Top 3 Ways People Die in the Wilderness (So You Don’t Have To)
It’s surprising to look at the leading causes of most deaths in the wilderness — all of these are caused by personal errors in judgment. Falls, drowning, and heart attacks are the three leading causes of wilderness fatalities. We list several ways that each of these deaths can be avoided as well as key survival gear proven to help save lives.
It turns out that it’s not only wilderness newbies on the list — but also seasoned veterans who become complacent and do things that they should know better not to… If you want to live, don’t make these common mistakes that take lives every year…
True life survival stories and news accounts of people who meet a fatal end in the wilderness often grab our attention.
If you’re on this site you either have a growing interest in the wilderness and looking for a few survival tips, or possibly you’re a newbie or seasoned prepper getting ready for the possibility of a disaster striking your region.
Fatalities in the wilderness are rare, but there are common causes when they do happen
When it comes to recreation in the wild, fatalities are actually a rare event. Not that many lose their lives in blizzards and to predatory bears and to mountain lions as you might think — though none of these are leading causes of deaths in the wild.
If you’re looking at the wilderness with the possibility or interest in one day living off the land, then the chances of losing your life greatly increase due to the fact that every day can literally be a fight for survival — for the unprepared and inexperienced.
Life in the Alaskan wilderness gives us a glimpse of the ways that people can lose their lives. It turns out that in Alaska locals may tell you that it’s people you need to fear the most when you’re out in the bush. A lot of unsolved murders have taken place over the years. While it is possible that only a handful of people are responsible for those killings, regardless life in a remote area comes with it’s dangers both from people and predatory wildlife.
But there’s more to the story of how people actually die in the wilderness
Backpacker Magazine took an interest in this topic in recent years, and they took a close look at statistics, determined that as far as recreation goes, fatalities are extremely rare. When people do die in the wild, they are more likely to die from:
Falling is the number one cause of backcountry deaths
The temptation to tackle a slope or rock face is the number one killer of people in the wild. Often it’s a hiker either seeking a better vantage point or just a place to take some good photography.
To avoid death from a fall it’s important to first decide if it’s really necessary to climb to that vantage point, and second to look around and see if there’s a safer place to get that vantage point from any distance away.
Finding a safe route to climb
1. Study the rock face or slope and look for warning signs like loose rock, dampness, moss, or even dead vegetation. Loose rock can crumble under your feet or hands, you can lose your grip if the rock is wet or slick, and moss and dead vegetation can tear away from the rock face, causing you to fall.
2. If you don’t see any of these warning signs, now study the rock face for firm grip points for both your hands and feet, and then see if you can eyeball an easy way up and an easy way back down if you happen to change your mind halfway up. People have gotten stuck on the side of slopes and rock faces just a few feet off the ground — any loose, large rocks at the bottom can make jumping down a serious risk.
3. Can’t find a safe path to climb and that you know you can climb back down if you have to? Don’t climb there. Keep hiking and keep exploring until you find a safer way to where you want to get to.
4. When you’re finally ready to make a climb, be sure that it’s not rock that will tear away from the face or slope. From ground level, find an edge to grip, and yank down on it, and let it hold your weight. Is it stable and not going anywhere? Reach up or over and grab another edge, and yank down on it also, finally letting it hold your weight. If this rock isn’t tearing away then you’re probably on solid rock and can consider continuing to make your climb up.
Seek out gentle slopes first vs a vertical climb
While experienced mountain climbers can go up a vertical face, you should be able to find gently sloping faces if you look long enough. It will be a lot easier to climb for someone not experienced or in shape for going up a vertical face.
Getting in shape to climb
Finally, if there’s a chance you could end up doing some climbing on a small scale (in other words you know you may end up off the trail at some point), then start incorporating pull ups into a fitness regimen, so that you can build the proper muscles in your back and arms to make safe climbing possible.
1. Starting with just light weight, work out for a few weeks at high repetitions, 20 to 30 and then up to 40 or 50 reps. You want to build muscle endurance and also strengthen tendons — not just muscles — getting your body accustomed to the movement.
2. After a few weeks of light weight at high repetitions start doing heavier weight at lower reps as a final set (say for example, 2 sets of high reps and 1 set of low reps at a brisk pace).
3. Put on a medium sized backpack filled with 20 – 30 pounds of weight and hang from a pull up bar for as long as you can. Slowly pull yourself up. Ultimately, you will strengthen your arms, shoulders, and back and be more physically ready for any light climbing, including light climbing with gear on your back.
Drowning is the number two cause of backcountry deaths
Backpacker Magazine reports that deaths on frozen lakes and in white water rivers were the second leading cause of death in wilderness fatalities.
Most victims are said to be white water paddlers or rafters and then right behind that group are hikers who fall into rivers while making a crossing.
Backpacker did an extensive analysis of emergency incidents and fatalities that were reported by the International Search and Rescue Incident Database (ISRID). When reviewing how people commonly drown in the backcountry, they determined that most victims are whitewater paddlers or rafters who get trapped under strainers or ledges, or backpackers who fall while fording rivers, often in spring runoff.
Crossing a river
Pay close attention to the deaths that have taken place while fording (crossing) a river — like it or not, in the backcountry understanding when and where and how to cross a river is an essential survival skill because one day in the backcountry you may need or want to make a river crossing.
