Hiking isn’t as dangerous as you might have been led to believe.
However, dangerous acts and conditions can easily be applied to hiking if you don’t consider and plan for them.
But that’s the case with anything. Driving a car is dangerous. Talking on a cell phone while walking is dangerous. Flying on a plane is dangerous.
Accidents and terrible events happen. Some things we can control, while others are simply acts of nature.
Hiking itself isn’t that dangerous, but the conditions that come with it can be dangerous. Some are even extremely dangerous.
It’s essential to know these dangers, how to prepare for them, and what to do when we face them.
Is Hiking Dangerous?
According to the National Park Service, 120 to 150 people die yearly from accidents and incidents that occur while hiking.
Over the years, the number of deaths has slowly increased. That is expected as hiking becomes more and more popular, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The causes of the fatalities differ in certain areas and types of hiking environments.
The National Park Service reports that drowning is the leading cause of death in National Parks.
I live in the Shawnee National Forest. Our leading cause of fatality is falling.
I read new reports yearly about someone falling to death in the Shawnee National Forest.
While falling seems like it should be a top fatality statistic, according to online sources, it isn’t.
Drowning, suicide, car accident, and medical emergencies are the leading causes of death from slips and falls.
But in the Shawnee National Forest, we rarely see the leading causes above. Instead, we see more deaths from falling, as stated above.
Sometimes we think about causes of death from something that isn’t even that plausible, like deaths from snake bites.
According to the CDC, snakes kill an average of 5 people each year in the United States. Of those 5 fatalities, 7,000 to 8,000 people get bit each year.
5 in 8,000 die. That’s something to not worry about as much as we worry about.
Many people fear snakes and death from their bite because of evolution. We’ve been programmed that snakes are evil and will chase you to bite you.
In reality, you have a better chance of drowning or committing suicide than death by a snake bite. But that isn’t to say you should take precautions.
Potential Hiking Hazards
Many hiking hazards can occur. Some are natural hazards that we have little control over.
Others are hazards that we have created.
It’s important to know what hazards exist so that you can be prepared for them and take extra precautions against them if applicable.
Lightning is dangerous. It impacts people outdoors more than it impacts people indoors for obvious reasons.
About 300 people in the US are struck by lightning every year. Out of that 300, around 80 people died from being struck.
Lightning can strike miles away. I remember a high school student getting killed in my local area from a lightning strike from a storm over ten miles from where he was pole vaulting.
It is essential to take lightning very seriously as a hiker. Consider not hiking or taking a zero day when thunderstorms are likely.
By hiking in these conditions, you take a greater risk of being struck by lightning.
As stated above, fall statistics are low compared to other fatalities in some areas.
But in some areas, like my Shawnee National Forest, more than 50% of hiking fatalities are from falls.
If you do a Google search of “Shawnee national forest death,” every result on the search page will be about deaths from falls. It’s people of all ages, young and old.
It is so easy to fall in nature, especially from the tops of bluffs and mountains. Rocks are slick whether they’re wet or dry.
If they’re wet, they are typically as slippery as ice. If they’re dry, they may have dust or loose dirt debris which causes them to be slick.
You can prevent falling by watching where you step at all times. Don’t get too close to the edge of bluffs and mountains.
Even if you don’t die from a fall, the pain and cost will be agonizing. It might even permanently cripple you.
Most of us read about flash flooding and think about city streets and residential areas next to rivers.
We rarely think about the forest or the parks. Remember the recent flooding at Yellowstone National Park? It was devastating.
It caused historical damage that will take years to recover, probably even decades.
Flash flooding occurs in nature and happens often. Think about how many creeks you cross and how most connect to a river.
Think about all the ravines and valleys you hike into. These areas flood before anything else when conditions are favorable for them.
Fatalities from flash flooding occur every year. Roughly around 88 people die each year from flash flooding.
Flooding kills more people each year than lightning and hurricanes. Most people die due to driving into areas where flash flooding occurs.
