Backpacking is Dangerous

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 19 August 2014

Backpacking is Dangerous

Is backpacking dangerous?

Backpacking is dangerous, and can generate significant amounts of physical and psychological stress. Injury and death are regular outcomes for backpackers.

Every year backpackers get lost, injured, struck by lightening, eaten by bears, drown while crossing rivers, shot by hunters, or frozen in unexpected blizzards. These are the things that can happen to well-prepared, smart backpackers.
I have not even begun to mention the things that unprepared stupid backpackers do to themselves through bad decision making.

(Classic Example of Stupidity: Use your food bag as a pillow.)

Nothing in this trail guide will protect you against yourself or the occasional Fury of Nature.

Backpacking unmaintained trails multiplies all of these dangers, puts us further from help and/or rescue, and generally increases all of the physical and psychological stresses and dangers of normal backpacking.

Super-Great Fun!!!

It is during these hard engagements with nature that I often have my best experiences. Though most of us attempt to mitigate these dangers, there is always a reasonable chance that you will get lost, get injured, or get dead while having the time of your life.

Good times I hope.

The best way to minimize the ever-present chances of injury and death is to build our backpacking and backcountry skills and fitness in conjunction with increasing the difficulty of our backpacking trips. This way we reduce the chances of putting ourselves in situations we are not prepared for.

Don't do that!

Don't attempt the unmaintained section of the Tahoe to Yosemite trail unless you are an accomplished, experienced backpacker, in good physical shape, capable of reading maps, with good route finding skills and properly equipped with enough food to accommodate a longer crossing of this section than you anticipated.
Remember: Shit happens.

Our pace, carrying capacity, state of physical conditioning, and the particular route we choose may extend or shorten the duration of our trip through this section of the trail, and any of the trails described on this web site. Plan accordingly. Discretion is often the better part of valor.

Psychological Difference II
Much more isolated, and no maintained trails

This combination of isolation, no trails, and very hard hiking presents different obstacles and challenges than the typical long distance backpacking trip.
Pressing for miles is replaced by pressing to find a route through the terrain, if we cannot locate signs of the trailbed itself. This is a completely different type of stress than running down a maintained trail.

This type of travel requires careful observation, good decision making on observations, and the understanding and ability to backtrack to the point where we deviated from the best route so we can try again.
That means we have to know when you are off the Route...

How do you know what you don't know? The subtle signs of man and nature will tell you.

Cross country travel produces a certain psychological type of stress in addition to the normal stresses of backpacking. The normal stresses of backpacking are generally physical, caused by being constantly exposed to the environment, and the constant work staying in motion over the terrain demands.

Good gear mitigates the hots and colds of being constantly exposed to the elements, and constant work is offset by good eating, plenty of water, and proper rest. I find that the physical stress of normal backpacking is an excellent antidote for the crazy psychological and physical stresses of Urban Life. One is very good for you, the other is very bad.

Cross country travel puts all stresses other than finding the proper route into secondary positions. The things that bothered us most on the trail; hunger, overheating, and exhaustion can all become inconsequential when the thing we relied on the most for our most fundamental sense of security, the trail, disappears.

That loss of trail can be quite disquieting.

Take a Break

It is at just this moment, when our most basic assumption about backpacking, the trail itself, has disappeared from beneath our feet, is when we must not freak out, and we must rebalance our approach to backpacking.
Kick back and take a nice break. Have a snack and some water. Observe and Consider our situation. Food, Water, and rest are vital, and without them we will deprive ourself of our most fundamental skills.
These are the ability to observe, analyze, and make good decisions.

Stop, rehydrate, fill up our water bottle, and cook up a nice hot meal and some coffee. Restore our calm approach, and our clear vision and good decision making process will follow. Always maintain our water and food consumption as we struggle to find and follow any very difficult route. 

Trail Guide

This segment of text is from the Tahoe to Whitney Trail Guide as we are about to make our decision to hike South on the Pacific Crest Trail or enter the unmaintained segment of the Tahoe to Yosemite as we exit the Lake Tahoe Basin.



Carson Pass Management Area



High Sierra Backpacking Camp and Trail Skills

High Sierra Backpacking Navigation Skills


High Sierra Mountain Safety Forum: Camp and Trail



All Mountain Safety Topics

All Mountain Safety News


Current High Sierra Hazards





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