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Sometimes, people go into nature and go missing. A big search party is set up but they may be never found again. A morbid version of “leave no trace”. We probably all know examples: Joe Keller, Joey Ravn, Hans Nolte (the father of a childhood friend), and many others. It might happen in vast wilderness areas or in relatively small nature reserves. It is often a mystery. In Iceland (with plenty of wilderness and bad weather) the concept is part of national folklore. Sometimes people are found alive, like Mary-Anne Goossens who was found after sitting at a stream in the Spanish mountains for 18 days — she was lost and decided to stay put, unaware how close to civilisation she was or where to go, worried to explore and lose track of the water source; the trail would have been in shouting distance if it wasn't for the sound of the river. There must also be cases where someone is eventually found, but too late, or died in an accident.

Are there any statistics on how often people go missing in nature, and out of whose, how often they are found — dead or alive? I realise this may depend on many factors, and there may not be much research on the topic, so I will consider any actual facts on the matter welcome.

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    Why was this downvoted? And, do we have a "what to do when you are lost" question? If not, we need it. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Aug 27 '17 at 1:12
  • @ab2 We do: here and here (those are nearly duplicates, in fact). – gerrit Aug 27 '17 at 1:27
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    Would a better title be How often are missing people not found? Or how often do people get lost? – Reinstate Monica Aug 27 '17 at 4:54
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    It took 5,300 years, but Otzi was eventually found, and he has relatives living in Austria. Seriously, I think the question is OK -- good!-- as is, and any attempt to narrow it would put undue constraints on the answers. It is perfectly OK to give an answer which has limitations, if the answer acknowledges those limitations. For example, an answer which was limited to people gone missing in US National Parks would be worthwhile. One has to go where the data is. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Aug 27 '17 at 23:37
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    @ab2 I wonder if a modern SAR would have found Ötzi or the Doumelin couple within days of their disappearance. I expect not. – gerrit Aug 27 '17 at 23:45
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From this article which is pulling statistics from

*"Dead Men Walking: Search and Rescue in U.S. National Parks", Wilderness & Environmental Medicine (Volume 20, Number 3), 2009.

  1. Estimated number of SAR missions in US each year: 50,000

  2. Percent of SAR operations aiding lost individuals: 36%

  3. Percent of SAR operations in national parks to find lost hikers: 40%

So a estimate of 18,000 SAR operations per year aiding lost individuals.

As far as statistics on how many people go missing and are never found or found dead, the only statistics that I know of are from Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite which only has statistics for Yosemite National Park.

To summarize those statistics from 1966 to 2005 on page 575,

  • 7 people were lost and found dead
  • 23 people were lost and not found
  • 11 people were found but remain unidentified

Given the huge number of people who visit Yosemite each year (5,217,114 in 2016) it seems safe to say that the number of people who are never found is a tiny fraction of all visitors and that it is a very rare occurrence.

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    Are lost and missing the same thing though? If I phone the emergency services because I'm lost, I woudln't be reported missing, would I? – gerrit Aug 27 '17 at 12:43
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    @gerrit If you can phone the emergency services, how lost could you be? I think that if someone was lost/overdue back and nobody knows where they are, they would be counted as missing? – Reinstate Monica Aug 27 '17 at 16:01
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    If I'm lost but able to call emergency services I'm still lost (don't know where I am, don't know where to go), and if I'm in the middle of a big featureless woodland without a GPS receiver, PLB, or flare, I'd say that I'm lost, but not missing in the way of people who have vanished and nobody knows what happened. I suppose emergency services may be able to track the signal from a mobile or satellite phone, I don't know. – gerrit Aug 27 '17 at 16:26
  • +1. However, your answer raises another question, which is: When a hiker is reported as missing, and a search is begun, how/when is the search closed? For example, we have twice received e-mails from Yosemite, based on our wilderness permits, asking if we saw a person of the following description who has been reported missing. My intuition tells me both times the person turned up at home or at his girl-friend's apartment and never bothered to report in. So when do the rangers give up? This doesn't belong in your answer, it is a separate question, which -- feel free to ask yourself. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Aug 27 '17 at 23:50
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It's impossible to give a clear answer to this. There are a few factors to consider:

Who is "lost"?

You may be able to find data on the number of people who are called in as missing, and where some sort of search mission is sent out to rescue them. However, not all of those people were ever at any danger of disappearing. Some may have wandered a bit off the path and then called in for a rescue themselves, others may never have been missing in the first place, but were reported as such by worried relatives.

On the other hand, there may also be people who went missing in the woods without anybody knowing about it. There are many missing person cases where it is simply not known what happened to them after they were last seen, and any number of them may well have wandered into the woods and never returned. And some people may be missing without anybody knowing they are missing at all.

There is a database of missing people in the US, called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. However, this does not differentiate between people who went missing in nature and who went missing under some other circumstance and were presumably abducted or fell victim to some other crime.

This article states the number of unresolved missing person cases on public land as 1,600, but that number is not based on official stats, only on research by hobbyists.

Who is "found"?

Dead people are presumably much more likely to be "found" than living people. For one thing, a living person may come back from the wilderness by their own efforts and never bother to officially inform the park authorities. A dead person will only be discovered if somebody else finds them.

The flip-side of this situation is that sometimes, the remains of a person are found in the wilderness when the person had never been reported as missing, or as missing in the wilderness. So they were "found" despite never being the object of a search or rescue mission.

You also have to consider that many people who "go missing" were never lost in the woods, but knew perfectly well where they are when they fell victim to some attack or accident. So in many cases, there was never a possibility of finding them alive in the first place. These people are exceptionally likely to be found dead, because their position is known. On the other hand, they are also often found alive, if they fail to come home at the expected time, and can be found injured or incapacitated at the site where they were expected to be - but they may not ever be counted as missing in that situation.

Conclusion

There is no number of missing and of found people, because neither term is very clearly defined, and no database collecting these cases exists.

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