A flash flood can create rapidly moving water that can quickly erode surfaces and roadways with water upwards of 30 feet deep.
No one can outswim that or survive in most cases.
Most flash flooding occurs from strong to severe thunderstorms. Therefore, we must check the weather conditions each day we plan to hike.
Avoid hiking when the weather conditions call for thunderstorms and flooding events.
One of the most significant safety concerns of backcountry hikers is animal attacks.
This is especially true in bear country. And it should be!
Animals are capable of attacking humans. Most attacks are due to the animals feeling cornered or scared, protecting their young, or in rare cases, attacking for food sources.
While animal attacks do happen to hikers, they’re rare. They are very low on the list of injuries and fatalities during hiking trips.
Most fatal wild animal attacks are from brown bears (like a Grizzly); which has been about 70 fatalities in North America over the past 50 years.
Sharks are next on the list, followed by snakes and black bears.
Animal attacks are preventable by understanding what wild animals exist where you are hiking and taking precautions to defend against them if needed.
I don’t carry bear spray because Illinois has no confirmed bear population. However, I closely watch my step because we have rattlesnakes, and I see them yearly.
While this usually doesn’t result in a fatality, this is a hiking hazard in the newer hiking communities.
Getting lost while hiking isn’t that hard to do. If you don’t understand the trail system, you may take the wrong trail and get mixed up after taking different trails.
The risk of getting lost significantly increases if you get off the trail.
The main hazards from getting lost that could lead to injury or even death are not having the adequate gear and supplies you would need to survive overnight in the backcountry.
Will you have enough water and food? Do you have enough warmth? Do you have a shelter? Do you have a light source to see in the dark?
The best way to prevent getting lost is to research the trail and take a map, compass, use a hiking app, or bring a GPS with you.
Ensure you understand how to use navigational equipment before venturing into the forest.
And always bring enough food, water, and gear with you to survive a few days in case you get lost or injured and cannot get out of the woods.
Exposure to the Elements
Another common injury I’ve seen from my experience hiking in the Shawnee National Forest is hikers being exposed to the elements.
I’ve even suffered this conclusion in the past. You expose yourself to potentially dangerous elements if you hike during extreme weather conditions and temperatures.
If you hike a rugged trail during the hottest summer days, you’ll require more hydration and rest than you usually would.
If you don’t hydrate and rest, you could suffer from a heat-related illness like a heat stroke. In addition, dehydration can occur in hot weather and cold weather.
Colder weather hikes can result in hypothermia and even frostbite.
To prevent exposure to elements while hiking, know the conditions, you will be hiking in.
Wear the proper clothing and take the appropriate gear to hike in these conditions.
And plan for the worst, too. What if you fall into a creek and get soaking wet during freezing temperatures?
What will you do to keep yourself from being injured at that point?
How Common Are Hiking Deaths?
Over 50 million people hike every year in the United States. Nearly 50% of all hiking-related injuries occur from drowning or falling.
While that means dying from a hiking injury is rare, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you.
And don’t miss the elephant in the room concerning this subject.
Even if it is rare that people die, the injuries themselves are often catastrophic to those experiencing them.
For example, falling may not kill you but will likely paralyze you. You might lose limbs if you’re frostbitten while hiking.
You could have severe neurological problems after being bitten by a rattlesnake.
And it’s also essential to understand the cost of being injured. Helicopter transport is the typical emergency evacuation form after an injury in the backcountry.
Those rides typically cost upwards of $10,000 to $20,000. And that’s not covering the rest of the fees and costs to keep you alive.
Hiking deaths are not as common as one might think, but significant injuries are more likely to occur and can be about just as bad.
What Should You NOT Do While Hiking?
There are many things you should not do while hiking. Most are common sense practices.
Don’t do dangerous acts that could result in severe injury or death. But there are some things we shouldn’t do without even realizing how difficult it is.
