Most people head out into the woods for a camping or hiking trip without thinking twice about the dangers. The reality of the situation is that people die from being lost in the woods every day in the United States. We see shows dedicated to wilderness survival and often think it’s just entertainment.
However, there is a very real need for this knowledge. The sad part is that in many cases these shows have actually encouraged people to put themselves at risk in the wilderness without the proper knowledge. I want to discuss some statistics related to the frequency of people getting lost in the wilderness. I’ll elaborate as to why these scenarios happen and what that does to our search and rescue teams.
How Often Does This Really Happen?
The search and rescue statistics in the US might surprise you. The most recent study done by Yosemite National Forest Search and Rescue showed that 4,661 people per year were lost in the woods and required assistance. That equates to 13 people per day. Can you imagine? Nationwide it’s estimated that 50,000 search and rescue missions are conducted each year. It’s so easy to get turned around in the wilderness, even when knowledgeable.
Who Gets Lost?
There are a wide variety of people that head into the wilderness for recreation. However, statistics show that a very specific group of people are the most commonly lost. The activities with the highest rate of lost people are 48% hikers and 21% boaters. Most campers and other types of daytrippers have a specific site in mind for visiting. However, hikers often intend to either follow a trail with no particular destination or go off trail and rely on their navigational skills.
The demographics that are most likely to get lost are men ages 20-25 and men ages 50-60. We can easily say that this is because these are the demographics that spend the most time in the wilderness. However, you could also say that these age groups could be most likely to be overconfident or to get confused.
When Do People Get Lost?
We can also look at the timing of these incidents to see when people are most likely to get lost. If we look at the time of day, hikers that depart around 2-3pm on the weekends are the most likely to get lost. Weekend hikers are often less experienced than those that make time to do some wilderness hiking during the week.
In addition, those heading out around 2-3pm are leaving early enough that the think they’ll have enough time to make it back before dark. However, getting lost for even an hour or two can leave them stumbling around in the darkness.
June through September are the most dangerous months by number of people lost. Novice hikers often don’t go out in the late fall, winter, and spring to avoid inclement weather. Seasoned hikers are more likely to hike year round for unique experiences.
By percentage February and March are the most dangerous months. There is often little foliage on the trees which makes it easy to get turned around. In addition, you’re often still affected by rain and cold weather. The shorter days also provide a limited window of daylight for getting back before dark.
Why Do People Get Lost?
There are wide variety of reasons why people get lost in the wilderness. Thankfully, a recent study by Yosemite National Park Search and Rescue has broken down the reasons by percentage:
16.9% Lost Trail Accidentally
11.7% Failure to Communicate Plan Effectively
9.4% Miscalculation of Time or Distance
5.6% Left Trail Intentionally
5.6% Insufficient Information/Error in Judgment
5.2% Snow on Ground
4.7% Wrong Trail Taken
4.2% Fatigue/Physical Condition
2.8% Steep Terrain
2.4% Emotionally Upset
1.9% Ground Level Fall
Hopefully this breakout can show you some of the primary pitfalls that need to be avoided. This breakdown shows that you need to pay attention to your trail, plan effectively, and know your area.
In addition, it should be noted that the average lost individual was found 1.8 km from their starting point. That is less than a mile. On average they were found only 58 meters from the nearest trail or road. It obviously doesn’t take much for a hiker to get turned around in the wilderness.
Who Was Found and How?
Thankfully, we have an incredible staff of search and rescue teams working as part of the US Forest Service. Of those for which a search party was sent out, 40% were found by the search and rescue teams. The average search takes about 10 hours to find the individual, and on average they have been missing a total of 14 hours. The downside is that these efforts cost $5.1 million dollars each year. Each day that a search and rescue team must be deployed costs roughly $32,000.
In addition to those found by search and rescue, there are a good number of lost individuals that attempt to reorient themselves. They do so in a variety of different ways:
42% Attempted route travelling by following trails, roads, or streams intending to find civilization.
26% Stayed in their current location and waited for rescue.
16% Backtracked to retrace their steps in hopes of recognizing a familiar feature in the landscape.
The sad part of this whole discussion are the statistics of those that don’t make it. In just Yosemite alone, 158 people per year die from being lost in the wilderness. That is 3.3% of those that are reported as lost in the wilderness. Of those that don’t make it out alive, the vast majority are hikers. An additional 1,396 of those lost in Yosemite are found injured. These numbers could be much higher if it were not for the help of our Forest Service to find people in need.
If nothing else, these numbers should show you that all of us need to respect the power of mother nature. Spending time in the wilderness can put your life at risk. This is why we spend so much time, effort, and money on helping people learn how to survive. This isn’t something that just happens to other people. It can happen to any of us. Take the time to plan properly and be prepared when you enjoy the outdoors. Be sure you don’t become a statistic.