As the leader of the Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors program, I’m often asked if there are more outdoor recreation deaths today than there were in the past—or if it only seems that way. After all, the first week of September, two people fell off cliffs at Zion National Park, and this past weekend, a group of camping fifth graders were stranded by floods in Colorado.
It’s a fair question, if you experience the outdoors mainly through media reports. But my gut answer—as someone who has been hiking since I was a kid, and leading people in the outdoors the past four years—is that there’s no trend of tragedy. Other than word of the occasional heart attack, or a death in a high-end mountaineering expedition, I don’t hear much about the deaths of people in the outdoors.
Recently, I checked the numbers, and they confirm my instinct: You are more likely to be killed in this country while driving to the gym for a workout than you are while hiking in a park.
Recreation deaths and accidents are so minor that the Centers for Disease Control, which tracks all kinds of deaths, doesn’t even have a category for the outdoors. In the only CDC study commissioned on injuries related to outdoor recreation, common sense in planning and preparation was shown to prevent most accidents.
The study tallied 213,000 reported non-fatal injuries from 2004 to 2005. Fifty-one percent of injuries were reported by people ages 10 to 24, with 27 percent of all injuries resulting in a fracture of some sort. Thirty-six percent of all accidents occurred while snowboarding or sledding, with only 6 percent related to hiking.
Those numbers may seem high to you. But during that time period, according to the National Park Service, more than 80 million people visited western national parks, and hundreds of millions more visited parks east of the Mississippi—not to mention the number of people who visited other public lands managed by the Department of Interior, United States Forest Service, or United States Army Corps of Engineers, as well as state, county, and municipal parks.
Or compare the outdoors numbers to the CDC-reported 783,024 people who died in 2005 from heart disease or lower respiratory issues—conditions that physical exercise, perhaps outdoors, can help mitigate.
The real tragedy is that the value and joy of the outdoors—and the mental and physical health benefits the outdoors can provide—are often obscured by all the media drama about risks. Nature, like all things—even Kardashians—grabs the headlines at its most sensational.
So when you read about the outdoors, the story is about something like last spring’s incident, in which a high school senior died when she fell off a series of cliffs leading to a remote waterfall in the Angeles National Forest.
Or the case of a woman in France, whose body was eaten by vultures. She’d taken an off-trail shortcut through the mountains, leaving her hiking party behind in an attempt to reach her destination faster. She fell off a cliff.
These dramatic incidents are not only tragic; they’re also avoidable.
It is not the outdoors that creates the risk. It’s the people who went outside unprepared.
Does this mean we should always stay on paths and in-bounds? Of course not. After all, no great adventurer could have sailed to distant shores or climbed inspiring peaks without breaking a few rules. The risk inherent in all outdoor activities is part of their joy. However, skill, preparation, and the consequences of failure all need to be taken into account when you set off for a hike, take a shortcut, or leap to the next rock.
The real challenge is not to make the outdoors safer but to increase dramatically the number of prepared, passionate people who are getting outside, bringing out new people to explore the majesty of our country, and in the process leading healthier, happier, and even less stressful lives.
Stacy Bare is a skier, climber, mountaineer, surfer, and director of the Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors program. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.