The risks of hiking are real, substantial and cannot be overlooked. They must be clearly understood and never dismissed. But they shouldn’t be exaggerated either. Proper preparation and skill can reduce most risks to an acceptable minimum. In fact, I would argue that the prepared hiker faces no greater risk than does a person walking down a city sidewalk or driving on a busy stretch of road anywhere in the USA.
The most serious risk involved in hiking is probably that of driving to the trailhead. I call this Risk 1A. Once you arrive at the trailhead safely, your chances of surviving and successfully completing the hike go up considerably. Next time someone gives you the business about what an AWFUL risk you are taking out there in the woods, read him or her back this riot act.
There is a saying that the most serious danger to hikers is themselves. Most fatalities among the hiking population happen to young, physically fit people who simply underestimate the dangers. The first step in minimizing the risks of hiking is to understand what the actual dangers are, and how to avoid them.
Actual Risks of hiking:
- Dehydration: This is the most common serious risk of hiking, because it can happen anywhere in ANY conditions. Not just in heat and sun; it can happen in dead of winter or the pouring rain. Fortunately, this risk can be almost completely negated by proper planning and simply drinking water.
- Hypothermia: Perhaps the most acute danger that hikers face. Hypothermia, like dehydration, can come on rapidly. It happens in cold weather, but it does not have to be THAT cold for hypothermia to set in. In fact, it can happen in temperatures of up to 50 degrees. The important thing to remember is, wind and wet, NOT merely cold, are the killers. A human being, even improperly dressed, can survive a night outdoors in freezing temperatures if given adequate shelter. In a stiff wind, this is reduced to a few hours at best. If they are soaking wet, it could be minutes. The best way to mitigate the danger of hypothermia is to avoid its onset, which means preparing for adverse conditions, adhering to the principals of layering, and using good judgement when conditions deteriorate.
- Mechanical injury: In colloquial terms, mechanical injury is the art of busting your ass. Falls are the most common source of mechanical injury, and falls are the number one source of deaths in the outdoors BY FAR. Others types of mechanical injuries are ankle sprains, back injuries, banging your head on tree limbs, being struck by debris, etc. The annoying thing about mechanical injury is that no piece of gear can completely prevent them. On the plus side, most mechanical injuries can be prevented, or at least made less serious, by exercising caution and good judgement.
- Heat Exhaustion: Heat exhaustion is, as the name implies, simply overheating. Most common in tropical or desert areas but can happen any time the temperatures start to climb. It is serious, because it can lead to heat stroke, which can be fatal. Most heat exhaustion cases can simply be avoided through proper preparation and sound judgement. Remember, only donkeys and gringos go walking at noon.
- Drowning: An underappreciated risk of the backcountry is that of drowning during stream and river crossings, as well as during unexpected flash floods. Most ‘dry land’ drowning cases can be avoided through the exercise of good judgement, or by simply avoiding entirely routes that cross water courses during high water. Note that hiking in slot canyons, even bone-dry ones, is inherently exposing oneself to the risk of drowning in a flash flood.
- Contaminated water: Though the risks from germs and poor sanitation in the outdoors is sometimes exaggerated, the risks associated with drinking bad water are not. Pathogens such as amoebic dysentery, Giardia and worse can be picked up even in clear flowing mountain streams. This can lead to serious sickness which can weaken or even kill a hiker. Fortunately, this danger can be almost entirely prevented by treating and/or boiling all natural water sources.
These risks are also real, but overrated:
Snake and insect bites: Generally speaking there is no snake, spider or other critter in North America whose bite is absolutely fatal. This is not to say there is nothing that can’t bite you. There are several species of poisonous snake, at least two species of poisonous spider, some species of venomous scorpion, plus a host of other crawling, slithering and flying things which can bite or sting, sometimes painfully, but are not serious threat to health.
