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Why Day Hikers Might Not Survive in the Wild

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

A walk in the woods seems so simple. When you’re venturing out for just a few hours, what could possibly go wrong? According to a 2019 study, lots!

While injury and bad weather are the obvious causes of trail mishaps, wandering off the trail is the number one way hikers get into trouble. Of the over 100 news reports analyzed by the study, 41% of those who survived a wilderness experience got into trouble knowingly or unknowingly, drifting off the trail. An additional 16% couldn’t find their way back to the trail after falling off, while 17% got turned around due to bad weather.

One of the ‘leave no trace’ principles is to stay on the trail. This rule is out of concern for both the environment and the hiker. When veering off-trail, hikers can trample delicate ecosystems. In desert areas, such as Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, the top crust of the ground next to the trail is crucial to water conservation and takes years to establish. One excited and overzealous hiker can cause extensive damage by straying off the path by even a few feet. In forests, social trails can alter the flow of water runoff and harm animal habitats. Finally, deviating from posted routes can cause a hiker to become disoriented and lost.

Even veteran hikers can get lost when off the trail. For instance, Sue Clemens became lost in an area of rugged terrain after she followed a water drainage area in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Her body was found just two miles from a busy parking lot. Experience also makes hikers complacent, and they fail to adhere to other ‘leave no trace’ principles which ensure that they have the necessary items to survive in the wild, such as an emergency beacon, a way to stay warm, a compass, and a whistle.

Having all the necessities doesn’t ensure survival. For example, Geraldine Largay disappeared into a heavily vegetated area to go the suggested 200 feet off trail to use the restroom and was never seen again. She wandered disoriented, and although she had camping equipment and a water source, eventually ran out of food. Geraldine survived a month in the wild before succumbing to starvation.

Day hikers that pop out of their car for a quick jaunt without the 10 essentials are at the greatest risk of not surviving should they get lost. Viewing hiking as a leisurely activity instead of an athletic one puts recreational hikers at a disadvantage. They are less likely to survive a mishap on the trail. Furthermore, societal reliance on smartphones gives day hikers the false sense of security that help is always a button-push away. In actuality, many of the national parks and natural areas lack cell phone service. If you can signal for help, rescuers may take up to 24 hours to reach you based on the time of day and your location.

Be Prepared

The list of 10 essentials isn’t a suggestion of what you should carry with you hiking. It’s a list of what you’ll need to survive 24-48 hours in the wilderness. Whether you plan on hiking one mile or 20, it’s the best insurance policy available. Be sure to take an additional step by letting one or two people know your hiking plans – when you’re planning on leaving, where you’re hiking, and when you expect to return. This step ensures that someone will seek help if you don’t return when expected.

The same study analyzed why some people survived and others didn’t. Those who made it out alive had a source of warmth for their overnight stay, shelter, water, and food. Survivors also kept their wits about them and had tools such as mirrors or a brightly colored bivy to alert rescuers. Having those 10 essentials means your day pack can weigh up to 15 pounds. But not having them means you might not make it back alive.

Want to make sure you’re prepared and confident to hit the trail? Let’s talk about how The Healthy Hiker virtual training program can help you!

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