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.

  • 1
    Why was this downvoted? And, do we have a "what to do when you are lost" question? If not, we need it.
    – ab2
    Aug 27, 2017 at 1:12
  • @ab2 We do: here and here (those are nearly duplicates, in fact).
    – gerrit
    Aug 27, 2017 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? Aug 27, 2017 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
    Aug 27, 2017 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, 2017 at 23:45

3 Answers 3


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, 2017 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? Aug 27, 2017 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, 2017 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
    Aug 27, 2017 at 23:50

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.


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


Using less statistics, and more of personal experience, in my region, pacific southwest [northwest for all you Americans], generally if you are physically and mentally healthy, in good weather and STOP when you realize you are lost, you will usually be found within a few hours of searching [plan on minimum 5 hours to account for travel time/planning and searching for you]. If we do not know were you went, ie. no trip plan, or if you were not following trails, unless you are lucky enough to be spotted from the air [unlikely in our terrain unless your really trying], or managed to wonder near a trail we are searching, your chances of ever being found are very low.

The manpower needed to look for a non-responsive subject in spring/summer foliage is incredible, we are talking 8 manhours to search 5 acres. if you can hike at 4km/h and you have been gone 8 hours, the area is vast and unsearchable.

luckily it is rare for us to not find someone we know for sure is lost, probably average about 1 per year in our region [probably 400+ searches per year]. Note that due to the urban wilderness interface of the area means we often don't know if our guy is lost, or on a buss to another province, if theirs no compelling evidence someone is "lost" in a particular area the ground search is called off much sooner [think 8 hours if we don't know were you were last seen, to 8 days+ with 300+ searchers if we know for sure you are in the area.] Most of these people resurface at a friends house, some vanish.

Leave a Detailed trip plan, with a responsible adult, its the difference of a few hours of embarrassment and never being seen again. Bring signaling devices [day-mirror, night-flashlight, audio-LOUD whistle, electronic-Plb/spot/inreach. even a cellphone] on every hike.

  • Who are "us"? Are you part of search and rescue as a professional or volunteer? That info will help to interpret your testimony of personal experience :)
    – gerrit
    May 16, 2020 at 9:12
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    Volunteer team, with a provincial governing organization. May 16, 2020 at 9:31

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