So it’s essential to take some time to understand the things we don’t expect to be an issue.
Don’t Hike Alone
You should try not to hike alone. Having a hiking buddy is essential to your safety. If one of you gets injured, the other can take charge of the situation and get help.
If you both have a good amount of gear, you can share essentials if you have to stay longer than expected.
Hiking alone after an injury or unexpected situation can be a struggle to deal with on your own.
Don’t Hike Off the Trail
Hiking off-trail should only be done by people who know how to do it. But even with those people, significant risks of injuries and death increase.
Hikers will have a safer trip by staying on designated trails.
Once you get off the trail, you encounter hazards that are not visible, like venomous snakes or edges of cliffs.
You also take a greater chance of getting lost. Staying on the trail is the best way to avoid most hiking hazards.
Don’t Hike in Bad Weather
No one should be outdoors and hiking when the weather is bad.
Even thru-hikers and trekkers should take the day off when severe thunderstorms are occurring. There is no excuse to hike through that kind of weather.
Natural hazards like weather are unforgiving and will usually result in devastation if it is severe enough.
Hiking during bad weather is asking for trouble.
Don’t Hike After Dark
Avoid hiking after dark. Start as early as you can at dawn to give yourself plenty of time to hike and return to where you started before darkness falls.
The entire trail and woods are different at night. It doesn’t look the same as it did in the daytime.
It’s extremely easy to get lost or go onto the wrong trail.
Also, you have a better chance of interacting with potential wild and dangerous animals that usually hunt at night.
Try your best not to hike in the dark.
Don’t Drink Untreated Water
This should be common sense, but some people don’t understand it.
If you find a natural spring in the forest, you might assume that drinking from it is okay.
The issue is with pollution, agriculture, and human waste. These elements constantly spread through the ground, water, and rain.
These become pollutants in natural water cavities like springs.
Drinking unfiltered or untreated water isn’t a safe thing to do.
Bring a water filter with you after you’ve learned how to use it and have tested it to see if it works properly.
Most Dangerous Hikes in the World
Some hiking trails are more dangerous than others. Some hikers want to experience more strenuous hikes around the world.
Unfortunately, some of these hikes are also the most dangerous hikes around the world.
Knowing which of these hikes are the most hazardous is good knowledge if you ever plan to hike any of them.
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Angel’s Landing is located in Zion National Park in Utah. This iconic trail is so popular that you must get a permit to hike it.
The elevation is high enough that falling from the peaks of this trail could be nearly 1,000 feet of free falling.
There are usually several injuries at Angel’s Landing each year. At least one injury results in death. It is easy to fall along this trail if you’re not paying attention.
This is a trail where taking a selfie might mean dying.
The Maze is another Utah hiking trail in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. This particular trail is located in a desert environment.
The trail isn’t as popular as a trail like Angel’s Landing due to its remoteness. It takes a lot longer to get to. The area is remote.
There are no sources of food, water, and services for the many miles once you’re recreating in the area.
Getting lost or hurt in this area could result in significant hazardous environments.
This is a trail where you need to have the right amount of gear and planning.
Caminito Del Rey
Caminito Del Rey is located in Spain. It is a popular hiking and climbing area that many people from around the world visit to experience.
Unfortunately, it is nicknamed the “most dangerous walkway in the world.”
Before repairs were made to the trail a few years ago, a few people fell from it and died as a result.
Many sections of the trail require climbing gear, or you may face sudden death from a very high fall.
I don’t consider myself afraid of heights, but this particular trail would likely make me change my mind.
Mount Hua in China
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Mount Hua is located in China and has often been called the most dangerous hiking trail in the world.
The peaks and summits of this mountain are so high up that you’re in the clouds.
Much of the trail is narrow, poorly maintained, and made up of old rotten boards.
It’s another one of those hikes you’d need climbing gear to manage somewhat safely.
It’s also another hike that I don’t ever see myself completing.
Striding Edge in the UK
Striding Edge is a mountain in the United Kingdom.
