More and more Americans are getting outdoors. Since 2000, attendance rates to national parks have steadily continued an “up and to the right” growth trend. Between 2000 and 2013, year-over-year attendance bobbed between 260-280 million visitors. While that 13-year span could be considered healthy growth, what the National Parks Service has seen in annual attendance rates since 2014 has been nothing short of steroidal. According to data from the NPS, 293 million people visited national parks in 2014. That rose to 307 million in 2015 and ~331 million visitors in 2016. All three years accounted for all-time attendance records at the time, and 2017 nearly saw the record broken again, with just a hair less than 331 million visitors flocking to landmarks such as Yosemite’s Half Dome and Acadia’s Beehive.
Unfortunately, some of these people are getting hurt. In 2017 13,131 visitors were reported injured in the national parks. The most recent year from which the NPS has data on the number of deaths that occurred in the parks is 2014, when 192 people died within the parks. This year, outlets as disparate as High Country News and The New York Times have covered unfortunate and ultimately avoidable deaths related to nature lovers being reckless in the great outdoors.
Crucially, it’s important to emphasize that getting injured, lost, or, gulp, killed in the wild is still very unlikely. There’s only a minuscule chance that you, an enthusiastic nature enjoyer, will actually sprain an ankle or get struck by lightning or becoming dehydrated during a trip to the parks. But there are still plenty of ways to seriously mess yourself up in the wilderness, so let’s run through a few handy pointers on how to stay safe and alive.
Most obviously and importantly, you should always have a keen sense of where you are and possess a brutally honest understanding of what you physical limitations are. Are you a relative newcomer to the outdoors with a heretofore sentient lifestyle? Probably best to curb the talk about an unguided, two-week trip through Yosemite’s backcountry. Are you a novice hiker? Find a more capable friend who is happy to show you the ropes, or even take the time to find a hiker’s group in your area and gain more experience with others. REI and other outdoor and gear shops typically will have a message board (like, an actual bulletin board) where you can find a hike schedule. Take advantage of free (or affordable) resources that will make you a better outdoorsperson.
Before you hit the trail, even if it’s “only” for a short hike that you’ve “done a thousand times,” be certain to go over the basics:
- Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Be specific. State the park and even the trailhead if you know the name of it.
- Bring water and also bring a snack. Dehydration can ruin your day in any season and, well, it’s always better to have a snack. I like apples and peanut butter, but if you like Snickers bars, bring those.
- Dress for the weather. Is it hot and sunny? Sunscreen, ball cap, shades and loose clothing. Rainy? Grab a windbreaker. Chilly? Wear a toque. Never hurts to dress in layers either. No cotton, please.
- Wear sensible shoes. Trails can be muddy, icy, slick with rain or mist from an adjacent waterfall, et cetera. You probably don’t need $400 hiking boots, but you also should leave the $5 flip-flops from your trip to Cancun at home.
Pre-trip, do your homework! It really pays to know where you’re going and what you’re getting into. Study some topographic maps of where you’re going to become familiar, and then remember to pack the maps with you. Feel welcome to study maps on your phone, too. Just remember: Cell service and data plans will likely be limited or not available where you’re bounding off to. Dana Soehn, the head of public affairs for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, warns, “Many first-timers to Great Smoky have an over-reliance on their smartphones and are then unpleasantly surprised to learn that their map app isn’t working on the trails.” Soehn explained that Great Smoky, along with other parks, is looking into better options for wireless in certain parts of the park, you should never be fully reliant on something with finite connectivity or battery life.
Speaking of smartphones, don’t be a hero when it comes to taking selfies. Those aforementioned deaths in the High Country News and New York Times articles involved people doing some risky shit for the sake of a cool selfie. Pushing yourself over unproven routes through loose rock and scramble along a 14,000-foot mountain peak, or climbing over the guardrail in front of a waterfall with a 100-foot drop are two great ways to die. One thing made clear via the data shared by the NPS is that drowning and traffic accidents are the leading causes of death in the national parks. Be careful of drastic water fluctuations, don’t get too fatigued while swimming, and be aware of pedestrians and other drivers on the road. Basics, people.
State and national park employees have installed guardrails, handrails, stairs, and more for a very clear purpose: your safety and enjoyment. Though you may think you know your limits and don’t need to observe the sign bolted to a guardrail that says, “Don’t Climb Over Guardrail,” please do not climb over the guardrails. Please do observe all safety and caution signs on the trail.
Leave any animals you encounter the heck alone. To avoid being gored by a bison’s horn, mauled by a mother grizzly bear, devoured by a wolf, or nipped by a muskrat: Stay 100 yards away from all predators (bears, wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, rattlesnakes, scorpions), and stay at least 25 yards away from all other kinds of critters (moose, elk, otters, mountain goats). If you see any critters: Don’t approach them. Don’t offer them snacks (those are for you!)
If you do happen upon an animal and it’s closer than 25 yards, stay calm, observe the animal, and slowly remove yourself from the situation. Always be mindful of potential young that a mother animal, be it a deer, bear, whatever, may be trying to hide or feed.
Additionally, be very wary of moose and bison. Though most of us are hopefully conditioned to already avoid top-level predators, moose and bison, as ungulates and occasional prey of those top-level predators, can be grossly misperceived as somehow more docile or approachable. They are unequivocally not approachable. Moose and bison, while in no way compelled to eat human flesh, are massively powerful and astonishingly fast animals. Their hooves and antlers/horns are all the hardware they need to royally and truly mess up your day. Give them a wide berth, don’t approach them for a selfie, and for God’s sake don’t be this guy.
Lastly, while a lot of safety in the wilderness comes down to common sense, one thing that most of us won’t think of is other people. I spoke this spring with Christina White, an outdoors recreation planner from Yellowstone National Park, and was startled by an exchange we had about overcrowding and the dangers therein at America’s parks. White mentioned that, anecdotally, park employees had seen “an uptick in vandalism at thermal features throughout the park.” She went on to explain that some visitors have taken to using sticks or whatever’s handy to scrawl their initials (or worse) into the colonies of exotic microorganisms that live off of the scaldingly hot and mineral-rich thermal waters, and line the pools of so many of the park’s hot springs.
This two-headed monster of stupidity—vandalizing an eons-old natural feature that literally millions come to see on an annual basis while simultaneously risking your own life to do so— is exactly what you want to avoid in the wild. Don’t put yourself within slipping distance of a boiling hot spring, and don’t be the kind of weenie who vandalizes natural wonders that have been preserved for the sake of future Americans.
Brian Lauvray is a big ol’ outdoors and endurance sports nerd.