On March 1, 2019, in Humboldt County, California, two sisters, ages 5 and 8, went for a walk in the woods adjoining their 80-acre rural property. They didn't come home. Search and rescue would find them, 44 hours later, huddled under a huckleberry bush in the forest, cold and dehydrated, but safe. A new study by SmokyMountains.com shows it’s not just children at risk. According to the research, wandering off trail is the number one reason, ahead of injury and bad weather, that adult hikers require search and rescue.
The study analyzed 100+ news reports over the past 25 years to identify the most common ways adults in North America got lost while hiking in national parks and wilderness, what they did to survive, and how they made it out alive. Forty-one percent of the survivors began their odysseys, which ranged from a half-day missing to 90 days, by accidentally straying from the trail. Another 16 percent fell off trail and couldn’t find their way back.
Losing the trail can happen to anyone. It’s not about veering off to get a closer look at the wildflowers or to capture a better landscape photo. According to Andrew Herrington, a survival instructor, search and rescue team leader, and wildlife ranger in the Smokies, it happens to alert, experienced hikers too, most often at what he calls a decision point on the trail. “It could be an actual trail junction,” he says. “It could be a social trail; a little path that leads off to an overlook or something like that.” Or it could be—in the case of Sue Clements, a 53-year-old hiker from Ohio who, in 2018, didn’t survive getting lost in Great Smoky Mountains National Park—a water bar that seems like a trail, but funnels down into a maze of rugged, heavily vegetated terrain.
The research also suggests that the most vulnerable group of hikers aren’t those going deep into the wilderness on backpacking expeditions, it’s day hikers, like Clements, whose body was found about two miles from the park’s Clingmans Dome parking lot.
In the study, survivors’ most frequently mentioned source of warmth was clothes (12 percent). Their prevailing form of shelter was camping gear (11 percent). Most survivors had a water source—either their own (13 percent), or one they found (42 percent), be it a lake, creek, or puddle, or derived by licking leaves or sucking moist moss. None of the survivors except one were missing long enough to make starvation an issue, but 35 percent had food they could ration to keep their energy levels up. All these data points suggest that the best way to survive getting lost in a national park is to already have the clothing and gear needed for warmth and shelter during the night, as well as some food and water.
This is not the case with most day hikers, who are more likely to bring a camera than extra clothes in a backpack. Herrington concurs. “If you go backpacking and you get lost, or you get caught out in bad weather, it’s like oh well I’m going to be out here another night and maybe go to bed hungry. No big deal. But when you’re out there and you don’t have a sleeping bag and tent, or extra clothing for the overnight experience, you’re much more vulnerable, and that tends to be where most people get in trouble.”
His experience working in Great Smoky Mountains National Park further confirms. “Of our 100 search and rescue incidents a year, probably 90 percent of those are day hikers,” Herrington says. Across all U.S. national parks from 2004-2014, day hikers comprised 42 percent of the 46,609 search and rescue cases, almost four times the amount of the next closest group, overnight backpackers at 13 percent.
In Herrington’s wilderness survival courses, he teaches day hikers to pack a puffy jacket for warmth, and a 55-gallon trash bag for rain protection/shelter. Even in warm states. “If you’re wet—because it rains or you fell into water or you sweated through your clothes—and its 65 degrees, you can still get hypothermic,” says Herrington. “New Mexico is one of the leading states in hypothermia deaths, and look how warm it is there.” An injury compounds the risk of hypothermia by compromising the body’s ability to thermo-regulate.
Convincing day hikers that they’re at risk and need to take precautions requires a change in mindset. Harrison says technology makes that shift harder. People are so used to navigating city streets by GPS that they have no practice finding their own way. They also think that because they’re in a national park, not far from a trailhead, or a gift shop, that help is just a 911-call from their cellphone and a helicopter evacuation away. “That’s not how it works,” says Herrington. “If you’re lost off trail, you’re most likely going to have to spend the night.” Search and rescue teams don’t want to create “an incident within an incident” by sending their team members on an off-trail search at dark or near dark. The standard protocol is to wait until morning.
Survival television doesn’t help either. Harrison says it gives people the mistaken idea that wilderness survival skills are about learning to build a fire from scratch and saving yourself from starvation by eating bugs. “That’s primitive living and bush craft,” he says. “Carry a lighter wrapped in duct tape so it’s water proof and you have something to burn. And starvation isn’t even a concern in search and rescue. Even a lean person with 10 percent body fat has enough stores to live off for about a month.”
Harrison says real-world wilderness survival skills are much less entertaining. The most important thing a person can learn to do? Whether you’re going on a backpacking trip, a day hike, or even a trail run, leave a trip plan with two people who will notice you’re missing.