The Grand Canyon covers a staggering 1.2 million acres and remains one of the most visited parks in the U.S., so perhaps it should come as no surprise that it saw 348 SAR missions in 2012. The park also had the highest death toll of any park that year, claiming 21 lives. [image: NPS]
Zion, Yellowstone, and Rainier all seem like good guesses for the #2 spot…until you read that the largest reservoir in the U.S. claimed 18 lives in 2012 and officials conducted 72 SAR operations. [image: marcwings / Flickr]
Yosemite’s towering walls and powerful waterfalls claimed four lives in 2012 and seven the year before. This one’s ranked third because the park sees a whopping 250 SAR missions annually. [image: John Lemieux / Flickr]
Combine strong storms coming off of the Pacific and an exhausting alpine climb and you’ve got the makings of disaster, even on simple overnights to Camp Muir. Eight climbers lost their lives here in 2012. [Photo: lohit v / Flickr]
The highest peak in the U.S. attracts mountaineers galore, but avalanches and sudden storms are persistent dangers. Six people lost their lives on the mountain in 2012. [image: AlaskanDude / Flickr]
Considering the number of visitors each year, Yellowstone thankfully sees very few fatalities. Injuries, however, are a different story; park officials respond to some 700 medical calls annually. In 2012, this included two men gored by bison and another who suffered thermal burns from a geyser. [image: NPS]
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You’re typically pretty safe in America’s national park system, what with 283 million annual visits against just 143 deaths in 2012. But some parks undoubtedly carry greater risks than others. Read on to learn about who gets in to trouble most often, then check out the slideshow to see which parks have the most fatalities and/or search and rescue missions each year.
54% of victims were male and stats show that rambunctious twenty-somethings, perhaps operating with a general air of invincibility, are slightly more likely to become involved in a SAR operation. Of all 2012 victims, 19% were between the ages of 20 and 29.
Day hiking accounts for 43% of all SAR missions, making it far and away the activity with the highest likelihood for distress. Though it’s true that there are more day hikers in general, the reason they get into trouble is often because they’re not carrying the right survival gear like a headlamp, extra food, and emergency shelter.
Not all weekend warriors are as safe as they’d like to be. Saturdays and Sundays account for 18% and 16%, respectively, of all SAR operations. Park visitation generally increases on the weekends, so that’s not terribly surprising, but what’s the safest day to visit a park? That would be Tuesday, with just 10%.
To paraphrase John Muir, the mountains are calling and you must go. But be careful—24% of all SAR operations occur in mountains with elevations between 5,000 and 15,000 feet. Not that you’re all that much safer at lower elevations: mountains below 5,000 feet still accounted for 18% of incidents.
Your most important gizmo in the backcountry isn’t your smartphone—it’s your brain. Sadly, 19% of SAR operations were caused by what the Park Service called “errors in judgment,” which means that far too many of us are getting confused on that point. Some hikers may also be overestimating their own fitness level, given that 23% of victims suffered from “fatigue and/or physical conditions.”
Thanks to skilled rescue personnel, 71% of victims are found and 50% of those are located within a mile of their PLS (point last seen). 63% of victims were found on foot while 11% required helicopter evacuation. And how many SAR missions were left unresolved in 2012? Just 1%. Now that’s impressive.
Check out the slideshow to see the six most dangerous parks.