What's Killing America's Hikers?

Updated on February 26, 2017
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Ms. Parker is a senior paralegal from Alabama. She earned her Bachelor's from Millsaps College in Mississippi. She freelances on the side.

A twenty-three year old was air-lifted to medical care following his disappearance on a 4 day hike in the Great Smoky Mountains. Hiking alone, without his pack, after deviating from the trail in dense terrain - he had violated the simplest of hiking protocols: don't hike alone, hike with a well-prepared pack, and stay on or near on the designated trail.

This young man was lucky - he lived to tell about his experience. But every year there are dozens of trail seekers who never get the chance to tell their stories. Even well-prepared and careful hikers cannot control avalanches, failing GPS's, snow storms, swollen rivers, displaced logs, lightning, territorial bears, mountain lions, scree slopes, slippery rocks, snake bites, among other hazards. So if you think you're safe on the trail, think again! The Centers for Disease Control has reported the third most common source of injury in the wild outdoors is hiking, second only to snow boarding and sledding. In fact, more injuries and deaths are ascribed to hiking each year than to inherently dangerous activities like rock climbing and mountaineering.

Over 280 million people visit the National Park Service’s (NPS) designated recreation areas each year; 192 million others visit U.S. Forest Service (USFS) forests and grasslands; and over 500,000 permits are issued for the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) 253 million acres. While these numbers include backcountry skiiers, climbers, backpackers, or mountaineers, mere onlookers can step outside of their vehicles at an overlook to face a brush with death. Out of the millions of outdoor patrons each year, hiking injuries in the thousands may sound like a fraction of the whole, but most fatalities are preventable. When you consider that increasing numbers of visitors means increasing exposure, the potential for tragedy rises. As the Outdoor Industry Association recently noted in its participation study, “hiking is one of the top five most popular outdoor activities.

While the exact number of hikers nationwide may be an unknown, the NPS reported 3,582 search and rescue (SAR) incidents in 2011 and 2,876 in 2012. More recently, the NPS reported 2,348 in 2013 and 2,658 in 2014. On average, 35 SARs resulted in a hiking-related fatality. Hiking injuries overall totaled 817 in 2011; 922 in 2012; 826 in 2013; and 829 in 2014. This excludes some categories which are still technically hikers such as "Hunting - Gathering." And bear in mind - this is just the NPS' statistics. The Bureau of Land Management and US Forestry Service's numbers are not reflected here.

In the years 2010 through 2014, 192 SARs were hiking-related fatalities. And the reasons for injury and death are noteworthy. The largest percentage of deaths for years have been consistently attributable to three things: lack of knowledge, lack of experience, and poor judgment. In fact, deaths related to lack of knowledge and experience by far outnumber deaths attributed to falls.

It is not surprising that hikers often underestimate the power of Mother Nature and/or hike beyond their skill level. What is surprising, is the attitude of hikers themselves.

In an issue of Backpacker Magazine, Kelly Bastone denoted Abrams Falls, an easy-rated hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as one of the ten most dangerous hiking destinations. She carefully illustrated how drowning leads the list of park fatalities with 29 such deaths since 1971. Abrams Falls, she cited, is “reached by a deceptively easy 2.5 mile hike,” yet “strong currents beneath the falls have swept capable swimmers into unseen traps, and slick rocks have tripped hikers into the chilly depths.”

In response to her online report, hikers commented:

“I've done it. Ain't [bleep].” Posted: Aug 15, 2011 [name withheld]

“I have hiked from Cades Cove to Abrams falls a few times. Never had any problems of any kind. I have rested my feet in the water and had lunch. There have been many people swimming or skinny dipping and none of them were taking risks. People that get injured there would get injured in a mall.” Posted: Jan 23, 2011 [name withheld]

“I walk that trail on the way to the falls for fly fishing, and the most dangerous thing I have seen is a hungry bear!” Posted: Dec 30, 2010 [name withheld]

This is ridiculous. A walk in Central Park is far more dangerous than the hike to Abram Falls.” Posted: Jan 09, 2010 [name withheld]

In apparent defiance of the potential for danger, these hiker-bloggers literally ignored the death of 19 year old William Diefenbach who was carried downstream trying to ford the Newt Prong, and the life of a 26 year old avid swimmer who dove in toward the base of the Falls and was never seen again.

Sadly, these attitudes correlate with the reasons the NPS cites as contributing factors to rescue operations which cost the NPS over $5 million dollars each year. Furthermore, of the seven age groups reported, the largest number of fatalities have been consistently in the 20-29 age bracket. While this age group presumably represents the largest number of hikers overall (although there is no way to know since age isn't reported, if known, until post-death or injury), some hikers may place false comfort in rescue success stories when taking unnecessary risks - risks that should be fairly well understood. There is little an onlooker can do to rescue a fall victim. Climbers watched helplessly as 23 year old Ryan Leeder fell 2500 feet off of Half Dome's summit on a warm, dry day. The only person who could help Ryan was himself. Even on a “modest” cliff, most hikers do not carry rope capable of rescue. Should a victim remain visible or conscious after a fall, it may still take hours to make a safe climb down or to get a helicopter to the site for rescue.

(click column header to sort results)
Table B  
% SAR Ascribed to Falls
% SAR Ascribed to Physical Condition
% SAR Ascribed to Lack of Experience
% SAR Ascribed to Poor Judgment
The largest % of hiking-related deaths are attributed to three things: lack of experience, lack of knowlege; and poor physical condition.
(click column header to sort results)
Table C (SARs Reported by NPS)  
Ages 0-12  
Ages 13-19  
Ages 20-29  
Ages 30-39  
Ages 40-49  
Ages 50-59  
Ages 60+  
The largest % of hiking-related fatalities are aged 20-29. Is this because this is the largest age group hiking to begin with? Could lack of judgment and experience play a role?