The dangers associated with snake and insect bites in the wild are greatly overstated in general. Most snake and insect bites that happen in the lower 48 stem from two causes:
- Person bitten was messing with bity thing in question
- Person bitten was moving about off trail incautiously and therefore didn’t see the bity thing they stepped on or blundered into
Most such encounters can be avoided, and avoiding these critters is in fact the best way of dealing with them. In general, stay on the trail, watch where you step, watch where you place your hands (especially when climbing on rocks) and don’t go messing around in piles of leaves, sticks or brush.
I won’t go over these things in detail but you should know what they are. The Bities of North America (from gringo side of the Rio Grande, north)…
Rattlesnake: Medium sized snake equipped with noise maker, bite serious but seldom fatal
Copperhead: Less noisy and dangerous cousin of the rattlesnake; common in some areas
Cottonmouth: The most beligerent North American snake, found mostly in swamps and waterways
Coral Snake: Brightly colored and highly venomous snake; seldom seen, bites very rare
Black Widow Spider: She of the red hour glass, common to wooded areas across the US
Brown Recluse: An urban legion for its flesh rotting venom. As name implies, seldom seen
Bark Scorpion: Common type of scorpion found in southwest, bite painful but usually not serious
Gila Monster: One reason not to go sticking your hand into random holes down by the Mexican border
Africanized Bees: Very aggressive, probably a more serious threat than any of the above
Note that this applies to NORTH AMERICAN bities. In other places, your biting and stinging miles may vary, especially in places closer to the equator (and most especially Australia, AKA the Land of Bities Down Under.)
It is a truth of human nature that people are prepared to put up with some risks and not others. The same person who keeps 17 guns in the house for self-defense might also ride a motorcycle without a helmet. The same person who refuses to eat or drink anything that isn’t organic and purified has no issues riding a bike along a busy highway inches from speeding traffic. People will put up with some risks; they won’t put up with others. And there is no point arguing with people about this because, it’s human nature.
Risk of attack by an animal in the wild is one of those things that people generally seem very concerned with. Many people hike with bear spray or bear bells, and I know at least one person who hikes with a gun. All sensible precautions, you might say. Well, fine, but the chances of drowning in a stream or breaking your neck tripping over a rock far eclipses the risks associated with animal attack. So why not hike wearing a crash helmet and a Mae West? I have never seen anyone doing this.
Let’s be clear…animal attacks do occur. There is no way to entirely predict when one might encounter an animal or how animal might react, but there are a few simple rules that a hiker can follow to keep clear of danger in the event of such a rare encounter.
Rules for dealing with Beasties:
- Most animal attacks occur not from predatory behavior, but because the animal feels threatened.
- Be wary of any situation where you might surprise an animal, such as coming around a blind corner quickly, or walking beside a very loud rushing stream that masks the sound of approach.
- If you do encounter an animal, and the animal does NOT appear to be threatened or aggressive:
- Do NOT approach it
- Observe it from a safe distance
- Act natural, continue to walk and talk
- Don’t make sudden moves
- It might help to talk to the animal
- Make sure the animal is not following when you leave the area
- If you encounter an animal and the animal DOES appear agitated or threatened:
- Stop advancing
- Back away SLOWLY
- Talk to the animal in soft tones
- DON’T run (running might trigger a predatory response)
- DON’T turn your back
- Continue to back away until the animal is out of sight, or a safe distance away
- If the animal continues to advance, or charges:
- DON’T Run. You cannot outrun almost any large four-legged animal so don’t bother trying
- Continue to face the animal and back away
- Prepare to defend yourself with whatever weapon you have at hand
- Scream, shout, bang pots and pans together, make noise
- A charge very well could be a bluff so do NOT turn away
- Now’s the time for that pepper spray if you have it
- Make yourself look as big as possible
- If you are with someone else, keep together
- Dropping a pack or other object to distract it MIGHT help
- Climbing a tree is a very dubious strategy for dealing with a large, aggressive animal. If you can make it to the tree and are SURE you can get up there ahead of the animal, it’s worth a try
- Keep in mind that black bears climb extremely well, so seeking refuge from one in a tree doesn’t put you out of harms way
- If the animal presses the attack, cover up you face, throat and the back of your neck. Be prepared to fight back…most animals will NOT press an attack against determined opposition
- If the animal is a grizzly bear, playing dead MAY be your best option unless you think the animal is exhibiting predatory behavior. The options with grizzly bears are limited; once a griz presses the attack, fighting back is not likely to be much use
- Be aware that once an animal attacks, it may back off once it thinks you don’t pose a threat any more.
