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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.

141     BEES
Danger Airway constriction caused by anaphylactic shock chokes you to death if you’re one of the 3 percent of allergic adults. Think you’re safe? Not so fast. If you’ve only been stung once, the body hasn’t yet had time to mount an allergic response. The second sting could kill.
Body count Wasps, bees, and hornets are responsible for an average of 50 deaths a year. Among venomous animals, bees and their kin account for 70 percent of all deaths–10 times more than snakes. And it’s quick: Anaphylaxis can kill in less than 10 minutes.
Best defense Avoid scented sunscreens and bright clothing, which can attract bees. Carry an antihistamine like Benadryl in your first-aid kit, and an EpiPen if you or your hiking partners are allergic.

Danger West Nile Virus, a bug-borne disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord, causing stupor, disorientation, tremors, coma, and death in severe cases
Body count Most victims are very young or old, but more than 1,000 in 46 states have died since the disease surfaced in 1999 (284 in 2002, the deadliest year on record.) Idaho, Mississippi, and Wyoming had the highest per capita death rates in 2006.
Best defense There’s no treatment, so prevent bites by wearing long sleeves and pants at dawn and dusk and using a DEET-based bug spray. And should you be tempted to handle a dead bird (seek help, friend), note that they’re WNV carriers, especially robins and crows.

134     YOUR EGO
Danger Getting lost, stranded, or smashed up, thanks to your deadly combination of overconfidence and lack of know-how
Body count Insufficient experience and errors in judgment played a role in one-third of the 3,593 SAR operations in the national park system last year, with poor physical condition also implicated in 22 percent of all cases.
Best defense Assess your skills and experience level honestly, take classes to improve, and resist the urge to climb or cross risky terrain.

132    HEAT
Danger Delirious convulsing that progresses to multiple organ failure and dying brain cells when core body temperature hits the 104°F range
Body count Between five and 10 people die each year of heat-related causes in Grand Canyon National Park, accounting for a quarter of all park fatalities. If the Southwest is your destination, you should fear heat a lot more than bears. Best defense Treat victims by cooling them immediately with water (soak their skin and clothing, and apply wet cloths to the neck, groin, and armpits), fanning them, and having them recline in a shady spot. Never leave someone experiencing heat illness alone.

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