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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.

130    SNAKES
Danger Hemotoxic venom that causes intense pain, swelling, hemorrhaging, and organ failure
Body count Approximately 7,000 people suffer venomous snakebites each year, and an average of six die. Diamondback rattlesnakes account for 95 percent of all serpent fatalities; highly aggressive western diamondback rattlers live in the Southwest, while the larger eastern variety ranges from North Carolina to Louisiana.
Best defense Here’s an idea: Don’t harass a venomous snake. A full two-thirds of bites result from victims intentionally messing with a fanged reptile. Keep your eyes peeled when walking through tall grass or gathering firewood; when scrambling, avoid unseen handholds on sunny ledges where rattlers like to bask.

129    AVALANCHE
Danger Slow suffocation under a crushing mound of snow–or hypothermia, if your oxygen lasts that long
Body count It’s not just backcountry skiers who are at risk: Last year, six of the 33 people killed by avalanches in the U.S. were hikers and snowshoers.
Best defense Take a course in recognizing snow hazards. Check the avalanche report before departing. If you’re caught, shed skis, try to swim for the surface as the slide slows, and create an air space by placing your hands in front of your face.

124    RULON GARDNER
Danger
Bad luck. The 37-year-old Olympic-champion wrestler has survived: a plane crash in Lake Powell (after which he swam for more than an hour in 44°F water and made it through a night without shelter); a snowmobile accident in the Idaho wilderness (after which he was stranded for a night in -25°F weather and lost a toe to frostbite); a motorcycle crash; and an arrow to the gut.
Body count None … yet.
Best defense Decline all invitations to join Gardner on any outdoor adventure. In fact, avoid Gardner altogether.

120    ROCKS
Danger A volleyball-size chunk of granite hurtling toward your head at terminal velocity
Body count Accidents in North American Mountaineering reported a total of 610 deaths or injuries from falling rocks or ice between 1951 to 2006. And in 1996, a 30,000-cubic-yard rockslide in Yosemite’s Happy Isles area killed one hiker and seriously injured several more.
Best defense Don’t hike/scramble below others, who may knock rocks loose. Wear a helmet on steep routes, look out for debris on the trail, and watch for rockfall after springtime freeze-thaw cycles.

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