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.
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.
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.