Yes. Just to avoid any ambiguity, the answer is yes – backpacking is very safe, and, in many ways, it’s safer than living in a big city. While there are still a bunch of different ways to get yourself injured or killed, most of them can be avoided with preparation and common sense. But, fears persist (even with me), so I decided to put out an article on the subject today.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- The truth about whether backpacking is more dangerous than regular life,
- All the different ways you can find yourself in mortal danger,
- And a few tips for getting yourself out of (rare) trouble
Let’s get into it!
How Dangerous is Backpacking?
It’s not really that dangerous, especially when you do things the right way. Hundreds of thousands of people go on backpacking trips each year, and the vast majority are pretty uneventful. Still, though, there is a small number of backpackers who don’t make it back in one piece, and an even smaller number of them who don’t make it back at all. Backpacking safety skills mitigate nearly all of the risks, though, and there is no reason to assume you’ll be in danger when backpacking!
Backpacking Safety Statistics: What the Numbers Say
There aren’t any readily available numbers that relate specifically to backpacking; instead, most statistics are simply for the “hiking” category, which backpacking falls into. We could just take those numbers for hiking and apply them directly to backpacking, but I think the statistics would be skewed.
Backpacking requires more time, money, and preparation than hiking; it’s natural to assume that the average backpacker will be safer, more prepared, and more cautious than the average hiker. So, we can’t just use injury and mortality statistics from hiking to make any judgments about the relative safety of backpacking.
But, since hiking is the only activity that we’ve got statistics for, let’s go ahead and look at those anyway. Here are the numbers on hiking safety:
- About 400 people die while hiking in the US each year.
- This number includes backpackers. It should also be noted that a fourth of these deaths are suicides, which means your chances of dying on accident are significantly lower than the numbers make it seem.
- Most people who fall and are injured or killed while hiking are 41 years old or older.
- This is probably related either to an overestimation of fitness or another health issue. To put it simply: the older or more out of shape you are, the more likely you are to get hurt. Age isn’t nearly as important as fitness, though, it’s just a correlation.
- You’re more likely to hurt your ankle than any other body part.
- Murders are incredibly rare, less than 5 per year in the National Parks System.
- About 5,000 people go missing in US National Parks each year, out of 297 million total visitors.
- Compare that to the half million missing persons cases in the US in 2021, out of a 330 million population.
- The most dangerous national parks are also among the least visited.
- The two most deadly, Denali and Virgin Islands national parks, have accounted for 71 deaths since 2010 although they only make up 0.003% of yearly national park visits.
Note: Many of these statistics were sourced from RV and Playa. We didn’t do any of the actual number gathering (just a little crunching), and we don’t want to take credit from the people who did.
What do these statistics say about backpacking safety?
Not a whole lot. There are hundreds of millions more people who go on a hike each year than go backpacking. Most, if not all, of the deaths and injuries in those statistics occurred during day hikes and not backpacking trips. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the average number of backpacking deaths in the US was less than 5 per year!
Is it true that missing persons in national parks are uncounted?
This is a rumor that goes around from time to time; I first heard it from my mother, who heard it from some cable TV show that makes money from paranoia. It states, essentially, that somebody is “fudging” missing persons numbers by not reporting the number of people who go missing in national parks in the official statistics. But, does it have any truth behind it? Is there actually some sort of unwritten policy that pretends nobody goes missing in the national parks?
No! That should be obvious, given that we’ve already talked about the number of people who go missing. As of 2018, there were 60 unresolved missing persons cases in the US National Parks System; this means that not only are they keeping track of who goes missing, the majority of those who do go missing are eventually found!
Different Ways to Die on a Backpacking Trip
Okay, so we know that backpacking is statistically incredibly safe. But, that doesn’t mean a person can just walk out into the woods and assume they’ll be fine. Let’s run through some of the most common ways you can die while backpacking:
- Falls: All it takes is one foolish step to take a tumble you won’t get up from. Most backpacking trails won’t take you somewhere that dangerous, but the principle is the same: falls happen, and when they do, they’re deadly as hell.
- Medical emergencies: A medical emergency at home is already deadly, but being miles and miles away from help makes it a new challenge entirely. Forgetting prescription
- Sanitary concerns: There are no bathrooms, no soap dispensers, and no toilets on a backpacking trail. This means that backpackers have to take a lot of extra caution to keep their hands, mouths, and food clean. Nobody wants dysentery when they get home! Furthermore, knowing how to source clean, potable water is another life-saving backpacking skill, as even the cleanest mountain streams are generally unsafe to drink from directly.
- Environmental dangers: Extreme heat, cold, and storms are nothing to mess around with. Joshua Tree National Park, for example, can kill you in an afternoon!
- Rockslides: Firstly, this is not at all common. That said, rockslides are unpredictable and very dangerous.
- Animals: Bears come to mind first, but snakes, moose, and mountain lions can also be deadly in the wrong situation. As long as you’ve got bear spray and you aren’t stupid enough to approach a Bison at Yellowstone, though, you don’t really need to worry about being killed by an animal (I say this as someone with an intense and irrational fear of bears).
- Other backpackers: This one is not something you should ever truly worry about. But, still, there are weird and violent people in all walks of life. Solo backpackers, especially women, should be aware that even in the backcountry, you can’t let your guard all the way down.
10 Pieces of Essential Hiking Gear that Can Save Your Life
1. Personal Locator Beacon
A PLB (personal locator beacon) is essentially a GPS with an SOS button. If something happens, you can press the SOS button and the nearest authorities will be given your location, and, depending on which PLB you have, you may also be able to share info with them.
The PLB I’ve used in the past is the Garmin InReach Explorer, and it even let me send customized messages to people back home, letting them know how and where I was!
