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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.

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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