“Any place there’s water mixed with hiking, boating, and fishing, drowning usually wins first place,” says Robert Koester, a researcher with Virginia-based dbS Productions and creator of the 30,000-case International Search and Rescue Incident Database (ISRID).
If you can incorporate a tactic for crossing a river, especially when rivers are running high and fast as snow in the mountains melts with warmer spring weather, you can give yourself a huge advantage over others who lack the same skill — you can cross into remote country that others can’t get to.
In Escape and Evasion, your trackers may not be willing to follow you across, allowing you to make a clean escape and disappear into new lands.
When seeking a good place to hunt, where there is little or no hunting pressure (meaning, no other hunters to scare away wildlife), the best hunting areas following a collapse will be in remote regions, and those remote regions may lie on the other side of fast flowing rivers.
To make that crossing:
1. Strip down to just your shorts — clothes create drag in a current and make it harder to cross (pack your clothes into a waterproof dry sack so that you can put them back on after you cross, helping to avoid hypothermia — if this is cold weather we’re talking about).
2. If you have one available, put on a life jacket — if you do fall, your life jacket can keep you from being pulled under by a current. Most backpackers do not carry a life jacket, because of the space they take up … but many life jackets are light weight and can simply be hung off a backpack from a caribineer clip.
3. When you’ve found a place to cross you feel good about, unbuckle your hipbelt and sternum strap, so that your backpack doesn’t pull you under if you fall.
If you do fall
If you do fall in the river, Backpacker advises:
1. Recline in the rapids if you fall in whitewater, pointing your feet downstream (so you can push away from rocks) and float on your back until you can swim to shore. Once you’ve fallen, never try to stand up in a strong current; if your foot gets trapped between rocks, you could get pushed over and drowned.
Safer ways to cross a river
There are several other tactics to consider, though, rather than just trying to cross a river on foot, hoping that you can keep your balance (for a lot of people, trekking into the current on foot, without tools or rope or other people, is risky).
Other tactics that can prove to be safer if done correctly are discussed in this article, How to Live Off the Land, but may require the same kind of tools carried by search and rescue teams or professional explorers.
At the very least, ask yourself: Is there a safer place to cross the river somewhere else? Hiking a few hundred yards (or even a few miles if you have to) up or down the river may take you to a place that offers a safer place to cross. Also realize that if you hike to a higher elevation, the river may get narrower and there may be trees along the bank, allowing you to:
Build a bridge using a fallen tree(s) – An axe can be used to chop down a tree that can be used to bridge the river.
If you’re serious about a possible life in the backcountry, a light weight axe is an essential survival tool (Amazon, Cabelas, Bass Pro Shops, and REI carry several, though Amazon may have the best price). Consider a light weight axe — Estwing is a reputable brand manufactured in USA — primarily for light cabin building; cabins help keep wildlife out — dug out shelters, tipis, and canvas tents on the other hand offer little protection against wildlife.
3. Heart Attack
Heart attack is the number three cause of backcountry deaths
Here’s a death that simply doesn’t have to happen — a heart attack is something that can be easily prevented with just some mild to moderate exercise. Experts say that aging baby boomers currently make up most deaths by heart attack in the backcountry.
Strapping on a backpack with several pounds worth of gear and then suddenly facing moderate exertion that you are not in shape for can be a recipe for a heart attack.
While a number of people from all ages (not just baby boomers) get mild to moderate exercise each week, anyone considering facing any period of possible exertion should be taking small steps to improve their cardiovascular system (see: How aerobic exercise works).
Exercise bike is an easy answer
A small, inexpensive exercise bike (common brands include Marcy and Exerpeutic) is an easy way to sneak in 5 to 10 minutes of exercise 3 to 4 mornings a week, even during a busy week of work when you have to commute.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you need to maintain an even speed for a long duration — end every workout with a 15 – 30 second burst of higher tension exercise so that your heart becomes accustomed to short periods of high exertion and you can then get away with less time spent exercising (and remember, it’s these short bursts of high exertion that are causing heart attacks and that you need to be in shape for.)
That equates to cranking up the dial to higher resistance on an exercise bike or, on a treadmill, to cranking up the slope so that you are walking (or running, if you can handle it) up a steep incline for a few seconds at the end of each workout (if incorporating a new exercise regimen into your life, go at an easy pace the first few days so that you don’t suffer a heart attack the first time you end with a higher intensity burst of exercise.)
Realize that everything about life in the backcountry becomes easier and safer with the more time you’ve had getting in decent shape in the months and years previous.
Pay attention to electrolytes like magnesium
In recent months, studies have been published that showed that a drop in magnesium levels (magnesium is an important electrolyte and one of the essential minerals) was a common attribute to heart attacks. So, a person relatively out of shape faces high exertion that taxes the heart and at the same time does not have a proper electrolyte level, and this leads to a recipe for a heart attack.
Electrolyte tablets included in Navy Seal survival kits
Heat stress (the fifth leading cause of wilderness fatalities, right behind hypothermia, number four) depletes electrolytes; that is one reason why the Navy Seals carry electrolyte tablets (possibly military grade) in Navy Seal survival kits and the same reason that newbie and veteran backpackers alike should consider electrolyte tablets for exertion in the backcountry and to help reduce the risk of heart attack.