Most Smoky Mountain hikers go missing by going off trail. New analysis shows how they survived

It seems counter-intuitive. How can anyone go missing in the most visited national park in the country? But given the size of Great Smoky Mountains National Park − 522,419 acres − and the sheer number of people inside its boundaries with 13.3 million visitors in 2023, it is actually surprising there are so few lost hikers.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park averages 103 search and rescue missions annually, relatively few of which are for missing people.

Since the park was established in 1934, there have been only five documented cases of people who went missing in the park and were never found.

New analysis from Smoky Mountains website looks at wilderness survival stories

What is the best way to prevent that worst-case scenario from ever happening to you or your loved ones? Researchers at have your back. They analyzed more than 100 reports to discover how survivors got lost in the first place; if and how they found warmth, shelter, food, and water; whether they stayed put or kept moving; and whether they found their own way out or were rescued.

The survivors in the data pool were lost anywhere from less than a day to an astonishing 90 days, with survival tactics that included finding shelter and rationing food. Only one of the cases involved someone in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Austin Bohanan, who was lost for 11 days in 2017.

The most common way that hikers got lost was by wandering off the trail (41%). In 17% of cases, bad weather was to blame, while 16% of news reports analyzed cited falling off the trail as the cause.

To find a way back to safety, survivors were faced with an important decision: whether they should stay put and wait to be rescued, or if they should keep moving in order to find their own way out. The research found that two-thirds decided to keep moving (65%), while just a third chose to stay put (35%). Just under a quarter found a way out themselves (23%), and the remaining 77% were rescued.

Lost hikers detail most important considerations for survival

In the cases examined by, survival often hinged on the ability to find a combination of four basic things: warmth, shelter, food and water.

In order to stay warm, 10% built fires and a further 10% used camping gear. Other methods of keeping warm included the body heat of fellow hikers (including dogs), exercise and digging in.

For shelter, 11% of survivors used camping gear. Some 9% were able to discover caves and other existing shelters, while 8% took shelter beneath trees.

In order to stay hydrated, survivors needed a reliable source of water. Almost a quarter found a natural body of water (24%), 16% used snow, rain or puddles, and 13% rationed their own water. Other sources of water that were named included drinking urine or licking leaves, moss and grass for hydration.

Survivors also needed to find food. Over a third were able to ration their own supplies (35%) and 9% ate berries and fruit. A number of hikers also ate plants and insects.

Expert offers wilderness survival tips

Andrew Herrington, who is a survival instructor, search and rescue team leader and wildlife ranger in the Smokies, shared his top hiking advice with Not surprisingly, his best advice involved preparation:

  • Carry the 10 essentials: Navigation aids, sun protection, insulation (good clothing), illumination (flashlights etc.), first aid supplies, fire-making supplies, repair kit, nutrition, hydration and emergency shelter.

  • Leave a trip plan and check-in time with two trusted people.

  • Study your maps and identify a “bailout” direction in the area you’re exploring.

  • Check the weather forecast (including overnight in case you’re forced to stay out).

  • Practice lightweight tarp shelter building at home.

  • Print off free maps at

  • Download a backup GPS app, like Avenza.

  • Practice fire-making and carry the gear (including petroleum jelly-soaked cotton balls and fatwood sticks).

  • Look into personal locator beacons and satellite messengers for cutting-edge signaling options.

Liz Kellar is a Tennessee Connect reporter. Email

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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: How most Smoky Mountain hikers go missing and how they survived