What kills America's hikers is mainly themselves. The trail rating system of “easy,” “moderate” or “strenuous” can be deceiving as Bastone conveyed. You would not expect fatalities at Abrams Falls whereas you would expect them to be more commonplace along the strenuous hike to Yosemite's famous Half Dome (2500') where 17 people died in 2011 alone.

Hiking is generally considered a solo activity even in a group setting, and all too often hikers simply elect to hike alone. But while hikers may be self-sufficient (food, water, gear), this minimalistic approach to life in the outdoors falls miserably short of the experience, judgment, and physical conditioning necessary to survive the unexpected. Twenty-one year old Julia Rutherford did not plan to die when a 5' crevasse opened up into an icy waterfall. Thirty-six year old Michael Antonelli did not plan to die when a ledge gave way beneath him. Brian Donald-Nelson did not expect to die on the Redgap Pass when he lost his footing on a wet rock, falling 150' while his wife looked on. Less than one month later, a second hiker fell at the same waterfall while also trying to filter water, fracturing his skull and dislocating his hip. The difference between life and death in this instance was that the second hiker was filtering from a spot only 40' feet from the bottom rather than the top of the fall.

Southeastern Outdoors reports scores of preventable deaths each year. In recent years, a 29 year old male died from dehydration at Big Bend National Park. Fall-related deaths included a man at the South Rim in Big Bend; a 23 year old female in Grand Teton’s SW Couloir; and a 19 year old at Mt. Healy in Alaska’s Denali National Park. The picture should be clear by now. The list of preventable deaths goes on.

While trails and circumstances for hiking change with the weather, ALL hikers have this constant - they control their own judgment, knowledge, and experience. Hiking should not be inherently risky but adding just one pitfall -- standing too close to the edge, inadequate gear/resources, lack of preparedness for the unforgiving elements, -- and suddenly, hiking can become much riskier than climbers secured on rope with a belayer.

Hikers owe it to themselves and to other hikers to take their choice of recreation seriously. There is no excuse for lack of knowledge when hiking associations are easy to find and to join. There are volumes of information in libraries, bookstores and online about safe hiking.

Keen judgment comes with experience, but ignoring the potential for danger is what makes hikers statistics rather than story tellers.

The National Park Service recently founded a National Search & Rescue Academy. The 6 week course is designed to teach attendees the skills necessary for ground searches, swift water rescue and rope rescue. The NPS's goal is to improve workplace safety for its own employees, but secondarily, to enhance its SAR capacity. Though the NPS is stepping up its game, the best trained rescuers in America will not likely alter the fact that roughly 3% of SARs each year are body recoveries. The only thing that can eliminate or reduce hiking-related injury or death is for hikers to hit the trails with a balanced mind as well as a balanced pack.

© 2012 Vicki Parker


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      Gwen 3 months ago

      My dear friend lost her 20 year old son to a hiking accident just two weeks ago up on Sauk Mountain in Washington State. Such a tragedy. He was hiking alone. It appears he slipped and fell as the autopsy revealed a fractured pelvis and internal bleeding. Another older women broke her leg on the trail while hiking alone. Her story ended better as she was helicoptered out and recovered. My husband noted that people don't like hearing about accidents as it makes them feel vulnerable and afraid. Adventure is thrilling and requires respect. Thank you for writing the article.

    • profile image

      Clive Ettia 3 months ago

      Great article and statistics, thank you.

      I am searching for problems such as this to offer an upcoming solution that will bring these statistics down.


    • profile image

      Robin Craig 4 months ago

      Good article...... makes you think.

    • profile image

      Nicole 5 months ago

      A hiker recently fell to his death in my country (Trinidad) and many people here have condemned the hiking club but I don't see how 5 or 6 hike leaders can guarantee that no one will fall. This was a very experienced hiker but he had some issues with his knee and decided to go hiking anyway. Nobody saw when he fell and he wasn't found for 2 days. He fell several hundred feet and died instantly according to the autopsy.

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      keepitreal 2 years ago

      You have compiled some irrefutable data to helpfully caution all outdoors people.

    • alahiker28 profile image

      Vicki Parker 5 years ago from the Deep South

      I hate to hear sad stories about hikers. Especially falls, when they are so avoidable. Thanks for the input and happy hiking. I'll remember your name. Who knows? Maybe we'll bump into one another some time on the trail !

    • Lane Reno profile image

      Lane Reno 5 years ago

      Thanks for the stats and good advice. I am a hiker, too, and am in N. Central AL about 2 miles outside of the Bankhead National Forest. We love to go on day trips to different areas in the Forest, and we love to camp when we can get away for more than a day. This past summer, a man (and the nature group with them) watched his wife get too close to the edge of some Falls, and she fell to her death miles and miles away from the main roads. It was a 20' drop--tempting to look down to the water--but gravity won. So sad to hear the ranger office tell us this. One instant and misstep changes it all. Thanks for this HUB and the "think twice" incentive!

    • Armchair Builder profile image

      Michael Luckado 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Great hub. Just got back from a three hour hike on some pretty treacherous terrain. You make some good points about being prepared.

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      Jpo 5 years ago

      Thoroughly researched. Completely interesting.

      Nicely compiled.