Top 10 Causes of Death While Hiking and How To Avoid Them

There are many causes of death while hiking that you can take practical steps to avoid.

For the most part, hiking is generally safe for everyone. But like with any activity, there are dangers present. Some dangers are more unforgiving in nature than those associated with human-made things.

Ultimately, common sense will prevent most causes of death while hiking, but there is often a little more to it than using common sense.

That’s what this article is all about. I will show you the top 10 reasons why people die hiking and what you can do to prevent it without quitting hiking.

1 – Falls

The lead cause of death while hiking is from falling.

Hikers slip on wet surfaces or lose their footing around cliffs and mountains’ edges and fall.

This is the leading cause of death in the Shawnee National Forest, where I’m from.

The best way to avoid this is by paying more attention to where you step. You should also refrain from getting too close to the edge. And lastly, wear appropriate footwear that’s made for outdoor use.

Be sure to watch children and pets, too. These are often victims of falls because no one is watching them closely.

IF IT HAPPENS: Call emergency services immediately. Don’t attempt to move the victim, as it will likely cause further injuries. Don’t attempt to do it if it’s too dangerous to reach the victim. If you can safely reach the victim and they are not breathing, begin CPR (chest compressions) if you are trained to do it.

Causes of Death While Hiking

2 – Hypothermia

Hypothermia is when your body loses too much heat faster than your body can produce it.

This causes body temperature to get dangerously low and can result in a fatality if not treated immediately.

This often occurs when a hiker is exposed to cold, wet, and windy conditions for long periods of time.

To avoid hypothermia, dress for the weather. Use a layering system and wear a rain/wind-resistant shell if it’s raining and windy out. Consider not hiking at all in cold, wet, and windy weather. Have extra layers sealed in a water-resistant bag if you need them if you fall in cold water. Be careful around creeks and bodies of water.

Creek crossings are when many hikers get too wet and have concerns about hypothermia.

IF IT HAPPENS: If someone suffers from hypothermia, remove any wet or frozen clothing and dry the victim off. Wrap an emergency shock blanket around them and get them into dry, warm clothing. Get them to a warmer location or somewhere away from rain and wind. Call emergency responders immediately.


3 – Dehydration

Dehydration occurs when your body loses more fluids than it takes in.

Although dehydration is typically easier to treat if caught early, it can lead to death if not treated. It can also lead to many painful conditions, such as cramping, nausea, dizziness, and headaches.

This often occurs when a hiker is exposed to hot and humid conditions and not getting adequate hydration and shade.

To avoid this, dress for the weather and temperatures and choose a shaded trail or hiking area. Take breaks more often than you would on other days. Make sure you hydrate and fuel properly. If the weather is too humid, consider planning for another day.

Most hikers don’t drink enough water when hiking.

IF IT HAPPENS: If someone is dehydrated, have them rest in the shade or in a cooler area. They should slowly take in fluids (water or something with electrolytes). Notify emergency services if the dehydration is severe and requires medical attention.


4 – Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is like dehydration but is likely more common among hikers.

It’s when your body loses too much water and salt through sweating, and you become nauseous, weak, dizzy, and get a headache.

Most heat exhaustion can easily be treated, but in rare cases, it is one of the causes of death while hiking in extreme situations.

To avoid this ailment, stay hydrated and take electrolytes in. Don’t overdo a hike. Make sure you rest in the shade more than you normally would. Plan to hike on cooler days if it’s really hot outside.

Most of the time, not drinking enough or drinking the wrong thing causes this.

IF IT HAPPENS: If someone is experiencing heat exhaustion, notify emergency responders immediately if they suffer severe symptoms such as loss of consciousness, heat stroke, or severe pain. Otherwise, get the victim in a cooler and shaded area. Have them drink water and give them electrolytes. Take it slow from there and get back to where you started at.


5 – Heart Attack

Heart attacks are rare but can often be causes of death while hiking for those with conditions.

A heart attack usually happens when too much stress is placed on the heart or if a victim has underlying heart conditions.

Hiking is generally good for the heart. However, with certain heart conditions, hiking can be dangerous.

To avoid a heart attack while hiking, make sure you ask your licensed medical professional if hiking is safe for you. While hiking, don’t put more stress on your body than you can handle. Hike on easier and shorter trails until you build up the strength to expand. Don’t practice unhealthy habits like smoking that will hinder your heart’s health.

Heart attacks during hiking trips are rare but can happen.

IF IT HAPPENS: Make sure you notify emergency services immediately if you suspect someone is going to have or has had a heart attack. If you’re trained to do CPR, start chest compressions if a person is not breathing.


6 – Wildlife Encounters

While rare, some wildlife encounters can be causes of death while hiking.

