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This question is prompted by two comments on this site: Sue, in What are these bulges? Are they harming the tree? and Erik, in What are the dangerous animals in Southern Nevada

(1) Sue: "Have you been to the Blue Hills, south of Boston? ..... They have a wildlife museum with an exhibit called 'most dangerous creature on the mountain.' It's a mirror!..."

(2) Erik: "You left out the most dangerous animal of them all.... People"

I've thought about how to get a handle, quantitatively, on how dangerous people are in the Great Outdoors. My first idea was to use the U.S. National Park System as a proxy for the great outdoors -- to paraphrase Willie Sutton, it's where the data is. But that leaves out Canada, Great Britain and the rest of the world. Also, I think before I go much further, I should ask for answers on frequencies of various crimes in the outdoors, ideally from whatever data sets people are familiar with.

Correction: Oops! @Sue informs me that: "The Blue Hills museum exhibit was about the most dangerous predators to the animals in the area, not the most dangerous to humans."

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    I think crime is probably pretty rare in the outdoors relative to urban environments. I expect most human-related hazards are more related to poor preparation for the outdoors and dangerous risk-taking behavior than they are to criminal activity. – nhinkle Dec 5 '15 at 5:40
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    No data to support this claim, but theft from unattended vehicles in parks probably encompasses 90% of the crimes. – whatsisname Dec 5 '15 at 8:13
  • @nhinkle You may be right, but I am specifically interested in whether or not crime in the outdoors is as rare as it is often said to be. Any thoughts on whether using the crime statistics from the US National Park System is a reasonable proxy for crime outdoors? – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Dec 6 '15 at 22:42
  • Hi ab2! This is an important question (+1 of course) with great answers! I'd like to clarify my comment you quoted. The Blue Hills museum exhibit was about the most dangerous predators to the animals in the area, not the most dangerous to humans. It ended with a mirror because we're predator number one! We hurt animals much more than animals hurt each other, or even hurt us! I don't mean to take away from the question, and I'm fine with the use of the comment. I just wanted to explain the original intent. Thanks! – Sue Saddest Farewell TGO GL Jul 31 '17 at 18:30
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    I'd be surprised if theft was more common than littering - perhaps you live in an exceptionally tidy (or exceptionally dishonest) area... – Toby Speight Aug 1 '17 at 10:58
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tl;dr

Be smart, be aware, and you don't need to worry very much about people, but they can be a risk factor depending on where you go and what you're doing.


ShemSeger's answer sums up my general impression of the types of crimes/interactions that I would be most concerned about, ie vandalism and/or "territorial" disputes. My comment that you referenced was mostly to stress:

  • That animal encounters where the animal is likely to attack you are rare.
  • It is often the things we don't worry about, other people being one of them, that can get us into trouble.

People go into the wilderness for all kinds of reasons, so I think it stands to reason that all kinds of people will go into the wilderness. In general the proportion of honest citizens to criminals you meet on any given day, in the city, heavily balances toward the honest citizens (unless you're some kind of criminal ring leader). That means that I would expect that the vast majority of people you meet in the wilderness are good, honest people, but there will invariably be some criminals. Also, the wilderness offers reduced oversight by law enforcement so it will attract a certain kind of criminal.

To a certain degree criminality in the wilderness will be affected by what type of crimes you're talking about. Does underage drinking count? Does negligence leading to a major wildfire count? Does intentional arson count? etc... There are some crimes like attempted/successful homicide and/or sexual assault that clearly count so I'll highlight some of those statistics.

In rural Northern California I know Mexican Cartels, some Native Americans, and some locals have been known to grow marijuana illegally on Forest Service land. My brother-in-law has been shot at multiple times while performing drug interdiction duties. My father has been warned off land by people in no uncertain terms while hunting. Furthermore he has seen bowls of anti-freeze scattered about the woods to kill any animals that might be inclined to forage on the illegal crops. This is a danger, but mostly to hunters because recreational hikers will rarely venture far enough off the beaten path.

