Trail Casualties: Examining the Thru-Hiker Dropout Rate (Part I)

It’s a known fact that the majority of people who set out to take on a thru-hike won’t finish. Despite this, defeat and injury are two important subjects which are often neglected in trail literature. This is due in part to the optimism which pervades the majority of trail websites, articles, and books. Whether this is in an effort not to discourage prospective hikers, or simply sample bias, we are not yet certain, but research is ongoing.

The exact casualty numbers vary(here, casualty = hikers dropping out). The Appalachian Trail has a nearly 64% casualty rate according to The Trek’s survey numbers, which is even a high completion rate compared to the ACT’s numbers cited below. In the 2016 season, there were an estimated 3500+ thru-hikers, and a total of just over 1,200 made it to Baxter State Park (NOBO stats). Statistically, this means you are more than twice as likely to end your hike early then finish it. If you look at the ATC’s numbers here, the numbers look closer to possibly three times more likely to fail. Yet, there are few resources looking at how failure is treated and its causes. The few sources that do are normally in relation to other things, such as pack weight and speed or success, and thus leave out a lot of potentially valuable general information. Videos such as this one are exceedingly rare.

One survey of AT hikers dropped from 84 participants at the start, to 48 at the second interval, 35 at the third, and 25 at the final interval, with 24 reporting a completion of the trail. These were at set points over the course of the trail.

“The first trail survey, called the Southern States Survey, was triggered between Hot Springs, North Carolina and Damascus, Virginia. The second trail survey, the Mid-Atlantic States Survey, was triggered between Front Royal, Virginia and Duncannon, Pennsylvania. The third trail survey, the New England States Survey, was triggered between Kent, Connecticut and Manchester Center, Vermont.

This gives an idea of the ranges commonly reached by people before they fall out, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Distance and Casualties:

Landmark Miles Casualties Casualty Rate (Percentage) Percent of Total Casualties
Damascus VA 469 36 42.8 60
Duncannon PA 1147 13 58.3 21.6/81.6
Manchester Center VT   1650 10 70.3 16.6/98.4
Katahdin, ME 2190 1 1.1 1.6
TOTALS 60 71.4 100

This tells us the vast majority of casualties (81.6 percent) occur by approximately the Point Of No Return, with over half occurring in the first quarter of the trail. The percentage of successful hikes lines up with that of the ATC at their website, and tells us a lot about the process of taking casualties, but not their sources.

While death is rare on the trail, injuries are common, and far more people simply give up for a variety of reasons. Therefore, this series will compile sources from across the web, with journals and YouTube-documented hikes which seem to fall off for any given reason, as well as some original research into the causes of incomplete hikes across a wider spectrum.

This will be a recurring series on the sources of casualties, the consequences of failure, and how these problems are dealt with. All forms of hike failure, ranging from injury, illness, giving up, and death are all included under the heading of “Casualties” in the more military sense: A person rendered unfit for duty via any of these causes. Those who would have classically been listed “Wounded Returned to Duty” are not as much of a concern in this series outside covering some good prevention and first aid resources. Later in the series we will also cover basic treatment of casualties, both socially and in the more basic realm of first aid and medicine. Prevention of illness and injury will also be covered before the conclusion.

AS ALWAYS: You are encouraged to take a First Aid Course, and download the Red Cross First Aid App on your Smartphone to learn how to aid your comrades if they should become injured. 

If you have attempted or completed a long distance trail please take the survey HERE to contribute to the available data pool. 

I) Minor Injuries on the Trail

Injury in the backcountry can be a big problem, and is anecdotally  one of the major sources of ended thru-hikes. 25% of persons surveyed on their reason for not completing the PCT in 2013-2014 reported injury as their reasoning. This may be understated—the study was only being available to those who hiked at least 454 miles on the PCT. If the numbers hold up like with the AT survey mentioned above, then as many as 80% of casualties may have been unaccounted for in that distance.

34 of the 84 hikers in one survey on the AT reported injuries concomitant with carrying a heavier pack, and these seem to be relatively common injuries on all trails, though there are few studies to confirm this. Therefore, we can expect some percentage at or higher than 40% of hikers to sustain some sort of injury in the course of their hike.

Whether or not this drove them off the trail wasn’t listed, though that information would have been useful. In fact, almost all the data fails to say what drove people off the trail, at what point, or other important data points. Where these are collected, the data sets frequently don’t include much in the way of people who stopped hiking for any reason, which skews the results and doesn’t give a complete look at causality. 

