What’s Really Going to Kill You Outdoors, And How to Live Through It

Surprisingly, it’s not bears

Jun 13, 2016
Outside Magazine
What’s Really Going to Kill You Outdoors, And How to Live Through It

A mountaineer begins the summit of Mt. Whitney. Click to enlarge.    Photo: Chris Brinlee Jr.


IndefinitelyWild is a lifestyle column telling the story of adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there, and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Scared of what might happen on your next camping trip? You shouldn’t be. Of the 280 million or so people who visit National Parks each year, only 120 to 140 succumb to fatal accidents. According to The Washington Post, that puts your odds of being killed in a Park at roughly the same that you’ll die from Ebola. Still worried? Let’s look at what the actual causes of death outdoors are, and give you effective advice for avoiding them. 

Causes of fatalities in National Parks, as reported by the National Park Service.   Illustration: Wes Siler

Why National Parks? They report good data on the hundreds of millions of people who visit to participate in a wide variety of outdoor recreation activities. They’re visited by all walks of life, from all over the world, and those visitors are monitored, policed, and rescued by a single federal agency that keeps records. And this is a data set that excludes what people do on their own property (where accidents are most likely to occur, in general), effectively controlling for people recreating outdoors. 

That’s the good part of this data, the bad is obviously that National Parks are fairly restrictive environments that don’t typically allow many of the more dangerous hobbies you and I participate in. So we can assume that stuff like hunting, mountain biking, or ritual fire jumping are underrepresented here, compared to the overall outdoor recreation picture, as a whole. If you participate in activities like those, you can assume that they represent a higher risk to you. How much of one is largely dependent on how safe you decide to be while participating in them. We have removed suicides from this data. 


According to the International Life Saving Federation, two people drown every minute, somewhere in the world. Who’s most at risk? The ILSF says men are far more prone to drowning accidents, suggesting we “take more and greater risks, or tend more often to overrate their swimming abilities.”

That’s for adults. The largest demographic that’s at risk for drowning is actually children, up to five years of age. “All over the world, infants and toddlers drown more frequently than people at any other age,” explains the ILSF. “In this age group drowning is the leading cause of death, followed by accidents in and around the home and road traffic accidents. Inadequate supervision, an inability to swim, and lack of barriers separating toddlers from pools and other water are the main causes of drownings of small children.”

“Inadequate supervision,” is the main cause of child drowning, again according to the ILSF, and seemingly the easiest cause for you to address. 

Other than small children, most drownings occur to men aged 20 to 25, and over 60. We can assume that the first group is explained by recklessness, while the second is caused by health problems. 

Recklessness is again easy for you to address. Be cautious when recreating outdoors in any way, advance your skills and physical fitness for any activity you want to participate in, and bring responsible friends along, so you can all look out for each other. Most drownings occur away from the presence of life guards. 3,000 people each year, worldwide, drown after breaking their necks. Don’t dive into water until you’re 100 percent sure that it’s both deep enough, and free of obstacles. Swim it before jumping it. 

Stuff like a heart attack, when it occurs in the water, can lead to death by drowning. Physical fitness is probably the best way to avoid such accidents. 

Vehicle Accident

This one is close to home, since I spent about 12 years working as a car and motorcycle journalist. Anecdotally, most people’s perception of their own driving, or riding skill level far surpasses the reality. And most people assume that the metal boxes they ride around in—assembled at the lowest cost possible by robots in a far away factory—are far safer than they actually are. Hit something solid at any speed over about 40 mph in any vehicle sold today, and you’re done. And technologies like anti-lock brakes, stability control, airbags, and even autonomous driving, seem to also be lulling people into a false sense of security; you still need to pay attention, and exercise caution when you’re driving. 

Distractions caused by cell phones, conversations, and just general human idiocy seem to made worse by the very nature of our National Parks; 27 percent of fatal car crashes in them were caused by drivers distracted by the scenery. Alcohol was a factor in 23 percent of crashes. 

Don’t drink and drive, where your seatbelt, pay attention to what you’re doing, drive cautiously, and you can avoid the vast majority of road hazards. It really is that simple.

National Park injuries from falls, 1993-1998.   Illustration: University of Idaho, Collaborative Park Studies Unit


Most fall injuries in National Parks don’t occur during extreme or dangerous activities. The vast majority occur during mundane stuff like walking and hiking, or even while climbing stairs. This highlights the need to be aware of your surroundings while in the outdoors, and to move through them cautiously. People by and large fall from established walking trails, or in close proximity to them—areas in which it may not seem necessary to behave carefully. Even on-trail, it is common to encounter, steep, loose, wet, or otherwise slippery or uneven terrain that can result in a fall. 