- If the animal does back off, do NOT get back up until you are certain it’s left the area. It may attack again.
- Predatory Animals: If you have cause to suspect an animal is stalking you or exhibiting predatory behavior (especially if it’s a bear or big cat)
- DO NOT run, especially if it’s a cat
- DO NOT turn your back on it
- Scream, yell, jump up and down
- Wave your arms, wave a stick, throw rock,
- Hold up your backpack, make yourself look as large and threatening as possible
- If an animal is stalking a human it may be old, sickly, or weak, so don’t encourage it to think you are an easy target
- Be prepared to defend yourself as vigorously as possible
- DO NOT play dead around an animal exhibiting predatory behavior
Animals to watch out for in North America:
Human being: AKA homo sapiens, the shaved monkey or nude house ape, the human being is BY FAR the most dangerous animal in the American wild. Very often armed and dangerous, aggressive, impulsive and capable of virtually anything. When confronted by one, attempt to distract it by shouting, “I support the Second Amendment!” or by engaging it in the latest Game of Thrones gossip.
Dogs, wild and domesticated: Also known as man’s best friend. Probably the second most commonly encountered dangerous animal in the wild. Sometimes aggressive, most dogs attack out of fear, territoriality or because they think they are defending their owner.
Pigs: AKA boars, hogs or javelinas. Probably the third most dangerous North America animal, wild hogs are locally common in many areas of the southeast and west. Treat them with the same respect you would a very large dog; they are tough, ornery animals with a real attitude. Will attack and bite if they feel threatened.
Moose: Number four on the watch list. Found in wooded or boggy areas mostly in the Northern states, especially in the Rocky and Appalachian ranges. Very large and powerful animal; generally not aggressive and will tolerate humans observing them at a respectful distance. Beware bulls in the rutting season.
Black bear: May surprise some people to see them at number five but…hey, they really aren’t THAT much of a threat. Common throughout the US and usually found wherever there is wilderness, excepting certain very arid areas. Not as large as grizzly but quite capable of overpowering a human. Mothers with cubs should be given a wide berth. Watch your pic-a-nic baskets, they are known to be smarter than the average bears.
Grizzly Bear: Found today in the Northern Rockies and possibly the North Cascades. Very aggressive, sometimes easily provoked, and extremely dangerous. Good news is, they are very uncommon, and don’t generally predate humans.
Mountain lions: Rarely seen even in places where they are common, lions sometimes attack humans who they mistake for their favorite food, white tailed deer. The important thing with lions is not to run; as with domestic cats, rapid movement can trigger them to pounce. Count yourself lucky if you ever see one in the wild…most hikers never will.
Avalanche, Mudslides, Landslides, etc.
These are dangers presented by the scenery itself either falling on top of, or carrying away, the hiker.
Avalanches may not seem like much of a risk to the average person, but in fact they kill far more people than bear attacks do. An average of 27 people are killed by avalanches every year in the United States and 150 worldwide.
However, it should be noted that the vast majority of these were NOT hikers and backpackers. Most were technical climbers, skiers, or people who work in the outdoors like guides, ski patrollers and rangers. Only a handful of hikers die in avalanches each year.
Avalanches therefore pose a very small threat to the average hiker, which can be reduced to almost zero by the simple exercise of good judgement.
