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Backpacker Magazine – October 2006

A Dozen Ways to Die

How do hikers meet their maker in the backcountry? The answers may surprise you.

by: Steve Howe

5. Heat Stress
A formidable threat in the Southwest, this killer strikes with extreme force, though not without ample warning.

On 9 a.m. on Thursday, July 8, 2004, 24-year-old Margaret Bradley and a male companion left the Grand Canyon's South Rim for a 27-mile trail run. Their plan was to descend the Grandview Trail to the Tonto Trail, cross 16 miles of hot, rolling plateau, then climb 3,200 feet in 5.5 miles back to the rim on the South Kaibab Trail.

That spring, Bradley had finished the Boston Marathon in 88°F heat, placing 31st among women with a time of 3 hours, 4 minutes. Anticipating a similar effort, the duo was traveling light. Bradley's partner (authorities refuse to name him) carried a gallon of water; she had 1.5 liters. There are no water sources along the route, and neither carried maps or headlamps.

By 3 p.m., the temperature had reached 105°F and the pair had covered only 12 miles. On the exposed plateau, their run turned into a walk. Soon, the man crawled under a bush, unable to continue. Bradley went on for help.

Around dawn, the man woke to cooler temperatures and pushed on. As he neared the South Kaibab Trail, he encountered a USGS employee with a satellite phone, who called rangers for directions to an emergency water cache. Inexplicably, the companion never mentioned Bradley. "In all the confusion," says Grand Canyon SAR Coordinator Ken Phillips, "he assumed she had gotten out of the canyon."

Bradley wasn't reported missing until Saturday morning. At 2 p.m., a helicopter spotted her body 300 feet below the Tonto Trail in the Cremation Creek drainage. She was curled in a fetal position, a casualty of acute dehydration and heatstroke. Like all too many Grand Canyon fatalities, Bradley was apparently trying to reach the river, only to be stymied by unbroken cliff bands.

"She had descended several small pouroffs," explains Phillips. "The last one, a water-polished slickrock trough, was high enough and tough enough she couldn't get back up." Authorities estimate she had died 12 to 24 hours before being found, as many as 30 hours after her companion had reached a satellite phone.

"We do about 300 rescue missions a year," says Phillips. "About 80 percent are related to heat." Most victims are either new to the desert, too ambitious, or forced by circumstances to move midday.
The result is one of four conditions:
1) Heat exhaustion, where dehydration leads to acute fatigue and potential organ failure.
2) Heatstroke, a life-threatening rise in core body temperature.
3) Hyponatremia, a dangerous combination of heavy sweating, high water consumption, and low salt intake that leaches electrolytes from the body, leading to seizures; and 4) exertional rhabdomyolysis, the breakdown of muscle fibers from exertion and heat, which releases myoglobin that clogs the kidneys and leads to renal failure.


  • Train for heat In just several weeks, you can adapt your body to extreme hot weather. Go to to learn about proven techniques developed by ultramarathoners, including exercising in a sauna, driving in summer without air conditioning, and running in heavy fleece layers.
  • Lose weight Obesity exacerbates all forms of heat illness.
  • Stash water Not sure if you'll encounter a stream or spring on your hike? Take half a day to drive and/or hike extra water into one or more locations along your intended route; 8 liters a day is wise for a hot climate.

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Reader Rating: -


Nov 15, 2013

When you die in the wilderness you die, you're dead. You don't meet anyone. Humans are not made by anything or anyone. If you die while recreating in the front country or the back country, you just die. Whether that death is pain free or not depends on the manner of death. However it happens, the deceased does not and cannot meet their maker.

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Nov 15, 2013

Live to hike another day by staying found and knowing how to use a compass. Even skilled explorers can become lost or somehow end up spending the night hunkered down because of weather or injury. Many people never consider that they might end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors or waiting for medical help --and so they hike without the essentials. Day-hikes can be the most dangerous because hikers usually carry minimal supplies. Learn what to pack for a day-hike, what to do if you get lost, how to get rescued, and survival packing just in case you end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors. Read "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart" (Amazon). Learn how to orient yourself using a compass, a compass and a map, a map and no compass, no compass and no map. A compass doesn't need a signal, satellites, or batteries and works in all types of weather, day or night, but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Learn how to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking. This book is for all ages. Look for it on Amazon, "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart."

Star Star Star Star Star
Nov 13, 2013

I thought this was a great article. For those of us that only get out there every month or so, it is easy to forget what the 20% of the 80/20 rules are. This article reminded me about several key points that I had forgotten.

Star Star Star
Nov 13, 2013

Whenever I need to be reminded that the wilderness is a death trap, full of dangers that should preclude anyone from venturing in to it's death grip, I know I can find something on Backpacker.

Too much Fear Porn guys.


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