2. Map and Compass
Yeah, you can download maps on your phone, but you can also drop your phone in a stream or overestimate how long the battery will last when you’re taking lots of photos and videos. Buying a map and pairing it with a simple compass might feel like a small waste of money, but you’ll be glad you have them in an unpredictable emergency.
3. A brain
Everybody’s got one, but not all of them are high-quality, and many of them are very, very rusty. Just picture a recent commute home from work, and that truth becomes clear. Make sure your brain is ready to go, prepared by reading up on the trail and any potential dangers, and make sure you use it on your backpacking trip!
4. Extra Food
You’ll always want to have at least one day’s worth of extra food, even if it’s just a bland nutrition bar that’s made to give you enough calories to survive. If you overestimate your hiking speed, injure yourself, or lose a lot of time to weather or other constraints, you’ll be glad you packed enough to sustain yourself.
5. Water Purification
This, like many other items on the list, should already be part of a complete backpacking gear list, but it’s worth mentioning here anyway. Not having clean water to drink is the most effective way to die a miserable death, whether from dehydration or horrible sicknesses from water-borne germs.
6. A knife
Another item that you should never leave the parking lot without, and one that can save your life in 500 different ways. Pick out a good knife, put it in your pack, and carry on.
7. Bivy Sack
Sometimes, an injury can prevent you from even being able to pitch your tent. In these cases, a bivy sack – pretty much just an emergency blanket that doubles as a last-resort shelter – can save your life. Emergency bivy sacks are cheap, light, and easy to pack. While most backpackers don’t bring one with them, they really should be part of your packing list.
8. Bear spray
In the rare case that you do have a dangerous animal encounter, bear spray is the most effective and safe way to save yourself. Just point and spray – the bear, moose, or mountain lion will be too busy dealing with the burning sensation to attack, and you can get out with your skin intact.
9. First aid kit
We won’t spend too much time on this one, because I’m really not sure who would actually need this explained to them! Get a first aid kit, use it when you need it, simple as that.
Being able to start a fire can keep you warm enough to survive, it can heat food and boil water to make it drinkable, and it can be used to give rescuers your location. Those are three ways that fire can keep you alive in a way that nothing else really can. Firestarters are very cheap and very easy to fit into a pack – never leave the parking lot without one!
6 Backpacking Safety Tips for Surviving Sticky Situations
1. It’s okay to stay home
If you aren’t feeling up to it physically (maybe you’re burned out from work or family and backpacking would be too exhausting), you can just stay home.
If you looked at the weather report for your trip, and it’s looking dicier than you feel comfortable with, you can just stay home.
If you just don’t feel like it all of the sudden, you can just stay home.
The point is this: there is no shame at all in staying home, especially if you feel like going through with a planned trip would be unsafe. People have a tendency to want to follow through, but that desire isn’t always healthy. If you think you might be safer postponing or canceling your trip, for whatever reason, just go ahead and make the call.
I’ve canceled a backpacking trip at the last minute because I was just too tired from a few weeks of travel to safely make the planned hike in the past. While I still kick myself from time to time, I’m happy I did that. Who knows what idiotic decision my tired brain might have made?
(In fact, there was another time my tired brain made an idiotic decision that brought me within 3 inches of a deadly fall… but that’s another story)
2. Preparation makes the biggest difference
You don’t have to be the most meticulous person in the world, but you do need to do the necessary prep work:
- Pack appropriately
- Understand your gear and your body’s physical limits
- Read up on the trail, the region, and the weather
Doing those three things really isn’t all that hard; the people who die on backpacking trips are often the people who failed to do one or more of them.
3. Read the weather
We still haven’t figured out how to control the weather, so it’s up to each backpacker to read weather reports and understand what kinds of hazards they may encounter. Cold weather, hot weather, and violent weather can all affect backpacking safety concerns, and you’d do well to know what you’re facing ahead of time.
4. Don’t try to make any furry friends
Take pictures, videos, and thoroughly enjoy the experience of seeing a glorious creature on the trail? Hell yes.
Try to get closer to the animal, pet it, or (God forbid) ride it? Have fun at the hospital.
This may be beyond obvious to you, as it is to most people. That still doesn’t stop people from trying to befriend bears, bison, and other wild animals at national parks and getting themselves injured or killed.
Honestly, I’m not sure who holds the most blame for that, though – Disney for making dangerous animals adorable, the public school system for failing people that badly, or the people themselves for leaving all their brain cells in the car. Either way, wild animals are best appreciated from a safe distance.
5. Drink more water
Don’t just drink water, and don’t just drink X amount of water to check an arbitrary box. Just drink more water! Dehydration is incredibly deadly, and most Americans don’t drink enough water as it is.
So, on a backpacking trip, drink some water. Then, drink more water. Then, drink more water. Then pee.
6. It really, really is okay to stay home
Seriously – the only thing worse than canceling/postponing a backpacking trip is dying on a backpacking trip that you should have canceled or postponed. It’s really hard to do that, though, which is why we’re adding it to this list twice.
Backpacking, while very safe, has lots of potential dangers. Weather can be deadly, as can medical events, injuries, and animal encounters. Beyond that, fatigue and exhaustion can be just as dangerous as anything else. If you aren’t prepared for the rigors and dangers of backpacking, disaster can strike at any time.
If you’re about to embark on your first backpacking trip, you should be aware of the things you should avoid doing. Don’t put yourself at risk of a fall just for a picture. Don’t engage with wildlife. Don’t hike too far or exhaust yourself. And, don’t forget to enjoy it!
Many things that would be “tiny problems” if you were with others can turn into “cause of death” when you’re alone. Injuries, getting lost, becoming dehydrated, you name it – hiking alone makes it much, much more dangerous.