There is a direct link between pack weight and injury, as has been established by most every military study on the subject since 1900, but the comparison between military marches and recreational hiking only goes so far. Along with military studies, the correlation between pack weight and injuries has also been established in several studies of hikers, including here and here. With an average Infantryman’s load routinely exceeding 100 pounds, and the average hiker considering half of that to be an excessively heavy, the probability that a hiker will sustain the same levels of severe injury is low. However, this doesn’t prevent many of the minor injuries commonly sustained in the military.

Blisters

One common example is blisters on the feet. As stated on page 45 of “The Soldier’s Manual of Foot Care” from 1916: “One of the greatest troubles in camp is blistered feet, and a large percentage of men are rendered unfit for duty for one or more days on this account.” Blisters are still a problem now, despite over 100 years of advances in footwear. Long story short, if you’re hiking, you will eventually get blisters, and they can entirely destroy your ability to keep moving. Keeping your feet clean, dry, and generally cared for is easy, and there are dozens of articles on this subject you can consult for care and avoidance advice.

Generic Discomfort and Soreness

Other minor injuries which plague the hiking world are foot pain, knee pain, and muscular soreness. All of these are also well documented in the military literature, and have been considered a common result of loaded marches. In the hiking world, they are also anecdotally common. These are, of course to be expected, since the knees, feet, and muscles of the entire body are involved in moving you over a vast distance on most trails. Because of this repetitive motion—the dragging of more than your own weight over hills and mountains for an extended period—soreness and fatigue are the body’s way of shouting “Uncle!” Listen to those warnings, and you can cope with these problems relatively easily.

Less common, but equally probable injuries include injuries from poorly fitted footwear, such as ingrown toenails, torn toenails, corns, plantar fasciitis, or a pile of other foot problems. These can mostly be avoided by having well fitted shoes and socks. However, they do still appear on trail. 

Exposure and Accidents

Other minor injuries include exposure or accidental causes. Sprains, strains, cuts, scrapes, sunburn, shin-splints, and dehydration. While some are unavoidable, others can be avoided with proper equipment and planning . Unsurprisingly, most injuries seem to be to the lower body, which is where most work is taking place during a hike. For more major injuries, the location seems to be consistently below the waist as well.

Minor injuries will rarely drive someone off of a trail entirely. Unless they pile up into a massive load of small problems, these are simply part of the hiking experience. Major injuries, however, can end a hike in an instant. Broken bones, joint injuries, and stress fractures can be debilitating for a long period of time, and are also listed as risks in military literature. Caused frequently by one of two causes, excessive pack weight or accident, these injuries are rare in comparison to the minor injuries listed above. Such injuries can require evacuation, and are a significant deterrent to hiking: The minor risk of these injuries, and similar, are blown out of proportion by people who think about hiking, but have little experience of realities in the field. Unfortunately, the aforementioned studies do not include specifics about the types of injuries sustained that ended hikes.

In conclusion, injuries on the trail will happen, but seem to mostly be minor affairs, which can be worked through. With about 25% of casualties in the PCT sample already discussed, injury was enough to drive people off the trail, and usually for a major reason. To prevent this from happening to you, control your pack weight, and be careful. Simple advice for simple goals. Stay safe, and keep hiking.

Stay Tuned for Part II, where we look at hikers getting lost, miserable weather, and the ol’ going home sick. Pretty uplifting, right?

 

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Comments 4

  • cece : Jul 19th

    Steven, This is interesting stuff. Could you explain 2 things?
    First, the military analogy really only goes so far, as military participants are likely to fall within a circumscribed age range, while a significant number of AT hikers are age 50+. Were you able to tease out the age variable?
    Second, I see that you are soliciting further responses. How will you make sure that you are not getting duplicate data sets (i.e., people already counted).
    I’ll be curious to see what you find on health issues.

    Reply
    • Steven : Jul 19th

      Cece– The issue you cite with the military analogy is most certainly valid, especially for Age. One of the Trek’s Statisticians is currently working with our numbers to tease out exactly that, which will be published in a companion post. We’re certainly not working with just highly fit 18-30 year old people. However, the other issue is the literature I was able to find. As I mention above, the military has studied this extensively, but it seems to be far less coherent and extensive for backpacking. The sources we have are overwhelmingly military, and it’s the only analogy we really have.

      On the second point, we’re mostly trusting people to not enter redundant responses. Since this is an open and informal study, we are simply hoping no one is spamming it at any point which would result at a statistically significant level.

      Reply
  • Andy Lee : Jul 31st

    Perhaps some usefulness in this article, but man, it sure is hard to read. I gave up half way thru.

    Reply
    • Steven : Jul 31st

      Don’t worry, there will be a companion article based on the statistics gathered by the Trek’s survey on casualties which will cut through all the Scholarship and just get to the numbers.

      Is there anything you’re looking for specifically which could be digested down for the conclusion?

      Reply

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