A tragic story from Grand Canyon National Park highlights the risk of failing to appreciate the danger unfamiliar terrain can represent: “In 1992, 38-year-old Greg Austin Gingrich leaped atop the guard wall and wind-milled his arms, playing-acting losing his balance to scare his teenaged daughter, then he comically 'fell' off the wall on the canyon side onto a short slope where he assumed he could land safely. As his daughter walked on, trying not to fuel her father's dangerous antics by paying attention to them, Gingrich missed his footing and fell silently about 400 feet into the void. It took rangers quite a while to locate his body—and to determine that his daughter was an orphan only due to his foolishness.”

Non-Vehicle Transport and Other

This is a bizarre term for pedestrians, cyclists, and horseback riding, among other non-vehicle types of transportation. We can assume a number of these are people struck by cars. This category’s prevalence highlights the mundane nature of risk outdoors. It’s not a grizzly bear that’s going to kill you, it’s the kind of hazards you face every single day, like failing to look both ways before crossing the street. In the same vein, we can assume that “other” is a catch-all label for “stupidity.” 


While typically avalanche-prone activities like backcountry downhill skiing don’t typically occur in National Parks, hikers, snowshoers, cross country skiers and other travelers can find themselves exposed to the risk. 

Avalanche survival is a simply case of preparation combined with situational awareness. Observe avalanche warnings, and if you’re participating in an activity that’s prone to them, carry and know how to use basic avalanche rescue gear. Traveling and recreating in groups, combined with the above, is also a huge help. Avoid avalanche-prone areas, unless you’re prepared. 


This is one of those areas where survival experts try and give you all manner of ridiculous solutions, but ignore the basic need to dress adequately for conditions and to carry adequate water. You need to stay hydrated in order for your body to effectively regulate internal temperatures, no matter if it’s cold or hot out. 

Exposure deaths are often predicated on either an injury, which prevents a victim from reaching safety, or on getting lost, causing the same thing. I’m reminded of the death of Kate Matrosova, who succumbed to exposure on Mount Washington last year. She was wearing adequate clothing for her intended hike, but fell, broke her leg, and found herself unequipped to make it through plummeting temperatures and worsening weather. Had she been traveling with a buddy, had she be carrying extra equipment, or had she been armed with more knowledge of her area of travel (she was found not far from a hut), she would have lived. Hers is a classic example of why we take basic precautions like those when recreating outdoors, even when we think we don’t need to. 

Aside from traumatic injury, getting too hot or too cold is the fastest way to die outdoors. It’s also the easiest to prevent. If it’s cold, take more clothing than you think you’ll need. If it’s hot, take more water than you think you’ll need. In both circumstances, remain adequately hydrated, and take efforts to shelter from the conditions. Travel with a paper map and compass, know how to use them, and leave travel plans with someone trustworthy, as well as instructions on what to do, or who to call, if you don’t return by a designated time. If you think conditions are likely to become too difficult, turn back before it’s too late. 

Firearm Accident 

You can possess a firearm in a National Park, if you’re in compliance with state, federal, and local laws. But you can’t fire one. So you’ve got to be a special kind of stupid to accidentally shoot yourself or someone else in a park. Elsewhere outdoors, you may be using a firearm for hunting purposes. The fact that there’s accidental shootings even in a gun-restricted area highlights the need to always abide by Col. Jeff Cooper’s four rules of firearms safety, and to make sure the people you’re around are doing the same. Come on people, there’s never a reason to have an accident with a gun. 

Bear Attack

Bears don’t attack without provocation. And, as you an see from the extreme rarity of bear-related fatalities, they don’t represent much of an actual threat. At least not compared to drowning after getting drunk and jumping off a cliff. Practicing basic safety with your food and smells when traveling through bear country, making noise as you travel to avoid surprising one, and arming yourself with bear spray (more effective than a gun) all combine to make not getting eaten by a bear about as foolproof as it gets. So long as you’re not a complete idiot, you don’t really need to worry about bears outdoors. Especially if you have a good dog

Other Wildlife

People are dumb, animals are strong. I’m reminded of the 2013 case in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, when a photographer strayed too close to a young bull elk, triggering its defense instinct. The Park Service subsequently decided to put the elk down. Recently, there’s been more stories of tourists interfering with, or approaching wildlife in order to take selfies. Wild animals are wild. They may behave in unpredictable, and violent ways. Give them more room than you think they need, don’t bother them, and they won’t bother you. 

What This Means for Your Survival

Notice that none of these common causes of outdoor fatalities are mitigated by carrying a really big knife or a signal mirror. OK, maybe in the case of cold exposure you could get a fire going with wood you used the knife to process, then somehow focus light with the mirror to ignite tinder, but that’s entering the realm of fantasy. Realistically, avoiding any of these fatalities can largely be summed up with the advice: don’t be a dumbass, do take basic precautions for the weather you’re likely to face. Outdoors, it’s stupidity that kills. 

Filed To: Indefinitely Wild

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!