Day hikers are the most vulnerable in survival situations. Here’s why.

According to research, wandering off trail is the number one reason, ahead of injury and bad weather, that adult hikers require search and rescue. A study analyzed 100+ news reports over the past 25 years to identify the most common ways adults in North America got lost while hiking in national parks and wilderness, what they did to survive, and how they made it out alive. Forty-one percent of the survivors began their odysseys, which ranged from a half-day missing to 90 days, by accidentally straying from the trail.

Losing the trail can happen to anyone. It’s not about veering off to get a closer look at the wildflowers or to capture a better landscape photo. According to Andrew Herrington, a survival instructor, search and rescue team leader, and wildlife ranger in the Smokies, it happens to alert, experienced hikers too, most often at what he calls a decision point on the trail.

In the study, survivors’ most frequently mentioned source of warmth was clothes (12 percent). Their prevailing form of shelter was camping gear (11 percent). Most survivors had a water source—either their own (13 percent), or one they found (42 percent), be it a lake, creek, or puddle, or derived by licking leaves or sucking moist moss. None of the survivors except one were missing long enough to make starvation an issue, but 35 percent had food they could ration to keep their energy levels up. All these data points suggest that the best way to survive getting lost in a national park is to already have the clothing and gear needed for warmth and shelter during the night, as well as some food and water.

This is not the case with most day hikers, who are more likely to bring a camera than extra clothes in a backpack. Herrington concurs. “If you go backpacking and you get lost, or you get caught out in bad weather, it’s like oh well I’m going to be out here another night and maybe go to bed hungry. No big deal. But when you’re out there and you don’t have a sleeping bag and tent, or extra clothing for the overnight experience, you’re much more vulnerable, and that tends to be where most people get in trouble.”

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