Very few people expect to die when planning a trip to one of America’s national parks. Sadly, it happens regularly, and most of these deaths are preventable.
So what are the leading causes of death in the parks, and how can you stay safe?
Fortunately, we’ve crunched the numbers, so you don’t have to. We have everything you need to know to make it out alive.
Let’s dig in!
How Common are Deaths in U.S. National Parks?
Visitors to America’s national parks usually look forward to adventure, beautiful sights, and maybe even an encounter with a wild beast. But most don’t anticipate that the trip will be their last. Sadly, some tourists meet their ultimate fate within these borders.
More than half of these deaths were unintentional. About half of the people who died from medical emergencies in national parks were actively engaging in physical activity. Statistically, men are far more likely to meet tragedy in these locations. One study found that between 2014 and 2016, only 21% of such deaths were women.
From 2007 to 2018, the parks saw three and a half billion visits. Of these, 2,727 died, equating to less than eight deaths per ten million visitors. In other words, fewer than five fatalities per week.
These numbers may sound high, but they’re actually pretty low compared to deaths outside national parks. America’s parks have a mortality rate of 0.1 per 100,000 visitors. In comparison, in 2020, heart disease accounted for 211.5, while flu and pneumonia caused 16.3 per 100,000 people.
Every location comes with its own risks. For example, there aren’t many drownings in Death Valley National Park. But to determine a destination’s danger, you can look at fatalities per capita. The top three are Denali, North Cascades, and Virgin Islands National Parks.
Pro Tip: Stay safe by avoiding these 5 Most Dangerous Plants in U.S. National Parks.
5 Ways Visitors Die at National Parks
While national parks aren’t inherently dangerous, more visitors die than we’d like to think. Here are the top causes of these fatalities.
One-third of all accidental deaths in national parks are due to drowning, which averages to about one per week. But you can take several precautions to lower your chances of such an event.
Before you dip into the water, make sure that swimming is allowed. Some beaches use flag systems to warn beachgoers of dangerous conditions like riptides or strong currents. Call a ranger station or the park’s central office for more information when in doubt.
A lifejacket could be the only thing that keeps a scary event from becoming a tragedy. In 2018, a whopping 84% of drowning victims weren’t wearing the safety device. Even if you’re a strong swimmer, wearing one is always a good idea.
Knowing what drowning looks like before you hit the waves is essential. Unlike in the movies, someone drowning usually can’t yell for help or wave their arms. In fact, it can be a shockingly quiet event. A struggling swimmer may only be able to get their head above water to gasp for air. It may be hard to tell the difference between playing and drowning.
Finally, leave the booze at home if you’re in or on the water. It’s easy to be lured in by an icy cocktail on the beach, but it can make you much more likely to meet with disaster.
#2 Vehicle Collisions
Closely behind drownings, car crashes account for 31% of all unintentional national park deaths. These numbers are nowhere near the vehicle collisions outside the parks but still cause concern.
In Yellowstone National Park, car accidents were the top cause of death, and many of these crashes involved large animals. Wildlife should be expected in these destinations. But if you’re used to watching for distracted drivers, it can be easy to forget to keep an eye out for animals roaming about.
Slick pavement causes fatalities as well. Slowing down on wet, windy roads can be your best defense.
Finally, don’t get distracted by the beautiful scenery. Pull-offs are usually plentiful and give visitors the best views around. Plus, you can’t really enjoy scenic vistas when you’re trying to drive.
Hiking and climbing are two of the most popular activities in national parks, but falls are the third leading cause of death. Whether it’s due to a rock climbing accident or a misstep on the trails, taking a tumble could be the last thing you do.
Falls are the leading cause of death in Yosemite National Park. Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks also see many falls.
It’s essential to know your limits. If you’re trying to push through exhaustion to get to your next campsite, you’re much more likely to fall victim, no pun intended. There’s no shame in calling a hike done before you run out of steam.
And while it can be tedious, always know where your foot is about to land. Taking in the beautiful sights while you’re trekking is tempting, but distraction can make a tumble more likely.
#4 Environmental Exposure
When planning a trip, the weather is probably one of the first factors you consider. This is especially true in national parks, where exposure to the elements can be deadly.
Of course, always dress for the weather and bring more food and water than you think you’ll need. Adequate sun protection is essential in warmer climates. But extreme temperatures aren’t the sole environmental threat.
Rockslides are rarely predictable. And they’re a possibility any time you’re in a mountainous setting. Watch for small, falling rocks as they often indicate more to come.
Altitude is another critical environmental factor. If you’re not used to being high above sea level, altitude sickness can take you down in a flash. Give your body a few days to adjust before attempting any strenuous hikes.
Most statistics on national park deaths deal with unintentional fatalities. However, accidents aren’t the only reason people perish in the parks. A small number of intentional deaths happen every year; of these, 95% are suicides.
In Grand Canyon National Park alone, more than 40 people have committed suicide since 2002. Park rangers train to handle suicidal visitors but can’t stop everyone. Plus, they’re training doesn’t make them mental health professionals.
Check in with your friends, especially if they seem a little down. Learn the signs that someone may be depressed or suicidal. And if you or someone you love is struggling, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or simply dial 988 for immediate access to help.
Pro Tip: Don’t commit any of these 10 Common Mistakes Campers Make at National Park Campgrounds.
Don’t Be the Next Death Statistic in a National Park
It’s unavoidable that a certain number of people die in national parks every year. However, many of these deaths are preventable, and taking precautions can save your life.
The unparalleled beauty and invigorating adventures draw visitors to the parks every year, and those things can distract us from our immediate surroundings. But staying present and aware can go a long way in keeping you safe.
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