- Avalanche danger is most acute in winter and spring
- It is most acute in large mountain ranges with deep snowpack like the Rockies or Alps
- Avoid hiking in areas prone to avalanche during the danger season
- Heed posted warnings of avalanche danger
- Avoid steep snow-covered slopes or the areas directly below them
- Look UP…the danger is not necessarily where you are it may be high above
- Be wary of overhangs and cornices
- Don’t walk or linger in areas of unstable snow
- Be especially wary if the temperature climbs and the snow starts to melt
- Avalanche activity in nearby areas is a warning sign
- So are suspiciously exposed, bare slopes
- Ice crystals forming on the snow is sometimes a warning sign
- Don’t forget that long after snow has melted in the lowlands, it remains on the high slopes
- Once you can see or hear an avalanche coming you might have only seconds to react
- You cannot outrun an avalanche, so the best advice by far is avoid them
Landslides (and their liquified companion mudslides) kill 25-50 people a year in the US. However, very few of these are hikers. They are random events that generally happen after very heavy rains; the best advice is to avoid areas that are prone to landslides, and especially avoid these during times of heavy rain. Note that most of the very serious landslide/mudslide disasters in the US have occurred along the Pacific Coast. Steep eroded slopes, generally dry conditions followed by heavy rain are the chief recipe for landslides.
Note that overseas, and especially in many tropical areas prone to seasonal monsoons, catastrophic landslides, flash-floods and mudslides are MUCH more common and might well kill thousands each year. It is best to understand the dangers of the area you are going into; my advice is, avoid hiking in any place during a heavy rainy season if you can.
The quintessential rare event, lightning does kill an average of 75 people in the US every year and injures hundreds. A surprisingly small number of these are hikers, perhaps for the simple reason that lightning strikes are by definition very random and freak events.
The main danger that lightning strikes pose to the hiker is becoming caught in an exposed area, such as an open ridgeline, during a severe electrical storm. Chances of injury or death go up markedly in such a situation.
If you ARE unlucky enough to get caught outdoors during an electrical storm in an exposed area, you might try the following:
- DON’T seek shelter under a tree, rock overhand or even a cave
- Get as low to the ground as possible.
- Make as little contact with the ground as possible
- Squatting on your toes is advised
- So is standing on your pack
- For the preceding steps, some expertise at the game of “Twister” is helpful
- Hope that last offering to Zeus was a good one
- Lose that set of golf clubs, fast
- Crossing your fingers might help
- You might try repeating “The Andrea Gail will sail again!”
If all the above seems a bit of a stretch, that’s at least in part because there are few good options for a person caught in the open during a lightning storm. If you don’t have a building or vehicle to take shelter in, you are almost completely at the mercy of forces infinitely more powerful than you. There aren’t many good options for these situations.
Like many other severe dangers of the outdoors, the best way to deal with lightning strikes is to avoid the situations where one might be aimed at you. Heed the following advice:
- In mountainous areas, particular on summer afternoons, EXPECT THUNDERSTORMS at ANY time
- Afternoon storms are such a given in many areas such as the Alps and Rockies that to be caught by surprise is almost criminally negligent
- Storms can appear rapidly and without warning
- Be wary that the peak you are admiring might be blocking a view of the approaching storm
- Weather forecasts in mountainous areas should always be treated with suspicion
- Mountains often have their own localized weather systems, which are difficult to predict
- The storm doesn’t care what the TV weatherman said
- Whatever the sky looks like it is going to do, it probably is going to do
If storms threaten…
- Get to shelter if possible
- Go downhill by the quickest practical means
- Evacuate peaks and ridgelines
- Don’t panic and run; now’s not the time for a twisted ankle
- Going off trail is not advisable as clouds may reduce visibility to zero
- Don’t try to race an approaching storm through an exposed area
- If in an exposed area, get to tree line if possible
- If no trees are close, get into scrub and stay low
- If you see a break in the weather use it to get to a more sheltered area
- If you think your shelter adequate, wait out the storm
Did you know?: The most common cause of deaths in US National parks is drowning; of course this includes swimmers, divers, recreational boaters etc. The second most common is motor vehicle accidents.
The number of people killed by animal attacks in US National Parks is about the same as the number killed by accidental firearm discharges.
More people die of suicide in National Parks than die of animal attacks, avalanches, exposure or heat exhaustion combined.