Statistics show that bear attacks shouldn’t be your biggest concern about going into the woods.
by Mike Rogers
It’s been a rough start to summer in Alaska. We’ve experienced a spate of bear attacks that have resulted in two fatalities. Such attacks capture the imaginations and attention of a whole bunch of people and I’ve seen dozens of articles and even a couple of national news stories on the topic. One was even fancifully named, “The Killers in the Backcountry!” Among the cadres of outdoor enthusiasts that I know; everyone is dusting off cans of bear spray, picking up a fresh box of ammunition or perhaps picking up that new .44 Magnum. When a bear picks one of us off, we tend to react by taking defensive measures. That’s probably not a completely bad idea. Bears, despite the considerable anthropomorphic tendencies of some people, are not cuddly and can be downright dangerous.
But that’s where the wheels sort of fall off. Just how dangerous are bears? What sort of caution do bears reasonably warrant? What sort of preparations do savvy outdoors folks take without drifting to the extremes of carelessness or paranoia? Human beings in general, and many individuals in particular, positively suck at risk assessment. There are a couple of reasons that risk assessment is difficult. The first is that good data is tough to come by. Statistics on outdoor injuries are a bit murky and the CDC completed the single comprehensive study in 2005 and published it in 2008. It’s the most complete study on the topic and even it has some glaring holes.
There are a lot of limited studies that focus on specific risks, but some are so small that they are practically anecdotal. When you study outdoor incidents, small sample sizes are typical and might not be representative of anything at all other than a collection of events. On top of that you have the definitively anecdotal. The outdoor community loves stories and good ones travel like wildfire. We all know a couple of great stories, usually dramatic, that we didn’t experience first hand. Outdoor media latches onto these stories and dramatic bear encounters have historically been good sellers. A couple of good authors have sold numerous books on the subject of bears. It’s great entertainment and good information, but it’s not really data. One could read a couple of the more melodramatic versions from the 1950s and come away thinking you’d need an elephant gun to step out of the car to take a leak in the bushes without hazard to life and limb.
The other reason good risk assessment is difficult is human psychology. For a very long time human beings were considerably farther down the food chain than we typically are today. The fear of being eaten is a fear shared by virtually every person on earth and it’s embedded so deep in our primitive brain that it overrides any rational look at real data on the subject. That’s why I know people in the Lower 48 in areas that haven’t had a bear attack in over a century who won’t tread farther than 100 yards from a car in a national park. It’s also why I strap on a .44 when I go fishing despite the overwhelming analytical data that I’ll be just fine if I don’t.
In the outdoors, the primary mechanism of injury is the same as everywhere else- slips, trips and falls.
Psychology is also why people do things that in retrospect should have been obviously dangerous. There simply isn’t a deeply wired fear of automobile crashes or lung cancer or cardiovascular disease—those things are simply too new in our evolutionary chain to have become deeply rooted primal fears. Things like ATVs and snowmachines bridge the gap between the perceived safeties of the automobile and extend it into the dangers of the wilderness. As a mechanism of injury, off road vehicles know few peers. Every year I see literally hundreds of folks astride a wheeler with a handgun strapped to their belt that aren’t wearing a helmet or have a jacket along despite the dark cloud on the horizon. While I can understand it, it ignores every single scrap of data on which is the most likely negative outcome in that particular situation. We have a deep innate fear of bears and nearly zero of off road vehicles and hypothermia.
I’ve spent considerable time outdoors engaged in a wide variety of outdoor activities and I’ll admit outright that at times my risk meter was way off the mark. I’ve done some patently stupid things and paid the price in terms of pain. I’ve also had a few bear encounters, none ended badly. While I’ll never make the case that bears aren’t dangerous, I do wonder just how much emotional and intellectual energy we should spend on topics like “bear spray vs. guns” at the expense of topics like, “Which life jacket works best,” “What is the right size for a first aid kit,” or “Which is better: Helly Hansen or Goretex after cold water immersion?”
The data from the CDC showed some revealing things. The first is that you’re far more likely to be injured than die in the outdoors and that some of the things we worry about the most, are the least likely to happen. For you math geeks out there—here are some of the numbers from 2005 and they’re pretty much average.
# OF DEATHS IN THE UNITED STATES PER YEAR
Cause of death ………………… # dead
Cardiovascular disease …….. 856,030
Transportation accidents …. 48,441
Drowning ……………………….. 3,582
West Nile virus ……………….. 119
Hornet/bee/wasp stings ….. 48.5
Snake bites …………………….. 5.2
Bear attacks …………….. 2
In N. America something like 2-5 people die in bear attacks every year. While I don’t want to be perceived as insensitive to any victim of a bear attack, it’s just not that common. Dramatic and novel? Yes. Common? No. A cruise into any outdoors related online forum and there will be hundreds upon hundreds of threads about bear attacks, bear defense weapons or bear defense strategy for every fatality. Go find a thread about personal flotation devices or packing an epinephrine pen and you’ll probably come up very short by comparison. The numbers are certainly not proportional to the 3,582 people who drowned or the 48 people who died from anaphylactic shock following a bee sting.
In the outdoors, the primary mechanism of injury is the same as everywhere else—slips, trips and falls. The numbers are so vast they didn’t even make the list since falling down appears to be a risk of bipedalism regardless of location or activity. In my own experience, my worst outdoor injury was a fall down a scree chute while hunting in the Alaska Range. I was prepared for bad weather, an animal encounter or a bad cut from a skinning knife and completely flubbed it by crossing the top of some broken shale. If you check the numbers, the primary mechanism of injury for hunting is falling out of a tree stand. Hunting is an activity where millions of people of every level of intelligence take to the woods with guns and while getting accidentally shot is incredibly rare, falling out of a stand and maiming yourself is not.
While this spring’s bear attack fatalities have grabbed national attention, you can bet that before the summer and fall are over there will be several folks drown, several more fall off something high and several dozen maim themselves with an ORV. Most of these incidents won’t make more than a mention in a local paper. I won’t pretend that there aren’t killers in the backcountry, but that list is much longer than Ursus arctos horrilibis. In the greater scheme, bears represent only a minor hazard. The drive to the trailhead is orders of magnitude more dangerous than anything you’re likely to encounter once you get there. In fact, when you look at the numbers, perhaps not going outside is the greatest hazard of all. You are 425,000 times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than being mauled by a bear. Perhaps the biggest killer isn’t in the backcountry after all … maybe it’s your living room sofa.
If you enjoyed “Bear Attacks,” check out “Navigating the M/V in Deplorable Weather.“