Backpacking is an adventurous activity that is used to explore nature, test our physical limits, and get everyone immersed in nature. However, like all outdoor activities, there is some inherent risk. Many new backpackers might wonder if this is a hazardous hobby and what kind of dangers they might face.
Backpackers run the risk of becoming injured or lost on the trail. Bad weather conditions, wild animals, and unexpected emergencies can all make backpacking dangerous. Thousands of people are injured or killed on trails each year, but there are ways to protect yourself.
There are countless things that can go wrong on a backpacking trip. Some only result in minor inconveniences while others could lead to serious injuries or even death. It’s not something to take lightly, so let’s explore some of the top dangers of backpacking, as well as ways to stay safe on your next trip.
A very common danger for backpackers is injuries they get on the trail itself. These can be independent of any external conditions and can happen to everyone pretty much equally. Bringing a versatile first aid kit can help with many of these problems, but you should seek extra medical attention once you’re off the trail.
Broken Bones, Sprains, Strained Muscles, etc.
This is a wide category because, once against, anyone can be affected. These injuries won’t generally be fatal, but they can make it hard to get off the trail and receive proper medical attention. They could devolve into long-term injuries if you’re not careful.
Dehydration is a major problem for all backpackers to consider. If you don’t drink enough water on the trail, it could lead to headaches, lethargy, joint pain, exhaustion, and possibly organ failure. It’s estimated that about 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated so this is a major risk for all backpackers to account for. Don’t skimp on water!
A variety of other emergencies can come up as well. Many people suffer from allergies, low blood sugar, diabetes, and other potentially dangerous conditions. The best way to prepare for this on the trail is to bring the necessary medical equipment you need for your pre-existing conditions. Don’t leave your EpiPen or inhaler at home because you never know when you might need it!
Getting Lost/ Disappearing
Getting lost on a hike or backpacking trip is fairly common. Sources vary, but between 2,000-5,000 people go missing on trails every year. It’s estimated that about 35% of these people would be killed or injured before they were found, and many of them were never found at all. Search and Rescue (SAR) teams make fantastic efforts to find hikers who are lost on trails every year.
Many people who get lost do so because they leave the established trail, get separated from their group, or try to travel at night. If you avoid these habits, you’ll be much safer and will be able to tell where you are. Traveling with a friend or group will greatly decrease your chances of getting lost. Make sure you bring a compass and map as well, so you have a better chance of navigating back to safe areas.
Weather is an uncontrollable aspect of backpacking. You can make estimates based on the region and weather patterns for the year, but it’s impossible to be fully certain of the weather conditions you’ll face on any backpacking trip.
Flooding is a serious hazard for backpackers. If you travel on narrow paths, through canyons, or anywhere with uneven footing, flash flooding can be deadly. The water is powerful, full of debris, and can be upon you with little/no warning. Flooding accounts for about 200 deaths per year, and backpackers, hikers, and campers are very vulnerable groups. Seek higher ground if you know a storm is nearby and avoid traveling through bottlenecks and canyons if you can.
Heat stroke is another common problem for backpackers to run into. It’s estimated that there are about 334 heat-related deaths per year and exponentially more mild cases. Heat stroke can result in dizziness, rapid breathing, headaches, vomiting, and organ damage. If the affected person is not treated immediately, their condition can rapidly worsen.
On the other end of the scale, there are cold-related dangers as well. Hypothermia is common among backpackers, especially those who didn’t bring proper gear for cold weather. According to the CDC, there are approximately 600 hypothermia-related deaths in the U.S. every year. Backpackers who travel outdoors in chilly conditions put themselves at risk of frostbite, hypothermia, and other cold-weather dangers. Bringing properly insulated gear is vital to your safety and survival!
Lighting strikes kill an average of 49 people per year and injure many more. Florida has the highest rate of lightning strikes, so be extra careful if you’re hiking in that area. Avoid staying on exposed peaks for long periods of time and take shelter during stormy conditions.
Wild Animal Attacks
Dealing with wild animals is a risk that every backpacker has to take. Seeing wildlife can be exciting, but it can also be very dangerous. Most wild animals will leave you alone if you leave them alone, but there are some dangerous species to watch out for.
Bears are some of the most dangerous animals for backpackers to deal with. They are large, powerful, and sometimes unpredictable. Only about 2-5 people die from bear attacks every year, but about 40 people are mauled or injured annually. Bringing bear spray, securing your food, and making your presence known are all great ways to help bears stay away from you.
Many bear encounters can be avoided as long as travelers take the proper precautions. Check out our tips on ways to stay safe when trekking around bears.
Moose are huge animals that can sometimes be aggressive, especially if they have calves or are defending their territory. Fortunately, moose rarely kill people, but they can still injure many and terrify many more! This is an animal you won’t want to mess with, so don’t try to get too close.
Venomous snakes are always worth worrying about. Rattlesnakes are the most common and dangerous snakes for backpackers to run into. They appear almost everywhere across the U.S. and account for about 8,000 attacks annually. Fortunately, only 9-15 people die per year, but the bites can be excruciating and expensive to treat. Listen for the warning rattle and avoid areas that might hide sleeping snakes.
Backpacking is a rewarding hobby, but it comes with its fair share of risks. Any time we travel out in nature, there is an inherent risk of running into wild animals, experiencing bad weather conditions, and getting lost. However, as long as we are properly prepared and know about the risks ahead of time, these dangers don’t have to become life-threatening. When you respect the trails and respect nature, you will usually be just fine. Follow the tips above to avoid becoming a statistic!
Accidents and injuries can happen at any point in our lives, but it can be hard to deal with them if we’re in the middle of nature. That’s why it’s so important to bring a good first aid kit on any backpacking trip. If you have the tools to treat injuries and prevent them from getting worse, you’ll be prepared to receive professional help when it arrives. To help stock your kit, check out our list of first aid essentials for backpacking.
If you happen to get lost or stuck on your next backpacking trip, it’s important to have a signal to let others know where you are. A good hiking whistle can be a lifesaver, but you’ll need to use it properly to let others know where you are. Study up on tips and information about hiking whistles so you can send a clear signal when you need to.