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October 2006

A Dozen Ways to Die

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

Slavering grizzlies, pouncing cougars, killer blizzards: They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters, the terrors that send our pulses racing whether we’re sleeping in the woods or reading on the sofa. Perhaps that’s because we view wilderness schizophrenically–both as a womblike place where we can heal from civilization’s assaults, and as a hostile void where only the über-tough, prepared for death, should venture.

So which is it? Should you take the helmet and ice axe, the PLB and GPS, the bear spray and bug juice? To answer these questions, we studied hundreds of incident reports and interviewed scores of experts–rangers, rescuers, guides, scientists, surviving companions, and a few lucky survivors, too. Along the way, we came up with some surprising conclusions. For one, wilderness fatalities are extraordinarily rare. But when they do happen, they typically aren’t the result of climbing, skiing, or BASE jumping accidents; nope, it’s hikers who tend to die out there. For another, it’s not the giant man-eaters that pose the biggest risk; it’s you and me, and our tendency to make foolhardy decisions.

Here you’ll read case histories that illustrate ways hikers might expire in the woods. Most of these victims made mistakes–the same kind we all get away with on a regular basis. And therein lies the point: We’re not replaying these tragedies to wallow in others’ misfortunes. In each tale, we see a bit of ourselves, plus a few lessons that may help you avoid a similar fate.

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