Full disclosure I'm not a woman, nor a particularly attractive man. I don't worry about sexual assault but according to this website there is an above average risk of sexual assault in Yosemite National Park (159 vs national average of 100). They also give a risk of 294 vs the national average of 100 for physical assault in YNP. I don't know if those numbers are accurate, but if they are then people are clearly a threat.

Another website1 that may or may not be accurate states this about YNP (danger rating2 10.3):

While the three women hikers murdered outside park boundaries last year made headlines, theft from park hotel rooms is more common.

Here is what they say about Everglades (danger rating 10.8):

It's not the notorious gators that pose the biggest hazards here -- there has been only one unprovoked attack in the last 53 years -- it's car break-ins. Indeed, the park has an unusually high number of larcenies per visitor.

According to that website Lake Mead, NV3 has the "highest rate of serious crime of the parks we looked at" and has a danger rating of 13.6.

In closing here is a report from ABC News:

"Just about any type of crime that goes on in any urban environment happens out here," said Dale Antonich, chief ranger at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, located in Nevada and Arizona.

"We've had rapes, we've had murders in the park, we've had bodies dumped in the park," Antonich said.

...

And yet, as troubling as urban crime may be, it is nothing compared to the lawlessness we found in parks along the nation's borders.

...

The rangers at Organ Pipe wear camouflage and bulletproof vests, and carry assault rifles. They look like special forces soldiers on patrol in Iraq, but they are park rangers on duty in what rangers believe is the most dangerous park in America.


1: This data/page appears to be ~20 years old.

2: Incidents per 100k visitors including crime and accidents.

3: Note this is relevant to the area that my comment was placed.

  • I'm glad you mentioned drugs. In the 80's and 90's, I often heard of illegal marijuana patches hidden in the woods, complete with traps and/or armed guards. Poachers make the news occasionally, too. From what I've heard, however, these sneaking thieves only get violent if you confront them. Just get their license plate number and report them. – 243DRob Dec 7 '15 at 22:22
  • @DavidRoberts Agreed. That is typically the safest approach (reporting the location and anything else to the authorities). – Erik Dec 7 '15 at 22:35
  • The YNP numbers are almost certainly for the frontcountry area -- the Yosemite Valley sees thousands of visitors each day, with a population density comparable to a city. Get out into the backcountry, and I doubt it's any more dangerous than any other wild area. – Mark Dec 9 '15 at 2:50
  • @Mark I agree in general the further off the beaten path you are the fewer people you will see so the opportunity for crimes are less. Those danger ratings include accidents too. YNP has more than it's share of thrill seekers which bumped their numbers as well I'm sure. – Erik Dec 9 '15 at 15:09
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The most common crimes committed in the great outdoors are vandalism and littering. Nature is the number one victim, but when it's your backcountry it tends to feel like a personal attack. There are some crimes committed specifically against people. Petty theft does happen, but you're just as likely to have your stuff trashed as you are to lose it by theft.

For the most part people get along in the backcountry, when you hear about confrontations it's usually between hunters; either disputes about who shot an animal, who has the 'rights' to shoot a particular animal several people have been tracking, or people getting upset because someone scared of their prey or they're in someone else's hunting grounds. They don't typically escalate too far, mostly because everyone is carrying a gun, but fist fights aren't unheard of.

There are other disputes as well, in my home town, in the winter, you've got two groups of people: the skiers, and the sledders (snowmobilers). They have a mutual agreement over who gets which valleys to play in, really the skiers only have one valley that they restrict to skiing only, they groom and maintain a double track nordic ski trail that goes back to a couple cabins deep in the woods. The sledders have their own valley that they play in, and groom for snowmobiles, and the two clubs respect each other's terrain and stick to their own trails.

However, a number of years back there was a new guy in town who went exploring and tore up the ski trail on his sled. He go caught by one of the prominent ski club members, who happens to be closer to 7ft tall than he is to 6ft. There are a couple versions of the story, but my favourite is the one where the large viking of a man clothes-lines the sledder right of his sled, words are exchanged, and the sledder ends of getting decked in the face and laid out in the snow. Shortly after that, the ski cabin got torched.

