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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)

118    SPIDERS
Danger Extreme pain, severe muscle cramps, respiratory paralysis, and necrotic ulcers (translation: your flesh rots)
Body count About six people die from bites each year, primarily from black widow or brown recluse spiders. Backpackers who are bitten often encounter the arachnids at night in their tents, though the bites–initially painless–can go undetected for hours. True, the overall number of fatalities isn't high, but spiders get extra points for causing a very slow, feverish, gut-cramping, skin-blistering demise. Plus, they're creepy.
Best defense As with snakes, be careful when collecting firewood and climbing ledges–and when sitting down in an outhouse. Take extra precautions in the South, where half of fatal spider bites occur.

114    BEARS
Danger A bloody, skull-crushing, flesh-ripping encounter with four-inch claws and dagger-like teeth–wielded by 400 pounds of muscle
Body count In North America, black bears have killed 56 and grizzlies 52 since 1900 (mostly in Canada). And the pace is picking up: At least 15 of the black-bear fatalities have occurred since 2000.
Best defense In most cases, simply announcing "Hey bear!" as you hike will warn bruins of your approach and prevent encounters. In camp, cook and store food according to local park rules. If attacked, fight back against a black bear and play dead with a grizzly. But if a grizzly starts to gnaw on your leg, fight back like your life hangs in the balance–it probably does.

Danger Stupidly walking into a dangerous scenario, assuming that your technology will always get you out safely
Body count Good news: Cell phones and GPS are more likely to save you than doom you. Most Backpacker editors carry both because they know the devices boost safety–if used correctly. Bad news: Technology can also breed a dangerously false sense of security. Anecdotal evidence from SAR professionals nationwide suggests over-reliance on electronics is getting more novice hikers into trouble–with potentially disatrous results.
Best defense Digital devices are only as smart as their users. Bring yours, but don't forget that basic safety gear (including a map/compass for backup navigation), wilderness training, alertness, and common sense are your first lines of defense.

Danger Invisible Naegleria fowleri, a freshwater nasty that crawls up the nostrils of unsuspecting swimmers, then eats its way through their brains and spinal cords. Though rare, death is swift–usually following within a week.
Body count N. fowleri have killed 23 people since 1995, including a teenage boy who died last September after a swim in Arizona's Lake Havasu. Hot springs and warm-water lakes and rivers in the South and Southwest are the amoeba's favorite slurping grounds; risk of infection peaks during heat waves, when the water is hotter and lower than usual.
Best defense Nose clips

Danger A cold-blooded predator that grasps you in powerful jaws (capable of closing with a force of 3,000 psi) before executing the well-named death roll" to break bones, shred tissue, and drown you
Body count Gators are responsible for more than 20 deaths since 1948 (most of them in Florida) and have bitten more than 375 people. Most victims were attacked on golf courses and residential canals, but canoeists and snorkelers in national forests and state parks have also been killed. Odds are low, but the mere thought of being attacked by a primordial 10-foot reptile will keep us up at night in the Everglades.
Best defense First and foremost: Don't join the 17 percent of victims who try to capture, poke, or harass a gator.

Danger Vanishing without a trace
Body count Native American legend held that this Vermont peak was cursed, but it took five people disappearing under mysterious circumstances between 1945 and 1950 on or near the Green Mountain summit–part of the Appalachian and Long Trails–to enhance the area's reputation as a suspected paranormal hotspot (the Bennington Triangle) or home to a fearsome, Bigfoot-type beast. Only one of the victims' bodies was recovered, and all the cases remain unsolved.
Best defense Hike with a buddy, and avoid Glastenbury during the full moon and on Halloween (just in case).

Danger Being impaled on an 800-pound elk's aspen-sharpened antlers after it smashes through your windshield on your way to the trailhead
Body count 1,646 people died in animal-vehicle contests in the U.S. between 1995 and 2004–mostly after crashing into deer–and accidents have increased along with rising ungulate populations. Especially beware the deadly moose. Hitting one of these 1,000-pound beasts is 30 times more likely to kill you than hitting a deer.
Best defense Be alert for moose on the roadside, especially on summer evenings: 75 percent of moose collisions occur at night, and fatalities peak in June. But don't let your guard down come September: Deer-car crashes are at their highest in the fall.

Danger Guns, knives, blunt objects–or being pushed off a cliff, as happened twice in national parks in 2006
Body count National parks average 12 murders per year; the overall frequency of violent crime in national parks is one attack per one million visitors (remarkably low compared to the 2006 national average of 473 violent crimes per 100,000 people). And not all shootings are intentional: A hunter mistakenly shot an AT hiker in northern Georgia in 2002.
Best defense Hike away from suspicious people at shelters and near road crossings, where most trouble occurs. Wear bright orange clothing during hunting season. Stay calm if threatened on the trail; give up your wallet if the stranger has a weapon, but fight back if attacked.

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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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