Harrowing stories of survival can feel like the lifeblood of outdoor culture, with the image of the gnarly outdoorsman telling stories over a campfire “when I almost died” serving as a sort of backcountry social currency. It’s a tricky line to draw as we’re at times acknowledging and admonishing adventurers who get lost, and hopefully learning from past mistakes and how to avoid them.
Until recently, finding detailed aggregated data on the most common causes of wilderness rescues and best practices for rescuer survival has been difficult and fragmented because few academic papers and reputable organizations such as the American Alpine Club published accident reports. Earlier this year, travel website SmokyMountains.com published a self-funded comprehensive analysis of 103 successful search and rescue (SAR) attempts in the United States and Canada, culled from news articles from 1994 to 2018. You would ever need a SAR team , but this database and the eye-catching infographic entitled Safe & Found paint a clearer (and sometimes surprising) picture of how most hikers get lost and find it.
“By far the most important thing is not to lose your way,” says David Angotti, Founder of SmokyMountains.com. According to his team’s research, 41 percent of the 103 SAR cases resulted from hikers going astray, as many as the next three categories — inclement weather, falls, and separating from the group — combined. Injuries, darkness and equipment failure rounded out the field with seven, six and five percent respectively.
Angotti and his team carefully scanned each of the 103 articles that met the study’s criteria for coverage by a reputable news source within the allotted time frame. They then divided the information into easily decipherable categories, with a strong emphasis on the four major survival needs (shelter, water, warmth, and food). The team then organized the results to illustrate how those who needed SAR were able to survive. Many details are surprising, like the experience of Gilbert Dewey Gaedcke, who got lost in a lava field near Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano in 2005, squeezing water from clumps of moss to survive for five days until rescue arrived. “I put my hand on a tree and found something. It felt spongy. And that ultimately saved my life,” Gaedcke told CNN.
When Annette Poitras, another study member, fell and injured herself while walking in British Columbia in 2017, she faced a torrential downpour for three days with only her three dogs to protect her. Poitras credited her survival to her boxer, Roxy, who snuggled up against her body each night for warmth and eventually barked loudly to alert the rescue team. “She barked and barked,” Poitras told Global News. “I was too weak, I couldn’t call out.”
One of the study’s most jarring findings was what some people ate to survive, Angotti says. A man stranded for 90 days in upstate western Quebec in 2013 was forced to kill his dog for food. Others, finding themselves in arid desert environments, resorted to drinking their own urine. Several people ate bugs to survive, Angotti says, like Greig Haim, who after breaking his leg in Kings Canyon said he ate “everything that would have allowed me to catch him: two crickets, five or six moths, eight or ten large ants, and three or four water bugs.”
“The biggest mistake I see is lack of preparation,” says Andrew Herrington in the study’s infographic. As the search and rescue team leader in the Great Smoky Mountains, Herrington was one of the expert interviewers Angott worked with to provide survival tips for Safe & Found. His advice? Always wear the Ten Essentials, share your travel plan with two trusted people, download an offline GPS app, and wear quality outdoor clothing like merino wool and GORE-TEX shells.
Yes, the infographic released with the study is meant to be fun and entertaining, Angotti says, but educating the public was his main priority. “If this study and the interactive graphics lead to safety when hiking, then we have achieved our goal.”