Each year, millions of people, including many hikers, visit the 85 million acres of America’s National Park System. The majority of these outings are safe and enjoyable. Surprisingly, it is the common hazards such as traffic accidents and complications from health problems that result in the most fatalities. Hikers are also uniquely prone to becoming disoriented or injured, traversing steep mountain trails and negotiating swift waterways. Others suffer from temperature extremes, and a minority have encounters with predatory wildlife. However, given the multitude of park visitors, the number of hikers that perish or are lost without a trace appears to be a relatively rare occurrence.
The exact number of hikers who are lost and never recovered is unknown because no accurate database currently exists where these statistics are collected. However, the National Park Service estimates that 1,000 Americans have vanished since the parks were established in 1916. Various authors who have explored this topic suggest the number of unrecovered, lost hikers may number more than 2000. Regardless of the total number of missing, many of the unrecovered have likely perished.
Overall, the risk of being injured or killed while visiting a national park is very low according to the National Park Service. During the period from 2007-2013, the average fatality rate was 0.57 deaths [per] 1 million visits,” said Jeremy Barnum, public affairs officer at National Park Service. On average, approximately 160 visitors per year die while visiting the national parks. By comparison, more than 32,000 people are killed and 2 million are injured each year in motor vehicle accidents.
Identifying risk factors helps to explain why some hikers get lost, injured, or perish.
Hikers who get lost or injured fall into three broad categories:
- Poorly prepared hikers, inadequately equipped with food, water and survival gear
- Hikers lacking experience and skills in route finding and survival
- Hikers who exercise poor judgement by travelling dangerous trails and overlooks or those who attempt to cross deep waterways or strong currents.
A disproportionate number of incidents involving lost and injured hikers occur among two groups, novice day hikers and those that travel the riskier, rugged landscape of the most frequently visited parks. The lack of adequate planning, experience, judgement, and survival skills are commonly observed among both risk groups of hikers.
When a hiker is reported missing, a systematic search and rescue mission is initiated using SAR professionals, dogs, aircraft, and volunteers in an effort to locate the individual. The mission of SAR also includes providing necessary first aid to the injured, removing them to safety, and when necessary, recovering remains.
Search and Rescue
The most telling data on missing and lost hikers comes from search and rescue mission data compiled by Robert J. Koester, Ph.D. of the University of Virginia Department of Emergency Management. His research, based on a database of 50,000 SAR incidents shows that 98% of search efforts are successful in finding the lost person. The majority of lost hikers are found alive within several hours. However, beyond the 48 hour window, the probability of safely rescuing lost hikers drops significantly.
For hikers that are lost without a trace, folklore has developed fostering a growing market for conspiracy theories.
Conspiracies versus Science
The topic of lost hikers has recently become a cottage industry. There are now dozens of you tube videos, blogs, e-books, and articles promoting the myth that thousands of lost hikers have disappeared under mysterious circumstances that defy rational explanation. These authors typically use anecdotal case histories with limited followup data. Some writers, with a conspiratorial mindset, even suggest these disappearances may be associated with paranormal events such as Bigfoot, aliens, or other dark and demonic forces. Clearly, this form of profit driven infotainment bears only a superficial resemblance to the scientific study of lost hikers.
Why Hikers Go Missing
The notion that hikers get lost and some disappear or perish should not come as a surprise considering the millions of people who visit parks and wilderness areas annually. No paranormal explanations are necessary. The very real danger inherent in the park's landscape and weather is simply obscured by the beauty and majesty of the mountain ranges, dramatic river gorges, and the exotic animals that roam freely. A minority of hikers that disappear, fall, get swept away in dangerous currents, disappear into rock or ice crevasses, get buried in avalanches, or succumb to injuries or weather extremes. When undiscovered hikers die in wilderness areas their bodies decompose and are consumed by animals and insects in a matter of months. Skeletal remains and hiking gear are often scattered in the process, hampering long term efforts at recovery and identification.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes famously said “It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.” Similarly Ockham’s razor commonly known as the law of parsimony states “when there are two competing theories, the simpler explanation is usually the most accurate.
Simply put, factual explanations can inform hikers how to prevent loss and injury. Therefore, the competent hiker is one who has thoroughly prepared by virtue of physical conditioning, planning, equipment, experience, and skill.
Survival gear and skills should be part of any outing from day hikes to multi-day expeditions. Survival gear can be scaled to the type of hike being planned. But, every hiker should have navigational and first aid skill, carry a compass, map, cell phone, signalling mirror and whistle, knife/multi tool, water and food and be prepared to make a fire, purify water and construct an emergency shelter.
Filing a trip plan is essential in order to be found in an emergency. Your trip plan should be filed and acknowledged by two reliable friends or family members. The plan should include:
- Name, personal description and photo of all hikers
- Description, license number, and location of motor vehicle
- Hiking area, trail head and route, stop overs, time of departure, number of miles, and estimated time of return.
- Personal phone number and park contact information to facilitate response time in case of an emergency.
Sometimes, in spite of sound planning, hikers lose their way and become confused and disoriented.
Once hikers get lost they typically make predictable errors sometimes fueled by anxiety including:
- Getting off of the trail or bushwhacking
- Random travelling looking for a landmark
- Sampling different trails or directions.
- Increasing elevation for a better view
- Following waterways seeking civilization
The best strategy to avoid orientation errors is to plan your travel route using a compass and a map. If you get lost, stay in one place and wait for searchers to discover you. If you have reason to believe a search is likely it is best to make camp with shelter and fire before it gets dark. When rested, make a rational plan to determine your location using your map and compass and direction of the sun to head toward an identifiable landmark such as a roadway or stream which you can associate with a safe return route.
In the near future a hiker’s ability to avoid getting lost will be greatly enhanced by evolving research on the behavior and psychology of lost hikers and innovative technology.
In the future hikers may be required to file a trip plan and show evidence of survival training and appropriate gear. Novice hikers will be routed to safer routes with more support resources.
Parks may require hikers to own or rent satellite phones or emergency beacons to improve rescue efficiency and purchase rescue insurance to lower costs.
One day soon we are likely to see prefabricated mini drones that can easily fit in a backpack and can be used to provide a birds eye view of terrain, boost cell phone signals and to alert search and rescue to a lost hikers location while viewing their dilemma in real time or by archived images.
Electronic nodes identifiable by smartphones will likely be positioned in key locations for hikers to stay oriented and rescue workers to more efficiently locate those that get disoriented.
© 2021 James W Siddall
James W Siddall (author) from Cleveland on April 29, 2021:
Liliane: Thank you for your feedback! Jim
James W Siddall (author) from Cleveland on March 05, 2021:
Alex: I agree hiking is a passion but safety is a requirement of the prepared hiker. Jim
James W Siddall (author) from Cleveland on March 05, 2021:
Liliane: Thank you for your feedback. Yes, the USA has millions of acres of lovely parkland! Jim
Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on March 05, 2021:
I love going hiking. Be safe and prepared.
Liliane Najm from Toronto, Canada on March 05, 2021:
It must be such a thrill for the hikers to start on their adventure, even if unprepared. I enjoyed reading your article esp. that I didn’t know the USA have such a large number of national parks.