Defensive Hiking and Unintentional Drowning

Many high school classmates at Klahowya Secondary School are devastated by the loss of an 18 year old boy who drowned in Kitsap County recently while hiking and fishing with friends.

18 months ago, another teenage boy from Kitsap County drowned while hiking under similar circumstances. My heart goes out to the families who lost their beautiful sons. Most of you know my older sister drowned in the waters off Brownsville in June 1975; so this issue is near and dear to my heart. Both young men accidentally slipped and were dragged into fast moving water, known in statistics as ‘unintentional drowning.’

In 2007, 52% of water drownings occurred in natural bodies of water as opposed to pools. Statistics show drowning risk increases substantially after 15-19 years of age and males account for 88% of drownings in natural water settings. In 2000, while hiking in Estes Park, CO, I was taking a picture from the top of a waterfall and slipped into the water myself. The first fall was a 5 foot drop and I landed squarely on my right hip, which was uncomfortable to say the least. Luckily, I was able to get out of the water at that point. As I looked over the next fall, it was a 30 foot drop. An accident like this could happen to any of us while hiking here in the Pacific Northwest.

Ledges and waterfalls are where most serious injuries and deaths occur. People underestimate the danger. They slip on the slick algae covered rocks and fall into fast moving water. Others try to cross the stream above the waterfalls, fall in, and are swept over the falls.

Teenagers take defensive driving courses to ensure safety while driving and be more aware of obstacles. Talking with them about “defensive hiking” might help prevent one more injury or death. There are no official recommendations for children hiking near fast moving water in the pediatric literature per se, so I imagined what I would say to my own three sons as teenagers going out hiking for the day.

The list below contains general recommendations, and in no way is meant to minimize the losses experienced by all of you who knew and loved these two young men.

  1. Know the terrain, be aware of and avoid drop-offs and hidden obstacles near natural water sites. On uneven ground, slow your pace and take your time.
  2. Do not walk in the water near the edge of the falls or stand on rocks close to fast moving water.
  3. Constantly scan the trail ahead, looking 10 or more feet ahead to pick out the best route
  4. Know the local weather conditions and forecast before hiking, swimming, or boating.
  5. Avoid walking around in the dark or fading light without a good light source.
  6. Learn CPR, these skills could be life-saving until additional help arrives.
  7. Use a buddy system and never hike alone near water. The young men hiking together did the right thing trying to reach their friend and unfortunately were not successful.
  8. Avoid alcohol consumption. 50% of natural water drowning fatalities in 15-19 year old males involves alcohol. Slowed reaction time can truly make the difference in survival.

I am a pediatrician with a background in public health, so I cannot help but look at these recent tragedies and wonder if there is anything to learn and teach our kids in order to prevent another untimely tragedy. Maybe my sons will roll their eyes and call me ‘overprotective’, but maybe they would thank me at the end of the day when they return home to their parents who love them.


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