Risk, Challenge, & Safety

Outdoor & Adventure Education Injury/Fatality Rates & Comparative Statistics

James Neill
Last updated:
17 May 2006


Outdoor & Adventure Education Injury/Fatality Rates & Comparative StatisticsThere is no comprehensive source of accurate figures about injury and fatality rates in outdoor and adventure education programs.  From the pot pourri of statistics and expert/critic opinions, however, some general observations can be made.

Available statistics and expert opinion seem to indicate that injuries and fatalities in outdoor education programs occur less often and less dramatically than is generally feared or believed by the media and general public.

However, there is no single figure that accurately summarises the risk of injury/fatality in outdoor education because so much varies between settings, organizations, and individual instructors and participants, etc.

For example, the lowest injury/fatality statistics are reported in the Project Adventure 20 year safety study - ~4 per million hours, equivalent to working in real estate and insurance.

The highest injury/fatality statistics are related to wilderness, expedition-based outdoor programs. These rates, however, are still quite low and equivalent to school physical education programs and sport, but less than the risk of injury in contact sports.

Rates of injury and fatality seem to have been reduced over the last 50 years, since formal outdoor education programs became popular.  However, total numbers of injuries/fatalities in outdoor education has increased, due to more organizations and participants.

In a series of key recent studies, Andrew Brookes from Latrobe university reviewed approximately 60 fatalities in Australian outdoor programs with school-age students since the 1960's (2002, 2003, 2004).  His papers examine the trends and offer helpful research-based suggestions on how to possibly reduce the risk of fatality.


Handy Statements & Statistics

  1. The BBC News, 10 February, 2005 reported that "In England in 2003, there were between 7 million and 10 million pupil visits [school outdoor trip participants] but only one death", based on a Commons education select committee report.

  2. Priest & Gass, 1997, p. 122 state that "The activities run by adventure programs involve risk and danger, but so does everything else in life!  The presence of danger gives rise to risk, and risk of one of the critical components that makes adventure programming popular and successful. State-of-the-art safety procedures are used to reduce the real dangers, yet keep desired perceived risks high.  Therefore, balancing risks and safety is a central paradox....research has repeatedly shown that adventure activities are significantly safer than most other traditional physical activities."

  3. Brookes (2002, 2003, 2004), in a series of reviews of approximately 60 outdoor-related deaths than occurred in organized outdoor group experiences in Australia (1960-2002), the most common causes of death were height-related and water-related.

  4. Montalvo et al (1998) examined case incident report files from eight National Park Service parks within California over a three year period. The overall occurrence rate was 9.2 people per 100,000 visits.  More than 70% of all nonfatal events were related to musculo-skeletal or soft-tissue injury.  The most frequently involved body area was the lower limbs (38%). Seventy-eight mortalities occurred during the three years studied, resulting in an overall mortality rate of .26 deaths per 100,000 visits.  Men accounted for 78% of the deaths.  Heart disease, drowning and falls were the most common causes of death.

  5. Uitenbroek (1996) found in a population survey of 6, 595 people in the UK that 5.1% reported having sustained an injury in the previous month; 46% of the male injuries and 14% of the female injuries were sport or exercise related.

  6. Peter Stark (2001) has written a book about the risk of death, including that: "When it comes to predatory animals, humans have little to fear but themselves.  We kill one another at a rate of more than one million per year, mostly wartime casualties.  The second-deadliest threat is snakes, which kill over 100,000 people annually, followed by crocodiles (960), and tigers (740).  The much-feared shark falls far down the list - only about seven human victims annually worldwide - making it lightweight compared to the ostrich, which when cornered can kick viciously with hammerlike feet and sharp talons and kills some 14 people every year.  A couple more reassuring statistics: In the United States and Canada, you have more to fear from moose (six deaths per year) than any other creature except snakes (12).  And the most likely place in the States to be attached by an alligator (three deaths between 1992 and 1998) is not deep in some swamp, but on a golf course."


Brackenreg, M. (1997). Horizons, 14(1), 10-15.

Brackenreg, M. (1999). Learning from our mistakes - Before its too late. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 3(2).

Brookes, A. (2002). Outdoor education fatalities in Australia 1960-2002. Part 1: Summary Of incidents and introduction to fatality analysis. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 7(1).

Brookes, A. (2003). Outdoor education fatalities in Australia 1960-2002. Part 2. Contributing circumstances: Supervision, first Aid, and rescue.  Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 7(2).

Brookes, A. (2004). Outdoor education fatalities in Australia 1960-2002: Part 3: Environmental circumstances. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 8(1).

Davison, G. (2002). A profile of accidents in professional outdoor education in New Zealand.  Paper presented to SPARC 2002: New Zealand on Outdoors Risk Management.

Davison, G. (2002). Exploring the myths: Analysis of incidents and accidents in professional outdoor education in New Zealand, 1996-2000. Paper presented to SPARC 2002: New Zealand on Outdoors Risk Management.

Hogan, R. (2002). The crux of risk management in outdoor programs - minimising the possibility of death and disabling injury. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 6(2) pp. 71-79.

Jillings, A., Furlong, L., LaRhette, M., & Ryan, B. (1995). Project Adventure 20 year safety study. Unpublished manuscript: Project Adventure.

Montalvo, R., Wingard, D. L., Bracker, M., & Davidson, T. M. (1998). Morbidity and mortality in the wilderness. West J Med, 168, 248-254.

Priest, S., & Gass, M. (2005). Effective leadership in adventure programming (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Stark, P. (2001). Last breath: Cautionary tales from the limits of human endurance.  Ballantine.

Thomas, G. (2003). Risk in outdoor education [Powerpoint lecture; .pdf].  Department of Outdoor Education & Nature Tourism, LaTrobe University, Australia.

Uitenbroek, D. G. (1996). Sports, exercise, and other causes of injuries: Results of a population survey. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 67(4), 380-385.