This is the kind of vandalism people are most worried about, people breaking into other peoples trapping, sledding or ski cabins deep in the backcountry, vandalized them, or making a mess and leaving garbage all over the place.

I will offer a word of caution to tourists who venture into the backcountry outside of parks or publicly maintained trails: The locals take great offence to outsiders helping themselves to their trails and 'facilities'. If you aren't in a park, then all the trail improvements, maintenance, and structures built in the back country are done by the locals, which takes a lot of time, effort, and money. They aren't intended for public use, or abuse, and you risk a good thrashing for 'trespassing' (even though legally it isn't, but there isn't any law enforcement out there, so...). Show respect, and you will receive respect.

  • FWIW, I think that feeling of possession over the land is likely a regional thing. I know that around here, there are many areas which are not "parks" per se where the people who volunteer to improve the trails are thrilled to have more people there. With private land you're less likely to be welcome (and rightfully so), but we have a lot of federally-owned land which is largely maintained by volunteers, and I've never seen anybody get mad about people using the trails. – nhinkle Dec 6 '15 at 19:59
  • @nhinkle we have a lot of club maintained trails here as well, but we're talking about crimes committed in the backcountry, and the easiest way to get in trouble with another person in the backcountry is to rub a hunter the wrong way. Hunters don't cut trails so they can go for a hike and enjoy nature. They cut trails to access new hunting grounds, and they don't like sharing their prey. They tend to try and keep their trails a secret, and get upset if anyone finds them. – ShemSeger Dec 6 '15 at 21:56
  • @ShemSeger Obviously breaking into a cabin shows disrespect, but how can I show respect if even using a trail is construed as trespassing? – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Dec 6 '15 at 22:39
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    @ab2 Do more to maintain it than damage it. Clearing dead fall and overgrown bushes away from a trail is something a lot of hikers take for granted. I'm one of those types who will stop and take the time to remove a log from the trail after the fifty people in front of me just stepped over it. – ShemSeger Dec 6 '15 at 23:39
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For lone backcountry or wilderness where you can count on there are no others, 'usually'. Have a plan to respond to 'life altering' threat of injury or attack. Your gut will tell you a person is creepy, but intent is not always obvious. Let your sighting of others cause you to avoid them and if you are sought out be prepared to respond with overwhelming cunning and force.

I carry a SPOT, my wife knows relatively where I'm going and will track the device on the Internet and talk with me if there is coverage. If I stop I use the SPOT to message her I'm ok which she will see updated on the SPOT Internet sight/map.

People of 'good will' know your concerns being alone and will not intentionally cause you greater concern by seeking you out or approaching you. If they can't help but travel your route then change your route or activity.

If you are not prepared for the worst scenario, i.e. bear spray and large caliber handgun in grissley country you're not prepared for 'life altering' threats of 'any type'. It's against the law to carry concealed in a National Forest, check the state for concealed carry license and 'open carry' where allowed, i.e. 'open' in lieu of license.

Some 'utes' have a high threshold for risk perpetrated on themselves so they purchase a tracking device. You can't know others intentions, lower your personal safety threshold for risk. The best response is 'overwhelming and unexpected' for any nature of the attack. Don't wait until you are under attack and 'react'... this is 'life altering' be prepared. Give yourself the advantage by: 1) surprise you 'responded' 2) with overwhelming force just sufficient to 'stop' the threat.

If this doesn't sound like you would enjoy it: 1) go with someone you have trust and confidence in can and will respond to any threat. My wife is a good sport car camping but far exceeded her comfort this summer hiking into the Wind River Range, WY and off-trail under heightened grissley alert. She learned a little about herself, a plus, but it's just not her interest nor will it ever be. 2) I thought wrong trying to fit her into the wilderness. I'll go alone and be delighted for her to enjoy resort. maybe that's for you too.

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