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My brother once told a concerned parent (whose son he was taking hiking in the "wilderness" (John Muir trail) for a few days) that the most dangerous part of the trip would be the drive there and back.

All joking aside about a person's driving skill, I believe my brother was almost certainly correct in that statement. Of course, to get real precise you'd have to compare the exact area/type of driving vs. the exact area/type of wilderness exploration. In general though, I'm sure my brother's thoughts are valid.

My question is: does statistical evidence exist to back it up? I'm sure there are statistics for how many hours, on average, a person will be a driver or passenger in a car before they are maimed or killed. But are there the same statistics, for comparison purposes, for wilderness trekking?

IOW: which activity would more likely be life-threatening: walking the Pacific Crest Trail, or driving across the country for the same period of time (same hours per day, same months)?

  • 3
    Stats on deaths are more reliable than stats on injuries, no matter what the source (except maybe commercial airline accidents). Would you be satisfied with comparing deaths per person-hour, or do you want to include serious injuries also? – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Mar 11 '16 at 0:51
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    It depends on your wilderness. Temperate conditions will clearly be safer than extremes of hot or cold, though driving in icy conditions isn't great either. It would be hard to restrict any data source to a limited range of climates/seasons while a global/national average will mask a lot of what's interesting. – Chris H Mar 11 '16 at 7:37
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The Relevant Highway Data

Source: National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), Quick Facts 2014: (VMT is vehicle miles travelled)

Combining the data for 2014 for passenger cars and light trucks, we get 20,936 occupant fatalities in 2.71 trillion VMT (rounded).

We now have to convert fatalities per VMT to fatalities per vehicle-hours travelled in order to compare time spent driving to time spent hiking. We assume an average driving speed of 50 mph, which means 20,936 occupant fatalities in 5.4 x 10-to-the-10th-power vehicle-hours, or 39 occupant fatalities per 100 million vehicle-hours travelled.

I am leaving out deaths of pedestrians, motorcyclists, pedacyclists, and occupants of large trucks and school buses.

For injuries, multiply deaths by roughly 70.

Hiking

On the hiking part, the best (and perhaps only) data might come from statistics on the Appalachian Trail.

In 2012, the Southern Research Station (SRS) estimated that 1.9 million people use the Appalachian Trail per year, and an unofficial source on Quora said there were four hiking related deaths in 2013.

That is 2 deaths per million people. The SRS did not estimate the average length of hike, but let's assume it was 5 hours. That's 2 deaths per 5 million hiking-hours, or 40 deaths per 100 million hiking hours. The error bars on this estimate are very large.

The answer is hiking is more fun than driving, so hike.

  • An average speed of 50 mph seems high. Given the relative abundance of commuting, I would guestimate 30 to 40 mph. This gives even lower risks. However the 5 hour time for trail seems too low. Do people actually take partial day trips on the AT? A lot would need to be very short to balance out the through hikers. – Sherwood Botsford Aug 3 '18 at 1:53
  • @Sherwood Botsford (1) Yes, 50 mph is probably high; (2) But people probably really do take partial day trips on the AT; they certainly do take partial day trips on trails in Shenandoah and Yosemite and Rocky, so why not on the AT? (3) as for balancing out the number of thru-hikers, 1.9 million people use the AT per year, of which 3,735 attempted a thru-hike in 2017 (AMC Thru Hike Statistics. As I said, the error bars are very large. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Aug 3 '18 at 7:14

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