There are many dangerous animals that you may encounter in the backcountry all across the United States. These include bears, mountain lions, wolves, venomous snakes, sharks, and even smaller predators such as ticks and bees (if allergic).

Negative encounters with these animals could include being bitten or mauled, injected with venom during a bite, or contracting a disease after being bitten.

The best way to avoid this is to fully understand what wildlife poses a risk in your particular area. Bring defensive spray and wear a bell if large predators such as bears and cougars exist. Watch your step and stay on the trail to avoid negative snake encounters. Use bug spray and tick defense to avoid getting bit by mosquitoes and ticks. If you’re allergic to bites and stings, bring allergy relief or your epi-pen, just in case.

Most of the time, people have a negative encounters with wildlife because they’re not prepared to encounter them before hiking.

If IT HAPPENS: If a person is bitten or mauled by a large predator, use the defense spray, and look big while screaming to try to scare away the animal. Notify emergency responders and follow their directions.


7 – Accidents with Equipment

One thing many people don’t think about is getting hurt or killed by equipment.

If you’re using a chainsaw, for example, a slip of the equipment could result in a serious to even fatal injury. The same goes for an axe or even a machete. Knives and firearms can also pose a significant risk in the event of an accident.

In most cases, injuries from equipment are often life-threatening.

To avoid negative impacts from using equipment, follow all safety precautions assigned to each piece of equipment. Wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE) when using it. Don’t get into a rush to get the job done. Always think about your next move. Don’t use it if you don’t know how to use it.

Most of the time, people get hurt with equipment using it incorrectly.

IF IT HAPPENS: Try to cover and compress any wound resulting in significant blood loss. Notify emergency first responders immediately and follow their instructions.


8 – Lightning Strikes

While lightning strikes connecting to humans on the hiking trail are rare, it’s often deadly when it occurs.

Lightning is one of the causes of death while hiking because it usually does significant damage to a person when it occurs.

Lightning can also cause trees to fall on hikers, which could indirectly cause serious injuries or even death.

To avoid getting struck by lightning, do not hike during conditions where thunderstorms are favorable. If you’re caught in a thunderstorm, try to get to a shelter immediately and don’t hike in an open area or around many trees, which might be difficult to do. Find a rock shelter to get under until the storm has passed if you can.

Ensure you’re safe from other conditions that occur during storms, such as tornadoes, hail, wind, and flash flooding.

IF IT HAPPENS: Notify emergency services immediately and follow their instructions.


9 – Drowning

Drowning is another leading cause of death while hiking that you must be aware of.

Drowning often occurs when hikers cross creeks and rivers they cannot handle, swim, or bathe in deep water or during flash flooding.

Drowning could also occur if hikers drive and attempt to cross flooded roadways or off-road trails.

The best way to avoid drowning is to avoid areas where you can drown. Don’t attempt to cross deep or raging creeks and rivers. Stay out of deep bodies of water. Stay on higher ground and avoid hiking during flash flooding conditions.

If you are in areas where drowning is possible, consider taking a PFD with you.

IF IT HAPPENS: If you safely reach a victim who has suffered from drowning and know how to do CPR, start doing chest compressions. Never attempt to rescue a drowning person unless you know what you’re doing; otherwise, you, too, can become a victim. Always call emergency services before doing anything else.


10 – Medical Emergencies

Several different medical emergencies can occur while hiking.

Some of these emergencies might include food, plant, or insect allergic reactions. Others could include food poisoning or sickness. A more modern emergency could be suffering symptoms of COVID-19. Other emergencies could be from underlying conditions.

In nature, a medical emergency can become a serious matter.

You can avoid medical emergencies by planning ahead. Take supplies and first aid equipment that you know how to use. Take medication that would be used to stop an allergic reaction. Bring survival gear that might be appropriate for the trip. Prepare before your adventure.

Always put safety first, try not to hike alone, and tell others where you’ll be hiking.

IF IT HAPPENS: Follow the procedures for dealing with medical emergencies if you know them. Always notify emergency services and follow their instructions.


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Avoiding the causes of death while hiking can easily be done. But you need to understand those causes and how to avoid them. It often takes a little bit more than simple common sense. The advice above is meant to help you understand how to protect yourself before an incident occurs. If you’ve enjoyed this article, subscribe to my free newsletter for more tips like the ones listed above.

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Shawn Gossman

Shawn Gossman

Founder, Hiking with Shawn

Howdy folks! My name is Shawn Gossman and I founded Hiking with Shawn. I’m an avid hiker, cyclist and outdoorsman here in the Shawnee National Forest. I was born and raised in Southern Illinois and never want to leave. Click here to learn more about Shawn Gossman

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