt of electricity that sears your skin, makes your muscles spasm, and in some cases, stops your heart instantly.
Body count Last year, lightning killed 45 people in the United States, including four hikers and five anglers. July is the deadliest month; this year, at press time, 23 people had already gotten shocked.
Best defense Get below treeline well before summer mountain thunderstorms roll in (most strikes occur in the afternoon). If you're caught in an exposed location, discard any metal objects and crouch on your sleeping pad. Stay 20 feet apart from others so that one bolt doesn't incapacitate an entire group. Administer CPR immediately to strike victims who aren't breathing.

156     COLD
Danger Frostbite, trench foot, and hypothermia–which leads to a drop in core temp, coma, and death
Body count Cold claims about 600 victims each year in the U.S. Of the 137 total deaths reported on Mt. Washington since 1849, 20 percent were due to hypothermia (second only to falls). And it doesn't take much: A few inactive hours in freezing, windy weather will turn your muscles to bricks–meaning you'll stumble, collapse, and pee your pants before dying.
Best defense Pack as if you might have to survive a night out. Put on warm, dry layers and stay under shelter if you start to shiver and lose coordination. Hypothermia can kill in temps as high as 50°F, and wet clothes increase conductive heat loss by a factor of five.

Danger A snapped neck after the alpha predator sinks its teeth into your spinal cord
Body count Cougars kill an average of one person and injure six each year in the U.S. Kids, trail runners, and mountain bikers are most at risk (anyone small or moving quickly can trigger a lion's hunting instinct). Based on fatalities alone, mountain lions barely rank, but they rose this high on intent: They're hunting you.
Best defense Don't hike alone at dawn and dusk, especially in California and Colorado, where most attacks have occurred. If you are ambushed, fight back. Cougars will quickly realize you're not a deer.

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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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