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Backpacker Magazine – October 2006

A Dozen Ways to Die

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

by: Steve Howe

1. Falling
Tempted to climb higher? Think twice: The backcountry's #1 killer is only a slip away.

Dana Crane, an outdoorsy 19-year-old student at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR, lay crumpled on the beach near Strawberry Point in Washington's Olympic National Park. It was a tragic end to a trip she'd planned to celebrate her recently completed sophomore year. After 4 days in the Hoh Rain Forest, Crane had made a spur-of-the-moment decision to trek down the coast. Not expecting any trouble, she didn't register at the Third Beach trailhead.

On day 2 of her coastal hike, she stashed her pack and jogged to Strawberry Point, where sand bluffs taper out from the shore to form a low spit capped by a 70-foot spire. Enchanted by the sea stack, Crane scrambled up for a view. Suddenly, she greased off mossy holds and cartwheeled 25 feet down onto jagged, fist-sized cobbles.

When she came to, Crane had a black eye, gashes in her back, two shattered feet, a broken thumb and pelvis, separated ribs, a displaced fracture of her lower right leg, and three spinal fractures. Despite those injuries, she crawled nearly 100 yards to the shelter of driftwood logs piled beneath the bluffs. There she lay for 48 hours without food, water, or gear, getting chilled, baked, and severely dehydrated. Finally, a couple of hikers came by.

"We heard a whistling sound," recalls Brandon Smith, a 26-year-old hiker from Missoula, MT, who was with his girlfriend, Heather McKee. "I looked over, and this girl was smashed up pretty bad." McKee stayed with Crane while Smith ran for help. He found off-duty ranger Dave Skinner, who had a cell phone. Two hours after Skinner reached a spot where he could get a signal, Crane was evacuated by helicopter to a Seattle hospital, where she underwent multiple surgeries (and survived).

"It's a popular area," says the ranger. "I'm surprised someone could have lain there that long, but she was probably in and out of consciousness, so people might have passed her." Smith is a bit more judgmental. "She shouldn't have been on that rock face," he says. "It was way, way too steep."

Unroped falls are the #1 cause of wilderness deaths nationwide. Our research suggests that most accidents happen while hikers are scrambling up or descending semitechnical peaks, crossing class III passes, or getting far out onto overlooks for better views and pictures. Steep snowfields, rotten rock bands, and gravelly ledges are typical culprits–combined with overconfidence. According to the rangers and rescue pros we interviewed, many victims could have avoided falling if they'd spent more time looking for an alternate route.


  • Leave word Crane's first error was failing to register or give her return date to a friend. This is critically important for a solo hiker.
  • Carry a lifeline Her second mistake was leaving her pack–and all her safety gear. Always stash a basic survival kit in your pocket on side hikes.
  • Climb smart If you're alone, attempt only easy moves, and test each hold to make sure it's solid. Avoid wet, mossy, and loose rock, and never ascend any face you wouldn't be absolutely comfortable downclimbing. When contemplating sketchy moves or long, exposed snowfields, ask yourself what the worst outcome could be. If it's ugly, find another way or turn around.

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Reader Rating: -


Nov 15, 2013

When you die in the wilderness you die, you're dead. You don't meet anyone. Humans are not made by anything or anyone. If you die while recreating in the front country or the back country, you just die. Whether that death is pain free or not depends on the manner of death. However it happens, the deceased does not and cannot meet their maker.

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Nov 15, 2013

Live to hike another day by staying found and knowing how to use a compass. Even skilled explorers can become lost or somehow end up spending the night hunkered down because of weather or injury. Many people never consider that they might end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors or waiting for medical help --and so they hike without the essentials. Day-hikes can be the most dangerous because hikers usually carry minimal supplies. Learn what to pack for a day-hike, what to do if you get lost, how to get rescued, and survival packing just in case you end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors. Read "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart" (Amazon). Learn how to orient yourself using a compass, a compass and a map, a map and no compass, no compass and no map. A compass doesn't need a signal, satellites, or batteries and works in all types of weather, day or night, but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Learn how to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking. This book is for all ages. Look for it on Amazon, "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart."

Star Star Star Star Star
Nov 13, 2013

I thought this was a great article. For those of us that only get out there every month or so, it is easy to forget what the 20% of the 80/20 rules are. This article reminded me about several key points that I had forgotten.

Star Star Star
Nov 13, 2013

Whenever I need to be reminded that the wilderness is a death trap, full of dangers that should preclude anyone from venturing in to it's death grip, I know I can find something on Backpacker.

Too much Fear Porn guys.


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