This mountain requires a hike through ridgeline environments until you reach a point where you have to edge the side to reach the summit.
It is hazardous during wet or wintry conditions.
England is known for its rain and colder weather during those times of the year. Therefore, this is a hike best done during the driest conditions.
Half Dome in Yosemite
About 100 years ago, cable was installed on the Half Dome hiking trail in Yosemite to help hikers safely use this trail.
Within those 100 years, nine people died as a result of falling.
Over half of those fatalities occurred when the rock was wet.
Even with safety engineering, hiking during wet conditions usually spelled out danger.
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Wendenstock is a famous climbing alpine located in Switzerland. The walls of rock on which recreators climb are very high.
It is a breathtaking adventure that climbers dream of one day experiencing. But, of course, it could very well be the last climbing experience they ever have.
The area is dangerous. It is a steep alpine covered in grass in many areas. Once the grass is wet, it acts like it’s almost covered in snow because of the steepness.
Falling would mean falling more than a few hundred feet, likely resulting in death.
Hiking Safety Tips
One of the simple and easiest-to-remember hiking safety tips is to use common sense.
Most accidents can be prevented by thinking about the situation and devising a plan.
But many other safety tips will help keep you even safer while hiking. You should learn these tips and follow them as if they’re the holy written word.
Frequently Asked Questions
What should you avoid when hiking?
Avoidable Risk. The hiking itself is taking a risk. Nature can be rugged and unforgiving.
There are many hazards associated with hiking. But there are also obvious risks that can be avoided by choice.
You can choose not to hike during the threat of severe weather. You can choose not to get too close to the edge of a cliff.
If you can select an alternative that makes hiking safe, you’re responsible for making that choice.
What are the disadvantages of hiking?
There can be for some people. Hiking isn’t just a walk in the park. It takes a certain level of confidence, and skill adapting, and planning.
Hiking isn’t as easy as walking down a path in your community. You have to take extra precautions, and it usually requires more fitness.
What are the most common hiking injuries?
The most common injuries that occur while hiking are minor injuries. Blisters, for example, are pretty standard, even for hiking gurus like me.
Likewise, walking too long or not wearing the proper footwear will result in a blister.
Strains and sprains are other common injuries. All of these can be prevented by preparing for hiking before committing to it.
What to do if you fall while hiking?
If you fall a significant distance and are conscious, try to stay put if you can. Carefully call out for help and yell while trying not to stress yourself out.
All emergency responders tell you to be calm. That’s because doing so can help reduce further injuries.
Only try to move if moving is essential for you to save your own life. You can prepare for this sort of thing through proper safety planning.
Is hiking stressful?
Only if you make it stressful. You are in charge of your hiking experience.
You can choose the trail, difficulty, and distance based on your abilities and hiking experience.
It could be stressful if you decide to hike a trail that is outside your experience level. If you take risks that can be avoided, it’ll be stressful.
Stress is likely if you don’t plan your hike or bring appropriate gear.
How healthy is hiking?
Hiking is very healthy and on many levels of health. First, hiking is a healthy form of fitness and can aid in weight loss.
Second, hiking is good for your mental health and can be used to reduce stress. Third, hiking is good for your health and lungs.
Finally, hiking is a great way to spend time with your children and family and promote good health and well-being for them, too.
Hiking is healthy until you make choices where it isn’t healthy anymore.
How long should your first hike be?
It’s best to start with the easiest hike possible. Choose more accessible hikes at popular recreational areas and state parks.
An excellent flat loop hike of less than a mile through the forest is a great starting point. It helps you learn a thing or two about hiking in nature.
It’s best to gradually increase difficulty levels as you slowly get better at hiking.
As the old saying goes, start small and don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Wrapping it Up
Is hiking dangerous? It can be in certain circumstances like the ones mentioned above.
But with some common sense and considering the tips above, it doesn’t have to be as dangerous for you to enjoy it.